A few days before our village was attacked in Borno, mama pleaded with papa to move us to Maiduguri– then a haven for those fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency. Several villages had been attacked, claiming thousands of lives and turning invaluable property to ashes. The smell of death and fear hovered around like a demented spirit. Our neighbour, Obuno, had left with his family the day before. I had wept when Agatha, his daughter and my closest friend, whispered to me that plans were underway to get them to Italy; where the biggest portion of life was damn rosy. I feared what fate had in store for us; a thick cloud of doom seemed to be engulfing us each passing day.
“Sweetheart, we gotta leave oh. Obuno has left. Olekun has left. Everyone is leaving…” my mother cried.
I listened quietly through the keyhole. The night was chilly and scary, without a single miserable star in the roof of the earth. Usually, whenever she had something serious to tell papa, mama would wait until everyone was dead asleep. She hated quarreling– papa hardly accepted her ideas– it would take some serious fight to make him do so. But she was careful not to involve us.
“I’m ashamed to be living under the same roof with a coward. If everyone is leaving, let them go. In fact, there would be less competition for oxygen…” papa thundered.
“But, my husband, this is a matter of life and death. We can’t sit here and wait to be slaughtered like chicken. Let’s go…”
“We can’t leave. There’s everything here. Why should we run to refugee camps to die of starvation?”
Mama never brought up the subject again. For the next few days, she went about her chores quietly. Papa had adamantly refused to move with the tide. This denied her joy and compounded our fear.
Then, when an Ak-47 went off one night, there was no mistaking it. Nobody asked what it meant. We literally flew out of the house, with little nothings we could lay our shaky hands on, into the heart of darkness. The ugly sight of burning houses and piercing cries of dying souls were all over. Twice, we stumbled and fell; losing each other. I hadn’t seen papa yet. I wouldn’t see him again forever.
After running about aimlessly like a motherless calf, some strong hands grabbed me. I screamed, thinking the terrorists had caught up with me.
“Don’t scream my daughter. You’re safe,” some elderly man whispered.
“But who are you?” I inquired fearfully.
“I’m running just like you. Let’s go. They will be coming for us…”
I followed him quietly, running my curious eyes through many bewildered faces around, hoping to see my mother and brother. But I couldn’t see them. We walked and ran, only stopping occasionally to take a breath or drink water.
Trekking to Maiduguri was tiresome. The leader of our group, Obanje, as I came to know the old man, was patient and encouraging. He allowed us to rest many times even though it was risky. The terrorists were trailing us on motorbikes, bicycles and vehicles; determined to shoot and slit everyone’s throat.
Our group comprised two hundred people, many of them women and children. Many walked with difficulty; they had serious injuries– broken bones and torn flesh. We literally carried them. However, that was the best we could help. We neither had drugs nor medical personnel to attend to them. Our prayer was to reach the camp, where the Red Cross and the UNHCR people provided necessary aid to refugees. Our food reserves were also running out at a dreadful speed. As a result, sixty people died as we watched. Helpless. We buried them, one after another, and hurried off.
I met Agatha at the camp in Maiduguri four days later. It gladdened my heart for once, for she was the only person I knew around. I had inquired from everyone I met the whereabouts of my mother and brother, with the aid of all manner of descriptions. But it seemed as if nobody knew who the hell they were. Indeed, looking for two unknown earthlings in the overflowing sea of humanity in the camp was akin to searching for a needle in a forest of darkness. I didn’t give up though. I prayed and waited, hoping that a miracle would happen someday to unite us again.
The few available tents couldn’t accommodate the rising number of IDPs. I had been lucky to be allocated the same tent as Agatha and six other women. Others slept outside in the open. In addition, food and clean water dwindled. Access to medical healthcare facilities became limited as the bug of poor sanitation blossomed. There were talks of moving some people to Rann to decongest the place, but nobody knew when. The air was laden with the choking smell of death. People died of malnutrition and horrible ailments every minute. They were buried and forgotten.
“I’m surprised you aren’t in Italy already! What happened my sister?” I queried Agatha one evening.
“It’s a long, hazardous journey with many procedures and stopovers. Not an ordinary walk to the market,” she said quietly.
I could tell that something was disturbing her. So I dropped the Italian story for a while.
“By the way, I haven’t seen your papa. Where did he go?” I asked.
Agatha started weeping. I couldn’t tell why until, hours later, she narrated how they had been attacked on the way. Several people had been brutally killed, including her father and sister. I felt sorry and stupid. It is stupid and insensitive to ask some questions. They only open the wounds that someone longs to forget.
“I was pulled away by someone I couldn’t tell, thinking mama was dead too. Then we heard later that she was rescued and taken to Rann with others in need of serious medication,” she narrated with difficulty.
“I’m sorry my sister…”
“You don’t have to, Meddi. What I’ve seen here isn’t for the faint-hearted. We’ve to be strong to live with it.”
“That’s encouraging dear. So are we going to stay here and die?”
Agatha stared into space as if searching for answers thereon. I sympathized with her.
“Not me. I’ll try and get to Rann, even if it means running away. I’m sure mama is there…”
“What if you don’t find her?”
“What kind of question is that? Anyway, I’ve nothing to lose. But you should come with me; don’t you want to find your family?”
I didn’t respond. But she had ignited a fire of longing in my heart. We retired to our tent, hoping to be in Rann by sunset the next day.
The road to Rann was long, narrow and rough like the road to heaven. But wasn’t Rann heaven anyway? It was where we hoped to get good medical care. It was where we hoped to get good, if not better, sanitation. It was where we hoped to meet our families. I gazed at the faces of the hundreds of souls in the truck, each tattooed with misery and pain, and mourned. I couldn’t tell what awaited us. We had just been lucky to sneak into the truck, especially when it became apparent that we wouldn’t make it to the list. There was something fruitful that going to Rann promised besides the prospects of reuniting with our lost families.
Agatha hadn’t gone to Italy because her sponsor was away, trying to get other girls across through Libya. Then a rumour had come that Ojodo, as he was called, was back in Nigeria. Many people dreamed of going abroad, hoping to land better jobs. Even though nobody returned to give us testimonies, the desire to leave was fuelled by the prevailing issues of urgency.
We arrived at sunset. The camp was enveloped by a deadly silence, except for a cry of a baby here and there. Everyone gazed at us with a bewildered expression– perhaps wondering why, of all the places on earth, we had chosen that den of death or just jealous that we had come to compete for the few remaining valuables. They ignored us soon; everyone was too preoccupied with their problems to worry about others. I hated the place immediately I stepped on its soil. The taste of water was sickening and the air unfriendly to my lungs. Food and healthcare services were things one could only dream of. Death hovered around for eternity like a hawk over chicks.
”What have you decided then?” Agatha asked me a few weeks later.
I hadn’t found my family. I felt terribly sick to imagine that they were dead. I envied her. Even though her mama was critically ill, she was alive. That– the mere presence of one’s mother– is enough to keep the heart warm. Earlier, Agatha had asked me to consider going to Italy with her. She said it so easily that you would think it was a mere and effortless walk from the kitchen to the big house. I had promised to think about it. But thinking in a time of misery is troublesome. Meaningful and healthy thoughts don’t come at all!
“Ojodo will be here next week,” she said. “We should leave with him…”
“What of your mama? Don’t you think she needs you?” I asked.
“She needs drugs and food more than me,” she answered bluntly. But if God keeps her for a little longer, I’ll return for her after making some fortune…”
“My sister, be hopeful o! A man doesn’t stop dreaming of sweet things even if his entire life is tattooed with misery and bitterness.”
To thousands of Nigerians afflicted by the Boko Haram scourge, economic meltdown, poverty and joblessness; Europe was the land of milk and honey. They left in staggering numbers, hoping their colourful dreams would be watered to blossom. They left in staggering numbers, hoping to find a home in the hearts of strangers. On a cold night sometime in October, 2010, Agatha and I joined the desperate dream chasers on the voyage to Europe via Libya. It was a risky endeavour, with the end so bleak, but worth the effort. I had decided that I would rather die on the border than waste away miserably in the filthy camp.
Ojodo scattered us like grains when we arrived in Tripoli. He had demanded for more pay, arguing that getting through the immigration officers was impossible. He needed big notes to hide us from their hawk eyes. Some were contracted as cheap labour in industries and big farms. Some, especially young women, worked as barmaids in city clubs. Agatha and I were driven to some little town out of the city to work as housemaids for Chittah– a well-known baron and tycoon. Even though we didn’t like the job, life was less suffocating. We completely forgot the bombs, cries of agony of dying babies in their helpless mothers’ frail hands and the smell of rotting flesh. It was a pity how people could be so brutally butchered back at home as the world watched.
Our boss, Chittah, was a hideous man. Nobody saw him easily. You would only see him if he wanted you to. He appeared and disappeared — unannounced– like ripples on still water. I was therefore terribly surprised and shocked when I was summoned into his house one evening. I hadn’t seen Ojodo for months. Sweet heavens, how time flies! I couldn’t believe how the tranquillity of the place had completely made me unaware of the passage of time. Indeed pain and suffering draw man to death. Happiness and joy keeps it at bay. Without Ojodo in the picture therefore, I wasn’t sure what Chittah wanted to tell me.
“Please make yourself comfortable,” he said while handing me a glass of cold juice. We had never been close. Such unexpected hospitality from a man I knew very little about was enough to send a cold shiver down my spine. I could only whisper “thank you.”
“I’ve some clients tonight. I want you to treat them well,” he said, peering into my eyes.
“I understand sir,” I replied fearfully.
“What should I prepare for them please?”
He stared at me unbelievingly. The gnawing silence that ensued made me to sweat in the cold evening.
“Nothing!” he blurted out.
“Nothing?” I was confused.
“Has your friend told you what she does?” he asked softly.
I had seen Agatha in the company of men on several occasions. I had even seen her go missing for days. But I never suspected anything. She never told me anything either.
“No,” I replied.
“Good. I will tell you,” he moved closer as if the walls could hear his secret. “She entertains my clients in bed…”
“What? Noooo!!!” I cried.
“You’ve no choice. I paid for you,” he thundered.
I sprang up and dashed for the door. It was too late. He intercepted, wrestled me to the ground as his mighty hands fumbled to tear my clothes. He roughed me up and raped me, again and again until I passed out.
I woke up in a hospital bed three days later. I couldn’t tell for how long I had been unconscious, but the look on everyone’s face clearly indicated that they had been worried. Agatha held my hand excitedly. The warmth in her smile inspired a rare sense of happiness in me that, for a moment, made me forget my predicament. I recovered and returned to Chittah’s abode.
Serving men became an everyday thing. I did it everywhere, as long as money was involved. It was the only bridge to our survival. We saved the little we got, though we had to starve for the sake of saving. It would take a whole year for us to afford to cross to Italy via ship. But then, there was no surety that we would sail across safely. None of us had a passport. It was hard for illegal immigrants to pass through the hands of immigration officers. We had to be smuggled like some illegal contraband to the land of our dreams. But this wouldn’t happen until we had coughed out something. Ojodo said he had to massage the officers’ stomachs. We didn’t complain. There was nothing wrong in paying a little price in order to reach the promised land– the land of colourful dreams.
However, things went wrong on the very day of our departure. Ojodo couldn’t find space on the ship. In fact, it was extremely dangerous as he said. So we left on boats. We were a hundred desperate souls, eager to perch and flourish in unknown lands ahead.
The tide was very high. It was becoming very difficult to control the boats as we ventured further into the deep waters. Two boats capsized under our watch. Its occupants screamed for help, but Ojodo urged us to go on, arguing that such were casualties of nature that we had no control over. I was too scared to say anything. I saw death with my eyes. Someone touched my hand and I turned quickly to see Agatha, her once bright face wet with tears.
“Don’t worry my sister,” I comforted her. “We’ll arrive safely.”
She stared at me for ages, doubt written all over her face. I looked farther into the blue sea, afraid that I couldn’t provide the assurance she wanted. It was then that I saw it– a military boat coming at a threatening speed. Everybody held their breath, and then we heard a loud splash. Ojodo was gone!
We were arrested. “Nobody is leaving without travelling documents,” the immigration officers announced. They returned us to the border, vowing to prosecute us for attempting to cross to Italy illegally. It was then that they told us Ojodo had their money, he had conned them several times. No wonder he jumped into the sea upon seeing them.
Back in Libya, we were crammed into a tiny room. There was no food. There was no water. There was no fresh air. There was no access to healthcare. It was as if we were in a refugee camp back in Maiduguri. The stench of urine and human stool filled the air, and our lungs. Then hell broke loose and a strange illness descended upon us. Agatha died. Others followed. The earth swelled. I wept. It was painful to accept that I’ll never see her again. I drank dirty water to ease the bite of hunger as I waited for my day. When the immigration department finally acted, only a handful of us were remaining. They deported us back to our respective countries. As the plane left the ground and soared high into the sky, my heart sagged and I wept afresh. I had run away from home for safety in unknown land, only to return to the beast that wiped out my entire family.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed