Amadou’s ribs were not broken. He could tell because he knew the pain of broken ribs. His last beating three months ago left him with two broken ribs and a fractured collarbone. This time he had been lucky.
Though the desert sky seemed darker than it actually was through his swollen eyelids, he knew it was getting late. He needed to get off the sandy streets as quickly as possible. Loud winds swept dust into strange shapes as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. On evenings such as these, Amadou would normally stop to admire the beautiful desert sunset, but on this occasion, the eerie shapes and the sun’s waning glow instilled fear in his heart. Come nightfall the militias that roamed Trighazi’s streets would be less forgiving than the street thugs that had just attacked him.
This beating was a mere warning, a silent message reminding him that he was far from welcome in Trighazi. The young men, no more than three or four, wordlessly delivered their blows one after another and dispersed as quickly as they appeared.
His second beating three months earlier taught him that it was futile to try to fight back. He also instinctively learned how to shield himself to soften the worst blows. But most importantly, Amadou had learned not to pass out on the streets. He learned this from Saliou’s stories about what befell those unlucky enough to be picked up by militiamen. Being found unconscious would make the kidnapping and slave labor that now haunted Amadou’s nightmares too easy for his would-be captors. He shuddered and pushed those thoughts away.
In. Out. In. Out. Deep breaths were all he could focus on as pain coursed through his body. Moments earlier he tried to pick himself up but the rush of blood to his head nearly caused him to faint. He lowered his head back down slowly and knew he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
As he lay there his thoughts drifted to when he first arrived in Trighazi ten months earlier. The North African port city was 350 km away from Malta and it was the final challenge in Amadou and his cousin Saliou’s quest to finally reach Europe’s shores. Saliou had explained in great detail how they would make it to Malta and they were now only a stone’s throw away.
The harrowing two-year journey across several West African borders did not manage to erode Amadou’s optimism. He never doubted they would make it. Crammed like sardines on top of rickety trucks, he and Saliou travelled with other migrants under the desert’s sweltering sun. The people smugglers they entrusted their lives to demanded extra money from the passengers and threatened to toss them off the trucks if they didn’t pay. These were hardly empty threats. On three different occasions Amadou and Saliou watched in shock as passengers were stripped, robbed and unceremoniously abandoned to die in the desert.
Amadou tried to understand how these unlucky passengers were selected. His favorite theory was that the people smugglers chose the weakest passengers; those that seemed unlikely to make it all the way to Europe. Removing them from the trucks made space for more paying passengers later on in the journey. Saliou disagreed. He was convinced that those left to die in the desert were selected randomly to instill fear in the other passengers. And if that was the intent, then their methods were very effective- they all travelled in a constant state of fear.
Though he was only two years older, Saliou had assumed the role of Amadou’s protector since they were young children. After a tragic road accident took the lives of both of Amadou’s parents when he was only five years old, he moved in with Saliou’s family soon after and the two cousins became inseparable. Saliou saw Amadou as the brother he never had and was always there for him, either to rescue his timid cousin from neighborhood bullies, or to lead him on new adventures, including this adventure of a lifetime.
Whenever the two arrived in a new city, they got off the trucks and worked for months to earn enough to continue their journey. They worked as peddlers, masons and even cattle herders. Sometimes they collected scrap and cleaned toilets. They put aside all they earned and never lost track of their goal of getting to Europe, even as they slept on cardboard beds with makeshift roofs over their heads. Saliou led and Amadou followed, just as they did as children.
The howling winds died down for just long enough for Amadou to hear a light shuffling noise behind him. His heart jumped when he realized he wasn’t alone. He slowly twisted himself around until he was on his hands and knees. He would crawl away to safety if need be, before allowing himself to be captured.
“Don’t move,” a voice called out to him.
Finding a strength in himself that he didn’t know was there, he pushed himself unto his feet and limped away as fast as he could. He tried to ignore the pain in his side, but his feet buckled and he collapsed unto the sand after only a few meters.
This is it. They’ve come for me too. He began to think about what Saliou would do in this situation just as he felt a hand grab his shoulder. He let out a frightened cry as he tried to slap it away.
“Shh, I said don’t move,” the voice repeated. Now that it was closer to him, Amadou realized that the high pitched voice belonged to a woman. “Keep quiet. I’m going to get you off the streets.” The sun had completely disappeared beneath the horizon and Trighazi’s streets were beginning to fill with the noises of the night.
“Who are you?” Amadou asked the woman as he gasped for air, clutching his ribs, but she ignored him. She bent down, wrapped her right arm around his torso just under his left shoulder as if to give him an awkward side hug and gingerly lifted him up to his feet. Amadou looked at her face. He could tell she was a Trighazi local though she had spoken to him in English. She had a slender face and Amadou guessed that she was in her mid-twenties. Though she was short, she was strong, and she surprised him by supporting most of his weight as they began to walk away.
They walked very slowly, taking poorly lit, sand filled streets that Amadou didn’t recognize. He asked her who she was several more times but she was not in a talkative mood. Her silence worried him. She said she wanted to help him get away but he couldn’t figure out why. Amadou instinctively wanted to trust her, but the horrors he had experienced on his journey so far had begun to strip him of his innocence. He would often force himself to try to think and act more like Saliou who always told him to stop believing the best in people. Life in Trighazi so far had proven that that was good advice. Amadou worried if women were now doing the bidding of the militias and capturing people for them. It made little sense to him, but not much of Trighazi’s ruthlessness did.
They inched along for another fifteen minutes before they stopped. It was just as well because Amadou couldn’t take another step. They were in front of a small house. A dim street light in front of the gate allowed Amadou to notice that the low walls were once painted white but now resembled a light brown. A thick wooden door that looked as ancient as Trighazi itself seemed to hold up the entire structure.
The woman knocked on the door and waited. Amadou’s heart fluttered at the prospect of discovering what awaited him on the other side, but he was in too much pain to try to escape now. She seemed to sense his fear.
“My name is Salwa,” she said. “This is my brother’s house; he is a doctor. He can help you.”
The door swung open and the smell of food cooking wafted towards Amadou’s nostrils. A tall, thin man stood at the door, holding it only halfway open. He eyed the pair and hesitated, exchanging a long look with Salwa before opening the door completely and motioning for them to come inside. He helped Salwa lower Amadou onto a low couch near the entrance.
“Wait here,” she said, and she walked away with the man Amadou assumed was her brother into another room. They were whispering and Amadou couldn’t make out what they were saying from where he was lying. He took a look around his surroundings. The inside of the house was bright, lit by a single light atop a noisy ceiling fan. There were no decorations, no pictures on any walls. Just a single couch on which Amadou lay, and a prayer mat rolled up in a corner. The food that he smelled was coming from the same room where Salwa and her brother were whispering. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he wobbled into the house. But he told himself not to ask for anything from his hosts. That was what Saliou would do in this situation. He would refuse any food or drink to avoid being drugged or poisoned. Amadou was determined to be just as strong now that Saliou was no longer around.
He missed his cousin so much. He thought back to how they had both spent Amadou’s 18th birthday just days before arriving in Trighazi. They were once again crammed on the top of a truck but filled with nervous excitement knowing that they would soon arrive in the city. Saliou promised his younger cousin a big gift for his next birthday. It would either be a large television or the latest smartphone. They had both assumed it would only take a few months of work to have enough money to get onto one of the boats heading across the Mediterranean. And from all he had heard, Saliou believed that less than a year of hard work would be more than enough time to become rich in Europe. He planned to send money back home to his family and to buy an expensive birthday gift for his cousin. They spent that whole day daydreaming about where they would be and what they would be doing in a year’s time. The memory brought tears to Amadou’s eyes just as he heard footsteps coming from the kitchen. Salwa and her brother were returning to the room.
They both walked towards the couch but Amadou was surprised to see Salwa walk right past him, open the front door and leave. He jumped. He didn’t know where he was and he did not want to be left alone with this man that he knew nothing about. Her brother’s hand gently pushed his chest back down so he was lying flat once again.
“She will be back soon. I sent her to fetch me some painkillers. The ones I have here are not strong enough for you.” He spoke with a thick accent and his deep voice didn’t match his wiry frame. Amadou guessed that he was in his early thirties. He wore a white button down shirt and black slacks. His clothing would make him stick out like a sore thumb on Trighazi’s streets as most men were usually clad in traditional flowing robes.
“Who are you?” Amadou asked, reluctantly settling back on the couch. If this was indeed a militia member, he would try to keep his host talking to get as much information from him as possible. Information could be a powerful currency in Trighazi.
“My name is Ayoub,” he replied. He pulled out a red metal box hidden under the couch and opened it. It contained a small bottle, a few pills, cotton swabs and some gauze.
“So…you’re a… doctor?” Amadou asked stammering. He was trying not to show just how relieved he was that the box did not contain a weapon.
“Is that what she told you?” Ayoub asked coldly. “Not quite. As soon as I was accepted into medical school everyone started calling me Doc. I am a medical student. Second year.”
“Why are you helping me?” Amadou asked. He sensed irritation in the man’s voice.
“That’s a good question.” He removed the bottle and some swabs from the red box. “I asked Salwa the exact same thing. Dragging you off the streets like that; it’s a wonder no one spotted you two. It was stupid and dangerous. And bringing you here…?” His voice trailed off.
His harsh tone made Amadou worry that he and his sister might in fact be middlemen trying to patch him up before delivering him to a paying militia member. But Amadou could sense that Ayoub was just as afraid of the militia members as he was.
“I need you to take off your shirt. Actually, wait don’t move.” Ayoub helped Amadou remove his shirt and inspected his bruises.
“I have money. I can pay you back for whatever you sent Salwa to buy.” Amadou didn’t want to feel indebted to these strangers. With Saliou no longer around he told himself he would depend on no one but himself.
Ayoub ignored Amadou. “Luckily your skin didn’t break too badly. It didn’t break at all in fact. You only have some bad bruises but no open wounds. You won’t need any stitches.” He started walking back towards the kitchen. “Let me get you some ice for that,” he said pointing to Amadou’s swollen eye.
“Please let me pay you back.” Amadou insisted after he returned.
“Listen, I can’t stop you from giving me your money. If it’s that important for you to pay me back, I can understand that.” He applied the ice on the skin above Amadou’s left eye and asked, “What is your name?”
“Amadou.” He wasn’t sure why he didn’t lie. Saliou would have been able to make up a name so easily.
“Who did this to you Amadou?” Ayoub asked.
“Some teenagers. They came out of nowhere. Saliou taught me to watch out for them, to run away as fast as I could whenever I saw them coming. I didn’t see them though.”
Ayoub let out a heavy sigh. He didn’t ask him why he was attacked. He didn’t probe for any more details. But with that knowing sigh Amadou could tell that Ayoub understood.
“Who is Saliou?” Ayoub asked after a long silence.
Amadou was about to answer but was interrupted by the sound of knocking at the door. Ayoub got up to answer it and he let his sister in. She had returned with a white plastic bag and handed it over to her brother.
“I rushed back as quickly as I could.” She was out of breath. “The lines were so long. How is he?” Salwa asked Ayoub.
“He’s badly bruised but he will be fine. Here take two,” he said to Amadou after returning to the couch. He handed him a glass of water and the packet of pills that Salwa had just bought. “This will help with the pain.”
“Thank you.” Amadou peeled two pills out from the packet and put the rest in his pocket. After he swallowed the pills he tried to push himself up from the couch.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Salwa asked. She had taken a seat on the floor beside the couch and was watching Amadou intently.
“I should go.” Amadou said. “You’ve been kind. But… I can’t stay.
“Nonsense!” Salwa exclaimed. “Those pills you just took…they’re very strong. You need to lay down.”
Amadou sensed that there was no point in arguing with her. His attempt to sit up left him lightheaded anyways, so he lay right back down.
“You can leave in the morning.” Salwa added, this time in a much softer tone. “It was the street gangs that did this to you?”
Amadou nodded. “Why did you help me?” He needed to make sense of this stranger’s motives.
Salwa shuffled where she was sitting. “I saw you in the sand after I left the rally at Martyrs Square. This type of violence is exactly what we had been protesting against. With the gangs and the militias…”
“And so you brought him here, like some sort of wounded puppy?” Ayoub glared at his sister.
“I had nowhere else to take him and I couldn’t just leave him there!” She raised her voice to match her brother’s and now they were both shouting.
“I told you to stop going to these rallies, to lie low… and you do this?”
From their argument Amadou gathered that Salwa was some kind of activist and that Ayoub was simply worried about his sister. The pair switched to Arabic and yelled at each other for a few more minutes until Amadou interrupted them.
“Thank you for helping me.” Amadou said. “Thank you both.”
Amadou’s words seemed to calm them both down. Salwa put a hand on his shoulder and Ayoub sighed deeply like he did before.
“Who is Saliou, Amadou?” Ayoub asked. “Right before Salwa returned, you were telling me what happened and you mentioned him.”
“He’s my cousin.”
“Where is he now?” Salwa asked. “He must be looking for you.”
“Saliou is dead.” It was the first time Amadou had spoken those words out loud and it finally sunk in that he would never see his cousin again. “We were travelling together. Now he is dead.”
Salwa and Ayoub looked at each other uncomfortably. Amadou could tell that they both had a thousand questions but they chose to say nothing and waited for him to continue. He never imagined he would one day open up to strangers like this, but talking to them felt strangely cathartic and he wanted to continue.
“We were working to earn enough money to make it onto the boats. It was construction work. We lifted heavy bricks all day. It was easy for Saliou. He was the strong one.” Amadou stopped himself. His voice was cracking and he felt tears form in his eyes as he remembered those first weeks after arriving in Trighazi. As the heat and the unforgiving labor wore him down he questioned if Europe would be worth it, if anything at all was worth this life they were putting themselves through, but he never shared these thoughts with his cousin.
It wasn’t difficult to find work in Trighazi. Even though there were new workers arriving each day, there was always some building or road that needed completing. They joined other workers, mostly other West Africans also trying to make their way to Europe. The workers all lived in the same neighborhood of Trighazi that had been nicknamed ‘Little Banjul.’ Most of these workers had glazed looks in their eyes- disillusioned by the harshness of their circumstances. Many of them had been driven from their homes by a combination of fear and poverty, in search for a better life in Europe.
And like so many others before them, Amadou and Saliou embarked on their journey driven by the same conviction that life had more to offer them and that if they worked hard enough, success was within their grasp- if only on the other side of the Mediterranean. They owed it to themselves to try their best to get there.
Or at least Saliou felt this way. Since they were little children he had always been very persuasive. Amadou remembered the silly games they would play and how easily Saliou would convince him to do things Amadou now considered crazy. One such game, Saliou’s favorite, involved climbing up a tall Baobab tree as high as one could before jumping straight down to the ground. Amadou never won because the thought of the painful jump down held him back from climbing as high as Saliou did. But cajoled by his brave cousin he played along and had many scrapes and scars on his legs to thank for it. He didn’t mind though. Such was the amount of adoration he had for his cousin. He would have followed Saliou to the ends of the Earth. Their horrendous journey across the desert had toughened them both, but nothing could have prepared them for the level of cruelty that awaited them in their new city.
Amadou cleared his throat and continued. “When we started working, our boss promised to pay us at the end of each week, but he never did. He threatened to have anyone who complained deported. He paid us less than a week’s wages every month or so. Saliou and I were used to wicked bosses but this was different. We felt trapped.”
“Were you trying to get to Italy?” Salwa asked.
“No. To Malta. Saliou said that Italy was no longer a safe option. He took care of all the planning.”
“And why Trighazi?” Ayoub asked. “There are many other port cities you could leave from to get to Europe. Why did you choose this one?”
“Saliou heard that here in Trighazi, boats leave each day without any trouble. He told me the city was a mess, with different militias struggling to maintain control. Smugglers pay the coastguard to let the boats leave without any problems.” Ayoub said nothing but the knowing look in his eyes suggested that he wasn’t surprised.
Salwa suddenly turned to her brother. “I think your food is ready.” Amadou had also noticed the smell of food burning. Ayoub rushed into the kitchen and returned with a large ceramic pot and three loaves of bread. He placed the meal on the ground next to his sister and reclaimed his seat. Amadou recognized the traditional Trighazi meal. It was a slow cooked savory stew containing assorted meats and a few vegetables, served with bread.
“Join us,” Salwa said.
Only an hour or so ago he was determined to refuse any food offered to him, but now he was starving. The scents and sight of the rich stew melted his resolve. He felt even more lightheaded as he lowered himself to the ground and sat around the pot. Salwa broke off a piece of bread for herself and handed the other half to him.
“Eat,” she said, dipping the bread into the stew. Her brother Ayoub took a piece of bread and did the same.
“Thank you,” Amadou said. He tasted the richness of the bread and meat and allowed the flavors to linger in his mouth before swallowing. Though it was slightly burned, it was the best meal he had had in months. “This is delicious, it really is.”
“You’re welcome. Eat up, you’ll need it for your strength.” Ayoub replied.
“So, what happened to your cousin?” Salwa asked. Ayoub rebuked his sister with a stern look. Apparently her question was too direct, but Amadou knew that he was just as curious to find out what happened next.
“Saliou felt it would take us too long to earn what we needed to make it to Europe at the pace our boss was paying us. A month ago, he told me he planned to speak to him, to explain how unfair he was treating us. He tried to get a few other workers to join him but they mostly ignored him. I tried to make him change his mind but then he stopped talking to me completely.”
“Why didn’t you try to find another job, at another construction site perhaps?” Salwa asked reaching for another piece of bread.
“Saliou heard it was just as bad with the others. And our boss owed us so much money we stayed… waiting to receive what we had worked so hard for.”
“And of course you couldn’t go to the police,” Ayoub said.
Amadou shook his head. He knew the police simply followed the orders of the highest paying smugglers or militia members.
He remembered spotting Saliou and two other workers whispering to each other on the construction site a week earlier. Amadou could tell they were planning something but Saliou wouldn’t say what. He had grown so distant in the last weeks.
“Yesterday… our boss came to the construction site with two policemen. They dragged Saliou and two other workers away without explaining what they had done. I tried to follow them but they didn’t let me. I went to the detention center after my shift but they were never taken there. I looked everywhere all night long and then this morning…”
Amadou couldn’t go on. His eyes welled up with tears. He would never forget the sight that greeted him as he walked into the construction site earlier that morning. He gasped as he saw the dead bodies of his cousin and the two other workers left at the entrance of the site. Their throats had been slit and their hands were tied behind their backs. No one tried to move them or cover them up. The other workers simply walked around the dead bodies and began their work.
“What happened this morning, Amadou?” Salwa asked.
Amadou suddenly got off the couch and rushed towards the door. He no longer felt any pain in his sides. The painkillers had clearly taken effect.
“I’m sorry…I have to go,” he said. His voice shook with emotion.
“Wait, it’s too late to be out there. It’s not safe!” Salwa shouted. He knew that she was right but he couldn’t stay a second longer. He would take his chances on the streets, he was overwhelmed with emotion and needed to get away before he completely broke down in front the siblings.
“I have to go….” He looked into Salwa’s eyes and wanted to tell her that he would never be able to repay her and that she had probably saved his life, but the words wouldn’t come out. “Thank you Salwa… thank you Ayoub,” was all that he could manage. He opened the door and walked out as quickly as he could before they could try to stop him. He was heading back to Little Banjul
Amadou thought back to that morning’s events and how he had collapsed beside his cousin’s dead body sobbing inconsolably. The other workers simply looked away and no one mourned the other two bodies on the ground next to Saliou. After about an hour, masked men drove up in a black van to dispose of the bodies. The boss had made his point without having to speak a word. No more complaints would be made about wages on his construction site. After watching the van drive away, Amadou began to aimlessly wander Trighazi’s streets. He needed to make sense of all that had just happened. He walked for hours and didn’t even notice that it was getting late. It was while he was in this dazed state that the teenage street thugs found him, beat him up, and left him to be eventually rescued by Salwa.
Amadou couldn’t believe that all that had happened in less than a day. He thought about his dream of making it to Europe. It was really Saliou’s dream. He knew that now. Combining Saliou’s savings with his own would allow him to finally have enough money to get on one of the boats. He knew where Saliou kept his earnings for safekeeping. With the cash in hand, he could be on his way to Malta the following afternoon. He could finally live the life his cousin always wanted to live, if not for himself but for Saliou.
But without Saliou by his side, Europe and all it had to offer no longer appealed to him. And as Amadou thought back on all of the years he spent faithfully following his cousin, he wondered if it ever did. Europe was supposed to be an adventure the two would tackle together. But all that was over now that Saliou was dead. Amadou no longer had the heart to continue on the journey. All he wanted to do was to explain to his family what had happened and give them all of Saliou’s hard earned money.
His walk back was uneventful and as he entered Little Banjul he noticed several white papers strewn on the ground. He recognized them as flyers left all over the neighborhood by volunteers from the International Organization for Migration in Trighazi and he picked one up. The small leaflets also littered the Trighazi coastline, and they stated in different languages that the organization offered ‘Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration’ services for migrants stranded in Trighazi willing to return to their country of origin. He had overheard some workers talking about this and understood that it involved not only a dignified, free flight home from Trighazi’s airport, but also in some cases, a small amount of financial support upon arrival.
Amadou remembered how Saliou would crumple up these flyers whenever he saw them, swearing to never return home until he was a rich man. Amadou had never really considered returning home as an option, but now, the offer to put the nightmare of the past three years behind him by starting afresh, was something he could dream about.
As much as he loved his cousin, he could no longer live in his shadow, even the shadow of his ghost. As he walked into the tiny room that he used to share with his cousin, Amadou realized that deciding to return home might be one of the first decisions he had ever made on his own without seeking to please his cousin. His painkillers had begun to wear off. The empty room brought back all the emotions Amadou had blocked out since earlier that morning. Sobs wracked his body and he shook violently. He could not remember ever being this alone.
He retrieved the packet of pills from his pocket and swallowed two more. Tomorrow he would return to Ayoub’s house, apologize for leaving so abruptly and pay him back for the pills. He hoped that Salwa would be there so he could thank her as well. He would take the flyer with him and ask if she could help him find out more details about it. If it was all too good to be true he knew he could trust her to tell him. Saliou’s voice in the back of his head once again chided him for being too naïve and trusting, but he tried to ignore it.
He threw himself on his bed and closed his eyes. In spite of his exhaustion, he couldn’t fall asleep. Instead he lay there, planning out every detail of his journey back home.
The above short story is a work of fiction inspired by the true stories of returnee migrants. For more details on the International Organization for Migration’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) Programs visit http://www.iom.int/