By Henry Okonkwo
Flashy photos posted on social media by his friends based overseas were all it took to lure Patrick (surname withheld) into the waiting hands of heartless human traffickers. Desperation to relocate abroad made him embark on a perilous journey through the scorching sun of the Sahara desert, and endured the agony and anguish the escaped entailed. Patrick literarily passed through the valley of death, experienced rape, slavery, torture, starvation and depression, in the quest to get to Europe. Though he came face to face with death, Patrick survived to tell his story.
Patrick’s ordeal all started when he decided to abandon his barbing business and relocate abroad by hook or by crook. This idea was planted in his head after seeing glamorous pictures of his friends lounging at posh bars, shopping exotic malls and well paved streets of Italy, Germany and other foreign lands. Patrick said that glossy photos and videos posted on Facebook and Instagram gave him the impression that the streets of Europe were paved with gold, and his mates were busy harvesting money and living well over there. The strong desire to join his friends abroad made him forget the popular saying that ‘all that glitters is not gold.’
Patrick was a casual factory worker in Benin City, Edo State, and also a skilled barber with a thriving barbershop in the ancient city. So whenever he was off duty at the factory, he would be busy in the shop rendering services to his customers. But at 28 years, he wanted more for himself. “I am a skilled barber and owned a barbershop in Benin. Also, I have an O’Level secondary school certificate. I started nursing the idea to travel because I saw how my friends overseas posted photos of themselves on Instagram and Facebook. They looked good in the pictures, so I imagined that they were making good money and living well over there. I became desperate to leave Nigeria, in search of greener pastures in Europe,” Patrick told Sunday Sun.
Journey to hell
Usually the journey of more than 2,500 miles takes migrants across the trackless desert plains of Niger Republic and through the lawless tribal lands of Libya from where the smugglers of the successful few would deposit them at the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. But Patrick never made it that far. He was captured in Libya, sold to armed men who kept a stable of African migrants who they exploited for labour, ransom and sex.
Recounting his story, Patrick said: “So I was introduced to some agents that would help me get to Italy. And they told me that it would cost me N300,000 for them to get me to Europe. That it would cost N150,000 to get me to Libya, and then another N150,000 to move me from Libya through the sea into Italy.”
After making payments, Patrick was ready to use the illegal routes into Europe, but little did he know that he had sold himself into slavery. He takes up the tale: “We were to depart in March 2015, and we made preparations all through Monday up until when we left on Friday. Trafficked victims can’t travel alone. You must go with a gigman or bugger as we called it. A bugger is someone that’s taking you to the traffickers. My gigman, like the others, came with about three other persons. But when we left, we were about four excluding our gigman. We kicked off from Benin, and then arrived at Abuja. From Abuja, we got to Kano, where we crossed the border into Niger Republic.
“There were security officials all through. We met policemen, operatives of the NationalDrug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), immigration officers,and other security services along the roads. But many of them had been bribed and were on the payroll of the trafficking syndicates. I even learned that the officers were also informants, and would tell the traffickers when the routes were free for them to move.
“When I was leaving the country, I thought it was like any regular trip. But it was when we started the journey that I realised that I was being trafficked, and that I haD embarked on a very dangerous journey. My eyes were opened to this situation when I saw the way we were being stuffed inside the vehicle. The sitting style was called lapalapa.”
Describing the lapalapa sitting arrangement in the bus, Patrick said that the ruthless traffickers made them sit on each other, four persons on a seat, and about 15 persons on a row. Hence, almost 40 people were stacked inside an 18-seater bus. “We were squeezed into the bus like sardines. That’s why it is called lapalapa. I sat on a seat with my legs spread apart; then a lady sat in the space between my legs. Then another person squeezed in and sat on the lady already sitting on me. So we had three, sometimes four people, sitting on one seat. I was in agony all through our journey because of the way we sat in the bus. At one time, some sat on my testicles and I was in severe pain for weeks.
“Another thing I realised was that the traffickers had no respect for us. We were dehumanized. The traffickers beat and flogge anyone that dared to misbehave around them. So you had to obey their instructions. You had to be sharp and smart, if you didn’t want to get beaten like an animal. I watched and saw how people died like animals during the journey in the desert. They moved us at top speed and pushed throttle pedal to the floor.
“It was in the desert area that led into Libya that I witnessed another level of wickedness. The Nigerians there who operated with the traffickers drew up a sex chart on how they would be sleep with the young girls that came. Any girl that dared resist them got thoroughly beaten and then raped brutally.
“There was an incident I witnessed involving two guys that left the house back in Nigeria. One couldn’t survive the scorching heat in the desert. He was dying. His other friend kept crying, begging him not to die. He reminded his dying friend of his fiancée at home, and the promise they made to each other. He said that she was earnestly awaiting his call to tell her that he had arrived in Italy. But sadly, the guy couldn’t survive the desert, so he died. It was like a tragic movie. In every vehicle, there is a shovel used by the guides to dig a shallow grave when anyone died. They just dug 2 or 3 feet deep grave and buried any one that died during the journey. They do that when there’s enough time, but when they are in a hurry, corpses are thrown out into the open desert. I saw countless dried bones and countless burial sites as we passed through the Sahara desert. These things I saw made me realise that I was in a very critical situation, and I kept praying to God to make me get to Italy alive.”
Dungeons of horror
A new phase of horror began for Patrick when he got to the once peaceful land of Muammar Ghaddafi, which has now been torn apart by sectarian strife and territorial battles of supremacy among the warlords.
His words: “We got into Libya but we were arrested in Tripoli and imprisoned. In prison, the Libyans traded and exploited us to their own benefit. They would make videos us in the dungeon and send to UN agencies, telling them they have immigrants that were hungry in their country. Then International donors like International Organisation for Migrants (IOM) would rush to send food, clothes and money. But the donations never got to us. We would only see and hear the sound of their vehicles bringing in the food and other donations. But once the donors turn their backs, the Libyans would share the donated materials among themselves, to sell in their shops and live flamboyantly.
“After keeping us for three months in prison, they started selling us. The guards would come to pick us to go clean their houses, wash their toilets and they would give us food. We were their slaves. Also many Nigerians that could speak Arabic talked with them, and joined in the slave trade. They even came to the dungeons to buy us as slaves and resell.
“It was hellish in Libya. I saw how they messed up our Nigerian girls like animals. They slapped them on the buttocks, and raped them right before us. Many ladies that returned with babies got them from the Libyan men that raped them. I witnessed how the gestapo guards took turns in raping her every day. They raped her so badly that she became very ill. And at the point of her death, she used her last breath to swear, and laid curses on her relations who set her up to be trafficked without telling her the dangers that awaited her. I believe strongly that it is because of all these acts of wickedness against humanity that have made it very hard for war to stop in that country. War would continue to tear them apart, and God should punish them until they repent and change from their evil ways.
“At a point the guards stopped giving us food, and fed us with only salty water and hunza bread to eat once, and sometimes twice a day. Many of my fellow prisoners kept dying. And if anybody died in prison, the guards would just wrap the corpse in a single blanket, and inquire if the person was a Christian or Muslim. If the person was a Muslim, they would all just chant ‘Allahuakbar’ and bury the person. And for a Christian, they would just bury the person and then insert a cross on the grave. I also noticed that when someone died, they would first bath the corpse, and then cut the person’s penis, remove his eyes and use it to cook for us to eat.”
After seeing so much death and torment around him in the dungeon, Patrick said he knew it would only take God’s invention for anyone to come out alive from the wicked grip of the Libyans. Continuing, he said: “We were all afraid in the prison, because we would wake every morning to hear about the deaths of many of our cellmates. We were frightened and didn’t know who would die next. But we realised that the race was not for the swift or strong but for those who God would show mercy. It was at that juncture that we genuinely started giving our lives to Christ. I became a pastor in prison, led in prayers and brought souls to Christ. I saw men who were cultists and murderers running away from justice in Nigeria, shedding hot tears as they confessed their sins. Men in their 50s and 60s were always crying like babies, and calling on God to rescue them in the middle of the Sahara desert.
“I began to pray, and God began to reveal lots of things to me. He revealed to me that the chains would be broken and we would be set free. He showed me a potion in the Bible that said, ‘ask it shall be given to you, knock the door shall be open, seek and you shall find.’
“People were just dying at an alarming rate at the prisons. So we decided to take our destiny into our hands and break ourselves from the dungeon. We hatched a plan to come together to fight, overpower the Libyan guards and then escape. But few days to execute our plans, two men in suit came to the prison. They spoke to our chief prison guard, paid him money and then took down our names. In two weeks, we were freed, and they brought a vehicle that conveyed all of us back to Nigeria.”
Patrick was rescued in 2017, and since after his return to Nigeria, he has remained traumatized by what he experienced from his encounters. “I still have goose bumps each time I recall what I passed through when I was trafficked. Remember when former President Ousegun Obasanjo once said that anyone who went to Libya and came back alive should be respected as an army general, because life there is like war. We were sold like goats. In fact, I was sold thrice. I stayed in the Nigerien ghetto and the deserts for three weeks and stayed for one year in the Libyan slave camp. I was brought back in 2017 with 270 other Nigerians that were rescued with me.
“I’ve come to realize that most of them over there posting glamorous pictures could even be suffering and smiling. But when you see the photos you’ll want to die to go overseas. So I’ve decided to be involved in raising awareness on the dangers and evils of human trafficking. People, especially youths, must understand that all that glitters is not gold.
“But I am really afraid that they would not listen, because even up till now, people are still rushing into the snare of these traffickers. I can tell you authoritatively that right now people are getting ready to be trafficked. They move from Monday through till Thursday. Their target is always to get to Niger on Friday, and from there they would move to Zinder (a city in Niger), then through the desert to Libya. The journey through the desert can be for one week or two weeks.”