Editor’s Note: Umaro Djau is a CNN Producer and a native of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, where he started his career as a journalist. He holds a BA from Ball State University and a Master’s degree in Communication Management and Strategies from the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @UmaroDjauCNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
As a young man, I was fascinated with Libyan history and politics. Living a few miles from the Arab-Libyan Cultural Center in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, I spent my days reading books and magazines about the “triumphant” stories of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, once led by the flamboyant African leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
I was particularly fascinated with Gadhafi’s “Green Book,” which explained his supposed dreams for transforming the oil-rich territory into a green oasis in the midst of the Saharan Desert. While these dreams sounded promising in theory, their execution was questionable – at best – due to Gadhafi’s unchecked military and authoritarian rule.
But that was the Libya of a bygone era.
The new Libyan reality
Today’s Libya is stuck in a terrible quagmire that has disrupted international affairs, most acutely across northern Africa. The fall of Gadhafi’s regime in 2011 isn’t the only reason. Chaos has followed – as new groups, both secular and jihadist, vie for power in the anarchic state.
In fact, Libya is perhaps one of the most divided countries in the world. No one group controls Libya, nor can they at this time. Militias affiliated with each government are also fighting for territorial control. Indeed, most of their territories have become magnets for rogue groups and organized crime – where abuse, cruelty and extortion are common currencies. As it stands right now, there are three governments, two parliaments, and only one of those – made up of elected officials in Tripoli – is an internationally recognized government.
A few weeks ago, CNN uncovered the horrors of the Libyan slave trade. Since then, I have painfully watched videos of my African brothers and sisters being treated like cattle, each with a price tag on his or her forehead. But these are the sons and daughters of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cotê d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria. They are human beings – and they deserve to be treated with humanity.
As unbearable as these stories are to read, I know that many more will follow. After talking to a few friends back home, I learned that at least three young men from my native village are stuck in Libya, and they aren’t the only ones. The national government of Guinea-Bissau has said that hundreds of other Bissau-Guineans’ whereabouts and conditions are unknown. In a public statement, it said that it repudiates all the alleged inhuman treatment of its citizens.
One man’s captivity
Though it may be difficult to argue in favor of illegal immigration, we must stop and consider who these people being sold into slavery are – and the courage and determination it must have taken them to traverse inhospitable African landscapes.
Some friends back home put me in touch with Ussumane Djamanca, and he told me his painstaking story. Just like me, he is a native of Guinea-Bissau. But unlike me, he chose the unimaginable road toward pursuing his dream in Europe, even if it meant risking his own life. His long journey took him four years and through some of the most dangerous places – Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Libya.
The most frightening leg of his journey was from Agadez, Niger to Sabha in southwestern Libya, Ussumane tells me. Agadez is a camp for migrants from Central and West Africa. Once these migrants make all the required arrangements, they are placed in various groups for transport. Along with other hopefuls, Ussumane was then smuggled by car across the border. The trip cost between 130,000 to 150,000 West African Franc CFA, or around $200 to $230.
It took Ussumane seven days to reach his destination in Sabha. Once he arrived, he was told by those who quietly welcomed him that he and fellow migrants were under arrest and that all official documents, paperwork and belongings would be taken away.
He says he was then instructed to call his family and demand ransom money. Ussumane told me beatings and other forms of physical abuse followed soon after. And he sent me pictures of wounds to his head, arms and hands he says were from the abuse. Ussumane keeps with him the painful memories – including the photographs taken right after he was released.
But he was one of the lucky ones – he escaped.
Unlike most, his family was able to pay his ransom in the amount of 4,000 Libyan dinars (nearly $3,000). Now back home in Guinea-Bissau, Ussumane is trying to rehabilitate his left hand and dealing with the nightmares he experienced in Libya. He shares his story in hopes of bringing light to the dire situation in Libya. He even keeps the phone numbers of his captors and often thinks about calling them to express his anger.
How to end slave trade
As the world takes notice, there is a tremendous pressure on African leaders to alleviate the suffering of their citizens. Many countries have responded by locating and aiding those who want to return home. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also says it has helped citizens of Cameroon, Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria to return to their countries using chartered planes.
But many of those young Africans, who had dreams of new beginnings in Europe, are forced to start from scratch. Many freed men and women from Libya are like Ussumane – they’ve spent their savings in the search for a better life, and lost the very little they had just the same.
Returning home to countries struggling economically, politically, even environmentally, however, is not a viable long-term option.
Many experts believe that to stop the flow of migrants to Europe, African leaders must address the root causes of the issues driving migration. As social commentator and French singer Claudy Siar puts it on his Facebook page, “Poverty and war are not curses. (They) are the consequences of the inability of (the) ruling elite(s).”
However, African leaders alone cannot address all the issues – which range from lack of education to political instability to the effects of climate change. Whether it is a “Marshall Plan for Africa,” which would aid initiatives to deter migration, or other internal governmental and non-governmental actions, Africa needs a tangible commitment that will pave the way for creating long-term opportunities though education, technical training and investments.
Since Europe cannot afford a continuous humanitarian crisis along its maritime borders, helping stabilize sub-Saharan Africa would be a good strategic decision – one which would also help save lives and protect the dignity of thousands of Africans.
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And, of course, the United States should also play a role in ensuring modern day slavery comes to an abrupt end. The United States could help train the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs and ensure good governance, accountability and respect for human rights in the continent.
As an African native, I know many of my other brothers and sisters would embrace any meaningful opportunities in their respective countries. As the saying goes, there is no place like home. And staying at home would be a welcome relief – not just for the returnees, but for their loved ones as well.