The last voyage of the damned of the Sahara

Text and photos

From Al Gatrun, where the asphalt-paved road ends in Libya, to Agadez in Niger, where a fleet of buses, minibuses, and TIR trucks takes the expelled immigrants back to their countries of origin: 1,490 kilometers of heat and fear. An undertaking which, if it were to involve a European kid, would certainly be celebrated on TV, complete with sponsors and interviews. But these are African children. For them, and for their families and for all the other foreigners who have arrived from the poor parts of Africa south of the Sahel, there is no more room in Libya. They have to leave. Whoever stays, risks being confined in a detention camp and thrown into the desert. Whoever leaves, risks being robbed and abandoned in the desert.

Since September, the start of the expulsions, a massacre has already taken place: 106 dead. But this is only the official tally admitted by the authorities. In October the most serious incident occurred, according to the information gathered by a representative of the Red Crescent in the oasis of Dirkou: 50 immigrants died crushed by a truck that was too heavy, which overturned as it was making its way toward the Tumu Pass, on the border between Libya and Niger. In January a girl from Ghana, never identified, was torn apart by a pack of wild dogs before the eyes of her travel companions at Madama, the frontier between the two countries. The last known tragedy, two weeks ago: three Nigerian girls died of thirst one day away from Tumu, and 15 more were found dying with four men, abandoned in the desert by those who had organized their return. No one, however, knows how many bodies are really buried in the sand, far from the routes indicated by the maps: passengers killed by the fatigue, accidents, or robbed and then left among the dunes by the traffickers who were supposed to take them back home.

The trucks overflowing with immigrants, luggage, and desperation are the price of the agreement between Italy and Libya: the result of the raids launched by the Libyan government, after the pact signed on 25 August 2004 by Silvio Berlusconi and the dictator of Tripoli. It was supposed to stop the landings along the Italian coasts which, instead, have resumed in massive numbers in recent days. And the commitment of Gaddafi’s regime was this: to receive the illegal aliens rejected by Italy, seal the southern border with Niger, and repatriate the foreigners who had entered Libya from the south. It was a plan that had raised the doubts of European Union countries such as France, due to the Colonel’s low propensity for complying with agreements on human rights and refugees. But Palazzo Chigi and the Italian Ministry of the Interior had guaranteed for Tripoli: no one will be expelled into the Sahara, detention camps will not be set up in the desert, repatriations will only be made by plane. AN (Alleanza Nazionale) Undersecretary Alfredo Mantovano had repeated it in a TV interview: “From a certain standpoint Libya is, in reality, in the Schengen zone,” he had explained with satisfaction, referring to the agreement among the States of the Union. “The first political effect of these agreements is that Libya is taking back, into her territory, the illegal aliens whom it has not been capable of blocking.”

For six months the Libyan security apparatus has been operating in full swing. All the expelled foreigners tell of raids at dawn, house by house, or else in the street, or in front of workplaces. And of tens of thousands of persons confined in the detention camp of Al Gatrun (in the desert) and taken into the Sahara. This is the blocking action with which Gaddafi is seeking to please Italy and, at the same time, reducing foreigners in his own country. At least two million, according to estimates of a few years ago: half of whom were born in Subsaharan Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria, to Mali, to Cameroon. The Colonel in person had invited them to come work in Libya and had abolished entrance visas for them, back when he had proclaimed himself the leader of the continent during the years of the embargo. But now that he is again an ally of Europe and the United States, Gaddafi has filed away his pan-Africanism. He is no longer interested in defending the friendship with black Africa. More than 100,000 persons have allegedly been captured or convinced to leave; 14,000 foreigners were cast out into the desert in February alone, loaded onto the 72 trucks that crossed the border.

Traveling with the damned is not simple. It is necessary to bypass Libya, violate the absolute censure that covers the operation, and tackle a long trip from the south: ten days without stopping in the Sahara, amidst dunes and mountains, violence and pain. Nothing indicates the border between Libya and Niger. To the west is the Manguéni Plateau, and to the east the Tumu Mountain. The track runs right in between. There is no water, no electricity, no telephones. News gets around like in the year 1000: by the travelers’ word of mouth. Two days ago a humanitarian convoy of the French association “Les Enfants de l’Air” passed by here: 14 large all-terrain vehicles full of doctors and medicines for the region of Agadez. And their passage was the salvation for 19 immigrants, 15 girls and four men. They were skeletons when they were first spotted. First twelve. Then five. Then, during the night, two more. They were walking along the tire tracks left by the trucks, in different directions between the oasis of Tajarhi and Tumu, the last 220 kilometers of Libyan desert. They had nothing left. They said that for eight, maybe ten days, they had been eating their feces and drinking their urine to stay alive. They were Nigerian immigrants, from Benin, Togo, and Ghana. In mid-February they had paid for their journey on a 4x4 van, hoping to avoid ending up in the detention camp of Al Gatrun. But after one day and one night the two drivers, one Libyan and one Sudanese, forced them to get off and fled with their luggage, money, and water. There had been 22 of them, but three died. “We picked them up and medicated them. We stayed together for two days,” report the “Les Enfants de l’Air” volunteers. At night, to thank the good Lord, the girls sang a gospel song. We all wept. At Tumu the Libyan soldiers took them into custody. They told us they will send them back to the detention camp of Al Gatrun to prepare their documents for expatriation.”


A girl seated in front, when she discovers that there’s an Italian onboard, turns around and introduces herself. Bessy Mody, 27 years old, Nigerian. She is a “volunteer deportee”, in the sense that she is paying for her repatriation. She is traveling with her brother Jonathan, 25 years old and an engineering degree in Lagos, a plastic beauty case, and a bag with the electric blender she managed to grab when she was taken from her house in Tripoli. “Why did Italy do this to us?” asks Bessy. “I had a job; I was a cleaning lady. I didn’t want to go to Europe. A month ago the police picked me up at home and put me in a concentration camp for Africans, near Tripoli. The conditions in the camps in Tripoli and Al Gatrun are terrible. They take the youngest girls, even 14 years old, and make them prostitute themselves with the soldiers in exchange for the possibility to remain. You have to ask the European governments and Nigerian government for help. This is all a disgrace.” Her brother Jonathan spent four months in the detention camp. “I was a welder in Bengasi for three years. In August, after the agreement with Italy, the attitude of all the Libyans toward the immigrants worsened. My boss started to say that he didn’t like the work I was doing and wouldn’t pay me. Who knows why it had always been okay before. Every day you would find that one of your neighbors or colleagues had disappeared. We had to live in hiding like rats. I decided that the time had come to escape to Europe. I arrived as far as Lampedusa, on a boat, a “lampa lampa”, for 700 dollars. But no one had told me that Lampedusa was a small island. The Italian police caught us and brought us back to Tripoli by plane. I did four months of detention, but then I found my sister again. She had managed to hide some savings. So when they transferred us into the desert, to the camp of Al Gatrun, we left again immediately.”

The truck owner is a Libyan from the Sebha region, Ahmed Mansour, 35 years old. He’s in the driver’s cab, next to Yussuf, the driver born in Chad. “Italy’s beautiful; I wanted to go there next month for my vacation,” says the owner, “but with all these people to take back, there’s too much work to do now.” The agreement between Italy and Libya, it had been said, was supposed to stamp out the vile business of the immigrant traffickers. But with the expulsions, they are still the ones making money. Up until August 2004, the trip from Agadez to Al Gatrun cost 40,000 francs, slightly more than 69 euro. Now the return from Al Gatrun to Agadez costs 100,000 francs: two and a half months’ work for a skilled white-collar worker from Niger, six months’ pay for a foreign field hand or bricklayer in Libya.


To the west, a valley blanched by the full moon leads to the Salvador Pass, the smugglers’ route. Two more truckloads of immigrants have ended up overturned around those parts. Twenty-nine dead in one case, nine in the other. No survivors, according to official sources. Among them, it is said, are some persons expelled from Italy. But not all the bodies have been identified.

Box 1:

Africa goodbye
The raids and the deportations into the desert have not canceled the desire to escape from Africa. They have only made the trip more dangerous. The route for Libya and Italy has shifted to the west: from Agadez, the home base of all forms of trafficking, to Arlit, toward Algeria. Because the slave route, the traditional Agadez-Dirkou-Al Gatrun route, is now run by the trucks full of expelled immigrants, and from Tumu the Libyan soldiers no longer let anyone in.
The costs for crossing the Sahara have more than tripled. From the 45,000 francs, 69 euro, of early 2004, to the current 165 francs, 254 euro, for the route leading to Ghat, the Libyan town of red dunes that borders on Algeria. Almost every day two trucks and around ten 4x4’s leave from Arlit, the village of the uranium mines, in northern Niger. First stop, the well of In Azaoua. Then Djanet, where the most difficult part begins: a week to ten days on foot, to cross the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains and descend to Gat.
A route without water where often, once the money has been collected, the desert ferrymen abandon their clients in the middle of the rocks. Those who set off on the trip know that sometimes they risk dying and sometimes they risk arriving. At Ghat it’s not over yet. During these months of raids, only farms in the remote oases accept and exploit foreigners.
But to escape to Europe, the starting point is always the same: the beach of Al Zuara. It is from here that some of the boats landing these days in Sicily set sail. Mohamed H., a Libyan trafficker of 31 years of age, bought himself an old truck after having spent years stealing camels in the desert. He and his Sudanese driver know all the most difficult routes. “I carry the immigrants expelled by Libya as far as Chad and Nigeria,” says Mohammed, “and I take the illegal immigrants who want to leave back to Libya. As long as there is poverty, there will always be work for me.”

Box 2:

The agreements between Italy and Libya
Silvio Berlusconi says without a doubt, “Muammar Gaddafi is a great friend of mine and Italy’s. Gaddafi is the leader of freedom.” This is how the Premier greeted the Arab dictator in one of his visits to Tripoli following the agreement on immigration between Italy and Libya.
On 25 August 2004, the day of the agreement, from Tripoli Berlusconi proposed himself and the Colonel as examples for all countries of the European Union: “The model of Italian-Libyan cooperation for fighting illegal immigration should be an example for relations between Europe and Africa.” In its first six months of application, that model has already caused 106 deaths: foreigners residing in Libya, or having arrived in search of work or passage to Europe, who were captured and then expelled into the desert. Throughout 2003 the official victims of the traffickers in the Sahara, during the voyages that took them northward toward the Mediterranean Sea, had totaled 123. And one of the objectives of the agreement was precisely to stop the massacres.
But what does the Italian government know of what is happening in Libya?
In the first month of cooperation, the Minister of the Interior, Giuseppe Pisanu, had spoken of results that were “decidedly satisfactory, as shown by the intense activity curbing the traffic of human beings and irregular immigrants. This has permitted the repatriation to the countries of origin of many thousands of illegal aliens, of whom 4,500 headed for Italy.”
So the Viminale Palace is aware that Libya does not deport only those who have attempted to enter Italy. The agreement says, among other things, that the Libyan authorities are to control the borders in the Sahara and provide barriers against the immigration from the south.
On the other hand, especially for North Africans, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians, Tripoli has chosen a softer attitude. Just to make sure they don’t irritate the Arab and Maghrebian governments.