Sahara: last journey of the damned

August 10, 2005 — Comment

Written by Fabrizio Gatti

The EU is advocating the creation of refugee regional processing centres in North African countries. Foremost amongst countries being recruited to enforce European border controls is Libya. A report that first appeared in the Italian newspaper L’Espresso on 24 March 2005 looks at how Libya treats refugees and documents the grim fate awaiting those returned to Libya from Italy under a recent migration accord.

A rolled-up blanket, and in its dusty folds, two black eyes. Amina is nine years old, and she’s travelling bundled up like that so that the sun doesn’t burn her. Her mother has been holding her in her arms for ten days and nights, worried that she’ll slip off the lorry because of its jolting motion, or through tiredness or nodding off for a moment. Mariana Djallo, aged eight, crouches on bags of hemp with another 150 people, men, women and children. When it’s dark, and something frightens her, she reaches for the hand of her five-year-old sister or her three-year-old cousin, and holds it tight. Amadou, aged three and a half, and Suleyman, two and a bit, have lost track of their parents. They’re somewhere ahead, with another load of people being repatriated, and they’ll find them when they arrive. That’ll be in a week, God willing, or if the djinns, the spirits of the desert, are kind to them.

Colonel Muhammar Ghaddafi’s gendarmes and soldiers don’t stop for anyone, not even for Abdulmagid, 10 months, hungry and crying, or his mother, angry because her state of stress and exhaustion means that she can no longer breastfeed him as she did before they set off. In years to come perhaps somebody will explain to them all why, when they were small children, they had to cross the Sahara and then the Tenére. Twelve days and nights travelling on lorries that sink into the sand, when life depends on a 20-litre can of water. From Al Gatrun, in Libya, where the surfaced road ends, to Agadez in Niger, from where a collection of buses, minibuses and heavy lorries take the deported immigrants back to their countries of origin. It’s an undertaking which, if it involved a European child, would be big news on TV, with sponsors and interviews. But these are African children. For them, their families, and all the foreigners who came from the impoverished countries south of the Sahel, there’s no room in Libya any more, and they have to leave. Those who stay are liable to be put in a detention camp and then thrown out into the desert, the same desert in which those who leave face being robbed and abandoned.

Since September, when the deportations began, 106 people have died. But that’s only the official figure. According to information gathered by a representative of the Red Crescent, the most serious incident took place in October, at the Dirkou oasis; 50 immigrants died when they were crushed by an overloaded lorry that turned over while struggling towards the pass of Tumu, on the Libya-Niger border. In January, at Madama, on the border, a Ghanaian boy who had never been identified was torn limb from limb by a pack of wild dogs in front of his travelling companions. The latest reported tragedy happened two weeks ago: three young Nigerian women died of thirst a days’ journey from Tumu, and another 15 were picked up, in a critical condition, with four men, abandoned by those who had organised their journey. But nobody knows how many bodies are really buried in the sand, far off the routes shown on the maps: passengers who have died of exhaustion, or accidents, or have been robbed and left among the dunes by traffickers who were supposed to have taken them home.

These lorries, overloaded with immigrants and their baggage, are the price paid for the agreement between Italy and Libya and a consequence of the swoops carried out by the Libyan government, following the signing of the pact between Silvio Berlusconi and Colonel Ghaddafi on 25 August 2004. It was intended to put an end to landings on the coasts of Italy, which, far from diminishing, have greatly increased. This is what the Libyan regime undertook to do: admit the clandestine sent back from Italy, seal Libya’s southern border with Niger and repatriate foreigners who had entered the country from the south. It was a plan that gave rise to doubts in EU countries like France, because of Ghaddafi’s scant regard for international agreements on refugee and human rights. But through Tripoli, Italy’s prime minister and minister of the interior gave these guarantees: no-one would be deported to the Sahara, detention camps would not be built in the desert and deportations would only be carried out by air. Deputy leader of An Alfredo Mantovano repeated it in a TV interview: ‘from a certain point of view, Libya is a de facto member of the Schengen area’, he said with satisfaction, referring to the agreement among EU countries: ‘the first political effect of these agreements is that Libya is taking back the clandestini against whom it has been unable to conduct an exclusion operation.’

For the past six months, the Libyan security service has been working at full throttle. All the foreigners deported speak of dawn house-to-house raids, of people seized in the street or outside workplaces, and of tens of thousands herded into the Al Gatrun detention camp in the desert, and taken to the Sahara. That is precisely the exclusion operation with which Ghaddafi is pleasing Italy, and at the same time, reducing the number of foreigners in Libya itself. According to estimates made a few years ago, there were at least two million, half of them born in sub-Saharan Africa: from Senegal to Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon. Ghaddafi himself had invited them to work in Libya, and during the period of the embargo, when he was the self-proclaimed leader of the African continent, he had abolished entry visas for them. But now that he’s once again an ally of the EU and the United States, he has put aside Pan-Africanism; proclaiming his friendship with black Africa is no longer of interest. And it is precisely black Africans who are being deported. Over 100,000 are believed to have already been captured or persuaded to leave. 14,000 were thrown out into the desert in February alone, loaded onto the 72 lorries that crossed the border.

It isn’t easy to travel with the damned. You have to skirt round Libya, and break the total news blackout surrounding the operation. And you have to face a long trek south: ten days non-stop in the Sahara, through dunes and mountains, violence and suffering. The border between Libya and Niger is unmarked. To the west is the Plateau of Manguéni, to the east the Tumu mountains. The track runs through the middle. There’s no water, no electricity, no telephones. News travels as it did a thousand years ago, from one traveller to another. Two days ago, a humanitarian convoy of the French humanitarian organisation Les Enfants de l’Air passed through here: 14 large off-road vehicles carrying doctors and medical supplies, heading for the Agadez area. It saved the lives of 19 immigrants, 15 young women and four men. They were like skeletons when they were spotted, twelve of them first, then another five, and lastly, during the night, another two. They were walking in various directions along the tracks left by the lorries, between the oases of Tajarhi and Tumu, the final 220 kilometres of Libyan desert. They had nothing left.

They tell how for eight, perhaps ten days they ate their faeces and drank their urine in order to survive. They are from Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana. In the middle of February they paid for their journey in a 4×4 van, to avoid ending up in the Al Gatrun detention camp. But after a day and a night, the two drivers, a Libyan and a Sudanese, forced them to get out, and ran off with their possessions, money and water. Out of 22 people, three died. ‘We picked them up, and gave them medical treatment. We stayed together for two days’, say the volunteers from Les Enfants de l’Air. ‘At night, to express their thanks to God, the girls sang a gospel song. We all wept. At Tumi, Libyan soldiers took charge of them. They told us they would send them back to the Al Gatrun detention camp to prepare documents in order to deport them.’

So the group of survivors has to go back 310 kilometres – two days’ and nights’ journey. But Paul Adeomo, 22, from Benin, because he has his passport hidden in a pocket, can stay at Tumu. The Libyans put him on the first lorry that comes by, with no food or water. He crouches, in pain, staring at his bare feet, among the mass of passengers and baggage. Every three of four hours he asks somebody for the water-bottle, and immediately squeezes his mouth shut so as not to miss the taste of the sip he has taken.

At Madama there’s a well and an old Foreign Legion fort. Today it’s the advance post of the army of Niger in a no-man’s-land used by bandits, arms traffickers and former Algerian guerrillas. On the expanse of red sand, nine lorries have been waiting for hours for permission to leave. There must be at least 1,500 people huddled in the shade of its wheels and scattered all around. For the military in these parts, the journeys of immigrants have always been a resource. But they are more reasonable with those being repatriated. This time they’re happy to ask 1,000 francs (1.50 euros) per person. At the end of the day there’s over 2,000 in ‘tips’ to be divided among the men and their NCOs. When the traffic in arms and human beings was heading north, these soldiers demanded 10,000 francs per person, and sometimes they stole all the money they found in people’s bags. And anyone who didn’t have any was beaten or forced to break their journey and work without pay in the fort for several months.

200 metres from the drums full of holes and the barbed wire that mark the roadblock, behind a clump of large tamarisks, they buried the boy from Ghana. Magobri, 20, saw him die. For two years he’s been working as a water-carrier for the soldiers. ‘It was in January, and it was cold that night. The dogs were barking and snarling and I went out to have a look. That little boy had just arrived from Libya, perhaps he had gone a little way from the lorry to have a pee. I heard him scream. In the moonlight, I could see someone running. He fell. The dogs went on snarling but there was nothing to be seen. When they found him he was already dead. The dogs had taken bites out of his throat and legs. Near the wells in the desert there are wild dogs, and they’re always hungry.’

Piled up in a cell in the fort are the bags of 11 immigrants who died in another accident. ‘Their relatives are supposed to come all the way down here to collect them’, said Sergeant Major Ornar Amadou, commandant of Madama. ‘People die in the desert every day. It happens when a lorry or a 4×4 breaks down. We don’t have rescue vehicles, and the accidents are often discovered only months later. The bodies are buried on the spot. No, no-one has made a list of the victims or the missing. Allah alone knows them.’

We leave on another lorry. When she learns there’s an Italian on board, a young woman sitting in front turns round and introduces herself. She’s Bessy Mody, 27, a Nigerian, and she’s a ‘voluntary deportee’, in the sense that she’s paying to be repatriated. She’s travelling with her brother Jonathan, 25, a Lagos engineering graduate, and carries a plastic vanity case and a bag containing the electric mixer she managed to grab when she was taken from her house in Tripoli. ‘Why has Italy done this to us?’ she asks. ‘I had a job. I was a cleaner. I had no wish to go to Europe. A month ago, the police took me from my house and put me in a concentration camp for Africans, near Tripoli. Conditions in the Tripoli and Al Gatrun camps are terrible. They take the youngest girls, even fourteen-year-olds, and pimp them to the soldiers in exchange for the chance to stay in Libya. You must ask for help from European governments and the Nigerian government, all this is a disgrace.’

Her brother Jonathan spent four months in the detention camp. ‘I’ve been working as a welder in Benghazi. In August, after the agreement with Italy, the attitude of all Libyans towards immigrants got worse. My boss started saying he didn’t like my work. I can’t think why, because he’d always been satisfied up till then. Every day you learned that one of your neighbours or a workmate had disappeared. We had to hide, and live like mice. I decided it was time to escape and go to Europe. I got as far as Lampedusa, on a boat, for 700 dollars. But nobody had told me that Lampedusa is a small island. The Italian police picked us up and flew us back to Libya. I spent four months in detention, but I found my sister. She had managed to hide some savings. So when they transported us to the desert, to the Al Gatrun camp, we left straight away.’

The owner of the lorry, Ahmed Mansour, 35, is a Libyan from the Sebha area. He’s in the cab, beside Yussuf, the driver, who was born in Chad. ‘Italy’s beautiful. I wanted to go there on holiday next month’, says the owner, ‘but with all these people to take back, now there’s too much work to do.’ The agreement between Italy and Libya was meant to stop the shameful trafficking of immigrants. But with the expulsions, there’s always business for them. Up until August 2004, the journey from Agadez to al Gatrun cost 40,000 francs, a little over 69 euros. Now, to travel in the opposite direction costs 100,000, representing six months’ wages for an immigrant farm labourer or bricklayer in Libya.

Now that the sun has set, a conversation in Arabic starts up in the cab. Ahmed Mansour wants to stop to make tea and heat up some pasta, but Yussouf , the driver, keeps on going. ‘We’re at Mabrous, it’s dangerous here. There are djinns.’ At night, the Sahara’s full of djinns and spirits. There are rustlings, whispers, voices and illusions, but bandits, too. This is a favourite plateau for attacking lorries. To the west, a valley, pale in the moonlight, leads to the Salvador pass, the smugglers’ route.

Two more lorries loaded with immigrants overturned near here; 29 were killed in one incident, nine in the other. Official reports said there were no survivors. Some of the dead were said to have been deported from Italy, but not all the bodies have been identified. The sand also claimed the lives of three young men from Agadez, Hakim Jonas, Abdramane Abda, and Mohammed Oumai. For five months they had been working in Libya, in the agricultural project in Loued, an oasis near the road to Niger. When they saw the first lorries passing, in September, Hakim was terrified. ‘I got into debt to pay my journey to this point, I can’t go back without a penny’, he said one evening to his friends in darkness of the dormitory. Hakim’s a cook in the cafeteria, and earns a good wage compared with the labourers: 200 dinars a month, almost 80,000 francs, or 122 euros. His job in Libya is the only source of security for his two sisters, who are still at school, his old, sick father, and his mother, who for years has been working her fingers to the bone cooking sheep’s heads. During one sleepless night he has an idea: ‘Let’s leave before they take us, we’ll get out in the boss’s 4×4, sell it in Agadez and share the money.’

Laouan Ari, who arrived from Agadez two years ago, says it’s madness: ‘It’s illegal to steal. And how will we cross the desert?’ The two young men have been friends since they were children, and they have a dream: to work in Europe, then go home and open a bar and disco. Early one morning in late September, Laouan discovers he’s been left on his own. Three of his friends and a 4×4 are missing from the oasis. Months pass. Laouan goes back to Agadez, and is deported, too. Of the three youths, on the road now for five months, the desert sends back only a rumour. An Algerian army helicopter spotted a Toyota Hilux and three bodies at a point where Niger, Libya and Algeria meet. They were probably theirs. They had followed what the Tuareg call a ‘mescebed’, a track that leads nowhere.

The control-post at Dao Timmi looks as if it is surrounded in an invisible fire. The sand and the soldiers’ uniforms are distorted by the heat haze. Amadou and Suleyman, the two little cousins, still do not know where their parents are. Another day’s travelling in a temperature of 50 degrees centigrade. At the bottom of a descent in the road are the glittering palm trees of Seguedine, and the rounded shape of two lorries loaded with people. There’s a well, and people stop here to rest. Ibrahim Soumana, 25, is exhausted, and has a high fever. Somebody takes the opportunity to sleep; on the road, it’s dangerous, because there’s a risk of falling off. Mariana Djallo, her little sister Aziza, Abdulmagid and the other children are waiting to leave, in the shadow of the bags, huge in the setting sun. Mariana’s parents are still in Libya. ‘My brother and his wife stayed in Tripoli’, says her uncle, Mamadou Djallo, from Agadez. ‘They’re working, trying to cope. But we decided to take the children away. Yes, voluntary deportation. Libya’s no longer safe, even for them.’ Little Amina, whom we met days ago, should be at home by now. But these children have the entire Tenére desert in front of them. Over the horizon lies Dirkou, the slave oasis, and a further 650 kilometres of dunes and sand. Agadez is still a long way away.

Related links

L’Espresso – original report in Italian

Translation by Imogen Forster.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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