My story of horror in desert, slavery in Libya, survival in Italy
June 19, 2021
Ten years after Mrs. Adaeze Onyeakpa Oshi, arrived Italian Island of Lampedusa after 11 hours journey on a migrant boat across the Mediterranean Sea, she had nothing but gratitude to God for miraculously surviving the perilous journey that had claimed lives of thousands of African citizens fleeing poverty and war to Europe. Although, she made it safely to Italy, two years after she left Nigeria and now enjoys comfortable life that she craved for in Europe, Adaeze is haunted by the ghost of her past- the journey which took her through the deadly Libyan desert where she was sold into slavery by Nigerian human traffickers and the torture and suffering, she endured to regain her freedom before fleeing the war-torn Libya.
The mother of two kids, who currently lives and works in Northern Italian city of Turin with her husband, shares her experience in this interview with Olisemeka Obeche.
What was your earliest recollection of your life as a young girl and how it impacted on who you are today?
Well, I am the last child and the only female child of the eight children born by my mother in a polygamous family at Azia, a town in Ihiala local government area of Anambra state. Although, we were eight, five later died leaving only the three of us. Incidentally, both my parents are late now.
My father died when I was four years of age and that prompted my mother to send me away to live with one of her sisters who was married and living with her husband in Lagos. The couple had no child and so my aunt claimed they needed me so that I could bring good luck to their family.
I was barely five years old when my mother sent me away to live with them because she could not cope with the responsibility of taking care of her eight children. I was the last child and she felt it would be better for me there. I guess my mother did it because she was convinced that my future would be better if I left at that time.
However, when I got to Lagos, everything changed. It wasn’t the kind of life I envisaged or the kind of pampering treatment that I was used to in my house at Azia. I was maltreated and denied basic needs by the woman. For instance, they refused to enroll me in school as they promised my mother. Not that they didn’t have the money.
They were living well by all standards at that time because my aunt’s husband was working with NAFDAC and they had everything to take very good care of me but they just chose to maltreat me for reasons I do not know till today. When neighbours and people started asking questions, they decided to enroll me in a nearly public school that was not up to the standard. Of course, I was more than happy then because I was going school.
But, I hardly finished one session before he was transferred to Akure, Ondo state and we had to leave Lagos. When we got to Akure, instead of getting better, things got worse. Then I was being forced to do the kind of things people of my age were not supposed to do. I was denied food, clothing and other basic cares, even good school by the couple.
Just like in Lagos, when they decided to send me to school, they chose the one that was most substandard in the area for me. In my school then, whenever it rained everything would be over because the roofs would be leaking and water would be everywhere. But, I was determined to make the best of the opportunity. It was when I reached the age of eight years that I began to agitate to go home. When I finally managed to send message to my mother to inform her, what I was going through there, she demanded for my return. By then I was about 13 years of age. I spent about eight years with them before they allowed me to go back home.
Did you experience sexual molestation during this period?
Yes, I did and it was horrible experience. But it’s a chapter in my life that I had closed because it’s something I don’t like to remember or talk about. As a child of God, someone who has taken up gospel ministration, I had since forgiven those people who played part in that era and I have moved on with my life. Thank God, I had found joy and fulfillment along the way and am not going back to that again.
So, what happened when you returned home?
Incidentally, when I returned to live with my mother, I couldn’t cope with the village environment. Having spent much of my eight years in Lagos and Akure, it was very difficult for me in Azia. So, I told my mother that I couldn’t stay in the village because everything was somehow to me. After some time, she sent me back to Lagos, this time to live with one of our family friends. This time around, the couple treated me well and I was enrolled in a normal school. This time, I had the opportunity to attend Federal College, Ikeja for my secondary education.
When I finished secondary education, I relocated to Akure again, where I sat for university matriculation examination preparatory to study at the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA). I barely spent one year at FUTA before the opportunity to travel outside Nigeria came up and I dropped out of school.
Looking back to those years, how do you feel now?
Well, I decided to take nothing but only the positive from that chapter in my life. That is the only convenient thing for me because if I try to reflect on the horrible things that I experienced at that time, I will go crazy. But, like I said, I regard that as the beginning of my life-long lesson. Although, I look back to my time with the couple with gratitude for lessons learnt, I believe that no mother should let her child live far away from her at that age. I was too young to cope with the new environment and adapt to the new way I was being treated. Then, my mother had no option than to send me away.
So, how did you travel out of Nigeria?
Well, after finishing my industrial training during my first year at FUTA, I tried to find a part time job which I needed desperately in order to raise funds to continue my education. When I could not get a part time job then in 2008, the only option available to me then was to quit school and start a petty business. Then, I was already nursing the dream to become a full time gospel artist because I love singing gospel songs.
So, my goal switched to starting a business and then combining it with gospel ministration. I was already in the business when my uncle’s daughter came to persuade me to travel abroad that it was better than suffering in Nigeria. She said she knew someone that could help me get to Europe. It was so convincing that my mother did not hesitate to give her consent, but on the condition that it must not involve prostitution. I assured her that I will never engage in prostitution.
At that time, I also have a childhood friend, Chioma who incidentally is the only daughter of her family just like me, who also wanted to travel outside the country as well. So, when I told her, she was excited and we teamed up for the trip after meeting the man who was handling our travel plan. The man told us that we were travelling to Spain and that we would get out passport and visa in Libya. That was how our journey into slavery started. We travelled outside Nigeria without even voter’s card. No proper documentation.
How did it happen?
It happened that the man handling our travel plans whom my niece introduced simply as Ejima from Imo state was a human trafficker who specializes in luring people to the city on the pretext of sending them to Europe. He told us that his sister resident in Spain was operating a restaurant and was looking for two young ladies to assist her. And that she was ready to sponsor our visa and other travel expenses to Europe; that once we reach and start working for her, she would deduct it from our pay.
Ejima also assured us that the sister would provide accommodation and feeding for us in Spain until we complete her repayment. He was to accompany us until we enter flight before he comes back to Nigeria. We felt everything was genuine because there were many Nigerian ladies who own saloon or other businesses that usually bring younger girls to Europe through such agreement.
So, we thought the agreement was genuine and we followed him with only small pocket money with us. Before we travelled, I asked some people that I knew that were abroad then and they confirmed that people travel through such means. Although one of them asked if it was slave trade and I told him that the person said it was work travel in Spain. That was how our journey of life and death took off from Akure in Nigeria on May 27, 2009 to Birni Konni, a border town in the Tahoua region of Niger Republic from there we travelled to Agadez.
It was when we reached Agadez and spent one week that I became suspicious of him. I then, called my friend whom I regard as a sister and told her what the man was up to and that he was planning to sell us into slavery. It was at that point that we embarked on serious fasting and prayers, committing the entire journey into the hands of God.
What was it like travelling through the notorious desert route to Libya?
It was a horrible experience. Even if offered so much, it is a journey nobody should embark. I do not also wish any of my enemy to go through it. When we reached Agadez, the traffickers normally spend one week or two to make solid arrangements for the trip. They first conduct headcounts and make sure that their money is complete before the trip. It’s roughly one week of road trip from Agadez to Libya and during this period, you can die of anything especially thirst. There is a section of Libyan territory where all of us, human cargoes will have to lie underneath the vehicle and they cover us with tarpaulin before covering us with goods. They said that was done so that desert patrol officials will never suspect that they were carrying human beings but only goods. You can imagine the experience of lying on your back inside a vehicle covered with thick tarpaulin and goods in a hot desert.
On our way, we could see remains of those who died in the desert on their way to Libya. From fresh decomposing bodies to skeletons- everywhere was littered with remains of people whose hopes and dreams of reaching Libya and Europe ended on the desert. Many of them died as a result of dehydration. It’s horrible sight. It’s something only seen in horror movies. At that area, there is no water, no grass or trees to provide any form of comfort. We reached a point where we were warned never to disembark from the vehicle to avoid leaving footprints behind. We were told that it would tip some desert rebels or human hunters off and they would track us down. At that point, it was only the driver who wore a boot similar to that normally used by desert patrols that usually got down to get anything we needed during that stage of the journey.
However, we reached a stage where we ran out of water and the next place to get clean water was like three-four days journey away. So, we started looking for ‘anyhow’ water to take. We eventually found a well in the desert but the water smelled awful because birds die inside. But we had no option than to drink from that well to stay alive. Normally it was rare to see birds or other living things in the desert. Everything you see there is dead, because living thing can hardly survive in such environment. So, it was strange to see carcass of a bird inside the well. But, we ignored the stench and drank to our satisfaction. That helped us to stay alive till we got to the point where we had fresh water before we reached Sabha, a city in Fezzan region, Southwestern Libya, about 640 kilometers from Tripoli.