Daily, thousands of Nigerians attempt to leave the shores of the country via the sub-Saharan desert and through the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. Miserably, hundreds of them die on the coastline of Libya in failed efforts to cross into Italy. Those of them lucky not to be taken by the sea are left wasting away in detention camps or are sold off as slaves, toiling endlessly either under hard labor or sexual slavery, to enrich their captors.
In October 2018, IOM’s Flow Monitoring Points in Kano and Sokoto showed that 1,521 people crossed the desert per day. Statistics also revealed that women and girls make up 98 percent of the overwhelming majority of those trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
Most of these women and girls would not make it into Europe. They would end up in Libya where sex trafficking is rife. Nigerian ‘madams’ would buy them from traffickers and keep them in hostels where they would be forced to sleep with as much as 10, 15, 20 men a day, to raise money to buy their way back to freedom.
Faith Moses (not real name), was one of the girls who attempted to take the perilous journey from Nigeria to Italy. Just 17 years old, she left her family behind and joined many others on a trip through the desert. She had just concluded her secondary school education, and was set to write her JAMB exams, when a trafficker approached her mother and told her how their life was going to be transformed if she allowed her daughter travel to Italy to school while making money on the side. It was a deal of a lifetime. Faith saw the numerous possibilities that Italy could offer her and her family.
Here, she shares the story of her journey out of Nigeria.
Faith: I was 17 years old when I left Nigeria. I was a student. I had just finished my senior WAEC when I traveled. I traveled because of the current situation of Nigeria and the hardship my family faced. I was trying to make sure everyone was comfortable. I also wanted to study abroad.
What was your expectation of the journey ahead and life in Italy before you traveled?
Faith: My expectation was to come back home with a lot of goodies and to support my family in the best way I can.
Whom did you speak to about helping you leave Nigeria?
Faith: I didn’t speak to anybody. Someone came and introduced the traveling issue to my mom and my mom spoke to me about it. That was how I came to know about it. I was told that life there was good. But what actually made me make up my mind to leave Nigeria was the fact that I was told that I could work while schooling once I got abroad. That was what won my heart.
Did you trust the agent?
Faith: I him, because I traveled with his brother, who is a pastor, although the brother stopped halfway. It was more like a setup to me because we got to a point and the guy stopped, and then we moved on.
How easy was it sourcing for funds for the trip?
Faith: Sourcing for funds wasn’t actually part of the plan. The agent volunteered to take me there and he told me that when I get there and I’m fine, I’ll pay him peanuts so that he can help other people from Nigeria to travel. He said he was trying to sponsor some people out of the country, to either do business or to study. He sounded like he was trying to help others. I later found out that there was a trafficker whom he worked for that paid for my trip.
Tell us about your journey. Where did it commence?
Faith: My journey started from Delta State. From Delta, we went to Benin. I was in the company of the trafficker’s brother. I was told that at Benin we would meet other people, and we would leave to the airport together. We left Benin to Abuja to meet some people also. From Abuja, we went to Kano, and then to Agadez in Niger, and then to Libya.
We’ve heard of terrible experiences on the journey, cases of people being sold as slaves. Can you share your experience on the trip?
Faith: It all started from Abuja. In Abuja, he gave us a contact to call. The contact was a cabman. There were people in the car. Some were lapping others. I was put in the boot of the car. We spent six hours on the trip, because he was trying to dodge certain military checkpoints. We didn’t go straight to Kano. At a point, we were being chased by military men. We escaped and stopped somewhere. There was a restaurant there and people traveling with me bought food, but I didn’t because I didn’t have anything with me.
We continued on our journey, and those seated in the car were covered with wrappers, so that when we arrived at a checkpoint, the soldiers were deceived into thinking the driver was carrying goods. In Kano, we were taken to a building that looked like a hut. There, we spent one week. When it was time to leave, I saw people buying provisions and I asked them why they were doing so, being that I believed we would be traveling via air.
Our bus came and we were covered and taken to the border that led us into Niger. But it wasn’t a straight journey. There were times that the vehicle stopped and we had to push it. It would start and we have to run after it to get in. Other times, we took routes to escape military men. We stayed in Agadez for some days until a Hilux truck picked us to carry us to the desert. But we were caught and taken to a refugee camp. It was my first time in a place like that. First time I ever heard such a place existed. I met people who had been there for six months or even a year. I was discouraged, I was like, ‘am I going to die here? I don’t want to die here.’ It still didn’t occur to me that we weren’t going to the airport to take a flight.
I met a bugger (a returnee turned trafficker) who offered to take along anyone willing to travel to Italy. I went to him and told him I needed his help to continue on my trip. He got another Hilux truck and we were taken to a connection house. Seeing that most of us there were starving and desperate, the traffickers often came around to pick girls. The girls who went with them sometimes slept over in their houses and came back with goodies. I had to survive on what they brought back with them. But when the hunger became too much to bear, I went to the guy and told him I was hungry. He invited me to his house. I was disguised in a hijab, in the way the women in that place dressed. He said I had to have sex with him before he could give me food or take me on the journey. I told him I wasn’t interested. I said ‘you’d better kill me here, but the fact is that I’m not going to do it.’ He told me that since that was the case, he was going to delay me from traveling. I was fine with that.
Days later, he stopped me from eating any food the other girls brought, but the girls were kind enough to hide my share of the food that I ate whenever he left.
Finally, a Hilux truck was brought, and over thirty of us boarded it. We all sat down in a way that none of us could move or stand. Our journey commenced into the desert again, and once more, we ran into military men who began shooting at us. Some guys fell off the truck and got injured. Some were hit by bullets. Eventually, one of the tires was shot and the truck tumbled and almost covered us. Somehow, it turned over. The military men asked us to disembark and told us we were safe. They took us to the police station and the police held us for some days. They asked us to leave but we told them we had come too far to go back. Eventually, they let us go. Being that I knew no one and had no idea about the trip, I followed some people to Dirkou. There, we stayed with a woman who was also a trafficker, but used her restaurant as a front for her business. She had girls there that were sex workers.
Policemen often came to ask the woman if there were migrants with her, but she always lied that we were her customers from Nigeria that had journeyed to buy goods from her. The lies couldn’t be sustained any longer, and she referred us to a driver who put us in a car at night to continue with the journey. Once again, we ran into the police who began to chase us. I had no idea where I was going. I ran into a bush that was filled with thorns. I didn’t feel the pain the thorns inflicted on me, because I was running for my life. Luckily, the driver rescued us and took us back to his house. We stayed hidden for our safety, so as not to draw any attention to oursleves, cooking from the same bowl used to feed the goats.
We left that house, eventually, and this time, it was successful, although we met soldiers along the way that flogged us and punished us just to make fun of us. They also asked for money, and our trafficker always paid. Some people in our midst also paid. We continued in this manner, paying our way through, until we got into the desert.
Tell us more about your journey in the desert
Faith: The desert is hot in the daytime. It burns the skin. There is no water. Asides that, the drivers drive too fast and roughly. This is to make sure they are not caught by policemen or soldiers. At the back of the truck, we held ourselves tightly, because if you fall, they won’t stop to pick you up. There was a guy in our truck that fell off, but he had to run really fast to catch up. We stretched out and drew him back to the truck. We were often threatened with koboko or guns to keep quiet. Sometimes the driver would come down and flogged anyone that misbehaved. From time to time, the truck would get stuck in the sand, and we would get down and push it, and you have to run as fast as you can to get back in or they’ll leave you there.
At night, our truck and two other trucks would stop for us to rest. Someone would then go in search of water for us. It was freezing at night, and we had nothing to cover ourselves with. We slept close to each other to keep warm. In the morning, we would continue on our journey. At some point, one of the trucks with us was held by soldiers while our truck and the other escaped. The drivers often use the moon as a guide to lead them on their path. Or they would pick sand and pour it into the air; anywhere the sands face, would be the direction they would take.
The second truck was also held while we narrowly escaped. After a long drive, we stopped to rest. By morning, soldiers surrounded us, waiting for us to wake up. We were caught and taken to the nearest police station. Our trafficker bailed us out with some money. He then called for another truck to finally take us to Libya.
What struggles and hardship did you encounter in Libya?
Faith: I didn’t even know what Libya was. We stayed in a connection house with different passengers run by a Libyan when we got there. The man seemed friendly, and I approached him to beg him for a chance to speak to my mom. He said, “I hope you don’t want to put me in trouble?” I said, “No.” I hadn’t heard my mom’s voice in over a month. He asked for my mom’s number and I gave it to him. He called her and I spoke to her, telling her that I was in Libya. She was shocked. She instructed me to return to Nigeria. I told her I couldn’t because I had suffered on the journey and I was a long way from home.
I remember a certain time in Agadez, while eating with my co-travelers, I overheard them saying things that didn’t sit right with me. Hence, I asked them what their reasons for traveling were. They threw the question back at me, and I replied them, telling them that I was going to Italy to work in a restaurant while I attended school. They all burst out laughing.
“Mumu! You no know wetin you wan go there go do? Olosho! You no know ashawo work?” When I heard this, I just lost my appetite.
My mother’s concern for me touched me, but I was stubborn and determined to find a way around not selling my body the moment I got into Italy.
The following day, we were divided in groups, identified by the traffickers that brought us. My group was taken to Qatrun, where we stayed for a week. A woman that bought girls came around and we were auctioned to her, each for the price of N500, 000. We were dressed in hijabs and taken to a house. The madam, as her type is called, lied that it was a temporary arrangement, and she would soon come for us.
The moment we arrived, she began to call her clients, informing them that she had new ‘Jedits’. Jedits means new girls. Afterwards, she fed us and we had our shower. That night, a man came over and picked one of the girls, taking her away. When she returned, I asked her what had happened and she told me what she went to do.
After three days, the madam called us for a chat and asked us if we were aware of the reason we were with her. Some girls amongst us knew. The rest of us said we had no idea. She told us to give her nail clippings, pubic hair, hair from the front of her head and at the back of the head, and also our underwear. She then made us swear an oath. The next day, we were taken to a connection house that held other girls that seemed to have been there for a while. By then, I knew what we were in for.
What were you in for?
Faith: How they do it is that when the men come to you, they have what they call ‘Sharp-sharp, ‘Short time and ‘Daybreak’. Sharp-sharp goes for 15 dinar, which is N1500. Short time is usually 20 or 25 dinar, which is about N2000 to N2500. The Daybreak is highest, 50 dinar, and that’s N5000. So, men come and sleep with you, and you don’t have a choice. If you say no, they either tear your book or deduct your money.
At some point, I noticed that men started rushing me. So, what I did then was to increase my money. I went for the highest bidder. I had learned this from the group of girls I had overheard speaking about the work in Agadez. I could not turn my back now. I had to make the best out of it.
The first person that took me was actually the person that penetrated me, like for a Daybreak. So…
(Pauses. Sad, distant look and deep sigh)
Faith: Ha God… (Another pause, deep breath). The person just had to penetrate me. That night, he had to sleep with me about four times and he last long. So, there was a time that I was just like, “If it is to die, I’ll die.” I was just there, so he used me… And most of them, they use drugs. What I did was that, I was just lying down, because I was tired. I was having no strength. He just used me. When he’s tired, he comes, he comes down. So, that was just it. With injury, you can’t say no. You’re feeling pain… Different people still come. You can’t say no. And how they do is that when you’re seeing your menses, you use what is called bra-bra. It’s like a blockage. You use your wipes or cotton wool and insert it, so that the men don’t know, because those Arabs, they don’t like to see menstrual blood on you.
There was a time the Arab men started coming to us. It leaked out that there was a connection house, so they came to pick a girl. When they picked the girl, they took her to the desert to have oral sex with her. The girl refused. They forced her. They had sex with her through her anus and dropped her in the middle of the road. She saw a Nigerian man and explained everything that happened to her and he called the madam and that was how she came back home. After what happened, they (the Arab men) didn’t come and pick her up again or do anything with her. So, they chose me. Hmmm… (Looks down and sighs). When they chose me, I was like, “Okay. Since it’s a do or die affair, it’s either I die there…”
When I went there, they asked for oral sex. I was smiling with them, you know. I just had to be friendly. I was smiling, pleading that I can’t. They tried, tried, tried… I told them I can’t. They asked me why. I told them I would fall sick because we forbid where I was from. They bought different things just to give to me. I told them I couldn’t. They asked for skin-to-skin sex, I said I counldn’t. They asked me if I had HIV. I said I didn’t have, but I could not do it. They said no problem. Then they had sex with me using condoms. They even gave me more money. I went home, and since then I became their friend. They were always six or seven of them. They come, they take me to the desert and have sex with me and take me back home.
I did my work from February to June, July. I finished paying my money, but before I could realize it, I had paid more than a million. What the madam did was to look for little reasons to minus your money. There was a village she took me to where they don’t do the kind of work we did. So, to do such business, you have to pretend to be the wife of a person, and the person has sex with you freely anytime he wants. You can’t say no. So, I went there and had sex with different people.
When my money was fully paid, I said I wasn’t going anywhere again. The madam called me and asked me why, didn’t I say I was going to Italy? I said yes. She said I had to work for my money. So, I worked for my crossing money. 2000 dinar, which is about N200,000. She asked me to work for extra money to feed myself with in Italy, which I did. She then told me to do some ritual cleansing before I embark on the journey, and asked me to pay another amount of money again, which I did.
I went back to my trafficker. There, I met other passengers that were going to Tripoli, Sabha and other places. The person that took us was one of the top officers there. He drove us to Sabha and then to Tripoli in a long truck that carried animals. We were covered and sewed in. Many people fainted and fell ill. A woman died on the way. In Tripoli, we were taken to an uncompleted building. We were many and some people lay down on the floor. The building looked like it was already collapsing, like it had been bombed before. Some of us refused to sleep inside because we were scared. We went outside. A huge stone had fallen on someone inside. The people in charge of the connection house decided to call Arab men on us. These people that were doing these things were all Nigerians.
They called the Arab men and they started shooting at some people. We ran into the building and slept till the next morning. At daylight, we were called out to be taken to our different destinations. Again, they packaged us like sardines in a lorry and covered us with tarpaulin to be driven to Sabratha. At military checkpoints, we were sometimes flogged by the soldiers who wanted to be sure that the truck wasn’t carrying human beings. We would stay quiet and not make a sound when they flogged us.
At the seaside, we stayed in a camp that was run by a Nigerian ‘boss’ who assigned sleeping positions. He gave people tiny spaces to sleep on, but when it got to my turn, he said he was going to come back. It became dark and I didn’t know where to sleep, so I went to him and reminded him that he was yet to assign a place for me. He called a girl. I didn’t know what they discussed in Bini language. The girl then took me into a hut. I didn’t know she was his girlfriend then. I slept, and he came in and gave me ethanol mixed in a half bottle of soft drink. I drank it. My main purpose of drinking it was that on my way from Sabha to Tripoli, I was actually raped by some military men in the place where we stopped.
They had asked us who understood Arabic. My friend pushed me forward, telling me that since I understood what the man was saying, I should go. When the man noticed, he told me to come and translate his words. He explained to the migrants to wait for food, and I interpreted it, although we didn’t see the food and water. After that, he called me to bring water for them. He also told a Senegalese guy to tell me to cooperate. The Senegalese tried to explain, but I didn’t understand the message. The soldier himself then demanded for sex from me and I told him I wouldn’t do it. He cocked his gun and asked me if I would do it or not. I agreed. He took me to a container and had sex with me and left.
(Breathing heavily) After he did it, I went in, crying. Other soldiers came in and started ordering for sex, one by one, in the presence of everybody there. They had sex with me. I didn’t even know what was happening at some point. I went back in again. I had to tear my bra to clean myself. I was crying.
They asked a boy to make love to a particular girl, and he said she was having her menses or something like that. They picked one other woman. I don’t know where she’s from. They asked the boy to make love to the woman, but he told them that she was pregnant. Then, they picked an old woman, but changed their mind. They looked in my direction. I was bringing my head down. They laughed and one of them came to drag me by my neck. They told the boy to have sex with me. The boy told them that I’m also seeing my menses. They slapped the boy and beat him. They shot a gun into the air, and told the boy to either have sex with me or they would shoot him. He had no choice but to sleep with me. They were making jest of us. That was the reason why I drank the ethanol that boss at the seaside gave to me. The main reason was to clean up my system of everything.
I could feel that I was drunk even when I was sleeping. The boss now came and put on a blue film and asked me to watch. I refused to watch. He asked me why I was feeling like I was a saint. I said I was not a saint. I have my discipline, I have my rules. He then asked me to go to the wall side. I slept there. Midnight, I noticed something moving around me. I opened my eyes and noticed he was the one. His girlfriend was at the edge of the bed while he was in the middle. He was trying to have sex with me. I refused. I felt irritated and was like, “after I was harassed by outsiders, you again?” This time I made up my mind. If it is to die, I better die here.
The girlfriend went out. He threatened to force himself on me. I left the room. It was cold outside. I went to the place where others were sleeping, but there was no space for me. I sat on a block outside until daybreak. The following night, I sat there again, and continued, until one day, some people were pushed to the sea on a boat heading to Italy. I went back to the boss to grant me space, but he said there wasn’t any space, because new passengers were coming. I went to the other migrants and explained my situation, so they created space for me.
Days later, I bought a phone from a passenger who was leaving for Italy for about N3000. I used the phone for phone call business because I had friends from Qatrun that sent airtime to me. Firstly, I called my mom and explained my situation to her. I continued with my call business, connecting people to their loved ones in Nigeria. The money I got paid, I used it to buy watermelon and canned water which I sold. The money I made from that, I used it for money transfer business. If someone wanted to send money to a Libyan account from a Nigerian account, they were to put it in my mom’s Nigerian account and I would give them cash.
This went on for some time until crisis broke out in Libya. Unfortunately, the heat of the fight was close to us. Stray bullets hit a lot of people, including a sleeping pregnant woman. Many people died. Eventually, we were raided by the Arabs. Those who tried to escape were gunned down. Even those that tried to leave by the sea. The camp was covered with smoke. A bomb went off. It was scary. I thought to myself that this was how I was going to die in Libya.
Finally, an Arab soldier came to rescue us. We were taken into a truck to a refugee camp that was controlled by Arab men. I was afraid that we would die. A rumor spread round that the Arabs would kill us. Luckily, I heard that they were doing ‘banamish’. Banamish was like a business, you could bail yourself out.
I picked a certain Arab man and spoke to him, promising to pay him money if he could help me leave the place. He called a cabman to speak to him in Arabic, and I overheard them bargaining on the price they would sell us. I let my friends know. When the boss in charge came, I told him I would prefer to stay. He was angry and walked away.
The food was terrible and made a lot of people ill. A few times, they tried to sell us in the guise of helping us leave, but I refused to leave because I knew what was happening. I didn’t know I was blacklisted because of my stubbornness. When help finally came from the Nigerian embassy via the Nigerian ambassador, and we put down our names on the list of people willing to return, I was on the first list. Later on, they came to call out our names but my name wasn’t there. This happened a second time. I was scared, watching people leave and more people come in. Clearly, this was not an error. Anyway, I got the chance to leave when a new list of names was called out and a particular girl who had given her name before changed her mind. She wanted to stay. So, I stepped forward and claimed her name. They tried to convince me that there was a mistake somewhere, but I insisted it was my name.
That was how I left the refugee camp, left Sabratha and Libya, and returned to Nigeria.
Before you were rescued, did you ever decide, at any point, that you were tired and you wanted to come back home?
Faith: Yes, I had plans of turning back. But the issue was that turning back was a problem. Going forward was a problem. It was more like the red sea and the devil. And even going back, you’re not sure you’re going back alive. You might encounter bandits at the desert who would catch you and ask for money. If you don’t give them money, you might be at risk of being sold to be used for prostitution and organ harvesting. Going back was not an option.
At what point in the course of the journey did it occur to you that you had been lied to?
Faith: My eyes started opening when we traveled from Abuja to Kano, when I was in the boot of a car. Also, when I got to the desert without information on what to expect. Being harassed by military men in the desert. Being maltreated also. Finally, in Libya, you, being harassed by your fellow Nigerians, sexually and in different ways. You, being deceived… (Long, sad sigh) ah God! (Sighs again). You, being deceived by your fellow Nigerian, being cheated. Paying some huge amount of money that on a normal, you can’t get with those nonsense. Putting yourself through some mess, like making someone make money out of you. Using you, with you having no choice… (More sighing and inaudible utterances).
The time I had enough was not just once or twice. When I was there, I had to work unconditionally. Using my menstruation to work… I had no choice. Even when I got to the seaside, when I heard my friends died on sea, two brothers died on sea… I was going to turn my back, but there was no option. I was just waiting for death to come, but death refused to come.
Was there an organization that facilitated your return asides the Nigerian government?
Faith: The people that helped me get my home were the IOM, the International Organization for Migration. Although, many people did not know them then. If they knew, they would have chosen to return home.
What advice do you have for those intending to travel out of Nigeria via illegal means?
Faith: I’d advise them not to go. I know people that died. You’re going on a suicide mission. People are dying. Even those who prepared jazz from Nigeria died in the Mediterranean Sea. It is not a cock-and-bull story. It’s not what you should dare try. Traveling is not a sin. It’s your right. If you must travel, make enquiries. Ask questions. Know what you’re going there for. What is out there is very terrible. It’s not what one can survive.
Today, Faith is a part-time student, who is enthusiastically involved in advocacy activities. She had begun campaigning against irregular migration and human trafficking with a few NGOs the moment she returned to Nigeria. One of the notable NGOs she works with is the Patriotic Citizen Initiative. It is her desire to stop as many people as possible from travellin