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.

By Fritz Schaap and Sascha Montag (Photos)

Sascha Montag / DER SPIEGEL

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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