BENGHAZI, Libya – Many risked their lives to get here. Now they're putting their lives on the line to get out.
Thousands of migrant workers, from an array of African countries, have been caught in the cross hairs of Libya's revolution. Their plight highlights the perils many confront in often-desperate quests for decent-paying work and the hope of a better life.
Bright Ighodero said only God and luck saved him when a rocket from Moammar Gadhafi's forces exploded into a Nigerian family he was chatting with as roughly 1,000 migrant workers waited to be evacuated this week from the besieged rebel port of Misrata in western Libya.
"They killed the whole family, except for the father. The mother, her sister, two children, maybe 1 year and 2 years old, and her husband's friend, they all were killed," he said Thursday after he docked safely in Benghazi, the rebel-held bastion in northeast Libya.
He held his head in his hands to fend off a reporter's questions, as if remembering was too painful.
"I've been running to save my head for three months. Running from soldiers, running from rockets. My head is messed up," said the 30-year-old welder from Benin City in southern Nigeria.
"I just want to go home. My mother doesn't even know I'm alive."
"Home" is an aluminum sheet hovel overcrowded by his mother and four brothers, with a dirt porch from which they sell rice and canned fish.
They never starved, Ighodero said, but it was a constant struggle to find money to pay school fees for younger siblings or buy a pair of sneakers. "I knew I didn't want to struggle like that all my life."
He saved for three years to escape "that life with no future," putting together the 35,000 naira ($225) for transport and smugglers' fees to get him across borders, plus another 20,000 to start a new life. A ride on the back of trucks across Nigeria and then days on foot slogging through the Sahara Desert of Niger — two young men who collapsed were left to die — brought him to Libya just over a year ago.
Ighodero said he was penniless by the time he got to Misrata, fleeced by smugglers and soldiers at checkpoints.
But he soon made contact with other migrants from Benin City who helped him set up a small business where he was making up to $300 a month — four times his biggest take in Nigeria. By living frugally in a house rented with fellow Nigerians, Ighodero said he was able to send most of his earnings home for his brother to bank.
"I was hoping to make enough to build a proper house with bricks, maybe even to pay for a bride," he said.
But those dreams were smashed when the uprising to topple Gadhafi, Libya's ruler for 42 years, reached Misrata. The port city now is held by the rebels but suffers daily bombardments from Gadhafi's troops, who have turned multiple rocket launch systems usually used against aircraft on the population.
"They were throwing bombs everywhere. We had to run. We have been running for nearly three months to save our heads. Can you imagine that?" Ighodero asked.
He said he and fellow Nigerians were terrified that they would be mistaken for black African mercenaries hired by the Gadhafi regime, some of whom were targeted by lynch mobs.
But the most terrifying experience, he said, was when rockets hit the port Wednesday as a ship hired by the International Organization of Migration was trying to dock to rescue the stranded migrants.
Ighodero spoke on one of several buses that was driving out of Benghazi, ferrying the migrants to Saloum on the border with Egypt. When a reporter passed through the border on Tuesday, hundreds of other refugees, most from the West African nation of Niger, milled around, camped under makeshift tents of blankets and sheets. They said they had been there for weeks, trying to find a way home but with no means since they had been robbed of cell phones and money by Gadhafi's troops along the way.
Oil-rich Libya was a magnet for foreign workers. Before the rebellion, according to migration officials, there were an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers — including 1 million Egyptians — in the country of 5 million Libyans. Most already have fled home, or are in refugee camps in neighboring countries. It's not known how many still remain in the country.
While Western and other wealthier nations evacuated citizens early in the crisis, people from poorer nations, Africans in particular, have been stranded.
The International Organization for Migration reported Friday that thousands of people continue to flee the conflict "and their numbers still rising."
The IOM expressed particular concern about the plight of some 40,000 Chadians, "mainly women and children reported to be in a desperate and pitiful condition" in the southern Libyan town of Gatroun.
That report came from Chadians who had survived two-week trips across the Sahara Desert without food or water in the back of open trucks exposed to the sun and 50-degree temperatures. Five such migrants had died after reaching Chad recently and more than 100 including children were hospitalized with severe dehydration, injuries and respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, the organization said.
Recent arrivals from Libya had raised the numbers who have fled to about 339,000 in Tunisia, 262,000 in Egypt, 17,000 in Algeria and 61,200 in Niger with smaller numbers going to Italy, Malta and Sudan, it said.
Ighodero had no idea how he would get home from Saloum.
"I just need to get there," he said. "I am never leaving home again."
He said he was not concerned about recent violence in Nigeria following disputed elections. Benin City has always been a peaceful haven in that strife-plagued country.
"But I don't care. We always have problems in Nigeria, but we cope, we manage, and at least I will be where I belong, with my family."