By Joel Gunter
BBC Africa Eye
It was close to midnight when the young man crawled into the desert. All around him was darkness. A hundred metres away, a handful of Tuareg rebels and people smugglers, who worked together ferrying migrants through this unforgiving stretch of the Sahara, were gathered around three trucks, drumming and dancing and letting off long bursts of gunfire that rattled the night sky. He could just make out the faint light from their phones, and every fifth bullet they fired was a tracer that lit a bright arc towards the stars.
The young man, who had given himself the name Azeteng, was somewhere in northern Mali near to the border with Algeria. Behind him lay El-Khalil, a bleak and brutal waystation on the West African migrant route to Europe. Ahead of him, sand stretched for miles in every direction. He was a speck on the dark sea of the Sahara. Slowly, painfully, he pushed his body on, trying to keep as low as possible to the ground.
Azeteng was on the run. A few hours earlier, the smugglers who controlled El-Khalil had swiped his glasses from his face, just to mess with him, and refused to give them back. Azeteng was 25 but he was small for his age — 5’ 5” and slightly built, with a shy manner and a way of moving through the world that suggested he was always trying not to be seen. He was powerless to stand up for himself, so he backed away.
If the smugglers had stopped then to look closely at his glasses, they might have seen the strangely thick frame, the mini-USB port under one arm, the pin-sized hole in the hinge — and they would surely have killed him. He had seen enough already to be sure.
The month was May 2017. The migrant routes through northern Mali were controlled by the Tuareg rebels, who worked with smuggling and trafficking networks connected to departure points across West Africa. Azeteng’s journey began in Ghana. Others came from Guinea, the Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone. In recent years, tens of thousands of men, women and children made their way into the Sahara, drawn by the distant promise of a better life in Europe.
A Ghanaian migrant who set out in 2016 told me he turned back in fear after hitting the desert. His friends persevered, towards Libya, he said. “Only one succeeded, to Italy. Later he told us that the rest were dead.”
Those who attempt the desert crossing travel along ancient trans-Saharan trade routes through Mali and Niger to Algeria and Libya and on to the sea. News reports have focused on the grim toll of the Mediterranean, which claimed the lives of more than 5,000 migrants the year before Azeteng set out. But according to UN estimates, as many as twice the number of migrants have died in the desert.
A few weeks after Azeteng crawled out of El-Khalil, 44 Ghanaians and Nigerians, including young children, died of thirst in Niger when the smugglers who brought them that far ran out of fuel. Weeks later, at least 50 migrants died when three trucks were abandoned for unknown reasons. Those were the headlines. Many more would die uncounted in the sand.
Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
Outside El-Khalil, Azeteng prayed. For now, at least, the smugglers seemed too preoccupied with partying to notice the young migrant crawling in the sand, or pay much attention to the strange pair of glasses he had been wearing. When Azeteng thought he was far enough away to be safe, he stood up, brushed the sand from his clothes, and walked into the desert.
Azeteng was a middle child but an odd one out. Of his seven siblings, he was the only one with a different mother. He grew up on a rural police barracks in northern Ghana with his father, step-mother, and three half-sisters in two rooms. His own mother lived in central Ghana, and when Azeteng’s father was away, which was often, Azeteng felt like a stranger in his own home.
He was supposed to follow his father into the police, but Azeteng dreamed of being a spy. He spent his pocket money on James Bond films and low-budget CIA thrillers, burned on to blank DVDs by traders at the local market. On the weekends, when his father sent him to cut grass for the family’s livestock in a garden behind the police station, Azeteng would pretend he was on a mission, and tiptoe up to the door to listen in.
What he heard on those weekends killed off what little ambition he had to join the police. He heard poor women come to the office to report that their husbands had beaten them, only to be told they would have to pay for a pen to take their statement, or for petrol to drive to make arrests. The tricks were cheap, and the sums pitifully small, but they had an outsized impact on young Azeteng. When he saw prisoners whipped with sticks in their cells, he knew for sure he would not be a policeman after all.
As a teenager, Azeteng carried a pocket radio everywhere. His whirring, detail-driven mind catalogued the world around him, but sometimes struggled to discern which details were important and which were not. He wanted to fight against injustice, but he didn’t know how. After high school he went to work with his mother in the fields of Kintampo, and at night he listened to his radio and imagined himself as an undercover journalist. He had already reported one story, at his high school. Using a flip phone to secretly film, he exposed a group of teachers who were brewing alcohol on school grounds and ‘taking money from students for grades’, and when the story made the local papers, three teachers, including the headmaster, were sacked or transferred.
Lying in bed in Kintampo after working in the fields, he dreamed of telling a bigger story, exposing bigger crimes. On the radio, the news bulletins said young people from Africa were dying in their thousands in the desert and the sea.
Six months later, Azeteng boarded a bus to Abeka Lapaz in the west of Accra, where he walked along the side of the nine-lane George W Bush Highway until he reached a nondescript two-storey building, home to CSIT Limited — purveyors of computer products and technical solutions, including secret cameras. He had already done some research into the various types of secret camera available. There was the button, the pen, the clock, the watch, and the glasses.
At 200 cedis — about £30 — the glasses were the cheapest. They were capable of recording only low-resolution images and they worked poorly at night. Later, British police would have to examine the footage carefully as they pieced together Azeteng’s story. But as he looked at himself in the mirror in that day, Azeteng was just pleased to see it would take a second, third, probably fourth glance to spot that anything was amiss. He bought them, and called them his secret spectacles.
For five months, while he saved, Azeteng practised filming and hiding the memory cards in his mouth — a trick from a spy film. Then he sold his livestock — two sheep, six goats and 10 chickens — and set a date to leave.
At this point, no-one knew about Azeteng’s wildly dangerous idea except for Azeteng. So he told his priest: he intended to get himself smuggled on the desert migrant route to Europe, using a secret camera in his glasses to document the crimes of the smugglers. The priest asked him if he had considered the dangers involved. Azeteng said he had. “I thought it was a service to the world, a service to restore human dignity,” the priest told me later. “I said I would offer Mass for him while he was away.”
Next Azeteng told his father, who lives now in a stone house on a small plot outside Accra. He still has the bearing of a policeman, though slightly faded by retirement, and he still rears livestock, which roamed the plot while we sat inside, away from the fierce afternoon sun.
“I was mad, mad because I couldn’t understand why he wants to take that risk,” he said. “Sincerely, I did not give him my blessing. Then he called to say that he had taken off, and I said, well, that is his choice. God be with you.”
Azeteng had packed a few items of clothing and made a razor cut in the lining of his rucksack to hide his cash. Then he walked to Kinbu Junction, a teeming transport hub in downtown Accra, and asked three young men if they were going north. They said yes, they were headed for Europe — across the water to Italy or Spain. They gave Azeteng the number for a smuggler named Sulemana.
Sulemana told Azeteng to board an ordinary bus to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where they would meet. Azeteng had taught himself to record phone conversations, and he recorded his conversation with Sulemana and took detailed notes. The bus pulled out of Kinbu Junction. Azeteng wrote in his diary: “Saturday, April 15, 2017 — depart for Mali. 9.15am GMT.”
The bus crossed into Burkina Faso and then Mali, via checkpoints where small amounts of money were extorted by the police. After three days they reached Bamako. Sulemana arranged a fake travel vaccination certificate for Azeteng and demanded 45,000 CFA — £60 — for the next stage of his trip up to Gao, where Azeteng would meet Sulemana’s boss, Moussa Sangare.
At the bus station, somewhere close to a thousand migrants milled around in the heat. Azeteng took out his diary. “Every five minutes a bus will set off with African migrants and those trafficked,” he wrote. “It is more like a busy international airport.” He wrote down a detailed description of Sulemana and the smuggler’s phone number, then he boarded the bus. After a few hours, Sulemana called him. “If anyone asks you where you are going, tell them you are going to visit your relative,” he said. “Do not tell them you are going to Europe through the desert.”
Sulemana told him to prepare for his cash to run out, and to call home to ask for more along the way. “It is like I told you,” he said. “The road is all about money.”
After two days, the bus arrived in Gao — the gateway to the Sahara.
Gao is a city of hot dust-red streets and mud-brick houses, where migrants flow hourly into the city’s main bus station. Many, like Azeteng, already have a phone number of one of the city’s connection men, who house migrants for a few days before selling them on to be taken across the desert. Anyone without a name and number is a target for coaxers — young men who board the buses outside the city to hustle migrants for their smuggling bosses.
Azeteng knew to ask for Moussa Sangare and soon he was in Sangare’s ghetto house. He moved through the house discreetly taking photographs with his flip phone and writing down what he saw.
Moussa Sangare appeared to take money from Malian security officers. He paid the connection men and boys who worked for him. When he had a certain number of migrants, he transferred them to the Tuaregs for the drive across the desert. Everything in his house — food, drinking water, a bath — cost money.
After three nights in Gao, Azeteng was called up to pay the $400 fee to continue north. Here was the final moment of safety before the dangers of the open desert. Ahead of the migrants lay at least six days in the Sahara, but in all likelihood many more. EU-funded patrols were targeting the smugglers, pushing them to take longer, more remote routes. Trucks, laden with human cargo, became stuck.
Migrants were dumped miles from cities and forced to walk, or waylaid for weeks as they worked to pay their way on. Out on the desert, the lines between smugglers and traffickers, victims and perpetrators, would blur. Sand dunes would shift in the wind, leading even seasoned drivers astray.
But as Azeteng lined up to leave Gao, few seemed to dwell on the dangers ahead. The crowd buzzed at the imminent departure. In front of them were Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks which would ferry them to a warehouse to board larger, ageing transport trucks. Azeteng was packed into a truck with about 75 others — all men save for two Nigerian women, who sat up front with the driver.
Azeteng sat on the floor at the back of the second truck, his knees close to his chest, filming with his phone. Somebody switched on a small bluetooth speaker and the migrants sang and danced to pop music. Different languages and dialects rang out over the din — French, Bambara, Mandingo, Twi. As the convoy hit the open desert, excitement rippled through the truck.
The migrants were headed into northern Mali, a lawless black spot bereft of government forces, humanitarian agencies or journalists, controlled by militias and beset by jihadists. Azeteng sat quietly, a knot tightening in his stomach.
It was night when the trucks came to an abrupt stop, jolting Azeteng from a half-sleep. Voices called out from the dark, ordering the migrants to get out, and they were surrounded by men in military fatigues carrying AK-47s. They had hit the first Tuareg rebel checkpoint.
The rebels fired shots into the air and ordered the migrants to line up to pay. Those who didn’t have enough money were told to form a separate line and had their pockets searched and possessions taken. Then they were beaten. Azeteng was hit hard in the side of the head, knocking his glasses off his face. A migrant in front of him was hit with a metal pole and bled from the mouth. A Gambian man, whom Azeteng had befriended on the journey, held up his Koran and begged in vain for them to stop.
Azeteng put his glasses back on and, overcoming a swell of fear, pressed the tiny button under the arm. The grainy footage captured the migrants shuffling past a militant holding out a large plastic bowl, depositing cash. When the bowl was full, another militant tipped it into a larger bowl. Those who had paid were ordered to sit on the sand and wait. The wind whipped up and the cold started to bite.
It was then that Azeteng saw the two Nigerian women again, the women who had sat up front with the driver. Women from Nigeria, more than any other African nation, have fallen prey to the sex-trafficking trade to Europe. A well-established criminal network entraps them with promises of well-paid jobs as hairdressers or houseworkers or similar, then sells them into sex work. “As soon as they leave their family and community network they become extremely vulnerable,” Michele Bombassei, a UN expert on West African migration, told me. “And this is the moment the sexual exploitation begins.”
Azeteng had spoken to the Nigerian women briefly, back in Bamako. They were confident and outgoing. They had joked and laughed. Now their heads were bowed, and Azeteng watched as they walked silently into the desert escorted by seven armed men from the checkpoint. The seven men gang-raped the two women on the desert floor, close enough for the migrants to see.
When it was finished, the women were brought back and put in the front of the truck and the migrants were put in the back of the truck, and a heavy silence settled on them. The jubilation of earlier that day had given way to fear. No-one stood or danced or even spoke. Azeteng craned his neck and looked up at the stars, and they drove on through the night and the next morning and in the merciless heat of the afternoon they approached the second checkpoint.
It was the crack of a rifle bullet brought them to a stop a second time — a warning shot that fizzed over their heads. Azeteng picked himself up from the bed of the truck and looked out and a chill ran through him. For the first time in his life, he saw a severed human head. Two severed human heads, mounted on wooden stakes — young men like him, he thought, probably migrants who made some small mistake. Horseflies buzzed around the heads, and blood had run down the wooden stakes and dried.
The migrants were ordered to get down from the trucks and line up, and the grim events of the first checkpoint began to repeat themselves — the cash bowl, the beatings, the Nigerian women. Azeteng watched as the women walked again into the desert with half a dozen men. While the migrants waited, the driver of the truck, who looked to be in his late 30s and wore traditional Muslim dress, and had shared the front cabin with the women, removed a handful of sticks from a stash under the truck and slowly made a fire. He filled a metal pot with water and poured in tea leaves and brought it to the boil. Darkness began to settle. The driver stirred the mixture for a while, and when he saw that the women were being brought back he poured the tea, and the three sat silently together by the small fire. The women’s faces looked so blank, Azeteng thought. Then the smugglers came shouting and rounded the migrants up.
They drove through the night, and the following morning brought more rebel checkpoints. At the fourth and final, Azeteng was hit in the leg with a metal pole so hard that he crumpled to the ground. The migrants spent that night on the sand, and the Nigerian women were taken away to an area where the smugglers slept, shielded by a canopy from view.