In early January, with Christmas lights twinkling in the streets of Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, Christelle Timdi received the phone call she almost gave up hope of getting.
Returning home to Cameroon from Libya two months before, gaunt, weak and clutching her baby girl born just days after she had bought her freedom from a Tripoli detention centre, she burst into tears at the memory of what she had been through.
On top of beatings, the trauma of witnessing rapes and her friends sold off as slaves, her most haunting recollection was seeing her boyfriend Douglas falling into the dark waters of the Mediterranean during an attempted crossing to Europe.
But that night in January, it was his voice on the line.
“He’s not dead!” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by text message after Douglas called to say he had survived. “He was kidnapped, sold, and thank God, soon he’ll be in Cameroon.”
Timdi (33) and Douglas are among thousands of African migrants who, after failing to reach Europe in search of a better life, were flown home from North Africa by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), with funding from the European Union.
In the past two years, IOM and the EU ramped up support for Africans to return to their countries, driven by the deaths of thousands during sea crossings to Europe and some governments seeking tighter rules to stem the influx.
Seven to 10 months after going home to Cameroon, returning migrants interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation are struggling to get their lives back on track.
Many are battling the trauma of torture, sexual violence and slavery they endured in Libya.
In addition, they face discrimination from fellow Cameroonians and are struggling to repay family debts owed to their Libyan jailers and torturers.
In late 2016, the EU and the IOM launched their biggest repatriation project yet: a 174 million-euro ($204 million) fund to help bring back migrants and jump-start their lives in a way that would remove the need to head for Europe.
The programme has so far returned more than 45,000 people to 14 African countries. Of those, 37,000 received basic post-arrival assistance and about 7,000 support to start a business.
Since June 2017, IOM helped almost 2,200 Cameroonians go home, providing health check-ups on their return and equipment to set up small businesses.
More than 800 received livestock, tools and other assistance, worth about 700,000 CFA francs ($1,264) each, for farming and other new ventures.
IOM Cameroon office head Boubacar Seybou hopes the scheme will show migrants they can make a living at home and smooth integration back into their communities.
Timdi set up a small fashion boutique and a grilled fish stall. Without IOM help, “life would have been hard, if not impossible here”, she said.
For now the couple still live with their parents in separate cities, as neither earns enough to move out.
Timdi’s family spent a million CFA francs – collected from relatives and neighbourhood savings and loans groups – to free her from captors in Libya.
The debt left her parents in a precarious financial position and she is trying to slowly pay it back.
“I feel guilty, really guilty,” she said.
SOLD AS A SLAVE
After Timdi’s partner disappeared under the waves, he was fished out by human smugglers who held him for ransom of about $800 in a detention centre in Tripoli.
Once back in Cameroon, Douglas spent two months in and out of hospital to treat illnesses and injuries he suffered in Libya. “This only increased the costs my family had to pay for me,” he said.
He applied for IOM business assistance in February, but by late September had yet to receive a response.
Meantime, he started running a small chicken, duck and fish farm with his uncle and brother.
Business is slow and the cost of living high.
“Salaries are pathetic,” he said. In Cameroon, labourers earn about 150 euros a month compared with 150 euros a week for a seven-hour day in Morocco, he said.
At night, he sleeps badly, disturbed by his experiences in Libya, where he was kidnapped twice and auctioned off as a slave, then forced to work for two months building houses.
“Your days are spent working without pay,” he said. “Often you just think: ‘I wish I was dead’.”
Since coming home, he has been ridiculed and shunned by some locals. “People say you’ve become like a rebel, since in Libya there are only rebels,” he said.
Other returnees spoke of discrimination and being pointed at in the street.
“They call us ‘slaves’. They tell us: ‘You’re worthless to society’,” said Fabrice, a 27-year-old construction worker, who returned from Libya in February.
Some are too traumatised and ashamed to face families and friends, preferring to live on the street.
Many need psychological help, said Fabrice, who like others interviewed only gave his first name.
“They’ve seen so many horrors… They’ve seen drugs, they know how to shoot a gun. If nothing is done to help them, they could become a danger to others, because they have nothing left to lose. It’s a ticking time-bomb,” he said.
Despite their ordeal, returning migrants have ambitions for the future – and most still want to leave their country.
Of eight young returnees interviewed, nearly all said they would try reaching Europe, but would not attempt the overland route again.
Only Adjeumo (28) wanted to stay put permanently. He crossed five countries, getting kidnapped and spending seven months in a Libyan prison before returning to Cameroon in February.
Today, he works as a nightclub bouncer in Douala while waiting for his farming project to be approved by the IOM.
“If my business takes off, why would I go to Europe?” he said. “All the obstacles I’ve been through and survived – it means I can succeed against the odds.”
Douglas, on the other hand, plans to continue looking for a different path to Europe for himself and Timdi.
“We’ll go back. And we’ll build a life there for our children. We won’t survive here. She’ll work in construction – I’ll work as a mechanic. We’ll be fine in Germany,” he said.