Tragedy in Sahara Desert: An Ill-Fated Attempt to Reach Fortress Europe

By Hauke Goos and Bernhard Riedmann (Photos) SPIEGEL.DE

One year ago, a group of 113 people set off from Niger hoping for a better future in the European Union. A few days later, they were left stranded in the Sahara Desert without vehicles or water. Only 17 survived to tell the tale.

One year ago, a group of 113 people set off from Niger hoping for a better future in the European Union. A few days later, they were left stranded in the Sahara Desert without vehicles or water. Only 17 survived to tell the tale.

In the hottest part of the desert, an adult sitting in the shade loses up to one liter of water an hour, and significantly more when moving. A person starts to feel thirsty when fluid loss reaches half a percent of his or her weight. At 2 percent or more, physical and mental capacity begins to wane, and starting at 5 percent, he or she experiences dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps, and the skin turns purplish. At 10 percent, disorientation sets in.

At that stage, people are prepared to drink anything: blood, urine, engine coolant or battery acid. In the Sahara, a person can easily die of thirst in a single day.

On Oct. 15, 2013, a group of 113 men, women and children set out from Niger for Europe, where they hoped to find food, prosperity and happiness. The group included Samani, a 25-year-old Nigerien — his intended destination, the Mediterranean coast, was 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) away.

Samani was traveling alone. He had been married for a year to a woman who had been selected as his bride by a friend of his father’s. His wife was a stranger to him at first, he says, but after being married to her for a few months he began to love this woman, in a shy, hesitant way.

But she didn’t return his love, so he decided to pin his hopes on a life in Europe instead. He hoped that his success in that faraway place would improve his prestige in his village, and that his return, perhaps in a car of his own, would inspire his wife to return his affections.

The route to Europe passed through the Sahara. The Arabs refer to the expanse as the “very large desert” or the bahr bila ma, which means “sea without water.” It covers an area of nine million square kilometers (about 3.5 million square miles) and stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. It is 26 times the size of Germany.

Four days later, or perhaps five — Samani no longer remembers exactly how long it was — 92 people were dead.

When we visited the survivors in their villages in southern Niger, near the border with Nigeria, they told us in their native Hausa language what they endured during their journey toward Europe. An old man who had lost his wife, his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren smiled occasionally as he spoke. The interpreter later explained that in his tribe, it was customary not to show signs of mourning.

‘Fortress Europe’ Expands into Africa

It’s an African tragedy, but its causes extend beyond the continent’s poverty and suffering — all the way to Europe. To keep refugees out of the European Union, the continent’s leaders have almost surreptitiously shifted the borders of “fortress Europe” southward, into Africa’s interior. European politicians argue that North African countries must enhance their border controls to fight terrorism, organized crime and weapons smuggling.

But this has led to the creation of a bulwark that is insurmountable for people like Samani, who are willing to leave everything behind in the hope of achieving a better life. Those who do make the attempt risk dying an even more invisible death than those who capsize off the European coast.

One of the goals of Europe’s aid to developing African countries is to dry up unwanted immigration. European experts, for example, train Niger’s police and court officials on how to keep local citizens from leaving the country. Algeria and Morocco receive EU funding for stronger measures against refugees. As a result, people like Samani have to to circumvent checkpoints, abandoning the main routes as they approach the border and traveling along unmarked paths northward, straight into the Sahara.

Samani and his fellow passengers began their trip in Arlit, a city in northern Niger whose economy depends on the French engineers operating the nearby uranium mine. After negotiating a price with traffickers on the road, the group loaded their belongings — water canisters, clothing and some food — onto two trucks. At 4 a.m., shortly before morning prayers, they took their seats in the darkness. The men sat along the perimeter of the trucks — where it was dusty and drafty, their legs dangling over the side — and held onto ropes tied in place by the drivers. Women, children and older passengers sat in the middle, where it was hot and humid. It was so crowded on the smaller vehicle, a Nissan pickup truck, that the men had to stand.
There were 29 people on the Nissan and 89 on the larger truck. The group included women, children and infants, married couples, men traveling alone and entire families. The small convoy’s first destination was Tamanrasset, a desert city in southern Algeria, where some members hoped to stay, at least temporarily, in order to find work so they could earn enough to pay for the next stage of their journey. Others planned to simply continue northward.

Samani was squatting on the bed of the large truck, on the left side behind the driver’s cab. He had an 18-liter water canister behind him and was holding a bag filled with three shirts and three pairs of pants. He had paid 30,000 CFA francs, the equivalent of about €46 ($59), for a space on the truck — the traffickers had waived a portion of the fare, because it was all the money he had. He had also bought some underwear with a zippered pouch in front so he could hide his travel money.

Acquaintances had assured Samani that clothing was free in Europe. A friend who had made it to Spain told Samani that Europeans happily hand out sweaters and jackets against the cold. Europeans replace their household goods every year, says Samani, placing whatever they no longer need on the curb.

Even the taxi drivers drive Mercedes in Europe, he says. “You hear a lot of things, many good things, but some things that are not as good.” From his standpoint, the fact that there are some drawbacks to Europe makes the good things more believable.

Scorching Heat

The trip from Arlit to Tamanrasset normally takes two days. Samani had brought along sugarcane, couscous and two packages of powdered milk. He had tied a scrap of cloth to the handle of his water canister to indicate that it belonged to him and protected himself against the sun by unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it over his head.

As they entered the Sahara, Samani and the others had to cope with temperatures that took their breath away: 50 to 55 degrees Celsius (122-131 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. Sometimes the heat reached 60 degrees Celsius.

Tens of thousands travel north through the Sahara every year — not only from Niger, but Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast — for a variety of reasons. Life expectancy is about 55 in Niger; infant and maternal mortality rates are high. Villages rarely have electricity, few have generators and water comes from wells. About 30 percent of young people leave their villages. Those who don’t make it to Europe and return without property are considered failures.

Many Africans see Europe as a paradise with a pleasant climate, plenty of food for everyone and a simple rule: Those who make it there can apply for asylum in their country of arrival. The journey is usually undertaken by men, but when the situation becomes sufficiently dire, they are also joined by women. If your homeland is a hellish place, any faraway country can seem like paradise.

On the afternoon of the first day, Samani and the others on the large truck received a message from the Nissan: one person had died, a girl of no more than three or four years. It was her first time traveling in a vehicle, and when she couldn’t stop vomiting, the adults thought she was merely carsick.

The women undressed the girl, wrapped her in cloth and pushed the bundle into a corner of the truck bed. Some placed their luggage on the dead girl’s body. They resumed the trip two hours later, but then one of the trucks had a flat tire, which had to be patched, wasting valuable time.

While they were waiting, Samani met a young father of five named Ali Sani from a neighboring village. He was traveling on the smaller pickup truck and suffering from a malaria attack — the fever had given him the chills.

Even before the flat, the passengers had heard a metal part rubbing against the tire: The axle was broken. It had been fixed, but improperly — and the delay was dangerous, because the passengers had only a limited supply of water. The people on the truck wondered what would happen if there were another flat.

The drivers took advantage of the break to bury the dead girl. The ground was so hard that they had to use water from the canisters to soften it.

Trouble at the Border

When the convoy reached a well that evening, the passengers ate and prayed, filling their canisters and setting up camp for the night. The first day was over.

The next morning, both trucks had flat tires. Despite his fever, Ali Sani helped the men change them, afraid that they were losing too much time.

The two trucks crossed the border into Algeria at about 4 p.m. on the second day. They had been traveling through unmarked territory for hours, after the drivers had left the main route. Because only the large truck had an Algerian license plate, the drivers were trying to enter Algeria to the east of the regular transit route. Furthermore, very few of the passengers had papers and hardly any of them had visas for Algeria.

When they spotted Algerian border guards on a hill, the drivers decided to turn around and return to Niger, where they planned to hide the trucks behind rocky hillocks and wait.

They tried again the next morning, the third day, but they were forced to turn around once again. This time, they kept driving instead of hiding the trucks. None of the passengers knew whether the drivers were searching for a different place to cross the border or had decided that morning to return to Arlit.
Water became scarce on that third day. One of the unspoken rules on the truck was that water was not shared. Some gave a bit of their water to the children, but others didn’t. Each passenger was on his or her own.

Ali Sani, who had brought along two four-liter canisters, was silent during the trip. “You think of home,” says Ali Sani, “of what you’ve left behind. But you also think of Europe, of paradise, of the solution to all of your problems. And you wonder: Will I survive this trip?”


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