LAGOS – They seemed like any other young couple in love, proudly showing off their baby.
But theirs is no ordinary love story.
Love has blossomed in the most unusual but uplifting circumstances for Nigerian migrants Mabel Emmanuel, 27, and Henry Stevens, 28, who met after she was kidnapped in Libya during an attempt to enter Europe.
Emmanuel was unable to pay a ransom to her kidnappers, so Stevens stepped in to pay the money and bought her freedom.
They became inseparable and now have a three-month-old son called David.
“They kidnapped me in a place called Sabha, that’s when I met my husband. He bailed me out, it was last year and we fell in love,” Emmanuel said.
“I found out I was pregnant in March this year and I gave birth to my baby in August. I gave birth to my baby in prison, with tears. Even though I was pregnant, they were still beating and maltreating me. But I give God the praise that I’m still alive today and I have my baby and my husband now.”
Outcry over people sales
Their story is a rare silver lining amid the tales of horror recounted by newly-returned Nigerian migrants from Libya.
Nigeria says it has been working with the International Organization for Migration to bring its citizens home since January of this year.
But the pace of the repatriation has picked up following a public outcry since CNN’s exclusive investigation revealed that migrants were being sold in slave auctions, an aide to the government said.
Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a senior special assistant to the Nigerian president, said: “With the outcry, they are going at a faster pace. As the week goes by, the number of planes will increase.”
“There are stranded African migrants in detention centers outside Tripoli because those prisons are manned by rebels, we can’t get there. It’s important that the African Union and European Union instructs them to open up all detention centers so every African there can come back home,” she added.
The United Nations-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, or GNA, said it’s keen to address violations against illegal immigrants but called upon regional and global partners to provide assistance.
Libyan officials have also denounced the migrant slave auctions exposed by CNN, but claim more support is required from the global community to tackle the issue.
On Tuesday night, the latest batch of 143 arrivals, mostly from Nigeria’s Edo State, stepped onto the tarmac at the cargo terminal of Lagos airport, tired and weary, uncertain what the future holds for them in the country they were so desperate to flee from.
Even so, regardless of the uncertainty they face, their relief at being back on home land was palpable.
There were shouts of joy, prayers of gratitude and jubilation as they got off the plane.
Several of the new arrivals were women with very young babies. One of them, Abieyuwa Igwe, had her 10-month old daughter Favor strapped tightly to her back.
She told CNN she left Nigeria in June last year to travel to Italy after one of her neighbors in Edo State promised her work as a domestic worker.
Abieyuwa said she was willing to make the dangerous boat journey even though she was aware that many had died during the crossing.
“I was scared but I made up my mind. I prayed to God that he would help me cross over the river. Many people die, but many survive,” she said.
However, her plans to reach Europe didn’t happen as she got stuck in Libya instead.
Her situation became further complicated when she discovered she was pregnant.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant before I went to Libya. I found out at five months,” she said.
“I was forced to give birth in the back of a condemned vehicle. No hospital. Nothing. It was God that helped me.
“I was all alone. I had nothing, nothing,” she said, recalling the birth of her child.
“I spent a year and four months in Libya. All my time there was horror and terrible. I had a lot of beatings,” she recounted, pausing at times to sigh deeply before regaining her composure.
“People are dying every day, no food, no water, she said. “I was in prison for ten months with my baby. It was horror. We just ate two slice of bread in the morning with some chai (local tea).
“It’s hard for the babies to get clothes or food. They were not kind to the babies at all.
“The worst thing that I saw was a pregnant woman who was beaten and raped.” she said.
Like the other new arrivals Abieyuwa sounds a cautionary note to other Nigerians planning a similar journey.
“In my life, I would never go to Libya. I advise Nigerians not to travel to Libya,” she added.
Osunde Benjamin is also from Edo State. After searching for a job unsuccessfully for several years following his graduation in 2002, Benjamin made the decision to travel to Europe via Libya in June last year.
“My intention was to cross to Europe,” he says. “There are different connection men there, some of them are from Nigeria, Ghana, they are working with the Libyans. They took us to Zawiya. We spent time there waiting for pushing (boats to depart for Italy).”
During the wait, they were raided by police and taken to a prison just outside Tripoli where he spent two months before being moved to another camp in Mistrata, where he would spend a further eight months, Osunde said.
“The conditions are terrible and miserable. They throw the food at you, you are like dogs. Even at times there’s no food. Some people died next to me.
“Libya is a terrible place. They kill people anyhow. They sell people anyhow. I saw people being killed. They cut their heads off.
“I will never go to Libya again. If you go there, you’re ready to die.”