ONIGONGON, Nigeria (AP) – Lured from home by the promise of a
bicycle, Wasiu Goyikon entered a life of hard labor at 9 – smashing
stones into gravel in Nigeria’s sweltering granite quarries.

Nearby, boys as young as 4 struggled with rocks and hammers.
Always, the boys were worked to exhaustion; sometimes, they were
worked to death.

The rescue of 190 scarred and beaten child workers – none older
than 15 – from Nigeria’s quarries, and the arrests of six smugglers
who allegedly put them there, comes as part of an unprecedented
West Africa challenge to child-trafficking.

But an estimated 200,000 children continue to be shipped across
West and Central Africa’s borders each year, some ending up in
brutally difficult jobs – or in shallow graves near the granite
pits.

And as Wasiu illustrates, breaking West Africa’s child trade is
no simple matter.

Because, at 20 cents a day, in a land where poverty offers few
options, Wasiu has a job he wants.

“The next time I go home, I will bring my younger brother back
to work here,” Wasiu, now 15, told The Associated Press, sweating
as he swung a hammer. “What choice do we have?”

At that salary, Wasiu and two friends shovel and smash enough
gravel to fill the dump truck that is their daily quota. Each day’s
load is sold for $50 – more than 100 times their combined
wages.

Wasiu is one of the lucky ones: He got his bike. He survived.
And at the end of his last contract, he received his wages for
years at hard labor: $146.

Since September, Nigerian police have arrested six alleged
smugglers, including accused kingpin Gilbert Zinjo, for allegedly
trafficking children into the pits from across the border in Benin,
one of the world’s poorest countries.

Zinjo’s ring signed up the children with payments to their
parents of as little as $30. They promised the boys gifts that
seldom materialized, according to investigators, charities and the
children.

Poor parents hoped they were sending their boys into skilled
trades and better lives.

Instead, the boys were subjected to months or years of forced
labor on farms and quarries in southwestern Nigeria. The children
were forced to sleep in the bush, even in the rain. They ate
handfuls of corn porridge for meals. Most were never paid.

Some were subjected to beatings. Scarred for life, the boys
twitch in fear of adults.

The children rescued from the pits around Abeokuta – hometown of
President Olusegun Obasanjo – told of 13 boys succumbing to
disease, hunger and overwork in the three months before their
deliverance.

In the murky world of child trafficking, it is often difficult
to pin down who is responsible – and who to believe.

Nigerian authorities say crime syndicates from Benin coax the
children, or kidnap them outright.

Witnesses say Nigerian quarry and farm owners willingly hire
children from the traffickers because they can pay and feed them
less than adults.

In the case of the pit children, a Benin man who describes
himself as on a mission against child labor in Nigeria played a key
role in their rescue.

Dauda Ewenje and a dozen supporters calling themselves his
“strike force” stealthily took video images of boys only a few
years past toddler stage being forced to work in open pit mines and
manioc fields.

In August and September, the group – working with a sympathetic
police officer – strong-armed 190 boys “kicking and screaming” from
traffickers and whisked the youngsters away in vans. Some children
initially thought they were being kidnapped by rival
traffickers.

Several times, Ewenje says, the group was pursued by traffickers
armed with guns, machetes and axes. Once, criminals forced Ewenje’s
jeep off the road, destroying the vehicle and injuring two adult
passengers.

Since the pit rescues, officials from Benin, the United Nations
and charities say they are in Nigeria, searching for more children
at hard labor.

“Whether it is 20 or 2,000 children…it is a problem that
deserves our concerted efforts,” said Yann Colliou, with the Swiss
child protection group Terre des Hommes, which has a home in Benin
for freed trafficked children.

The rescues – the largest such operation in memory in West
Africa – come under an August accord by Benin and Nigeria to fight
cross-border crime, including child-trafficking.

In Nigeria, police spokesman Chris Olakpe acknowledged
“thousands of trafficked children are being subjected to slave
labor in different parts of the country.”

“But we’re moving faster than the criminals,” Olakpe insisted.
“We expect more recoveries and more handovers of children very
soon.”

Escaped child laborers still show up at Ewenje’s home. One,
15-year-old Savie Unokamji, was forced to work for five months in a
quarry at Abuletitun, a village 30 miles north of Abeokuta.

Savie said the “master,” a Beninoise trafficker named Bitobi,
repeatedly whipped him with sticks and ropes, leaving a web of
white scars on his back.

Savie escaped when his boss tried to move the group to prevent
detection by police.

But instead of returning home to impoverished Benin, the
teenager still hopes to find another job in Nigeria, where Africa’s
largest oil industry has made a small minority of the population
fabulously wealthy – and fed the hopes of millions more.

“If I go home, who will help me?” Savie asked. “My only hope is
to find another master.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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