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On Location: Death in the Sahara

Video: Morocco is the "waiting room" for Africans trying to get to Europe.

When failed travelers step off the free flights home, they say they’re faced with disappointed family members and cast adrift in a job market that’s left them behind. One of the few marketable skills the returnees have is their knowledge of the route north. There are so many people desperate for help getting there, deportees say they quickly find other hopeful migrants willing to pay them as guides.

“They are wasting their time by deporting illegal immigrants,” said Fred Ogbeifuu, 27. After Spain deported him to Nigeria in 2004, Ogbeifuu said he guided six people on his second trip north.

“If they deport me this time around, I will come back with all my family,” Ogbeifuu said. “I will pack them down to Europe.”

It was just such an arrangement that led Kingsley Okojie’s 25 fellow travelers to their death in the desert this year.

Okojie’s first trip had ended with his arrest in Spain in 2007. He said he’d spent just 8 months in the country. Still, in that time, he’d managed to find a job at a grocery store in Madrid — and marry the girl who’d followed him from Nigeria and had just given birth to his son, Kingsley Jr..

Okojie said he spent 48 days in a Spanish jail while a lawyer unsuccessfully argued his case. When police came to drag him aboard a plane bound for Nigeria, Okojie said he nearly went crazy trying to resist.

“They had to tie me,” he said. “Yeah, they tied me.”

Back in Nigeria, Okojie couldn’t find work. Before his departure, he’d studied business administration at university, but there was no money to continue. Desperate to return to his family in Spain, beset by requests to be guided north, Okojie said he finally decided, “I have to move.”

Twenty-six people moved with him, from Nigeria to Mali to Niger. But the Land Cruiser they hired to take them into Algeria became lost in the braided sand tracks that crisscross the Sahara. The truck strayed into Libya. “A journey that was supposed to take us two or three days
took us two weeks,” Okojie said.

Food and water soon ran out. As the weakest died, their bodies were thrown from the truck, he said. One girl in the group had saved a bottle of 7-Up for herself for days. Near the end, she chose to give this last bit of liquid to the driver, Okojie recalled, begging him, “Take us out of this desert.”

“She died,” he said. “Everybody died … save two.”

Libyan police found Okojie and one other man in a patch of desert littered with bodies, he said. One of the officers was so appalled by the scene that he recorded it, giving a copy of the file to Okojie, he said.

The surviving pair was treated for severe dehydration, he said, before authorities threw them into a jail for illegal immigrants. Okojie said he escaped earlier this year, alongside hundreds of others who staged a jailbreak. He then made his way to Morocco, carrying little more than a crucifix he hopes to give his son, and his video record of the dead.

The final image in the phone is of Okojie himself, being drenched with water outside a medical clinic. He is seated on a concrete step, head down, his skin glinting like wet granite. His lean frame doesn’t resemble a famine victim so much as a marathoner — or, as Okojie puts it, “a soldier.”

His lonely war with distance is waged with a singular yet familiar goal. “To be with my family and live a wonderful good life with them.

A good life, a good job,” he said. “That’s my dream.”