Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
After spending weeks at the Bosnia-Herzegovina Camp, the duo of Abia Alexandro Uchenna and Eboh Kenneth Chinedu eventually returned to Nigeria in the wee hours of Saturday, December 21, 2019. Their return came about through the quick intervention of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, and the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM).
In a chat with the reporter, Abia, in company with Eboh, gave a blow-by-blow account of their ordeal in the hands of Croatian policemen who picked them up in Zagreb while they were taking a walk. That singular act of trying to take a look at the city of Zagreb, he said, finally landed the duo at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Camp at the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina before their case took the social media by storm.
Abia and Eboh, it would be recalled, are students of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri. They were in Croatia for an inter-university competition before their travails began in the city of Croatia.
This is their story, according to Abia Uchenna Alexandro.
From competition to detention
We went for a competition in Croatia, an inter-university competition. It was a sports competition involving a variety of sports.
The competition was supposed to last for, at least, 21 days. The visa they gave us was for 21 days, but the competition was for about five, six days and we were supposed to come back on the November 18.
Where the competition took place was in Pula, Croatia. We went back to Zagreb, the city, to come back to Nigeria. We lodged in a hostel in Zagreb on the 17th. So, on that same 17th, you know a place that you have not visited before, you just take a walk to look around the city because your flight is on the 18th. It was during that process that a police officer met us and asked: Who are you? And we told him that we are Nigerian students, and that we came for a competition in Pula. He said no. Although the problem was the language; they don’t understand English. So, they took us to the station. At the station, they said they wanted to do some checking to know if truly we had valid visas. When we got there, the boss that was in the office was like, you people, you came from Bosnia. That was the only English he was speaking. We said no, we have valid visas, we came to Pula for a competition and that we are supposed to go back. He said no, no, no, no, Bosnia, Bosnia, Bosnia. I said, where is Bosnia? To me, that was like the second time I was hearing the name of that country, Bosnia, because one of their professional footballers, Dzeko, plays for Italy. And I asked again: Sir, where is Bosnia? We are Nigerians; we have valid visas to Croatia. He said you people are from Bosnia, you come from Bosnia. You know once it gets to three or four, it is dark in Europe. So, we spent that night in their station till the next night. The next night, they put us in a van, a van that they use to transport, maybe, criminals or so. We spent maybe three hours on the road and then, they stopped and waited for maybe one hour, thirty minutes or so. And thereafter, another van arrived to pick us. And that second van had about 12 Pakistanis inside. On one side were six seated and the other side had six seated as well. So, they brought us out and pushed us inside. I sat here and he (Eboh) sat in the opposite direction, while the row was occupied by the Pakistanis. So, they continued again for another two hours plus and then got to a place. I didn’t know if it was their station. They told everybody to come down and they forced us to sign a document, which we did. He (Eboh) refused to sign and they kicked him and cocked a gun, threatening that he should sign it. So, he had to sign.
Bundled to Bosnia
They transferred us into another van and drove for about five or even more than five hours. I was talking with the other Pakistani that was close to me since he could speak English a little. He asked: Where are you from? I said Nigeria. I asked him, where are they taking us? Because I was scared that they might go and dump us inside the bush and shoot us there. He said they were taking us to Bosnia. I said, where is Bosnia? That we have not been to Bosnia and we have valid visas to Croatia. So, when we finally arrived in Bosnia at 3am after several hours, they brought us out. They flashed a torchlight in the woods, in the mountain. That place had a pillar and it was the border between Croatia and Bosnia. They said ‘Bosnia, go! Bosnia, go! Everybody!’
Before we arrived at the border, there was another van that was already there that had another set of people too. They pushed everybody and told us to go. Others were with their guns. The other pointed torchlight. They gave me a carton that had our phones in it because they seized our phones all along and our belts. The small money we had, they took it. And we followed those people.
They did not return our money. As they were going, we followed them. Some of the Pakistanis were also given their phones, and they were using the maps on the phones to locate our destination. The other one told us that we were going to Mira Camp in Bosnia.
That day, we told them that we were hungry. They said there was nothing for us and that, instead, they were going to take from our money to buy something for us. So, I don’t know what they did with the money. But they brought bread, which I still did not eat, while we were walking in the jungle for over two hours to get to Mira Camp.
How the world knew of our ordeal
When we got to Mira Camp that night, around 3 or 4am, we could not enter there because they issue immigrants ID cards to enter the camp. So, we slept outside and, the next day, we had to show those in charge of the camp from our phones that these were the visas we had to Croatia and they pushed us into the wood. They said that was exactly what the Croatian officials had always been doing. The other one brought out his phone and was showing us pictures where they were beating immigrants and people that they killed and sent into the bush. He said that we were lucky that they did not harm us. They said okay, they would see what they could do. They collected our phones and made copies of the visas.
From the experience, I will say that blacks are so much endangered in Croatia. We are not safe, most especially in Croatia because, that night, I didn’t know I was going to survive it. It was my first time of travelling out of the country.
But I was not tortured. I have been hearing stories while I was a kid about people walking in the desert to go to Europe. But that was my first time of experiencing it.
Quick intervention by Nigeria
The intervention by the Nigerian government was quick. In fact, I must say that I am very, very impressed. Because, when we got to Bosnia after that news broke out in the media and it went viral and got to Nigeria, that same day, which was on the 4th, they told us we were going to Human Rights in Bosnia to go and look into the case. When we got to the place, they processed a paper and sent us to the Bosnia Immigration Camp, where we were locked up. So, from that place, we started receiving calls. But even at that time, our phones were still seized. We were using public phones.
Advice for youths
My advice for Nigerian youths who are always eager to get out of the country is that it’s not easy outside. The way they treated us over there was very bad. Had it not been for the intervention of God, both of us would have been dead. If those Pakistanis were eventually terrorists, they would have killed us in that bush. We are very, very happy and thankful to the Nigerian government for sending us help immediately, most especially, from the ambassador in Budapest. She was very, very wonderful. Even when we were coming back, the flight they put us in was business class. So, we are grateful to the Nigerian government.
And while we were away, we missed certain things about Nigeria. Anybody who leaves Nigeria for a day, of course, will miss Nigerian food and the freedom.