The Sahara desert, just like the Mediterranean Sea, is today one of the two largest graveyards for Africans, trying to reach the “promised land” that is Europe.
Both the birthplace of famous love stories, arts, literature, and exotic landscapes which inspire adventure, the formidable desert which served as the setting of Mika Waltari’s novel The Egyptian, Edith Maude Hull’s The Sheik, and countless other works of literature, has now become a kind of hellish copy of the Roman’s beloved Mare Nostrum.
Thus, just like the Mediterranean Sea, the world’s largest desert, which stretches across 11 countries (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mail, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, the region of Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia), has also become a graveyard for immigrants, murdered, raped, and abandoned across this sandy expanse, where temperatures can reach up to 60 degrees Celsius during the day and drop to minus 12 at night.
Meanwhile, according to statistics from organizations such as the United Nations, 6,000 people from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia were rescued at sea in 2016, whereas around 17,000 Africans, departing from Niger, have reached Libya via sea or land since the beginning of 2014, leaving hundreds dead along the way, according to the institution’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The number of fatalities among those who attempt to cross the desert continues to rise, above all when they fall into the hands of traffickers, like the case of the 44 out of 50 persons who died after being exposed to extreme heat and without drinking water, when their truck broke down between the cities of Agadez and Dirkou in northern Niger, en route to Europe by way of Libya.
In a news comment dated June 2, 2017, the UNHCR stated, “These shocking deaths are part of the bigger picture of exploitation as smugglers broaden the death trap from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert. It is quite clear that human smugglers will go to any extent to exploit desperate refugees and migrants.”
Meanwhile, last year the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which according to its website works to help “ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems, and provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people,” observed some 335,000 migrants heading northward, out of Niger toward Libya or Algeria, before attempting to reach Europe via sea, and another 111,000 traveling in the opposite direction through Agadez.
"We saw bodies that had been buried. The desert is not a safe place," said Eric Manu, 36, a Ghanaian mason who returned to Agadez with his dreams in tatters after two years in Libya.
After making it to Agadez, where migrants stay in shelters known as "ghettos" or "hostels" which rarely have running water or electricity and are covered with tarpaulin sheets to keep the sun off, they face a new ordeal as they make their way through Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau or Conakry, Ivory Coast, Ghana, or Nigeria.
The 750 kilometer journey to Libya through the desert takes between two and three days aboard a truck carrying 20 or 30 people with their legs dangling from the sides, wearing hooded clothing, sunglasses, gloves and jackets, to protect them from the sun and sand, but which provide absolutely no defense against accidents, arrest, starvation, or dehydration.
"I'm tired…The Sahara's tough going, for water, for food," says Ibrahim Kande, 26-year-old from Senegal as he gets off the truck. (PL)