•Illegal emigrant narrates deadly experience in desert while trying to move to Europe
•Sight of Mediterranean sea forced me to cancel trip to Italy
By Emmanuel Iheaka
Twenty two years after walking through the valley of the shadow of death, in search of greener pastures, Stephen Onyekamma has remained terrified. Unlike those who by faith would confess they fear no evil when confronted with such pangs of death, reliving of his experience still sends shivers down the spines of Onyekamma.
As he narrated his experience in the sahara desert to Saturday Vanguard, Onyekamma would intermittently pause out of traumatic effect and in thanksgiving to God for sparing his life. Initially, he was reluctant about recounting the experience, as he insisted it was one he wouldn’t want to remember. But upon insistence by our correspondent, Onyekamma buckled.
Journey to Libya
Six years after graduating from the Imo State University (IMSU), and after failed attempts to secure a job, Onyekamma decided to get out of Nigeria. That was in 1999. The graduate of Political Science had Italy as his destination country. Rather than following the right process of seeking visa into the European destination, he opted to go through the desert.
From Owerri, Onyekamma moved to Kebbi State and from Kebbi to Niger Republic. According to him, Niger Republic was a converging ground for those seeking to smuggle themselves into Europe through the desert. Unfortunately for the young graduate, he arrived Niger Republic in 1999 at a time he said the country was thrown into turmoil due to a coup d’ etat in which the country’s president was killed. Though he said he was aware of the coup, that however, could not deter him as he was desperate to hit the deadly desert. Waiting for the political unrest in Niger to subside could be a dream killer for him. Onyekamma therefore, resolved to weather the storm.
“After my graduation, I searched for job but couldn’t get. After six years, I decided to travel to Europe through the desert. My plan was to get to Libya, work a little and then move through the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.
“Before I left in 1999, I knew there was a coup in Niger, but I couldn’t wait, since I had already made up my mind to travel”.
Robbed in Niger
Onyekamma had undergone tutelage on how one could safeguard his money while in the desert. According to him, there were three available options – hiding the money in the collar of one’s dress while making the dress, or opening the heel of a shoe to conceal it. The third option was to tie the money in a nylon and swallow it, with the hope of excreting it during the call of nature. All of these options however, could not save Onyekamma. While in Niger Republic trying to board a Libya bound vehicle, he ran into rebels who he said had seized control of part of the country. They stripped him of his belongings, forcing him to return to the capital city of Niger. The rebels had mastered the modus operandi of the emigrants.
“The first setback I had was being robbed by rebels in Niger. I hid my money in the collar of my shirt, but the fear of being killed would even make one to surrender the money willingly. Having lost all I had, I returned to the capital city to restrategize. I was in Niger for about two years to raise some money before I took off again”.
Experience in the desert
Those who navigate through the desert do their best to get well equipped for the deadly journey. While water and snacks are desideratum, the transporters also go with mechanics, should the vehicle break down in the desert. However, there are very dreadful situations in which a vehicle that developed fault in the desert would require changing some parts.
This could be the most traumatizing fate that could befall anyone travelling through the desert. When such happens, Onyekamma said the driver and his crew would abandon the emigrants in the desert and make their way back to Niger with a promise of returning with the vehicle parts. In some cases, Onyekamma submitted that the emigrants were abandoned for weeks. In such cruel situation, the travellers are left stranded and at the mercy of death, as they run out of water and snacks. Dehydration would set in, and they would be ready to drink anything liquid, including urine, in a battle for survival. But would the urine even be available? Onyekamma said it was at the desert he realized men slide into dehydration faster than women.
“When you run out of water in the desert, you would be desperate to drink anything liquid. It was at the desert I observed that a woman’s body had more water than that of a man. Men fell into dehydration faster than women. We begged women to try to urinate for us to drink to gain some strength. Whoever is able to urinate then, becomes a saviour.
“Out of every 50 persons going through the desert, only about 20 could survive”, he narrated.
Life in Libya
After about two weeks in the desert, Onyekamma finally arrived Libya. At the North African country, he went for training on vehicle alignment, and was able to master it within a short time. With the job, he could raise money to feed. But he was overcome by the sight of the terrifying Mediterranean Sea. He therefore, decided to go through the desert again to return to Nigeria, rather than heading to Italy.
“When I saw the boat they use in conveying people to Europe and the rampaging Mediterranean Sea, I became terrified and decided to return to Nigeria. I felt it was more dangerous stepping on the sea, than returning to the desert. That was how I returned to Nigeria in 2005”.
Return to Nigeria
Today, Onyekamma, a father of five, having survived in the desert, believes nothing can kill him except God says it’s time. Unfortunately, he is yet to conquer money for which he soldiered through the desert. He is still struggling with the vicissitudes of life. While hoping that some day, life would get better, he holds that desert should never be an option for anyone who values life.