With his eyes wide open, he jumped into a boat, with over 200 passengers hoping to make it through the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy.
Despite efforts by governments at all levels in Nigeria, the non-governmental organisations and international agencies to stem the tide of irregular migration through various advocacy programmes and enlightenment campaigns, many Nigerians, particularly the youths, are still gravitating in their hundreds towards that end. And many have perished in the Sahara desert and in the Mediterranean Sea in their quest to cross over to Europe where they believe the grass is greener.
The story of the 31-year-old Ephraim Ephraim Okundolor, from Orhionmwon Local Government Area of Edo State is as chilling, heartbreaking and sad, as it is revealing and didactic. He embarked on the desert journey with his wife and a baby boy but lost his family in the process. Today, he is just a shadow of himself, struggling to pick the pieces and bounce back to life. He doesn’t know whether his wife and child are alive or dead.
How it all began
What has brought so much sorrows and pains to him started on June 14, 2017, when he caved in to pressure from friends to travel to Europe through the Sahara desert. “I wanted to go to Italy because most of my friends who came back from Italy built houses, bought cars and were living well. And they all went through the same desert route. So, I felt that I could also do the same thing for myself and my family – go there, find work and be able to help my family because here in Nigeria, things weren’t easy for me,” he said.
He was aware that the journey was going to be through land transport; however, he said he never imagined they were going to go through the desert. “I left on June 14, while my wife and son left 12 days after my departure, precisely on June 26, 2017. My woman was into hairdressing. I was also in that line of business but I combined it with cake making, though neither of us had a shop. We were just managing to survive before we embarked on the trip,” he stated.
Having begun the desert journey ahead of his wife and child and discovered how dangerous it was, he made frantic efforts to reach his wife and advise her against the journey but his efforts were unsuccessful. He finally reunited with his family at Agadez.
Kano to Agadez
On the journey to Agadez, where he met his family, he said: “From Kano, we stopped at the border and from there we took a bike to Niamey. Then from Niamey, we got into Zidane and then Agadez, Libya where we waited for the final journey into the desert.”
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“From the very first day I left Kano for Niamey, the capital of Niger Republic and then to Agadez before we entered into the desert proper, I knew I was going to go through terrible experiences,” he said.
Soon after they left Agadez and few hours into the desert, their driver abandoned them and disappeared into thin air. “He said he needed to get some water. He stopped us in the desert and left; he never came back again. We decided to trek back to Agadez. We couldn’t trek to Tripoli because it was too far.
We spent two days trekking back to Agadez without any food or water.”
Between Agadez and SahbaHe described his experience from Agadez to Sahba as very bloody. He said: “We spent eight days to get to Sahba from Agadez. It was a bloody experience. In our own vehicle, we were 24. The other three vehicles that left along with us had 25, 24 and 22 passengers respectively, and people died in each of them. In our own vehicle, we lost two persons; the other vehicles equally lost a good number of people – about 10 persons in all. We buried all of them in the desert. The last person we buried died two days after we had left the desert. They all died out of exhaustion from the scorching sun. There was no water, no food, no medicine, nothing and the sun was so intense. To survive, you need to take milk; glucose and lucozade but we didn’t have all those.”
Journey to Suprata
Suprata, according to Ephraim is the seaside town from where they would take a boat to cross over to Italy. “From Goda to Suprata, a seaside city from where we would cross over the sea to Italy, about 400 of us were squeezed into a truck, the kind of truck used in carrying cement. It was such a nasty and painful experience. And at some point, part of the truck pulled off and many people fell off, while another truck coming behind us ran over them, smashing and crushing them to death instantly. We were not taken direct to Suprata; they dropped us at a place we boarded a cab to Suprata.”
He also revealed that Nigerians and other Africans don’t sit inside a taxi for security reasons, rather they are hidden inside the boot of the car. “For the cab, they put you inside the boot because that is the best way to stay in Libya. All these ones wey you dey see dey brag say them dey stay for Libya, ask them whether they don siddon for car seat before; na inside the boot all of them dey stay. That is the best, comfortable place to be. They fit drive you for several hours and you go still siddon for inside the boot.
“Me, my wife and my child plus another person were together inside the boot of a car that took us to Rambo Camp in Suprata,” he said.
“The camp where we were quartered in Suprata is next to hell. There was no roof; we were exposed to the elements of weather. If it rained, it beat us; if the day was sunny, the heat was directly on us. We drank salt water, bathed with it and did everything with it. They molested people, raped women as they wished and beat people day and night. In fact, life was brutish in that camp, but we kept hope alive because our target was just to get to Europe, where we hoped to make it big. I am just cutting everything short because if I am to narrate the whole experience, the size of an Oxford dictionary will not be able to contain my account,” he said.
It was at the Rambo camp that he also paid the money for the boat to take him to Italy. “We paid the equivalent of N120, 000. Three days after we paid, they pushed the first set of boats. It was confirmed that they got to Europe successfully. They didn’t include me in the first set because my Buga (Guide) never called them to confirm my payment. But, before the next set, they got a call from my Buga that I had paid and they pushed me into one of the boats.”
Leap of faith
With his eyes wide open and brain intact, he jumped into a boat, with over 200 passengers hoping to make it through the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Only faith could embolden one to take such a deadly trip, considering all that has been written about hundreds of thousands of people who had perished in the sea when their boat capsized and sank.
About 274 persons were loaded into his boat instead of the normal 120 passengers. At this point he was put in a different boat from the one his wife and child boarded. “They pushed about 21 boats that day. “Instead of 120 passengers, they loaded 274 of us, comprising only males from Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana and Burkina Faso. We had gone far into the sea when our boat started leaking. We were faced with death. What did we do? We started scooping the water, although, we asked the captain to go back. We didn’t wear any life jacket even when we paid N11, 000 for jacket.
“So, the captain turned back and as we were going back, the boat started sinking. We were almost close to the bank of the sea in Tripoli, when the boat unfortunately sank. Everybody started swimming without life jacket. Some got drowned; I struggled but I couldn’t make it as I also sank. The next thing I noticed was when I coughed and found myself on dry land. I was told that fishermen rescued me alive,” he narrated.
One would think that after he was brought back to life from the land of the dead, he would give up and find his way back to Nigeria. But that did not happen. Ephraim was prepared to continue with the mission. “After about one week, we went back to our camp where we attempted again to cross but this time; the sea wave swept us to a different country entirely. The wave was as high as a three-storey building. So, it was fishermen who rescued us and carried us back to Libya the second time. Meanwhile, many of us died during this second trial just like it happened during the first one.”
Attempt number three
Even so this could not deter Ephraim. He took a third leap of faith. “After about two weeks when the sea had calmed down, we boarded again the third time; they pushed us into the sea. We had gone to a point called mortar when our boat developed an engine problem. The engine just went off and we were at the middle of the sea. The fishermen tried to push us with their machine but it couldn’t push the boat, so, another boat came and towed us back to Libya. This time, nobody died; we all went back safely to Libya.
Emboldened by his survival of this third attempt, coupled with his desperation to enter Europe, he jumped into the sea the fourth time. But, this time, prison gate beckoned at him and it was only his experience in the prison that restored his senses and prompted his decision to return to his fatherland. “After several weeks, we made the fourth attempt at crossing the sea but this time, it was the Libyan militants that intercepted our boat, arrested us, and returned us to Libya where we were thrown into an underground prison. We had spent almost four hours sailing on the sea before the interception. We had left the Libyan territory and were already on the blue sea, which is clearly an Italian territory. We were already seeing dolphins before an Italian helicopter hovered above us, took our photograph, and zoomed off. We were happy that at last we had crossed over, but suddenly, another boat with double exhaust pipes emerged from behind us. And all we heard was “Gamigamiloto; gamigamizeturuma, gaba’ meaning ‘stupid people; where do you think you are going?’ And this is something that has never happened before. You can’t go to another country’s territory to make arrest but that was exactly what these Libyan militants did. They arrested us right inside the Italian territory and took us back to Libya. They hurled us into the Melila prison at the back of an oil refinery in Tripoli. I spent four months inside the prison without hearing from any of my people; nobody knew my whereabouts in those four months.”
In all the four attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea, he paid N120,000 on each occasion.
Life in prison
Apart from beatings and other inhuman treatments meted to them, they were forced to render emergency medical services to women in labour. He said: “Right inside there, ladies were being delivered of babies. We became emergency nurses, doing what we were not trained to do. Some of the women were already pregnant before they left Nigeria while many others got pregnant right inside the camp, mainly through rape. When they catch anybody that tried to escape, they would call all of us out to witness the killing of such a person. They would shoot the person to death right before us. Sometimes, they would even order us to do the shooting. It was horrible.
“We celebrated October 1, 2017 inside the prison. We asked them to allow us come out from that underground prison so we could celebrate our country’s independence anniversary and we were granted that privilege. They brought all Nigerians out and we marched, sang the national anthem and recited the national pledge. That particular day, there was jailbreak where almost over 30 Nigerians escaped and because of that incident, some of us Nigerians that were in the prison were thoroughly beaten. During the beating process, one of my friends from Delta State, Miracle, died. For three days, the corpse was with us, swollen up, in the prison. It was such a sad day for me even though I had experienced worse things earlier on.
“But, on October 16, 2017, we broke the prison gate again and escaped into the desert. Over 400 persons escaped that day. They shot several people to death; many sustained serious injuries; many were captured and taken to correction houses but few of us escaped into the desert.”
Back to desert again
“We escaped around 6:00 am but by 4:00 pm, we were still running in the desert; about eight of us were rescued by an Arab man, who spoke Bini language to us and took us in his car to a place called Agilet, where he handed us over to a camp owned by a Nigerian of Yoruba extraction. The man’s name is Kamal; so the name of the camp is Kamal camp.”
On December 28, 2017 he came back to Nigeria. “When I landed at the airport, I was given N43,000.” Although, he had taken part in the IOM’s reintegration training workshop being organised for voluntary returnees from Libya, he is yet to be empowered financially.
“This journey took almost N3 million from me and my family. I don’t like talking about my experiences because it makes me remember all those horrible events. It was a very big mistake for me to have embarked on the journey in the first instance. Going there caused me pains I cannot forget in my life. How I wish there is something I can use to reformat my brain so that I will completely forget everything about the journey,” he submitted.