YAOUNDE/DOUALA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In early January, with Christmas lights still twinkling in the streets of Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, Christelle Timdi received the phone call she had almost given 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 center, 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, have been flown home from North Africa by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), with funding from the European Union.
In the past two years, the IOM and the EU have ramped up support for Africans to return to their countries, driven by the deaths of thousands on sea crossings to Europe and some governments there seeking tighter rules to stem the influx.
But 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 alone the trauma of the torture, sexual violence and slavery they endured in Libya.
In addition, they face harsh 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 program has so far returned more than 45,000 people to 14 African countries. Of those, 37,000 have received basic post-arrival assistance, and about 7,000 support to start a business.
Since June 2017, the IOM has helped almost 2,200 Cameroonians go home, providing health check-ups on their return and equipment to set up small businesses.
More than 800 have received livestock, tools and other assistance, worth about 700,000 CFA francs ($1,264) each, for farming and other new ventures, the IOM said.
IOM’s Cameroon office head Boubacar Seybou hopes the scheme will show migrants they can make a living at home and smooth their integration back into their communities.
Timdi, for example, has set up a small fashion boutique and a grilled fish stall. Without the IOM help, “life would have been very hard, if not impossible here”, she said.
But for now the couple still live with their parents in separate cities, as neither earns enough to move out.
Timdi’s family spent 1 million CFA francs - collected from relatives and neighborhood savings and loans groups - to free her from her captors in Libya.
The debt left her parents in a precarious financial position, and she is trying to help them slowly pay it back.
“I feel guilty, really guilty,” she said.
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 center in Tripoli.
Once back in Cameroon, Douglas spent two months in and out of hospital to treat the 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.
In the meantime, he started running a small chicken, duck and fish farm with his uncle and brother.
But business is slow, and the cost of living high.
“Here the salaries are pathetic,” he said. In Cameroon, laborers 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 homes.
“Your days are spent working without pay,” he said. “Often you just think: ‘I wish I was dead’.”
Since coming home, he has also been ridiculed and shunned by some locals. “People say that 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 traumatized and ashamed to face their families and friends, preferring to live on the street.
Many need psychological help, said Fabrice, who like others interviewed only wanted to give 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 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, nearly all said they would still like to 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.
($1 = 553.7000 CFA francs)
($1 = 0.8540 euros)
Reporting by Inna Lazareva, Editing by Megan Rowling and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org