“I couldn’t stand another beating,” he said, “even if they had to kill us, [it’s] better than going back in that place.”
  (left to right) The author, Jeffrey, Emmanuel, and Charles. Near their housing in a city north of Rome, December 2017.

(left to right) The author, Jeffrey, Emmanuel, and Charles. Near their housing in a city north of Rome, December 2017.

Meet Charles.

Meet Charles.

32 years old and from Edo State, Nigeria.

To reach Italy he crossed three countries: Nigeria, Niger, and the most dangerous of all, Libya.

His journey took two years: Charles left Nigeria on 1 April 2015 and arrived in Italy on 7 May 2017.

He left Nigeria with his girlfriend, Joy (23, Nigeria), traveling about two weeks before he arrived in Agadez, Niger. There, he remained in hiding for two full weeks in a cement compound that held 200-300 migrants, a space under the constant surveillance of armed traffickers. They seized everyone’s mobile phones. No one had any sense of the city. He and the others remained inside until it was time to depart for the desert.

Charles crossed the Sahara desert in the back of a pickup truck with more than 20 people. The trip in total took two weeks, but Joy only survived one of them. His girlfriend died from the heat and intensity of desert travel; she was sick and still recovering from a surgery she had had before departing Nigeria. She could not eat. One morning Charles woke up and found her dead. He placed her body at the side of the road, covered her, and continued on.

“It was hell,” Charles remembered.

Skeletons and human remains were a regular sight across the desert. He ran out of water and was forced to drink from dirty wells or puddles when he found them. When he came across the dead he would search their person for water leftover in their bottles. It was hard to breathe because he inhaled so much dust.

There were five or six children aboard the pickup truck, two of whom died. His traffickers were generous enough to allow them to be buried before they moved on. Both boys were from Nigeria.

Upon crossing into Libyan territory his truck was sold in entirety to a man who kept them imprisoned and enslaved for a year. He didn’t know exactly where he was because during transport they were covered with blankets and clothes to keep hidden.

He arrived at a prison compound that held over 100 people, including women and men, groups that were kept in separate quarters of the large hall. Everyone slept on the floor. Water was limited. He was allowed a bath once per month.

He was beaten every day, flogged, he said. His clothes would be removed and he’d sustain floggings while his captors demanded money be sent from his family. There was sexual abuse among both men and women; individuals would be called to a room, raped, then thrown back out when their rapists were through with them.

Charles remembers his whole body being in pain. His right shoulder and arm were especially sore from repeated beatings with a stick. Twice daily he received a piece of bread to eat. Usually there was no water, but when there was it came in a plastic bucket where he’d reach in and fish out a cup to drink.

Death was all around him. People died every day. “They threw them away,” he said, when they did. There was no burial.

He escaped prison through a piece of broken fence one night when the wind was strong. It blew down a good section of it enabling a lot of the migrants to flee. He and the escapees were shot at and some were killed.

“I couldn’t stand another beating,” he said, “even if they had to kill us, [it’s] better than going back in that place.”

He made it to Tripoli by unknown means, where he was captured by a family who put him to work as slave labor at a construction site. They were not kind to him, Charles said, but after the past year in prison, he was grateful for the shelter, relative safety, and regular meals they provided in lieu of pay. He was not allowed to leave the grounds of the house. He had no freedom. To get to work, he was kept hidden in the vehicle. 

The family knew he wanted to depart Libya, so one day they dropped him at a seaside camp (likely Sabratha, although he could not confirm) where sometime after he boarded a boat.

Charles crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, 5 May 2017, on a rubber dinghy with more than 100 people, including three children. He had a fear of dying by water, because he knew it was painful, but this was the only alternative after his capture in Libya. All on board survived the sea.

He was rescued in the afternoon by an NGO ship who transferred him to the Guardia Costiera, landing in Lampedusa on 7 May 2017.

That day, he met his friends Jeffrey (36, Nigeria; story forthcoming) and Emmanuel (24, Nigeria; story forthcoming) at the Lampedusa island hotspot before all three were transferred to state housing in a city an hour north of Rome.

Charles took the selfie of all four of us (at left) after we met in that city and talked one afternoon last fall.

Charles is an amazing human being.