Two Minutes of Happiness A Failed Journey on the African Migrant Trail

Majid Diallo set off for Europe carrying the expectations of his friends, family and village. But he didn't make it. His story is one of struggle, imprisonment, several brushes with death -- and an excruciating return home.

Sascha Montag / DER SPIEGEL

By Fritz Schaap and Sascha Montag (Photos)


Four days and 15 hours before Majid Diallo will return to his village in northern Guinea and destroy the dreams dreamt by others, before he will tell his mother that he won't be building her a house, that he won't be able to gift the village a school, before he will tell the village elder that he won't help develop that mango plantation the villagers so desperately want, he walks down a deserted, dusty street to one of the many bus stations in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

He looks into the sky where the flying foxes are circling high above the sleeping city. A small man. Around 1.68 meters (5' 6") he guesses. A calm 27-year-old with watchful eyes and a threadbare training jacket over his muscle shirt. The handful of scars on his face look more like misplaced freckles than the reminders of the pain he suffered not so long ago.

He pulls his headphones over his ears. They make him look like Mickey Mouse, the others used to always say - the ones who are still in Libya. Or dead. He was lucky. Diallo is walking along Mali Bero Boulevard to the north, one of the broad streets in Niamey where there is never a traffic jam because there simply aren't enough cars. It is a city built on and covered in red dust. Almost every migrant from West Africa passes through Niamey on their way to the city of Agadez in northern Niger. It is from there that the smugglers set off through the desert to Libya, the beds of their Hilux pickups full of migrants.

But Niamey has also become a hub. For those who have given up and are seeking to return home. For those like Majid Diallo.

For the European Union, Diallo is the ideal migrant. One who turned back before he reached European shores. To make sure that his sort becomes the norm, the EU is currently training security personnel in Niger, building fences and supporting dubious militia groups that are supposed to help secure the Libyan coastline. Brussels is pumping hundreds of millions of euros into the Sahel. For the EU, Diallo is a success story.

Ultimately, though, Diallo is just a boy who left home dreaming of being able to build a house for his mother and a school for his village. A boy who grew up kicking a flat soccer ball around beneath the acacia trees and stealing chickens from his neighbor, only to return them once the sun set behind the soft slopes in the west. A boy so poor, marriage is no more than a faraway dream. He wouldn't want his children to lead a life like the one he has thus far led, he'll later say. A boy who now has to head back home.

Never Quite the Same

According to the most recent study conducted by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, there were 15.9 million migrants in Africa in 2014. As a consequence of EU policy, the number of those passing through Niger on their way north fell from 333,000 in 2016 to just under 70,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But part of the reason for that reduction, the IOM says, is that migrants are now using alternative, often much more dangerous routes, on which they are not counted. Only just over 7,000 men and women received IOM assistance for their return journeys home from Niger last year. To understand why that total is so low, one has to go back to the place where the journey started.

From Niamey, Diallo is faced with a trip of more than 3,500 kilometers into his past - to a place where he isn't totally sure how he will be received. The past, after all, is never quite the same as it was when you left it behind.

When he first left, he had dreamed of finding a construction job in Italy and having an apartment of his own. In this dream, he would be able to send his parents money, and in the evenings, he would write a book - about Africa, about his family. A book about his dreams. And he would listen to Julio Iglesias, his favorite singer.

Today, his dream is different, but no less ardent: that his village will forgive him. That he will be proven right after repeatedly telling those with whom he had been travelling, those who didn't want to turn around, who couldn't, who were too scared of the place they once called home, that he will be welcomed back in his village.

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Diallo walks past the shabby bus station from which the rusting, cheap buses depart. It is little more than an empty lot, half dust and half garbage dump, where the buses belch their exhaust at night between the torn plastic bags. Four figures are cowering in the corner: Yapi, Ms. Adama with her five-year-old daughter, and Mohammed, the 15-year-old who hasn't spoken since he made it back from Libya. They are sitting beneath a eucalyptus tree on a brittle wooden bench, trapped between their expectations and their fear. They hardly move, as every movement takes valuable energy. And energy costs money.

Yapi has been living here at the edge of the bus station for two months. He spent years as a poorly paid house slave in Algeria. But then the Algerians kicked him out of the country. Still he wants to go back - to Algeria or Libya. Past the slave markets to Europe.

"Because I can't go back home," he says, a sturdy man in a dusty leather jacket with prominent veins streaking down his forearms. His eyes, though, are tired, a sad mixture of yellow and red.

"My parents, my three siblings, my wife and my two children. All of them are expecting me to send money. Without money, I cannot return home. Ever. Our lives back home are defined by suffering. A person shouldn't have to suffer."

Those who are suffering, must go to where there is less suffering. But these four didn't make it. So they sit here as they do every evening, every day, beneath the eucalyptus tree watching the buses as they roll across the lot and staring at the people that come and go, like the tides on the shore. People like, on this evening, Diallo.

Until They Succeed or Die

Diallo glances over briefly and hesitates before looping his thumbs beneath the straps of his backpack, inside of which all of his earthly belongings are stored. A pair of shoes, two pairs of pants, three sleeveless T-shirts, a green toothbrush and a tube of Colgate. He then continues onto the floodlit courtyard run by Rimbo Transport Voyageurs, the starting point for buses heading to Gao, Bamako, Cotonou, Lomé and Abidjan.

For many migrants, returning home is more difficult than continuing along the route to Europe. The ignominy is more fearsome than the risk of death.

Which is the main reason why most do not turn back, even if they get stuck, even if they are tortured or almost drown in the waters of the Mediterranean. Those who had to borrow money to embark on the journey turn back even less frequently. They keep trying until they succeed. Or die. Or become denizens of the desolate no-man's land of camps and hostels in North Africa. Where they wait.

The journey home
DER SPIEGEL

The journey home

A poor man doesn't have many attempts. And the poorest only have one - and they wait patiently for it to arise. Those who return with empty hands are often disowned, are run out of their villages, destined to roam the streets of the rundown cities nearby.

Diallo, too, is afraid of returning. But he tried to get to Europe, he says, and he managed to survive Libya. He took money from nobody. "My family's love is greater than money," he says. That, at least, is what he is hoping. Thus far, after all, Diallo's life has been little more than a journey on the search for a better life. For the others.

He was seven years old when his mother sent him away from their small village in the mountains of northern Guinea, a region that is home to both gold and aluminum, but where crops are meager and food always scarce. A friend of one of his uncles took him in, a five-hour drive away. The man ran a gas station and he paid for Diallo's schooling in the hopes that the boy would later be able to support him and help out those back in his home village. Since he was seven, Majid Diallo hasn't just been a boy, he has also been a family investment.

He went to school but dropped out at age 15 even though he was best in class. He did so at the behest of his father, who wanted his son to go to work in Senegal. Since then, Diallo has been on the road.

In 2006, he went to Liberia where he worked in a general store before moving on. He was told there is money to be made in the Ivory Coast, but there too he didn't stay long. He moved on. Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. He sold rice, harvested cashews, worked as a security guard, ran a laundry and drilled wells. He would occasionally send money back to his village in the Téliméle Prefecture and to his father in Senegal. But it was never enough for everyone.

Then, one night in Equatorial Guinea, sitting on a bench behind the laundry, a friend told him that Europe wasn't actually that far away. And if there was one thing in Europe, his friend said, then it is money.

Myths and Legends

Everything is better in Europe, Diallo thought as the evening turned to night. The climate is milder, life is easier, people are more considerate. In Europe, people have respect for each other, he thought. And they would certainly have respect for someone like himself, who fought his way out of suffering and poverty.

His friend, so he said, had a cousin who made it to Italy for just 1,000 euros. Now, this cousin has a house and a job - and the friend even showed him pictures. An IKEA kitchen, the swanky streets of Milan, selfies of a strong, smiling man.

There is always the one who made it, and everyone knows him. After all, the story of flight from Africa is one of myths and legends.

The myths obscure the images from the Libyan slave market, where men are sold from cages, like in the dark days of slavery on the Gold Coast; the legends are more powerful than the videos of sinking rubber rafts or of sun-dried corpses in the desert sand.

By September 2017, Diallo had saved the money he needed, the equivalent of almost 2,000 euros, almost three times the average annual income in Guinea. The money was his secret; he didn't tell his family that he had saved that much. "That's how it is here," he says. "When someone has something, everyone wants a part of it." The result is that everyone pulls everyone else down to the low level of the community.

Diallo headed for Niamey via Bamoko and from there along the feared, bandit infested road to Agadez in northern Niger where graffiti on the walls of the ghettos where the migrants wait reads "Barca or Barzagh" - Barcelona or death.

And: "Better die in the sea than cry in front of your mother."

And: "European hell is better than African paradise."

And: "A good son has to help his mother."

Ultimately, he made it Sabratah, where only the sea lay between him and Europe. It is from this Libyan port city that the boats launch on their way across the Mediterranean.

A 12-knot headwind was blowing out of the northwest on the night Diallo finally boarded the rubber boat bound for Italy. The night was black and there was only darkness in the troughs of the waves. The boat, of course, was overloaded. It started taking on water and before long, the fears of the 130 people on board shifted to anger and then turned to rage. Over satellite telephone, the Italians told them they had to head further to the north to where the large ships sailed outside of the 12-mile zone. The Senegalese controlling the outboard kept going at full throttle, but fights broke out on board and the boat threatened to capsize. So they turned around.

A Stray Bullet

When they returned to shore, they all were arrested. They became prisoners, and victims of the savage Libyan system of torture and ransom. Diallo sat in a four-by-four-meter cell for weeks. The guards came by every day, shooting into the ceiling, shouting at the men hunched up against the walls. They would give the prisoners their mobile phones back, only to then beat them and force them call their families to beg for money. Cowering in the corner, Diallo sought to ignore it all.

Since his youth, he has had the ability to stay beneath the radar, to stay away from trouble and turmoil. It had always protected him well - until that one December day when a stray bullet hit the man next to him in the head.

Diallo had heard about the situation in Libya, but he never thought that it would happen to him. Nobody does. When he was small, his mother had told him about God and how He is merciful to those who serve him. That belief had always brought him peace, the knowledge that there was a reason for everything, that it was all God's will. But in Libya, he lost that God - when he realized that for Africans, there is no mercy.

He decided to turn back. A friend sent him the last 450,000 CFA francs - about 700 euros - that Diallo had left in Abidjan. He bought his freedom for 350,000 CFA francs and used the rest to pay for the trip back to Niamey.

At 3 a.m., the bus leaves the blue-and-white Rimbo station heading for Abidjan in Ivory Coast. "Of course I'm afraid to return home empty-handed," Diallo says as the sleeping city passes by outside the windows. "But in Libya, I was more afraid. In Libya, you're never free. Africans work like slaves there. A migrant is never free." Now, he says, he is free.

The question is: For how much longer?

"In the village they'll say I'm a coward, a failure. They'll laugh at me. But my family will welcome me. I'll be successful there," he says. "After all, I'm bringing along two whites."

Diallo's trip changes from the moment that we, a team from DER SPIEGEL, begin travelling with him. Things become easier because people see him as our travel companion and it becomes cheaper because people don't rip him off all the time.

The bus heads past acacia and eucalyptus trees, beneath which merchants stand at rickety tables during the day selling mangos, kola nuts, rusty gas canisters and dirty gasoline in old whisky bottles. The bus is crowded, the aisle is full of red dust and garbage. The heavy smell of sweat and urine hangs in the cold air. A small child behind Diallo begins screaming, its face covered in snot. It will scream the whole night through.

The bus drives past the Niamey train station, where a new train has been standing for more than two years. It has only left the station a single time, when a couple of photographers were assigned to take pictures of it. Since then, it hasn't moved because a dispute over the contract broke out and the tracks still haven't been completed.

Diallo thinks about what he will say when he arrives home in five days - and then falls asleep, hunched over with his head propped against the seat in front of him. Sometimes he wakes up silently and listens to music before his head once again nods against the black handle on the back of the seat in front of him.

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