Osaro thought about his present predicament, his first time on a boat and it was looking like it was going to be his last. He and about 140 other migrants crammed onto a rubber dinghy with a bad engine, had been floating around on the Mediterranean Sea for five days. The engine of their boat stopped working hours into the journey across the sea. The human smugglers who had put them on the boat at Sabratha, the Libyan coast, taught two or three people sitting close to the engine how to work it, and instructed that they go in the direction of a star and not deviate from the path with the aid of a compass. They were also told, they would get to the coast of Italy in less than a day. But things had turned out differently. The only hope of survival left for the migrants was to be discovered by the Italian navy or coast guard, and that would only happen, if by some miracle the currents take them into Italian waters. They had been ordered not to carry any form of luggage so as to have less weight on the boat, but wisdom had made Osaro hide a bottle of water under his jacket. That bottle sustained his eleven year old son Edwin, whom he had foolishly brought along on this journey. As people died from dehydration and starvation all around them, some fell into the sea and drowned whilst trying to drink sea water, those that did drink from the sea tended to die much quicker from the salt water. Osaro always waited till it was dark before bringing out the bottle and giving Edwin a little water. He figured that even if he was not going to make it, Edwin should have a fighting chance at survival. His wife Lilian was put on another boat that was supposed to behind theirs. He wondered if he would ever see her again. He felt the signs of death by dehydration and starvation creeping in, the nauseous feeling, exhaustion and hallucinations. He looked into Edwin’s face now and then just to revitalize himself with the still hope of life in his boy’s eyes. He had once read somewhere that keeping the brain active could prolong life to an already dying body, he decided to reflect on the path that had brought him to this despicable situation. He needed to stay alive for his son.
He had been a school teacher back home and was barely making enough to sustain his family. Anthony his younger brother had travelled to Italy four years earlier and was already sending money home. He encouraged Osaro to do the same to end the suffering at home. Anthony downplayed the perilous nature of the journey and stated that the stories were being exaggerated, one just needed to have enough money in order to have a smooth journey through the Sahara to Italy, and he would supply all the funds needed. This lightened Osaro’s heart, and he decided to go with his wife and son against the advice of his mother to embark on the journey alone. Armed with enough money and contacts, and an agent hired by Anthony the journey started smoothly from Edo state to Kano, the agent skillfully avoiding Boko Haram territories and parting with cash at every security check point until they were able to get across the border into Niger. Osaro, so far, fascinated with the journey assured his family that everything would be okay and they would soon be living a better life in Italy. The agent got them to a town called Agadez and handed them over to a man, saying that he had to go back to Nigeria. He told them the man would take care of them and help on the rest of the journey. The man took them to a room and told them they would stay there for a day that the journey through the Sahara was a very dangerous one with bandits, they would need to wait for the military to conduct patrols into the Sahara so they could tag along. He advised them to hide very well on their persons any money they had with them, and not to go too far from the room. He would come for them the next day, all their expenses had been paid for, and they would be in Libya in three days. Very early, before dawn the next day, the man came for them, he took them through the town to three awaiting pickup trucks, where there were also close to a hundred people waiting. Osaro guessed from their bags and the way these people were dressed, that they were for the same journey as he was, and wondered how they were all going to fit into the three trucks. The man took Osaro and his family straight to the driver of one of the pickup trucks, and spoke rapidly with him in a foreign language, for a few minutes. The driver opened the passenger cabin and beckoned them in, the man from the agent bade them farewell as he told Osaro the driver would take care of them. Instructions were barked outside the truck, and within minutes, all the trucks were filled up with at least twenty five people in each one. Those that could not get on board were told to wait for the next trip. In a convoy, the trucks moved immediately, and joined up with some military trucks that acted as escorts for only some kilometers into the Sahara. After the military trucks had turned back, Osaro knew they were on their own. The driver assured his passengers that he had done this run hundreds of times and knew all the sand dunes like the back of his hand. During the journey, they came across an upturned pickup truck, around the truck were bodies, some partially buried by the sand. It was an accident of a truck filled with migrants. They stopped to check for survivors, the driver recognized the truck. He said it had left Agadez six days ago with four other trucks, the others must not have waited. They found a few survivors that were barely alive, gave them some water, and prayed the survivors would still be alive when one of the other trucks passed by on their way back to Agadez. They boarded their truck and continued the journey. Sand storms and a pursuit by bandits who opened fire at their convoy plagued the journey, but they got through the Sahara to Sabha, Libya safely.
Osaro and his family were driven to a compound, where the driver handed them over to yet another man. The man and the driver discussed for a while, before the man walked up to Osaro and demanded a payment of Three Thousand Euros. The man told them what was left of the funds Anthony had sent was not enough to cover Osaro’s family for the final two legs of the journey. Osaro pleaded that he did not have up to that amount on him, that he had only One Thousand Five Hundred Euro on him, when they got to Europe his brother would give them the balances, the men laughed at his suggestion and told Osaro that he and his family would remain here till the money was complete, they would contact Anthony and have him send the money. The men told Osaro that he should not be worried, that as long as Anthony was going to send the money, his family would be well taken care of. Osaro did not like this, but he saw he really did not have a choice. The men brought a phone to Osaro, he called Anthony who promised to send the money. Osaro and his family were led to a room with poor conditions, they would stay here till Anthony sent the money, and they were also told that if some reason, Anthony did not send the money or delayed in sending the money, Osaro and his family would have to work to pay off the amount owed. Over the next few days Osaro went about the town of Sabha, he discovered there were hundreds of Nigerians stranded here, unable to pay for the rest of the trip, most of them had taken up all kinds of odd jobs, some into prostitution, to raise money. He asked a Nigerian he met, why migrants had to rely on the smugglers and not try to make the journey on their own, if they could raise enough money to travel through Libya on their own and not have to raise the money needed by the smugglers, then they should not be stranded. He was told that the journey through Libya without a smuggler who acted as a kind of cover was far more dangerous, and only a very few people had actually made it to the Libyan coast on their own. Migrants travelling without the cover of a smuggler were easy prey to predators who lay in wait for them, these predators, Islamic militants who pick them to be sold as slaves, Security forces who arrests them and have them thrown into a cell where they would be used for hard labor for the rest of their lives, Bandits who rob them of any money they have on them and then kill them or Organ traffickers who hunt them to harvest their organs such as Kidneys, Hearts, Livers and other organs to be sold in the organs black market. ‘No’ they told him, it was much safer to go in the cover of smugglers that knew their way around these parts. Osaro saw a lot of sense in their words, and pushed the thought away. He saw the deplorable conditions in which stranded migrants were living, some having lost hope of getting to Italy and deciding to just stay in Libya. He prayed Anthony would send the money on time, he did not think he could stand witnessing this any longer. His prayers were answered quickly, for the next day the mad whom the driver had taken them to, came to him to say Anthony had sent the money, and they would continue the journey the next day.
Dawn the next day Osaro and his family were put on a bus headed for the Libyan coast. He was glad they left Sabha, the few days he spent in the place made him more depressed than he had ever been in his life. Witnessing the deplorable living conditions of his countrymen was sickening. The journey to Sabratha was a long and tedious one, with too many security forces to avoid and payments made whenever they were stopped. They arrived late at night, and were ushered into a compound filled with men carrying rifles. Osaro was told that he was lucky, that he and his family arrived just on time to join the batch of people to be taken across the sea this night, by noon the next day, they would be in Italy. Osaro was thrilled to hear that, in about twenty four hours, a new life would begin for them. Food was brought to them, and they were advised to eat very well for the journey ahead, it was a one way, non-stop journey. They were put on a bus with some of the other passengers from Sabha and driven to an unguarded part of the coast. There were a lot of people there, Osaro did a rough estimate of about three hundred people. He guessed they were like himself, about to make the journey across the sea. Also, there were a lot of men with guns, who seemed to shepherd this crowd. In the water were three orange boats that did not look very big, he wondered where the rest of the boats were. The man who brought them to the place took them to someone who seemed to be in charge of the operation. After a little discussion and argument, Osaro and his family were asked to join the crowd. Some men came over with lots of life jackets and handed them over to the migrants, almost everyone getting one. Then shots rang in the air, startling everyone. The men with guns came into the crowd and roughly divided the crowd of people into a group of three. Amidst the little chaos, Osaro’s wife got separated from her family and found herself in a different group, she tried to go to the group that had her husband and child, but angry men stopped her and would not listen when she told them she was trying to get back with her family. As she started to sob, one of the men calmed her, and told her not to worry, all the boats were going in a convoy, and she would definitely join her family when they got to Italy. Osaro in another group was also in panic mode and was also told to relax. The migrants were then ordered to drop any kind of luggage or any kind of load that they might have on them. There was a need to have only necessary human weight on the boats. Some people disagreed to this and began to voice their disapproval, but they were silenced with gun shots into the air. Osaro for some reason he could not explain, held unto a gallon of water and hid it in under his jacket as other people threw down all their belongings in fear. The men with guns shepherded the migrants unto the boats, shooting into the air sporadically to hasten the movement. Holding Edwin firmly, Osaro allowed himself to be guided into one of the boats. He roughly counted about one hundred and thirty -five heads on the boat. He wondered if the boat was built to carry such a number of persons. As if his thoughts were being read, one of the gunmen on the shore announced that they should not be alarmed, that the boats could carry the weight, if there was less movement on the boat, then they would surely be safe. Osaro watched in horror as two men who sat close to the engine were taught how to work the engine and steer the boat in a certain direction. A star was pointed out to them, and they were told to steer without deviation in the direction of that star. A radio was also given to them. Prayers were made on the beach, after which they were heralded off into the sea with songs.
The voice of his son saying ‘Daddy, daddy’ repeatedly, brought him out of his deep thoughts. The voice seemed to be calling from far away. He answered the boy, but his response was only in his thoughts. He wondered what was going on, he could hear Edwin calling surely. He tried to say something, but his voice was still in his thoughts. He tried to open his eyes but could not, his body was not responding. ‘Is this what dying feels like?’ He asked himself. He thought of his boy and mustered all the strength he had left to open his eyes. He barely lifted his eyelids, but he saw his son. Edwin was weakly shaking him to wake him. Osaro’s eyes were closing again, he felt himself fading away, but he saw them, there were white men on the boat, one of them bending over Edwin and speaking a foreign language. A part of his brain was able to interpret to him that they had been rescued. Just before he blacked out, he saw one of them carry Edwin away, and with the knowledge that Edwin had been saved, it felt okay to go.
Note: Characters in this story are fictional, but events therein are built up from actual stories on migrants from articles culled from @bbcafrica, @thenewyorker, @theguardian