How Romeo got to Rome: The story of a Tour Guide turned ‘refugee’

BY: Zadok K. Gyesi
Romeo
Romeo

When growing up, Baffour Amisare Dwomoh alias Romeo dreamt of becoming either an engineer or a journalist. But as fate would have it, he could not acquire the needed education to enable him live his dream. He managed to complete basic school.

Romeo, now 25 years old, also never saw his father and had to be raised together with three other siblings by his mother single-handedly at Tanoboase in the Brong Ahafo Region.

Before Romeo could start Junior High School however, his mother died, and with his engineering and journalism dreams.

In order to fend for himself, Romeo became a Tour Guide at the Tanoboase Sacred Grove, one of the highly visited tourist destinations in the Brong Ahafo Region. Tanoboase is located on the Tamale-Kintampo road.

I met Romeo in 2015 when I went to the tourist site together with the then Minister for Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts, Elizabeth Ofosu-Adjare. I was then stationed in Sunyani as one of the Daily Graphic’s regional correspondents.


Romeo was very eloquent and passionate in telling tourists at the site about the secret and intriguing stories behind the Sacred Grove. Everyone was attentive to the oral renditions about the Sacred Grove, which according to him, was the first home of the earliest settlers in the Brong Ahafo Region.

Romeo

Romeo

As someone with an insatiable taste and enormous curiosity for history and tales, he got me fully engaged as I took in every twist and turn of his stories. I didn’t want to miss any of the details for anything. When Romeo was about to finish his expositions on the tourist site, he made an appeal to the minister—he wanted the minister and the Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA) to give a facelift to the place, looking at its significance to the lives of the people in the region.

I was deeply touched by Romeo’s appeal. I love tourism and history and so anything that borders on these areas is of great importance and interest to me. When we were about to leave the place, I walked up to him and took his contact. I promised him that I would write a story about the state of the place to remind the minister of his appeal. My story was headlined: “Tanoboase Sacred Grove; the first home of Bono people” which was published in the Daily Graphic of April 27, 2015.

Romeo and I became friends afterwards. About a month after the publication, Romeo visited me in Sunyani, the capital of the Brong Ahafo Region. Not too long after Romeo’s visit, I was transferred to Tamale. I worked in Tamale for nearly two years until I was brought to Accra on April 28, 2017. I lost contact with Romeo for almost two years.

At the latter part of 2017, I received a friend’s request on Facebook from an unfamiliar person and as a personal principle, I review profiles of people who send me friend requests before accepting them. To my surprise, the profile picture turned out to be that of my friend, Romeo. I quickly accepted the request by pressing ‘confirm’. I was too happy to be reconnecting with Romeo again. Having approved his friend request, we exchanged a few pleasantries in which I asked him about his whereabouts.

To respond to my question, Romeo sent me a short video of about 45 seconds. In the video, I saw him sitting in a tube-like boat together with other people. I was curious to know where he took the video from because it looked like he took it on the high seas. Romeo told me he was in Italy. Wow! I gasped.

He told me that the boat I saw in the video was the one he took from Libya to Italy. That was when my curiosity refused to lie low within me. The ‘when’, ‘why’ ‘what’ and ‘how’ factors raced in my thoughts. 

Migrants and refugees call out to Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms workers, after being located out of control sailing on a rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea, about 18 miles north of Sabratha, Libya on, June 15, 2017. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

But the answers to the ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ Romeo got to Italy was not a wholesome one. It was a story filled with ordeals, life-and-death encounters, regrets, frustrations - horrific tales.

In a situation that could probably pass for the “survival of the fittest” maxim, Romeo was able to sail to Italy safely as a survivor, witnessing scores of others drown in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

The route to the desert

According to Romeo, he attempted six times before he was able to reach Italy from Libya. And even in his sixth attempt, the challenges were overwhelming.

Romeo left Ghana by boarding an articulated truck from Kintampo through Bawku and to Niger, for which he paid GH¢80 as transport fare.

According to him, those who are unfamiliar with the journey and board busses instead of the haulage trucks pay more, explaining that those who board the “S&T buses” from Ghana to Niger pay as much as GH¢150.

The trucks, Romeo said, are the long ones that bring onions from Niger to Ghana and so when they are leaving empty, the daring migrants board at Kintampo.

When the migrants reach Niger from Ghana and other neighbouring West African countries, such as Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali, they use the Sahara desert to get to Libya.

Each person, according to Romeo, pays between 1,000 CFA and 1,200 CFA as the fare from Niger to Libya, depending on whether the person has a travelling passport or not.

Migrants on board a truck leaving from IOM centre in Niger (Credit: IOM).

The journey, he said, takes three to four days on the desert depending on the speed of the vehicle. The migrants have to either join a pick-up or rickety buses from Niger to Libya.

Romeo said the Hilux Toyota pick-up he took from Niger to Libya had on board more than 50 passengers, with some sitting on top of the roof of the vehicle.

“We bought sticks in Niger and fixed them in the pick-up so that we can sit on it, especially when you are sitting at the edge of the vehicle,” he said, adding “sometimes, people fall and die when the vehicle is speeding on the desert.”

Romeo told me that he embarked on the journey with an amount of GH¢6,500, which is currently equivalent to US$1,360.29. He kept his money in his prepared chilly, popularly called “Shito” in Ghana.

On reaching Algadez in Libya, Romeo had to stay for almost a year before he was able to make his first attempt at exiting to Italy. He was unsuccessful. Their boat developed a fault just after about 200 metres offshore.

Romeo while he was a Tour Guide in Ghana

On the seas

On May 6, 2017, Romeo together with some other migrants left Libya to Italy. That was his sixth attempt and he succeeded. In all the previous five attempts, their boat failed them and so they had to return to Libya to start all over again.

He said on his last and successful attempt, the boat was in a good shape and so they travelled very fast on the seas. However, when they were getting close to Italy, the engine stopped suddenly. They remained on the seas for four days amidst heavy, stormy rains.

“We picked our phones which we had wrapped in polythene to prevent water from entering, and called Italy for assistance. The call went through but the one who picked it told us that it was holiday in Italy so there was nobody around to assist us and we should return to Libya,” Romeo explained.

He added: “We made the women in the boat together with their babies to cry so that the Italian authorities would see how urgent our situation was. The rain beat us severely so we were all soaked and we lost hope of either getting to Italy or returning to Libya.”

“We could not move as we were tossed about by the winds. We didn’t know where we were going,” Romeo said, adding that “Because the boat (dinghy) is an inflated tube, it can burst or deflate anytime on the seas and we were more than 150 people on it, including women with children and pregnant women,” Romeo explained.

He said everyone in the boat paid between 500 to 600 Euros and that depending on the speed of the boat, it takes between six to eight hours from Libya to Italy.

“When your boat fails on the seas and you are not rescued, you will die. And you can only be rescued when you are in the international seas,” Romeo said, leaving me unsure whether he meant it as a warning or he just wanted me to know his story.

He explained that having spent four days on the sea after the engine failure, they emptied all the gallons of reserved fuel, flattened the gallons and used them as paddles to row the boat with the help of the strong winds.

“We had no choice so we had to do everything within our power to save our lives,” he said, adding that a man from Ghana who was nursing a serious spinal injury he had sustained in a fracas in Libya, gave up the ghost while they were trying to row to safety.

“He was hoping that when we get to Italy, he could seek medical care for his fractured spine but he couldn’t make it,” Romeo said, a tinge of emotion clearly audible in his now shaking voice. Two Nigerian ladies also died and were thrown in the sea.

Search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean (credit: IOM)

He said they continued to call the Italian authorities while persisting with their makeshift paddles to advance their journey.

“Finally, the Italian authorities gave us an assurance that a ship was coming our way. We were very excited when we saw a ship coming,” Romeo explained.
Romeo and his colleagues, including three pregnant women were rescued to Province of Parma in Italy on May 10, 2017, by the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ship.

They could not be taken to Lampadusa and Sicily because there was no place for them (migrants).

He told me he regrets going to Italy, considering what he had gone through and the non-existence of the greener pastures he had hoped for in Europe.

Romeo now lives as a refugee in Parma, Italy, seeking asylum. He does not know his fate now, whether he will get approval or not.

“People die in their numbers on the seas. It is a deadly voyage and I regret sometimes that I am here (Italy)”, Romeo said regrettably before we ended our conversation and ‘reunion’.

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