“Everyone steals from you on the way”

Each year thousands of Africans try to cross the Sahara to reach Europe En route, many die and many just get trapped, unable to go on and unable to get back home

Young Africans trying to make their way to Europe head back on board a bus bound for Gao in Mali after a stop.
Young Africans trying to make their way to Europe head back on board a bus bound for Gao in Mali after a stop. ALFREDO CÁLIZ

It's midday at the Binke Transport bus station in the Faladié district of the capital of Mali, Bamako, and the temperature continues rising. There are still four hours before the bus leaves for Sévaré, in the center of the country, but Sidi Djeri and Abdel Karim Coulibaly, aged 24 and 21, respectively, are already waiting, sitting on a bench, sheltering from the fierce sun. They barely speak French, and are from the nearby neighborhood of Hamdallaye. It's clear from the expectation on their faces that they are about to start a long journey. Asked where they are headed, they naively reply: "Algeria." They seem like the rest of the passengers, but there is something about them that sets them apart. They already appear lost, unaware of what awaits them down the road.

Bamako is filled with other young men prepared to undertake the long journey to Europe: they can be seen on any street, in any garage or workshop, at every crossroads, but at the same time they are invisible. "If you ask them, they may not admit it, but many dream of getting away," says Ousmane Diarra, aged 42. He's the president of AME, the Association of Expelled Malians, and says the appeal of starting a new life in Europe is a powerful one, but that the roads that lead to the Mediterranean must first all cross the vast desert, a terrible, treacherous place, ever-more difficult to penetrate, filled with danger. But even so, many still try, again, and again.

At age 32, Samakoun Dembele is already a veteran. He's crossed the Sahara eight times. He now works as a security guard in Bamako, barely surviving on 50 euros a month. He knows the prisons of Tunisia and Libya, and has spent time in detention centers in Spain and Italy, having crossed the Mediterranean on two occasions aboard a rickety fishing boat. "Along the way, everybody steals from you, the guides who take you through the desert, the police, the prison guards, bandits in cahoots with the drivers of the convoys. Nobody stops to think for an instant about anybody else," he says. "For the moment I'm staying here, but you never know, I might try again sometime."

Sidi and Abdel Karim have made up their minds. They are leaving. Now in their seats aboard the bus, they are silent, thoughtful, ready to begin. Next to them sits Lamine, a Guinean shaman in a suit and tie who says his homemade pills cure prostate problems in 24 hours, and barely gives them a glance throughout the journey. The bus, packed with more than 80 people, leaves two hours late. Barely 60 kilometers outside Bamaka a tire bursts. It takes four hours for a replacement to arrive. Back on the road, and with the town of Ségou behind us, the bus breaks down again. This time it's the drive shaft, which means waiting even longer. Sidi and Abdel seem unflustered by the delays, which are part of the reality of travelling in Africa. Like the rest of the passengers, they file off the bus and make their way over to the shade to begin the long wait.

The roads to the Mediterranean must first all cross the treacherous desert

The voyage from Africa to Europe takes many forms; it has a thousand faces, meanings, and paths. Young people are driven from their towns and villages of origin by poverty and the lack of opportunity, but have few ideas about what they expect from the future. Aboard buses, vans and trucks, they arrive in the great cities of Africa, where they prepare for the next stage of their journey. They find odd jobs that provide them with a small amount of money to pay for something to eat and somewhere to sleep, and for their fare when they resume their odyssey. The process can take years, moving on from country to country. And as they get closer to Niger, Algeria, Morocco, or Libya, the difficulties mount. It is impossible to know how many die of hunger and thirst, tricked as they cross the desert.

Back on the road, from Sévaré on, the signs of the recent war in Mali are visible, with burnt-out vehicles and destroyed houses the only welcome as we enter Konna. After passing Douentza, the bus breaks down again. Abdoulaye Ag Tanal, a Tuareg singer, takes his guitar and entertains everybody during the wait. Once the repair is completed, night suddenly falls, and it is no longer possible to continue the journey on to Gao. The army has closed the road. So we have to spend the night in Gossi, sleeping on rugs rented for 20 cents. It is cold in the desert, and we all try to find a quiet place to rest for a few hours.

In Gao, we become aware of the presence of the guides, who, for a fee, will take the migrants through the desert. A man who introduces himself as Boubacar Traoré comes up to the two young men. "Are you going to Algeria? I can help you." We decide to go with him, and he takes us to the Quatrieme neighborhood of the city, which is the starting point for the vehicles headed north to Algeria. We are told by Karim, a bad-tempered Tuareg, that the trip costs 50 euros to sit in the cabin of the truck, or 25 euros among the sacks of flour loaded on the trailer. During the war, the route to Kidal, the region bordering Algeria, was closed for several months.

At the moment, the road is open, and there is a constant flow of trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles taking advantage. The other option is to head east across to Niger. The road to the capital of Niamey is in good condition, and once past the border crossing of Yassane, there are no obstacles. The bus station at Niamey is filled with young men from Gambia, Liberia, Cameroon, Nigeria, and many other African countries, all with one objective: to get to Europe.

It is impossible to know how many die of thirst, tricked as they cross the desert

Abraham Mare left Banjul, the capital of the tiny state of the Gambia, wedged along the river of the same name, and surrounded on three sides by Senegal, 18 months ago. After crossing Senegal, heading north to Mali and Burkina Faso, he has landed up in a dusty, flyblown street in the capital of Niger. "I have no money: the little I had was stolen by the police, so I can't even choose where I'm going," he says. Nando Cuba, from the West African state of Guinea Bissau, is in a similar situation. He managed to get as far as Libya, and was about to board a boat for Italy, but was arrested, jailed, and then sent back to Niger. He is now working for six euros a day as a painter, and sleeps in a container.

Next door is the Cordon Bleu restaurant, run by Nathalie Niambelé. She looks to be still in her twenties, although everybody calls her mama. "I opened this place just over a month ago. I noticed that the boys who arrived aboard the buses had nowhere to sleep. I felt sorry for them, and so gave them food," she explains. She now sets aside one of the many pots of chicken and rice stew she prepares each day for the new arrivals. "I do it believing that God will help me, I cannot look the other way. They are good boys, they even keep an eye on the place at night."

Bertrand Fanko is among the young men depending on Nathalie Niambelé's charity. The 30-year-old from Cameroon left his home in the city of Douala in 2008, hoping to open a business. He travelled through Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, back to Mali, and then finally up into Nigeria. In the Senegalese capital of Dakar, he set up a small factory making fish meal for animal feed, but it went bust. In Bamako, he tried his hand at selling car-cleaning products, but that didn't work out either. "I told myself, why not try getting to Algeria, or Europe, like everybody else. Perhaps I will make a new life for myself there," he says. By the time he got to Niamey he was exhausted and flat broke, so went to the cathedral looking for a place to stay.

Samakoun Dembele, 32, left Mali in 2004 and has tried to reach Europe eight times.
Samakoun Dembele, 32, left Mali in 2004 and has tried to reach Europe eight times.ALFREDO CÁLIZ

Mauro Armanino, a 61-year-old Italian missionary from Genoa, who has been working here for the last three years, says he remembers Bertrand "perfectly." "I found him sleeping on a bench in front of the cathedral, and I convinced him to stay. These boys have nobody in the world any more, nobody knows they exist. We live in an economic system that needs permanent war, a system set up by colonizers who tempt people with the idea of a life of luxury, but who then break their promises and use violence to keep the colonized at bay," he says. Father Mauro helps the young men set themselves up in what are called foyers, houses inhabited along national lines. He hopes to persuade them not to continue their journey, and instead to make a life for themselves here. "They are so frustrated... In Europe they have no papers, and live badly, but they have arrived, they have made it, while those here are in the middle of nowhere."

Bertrand took Father Mauro's advice and decided to stay in Niamey, where he has set up another business. "When I was in Bamako, I had a friend from the Congo, called Mupao. Suddenly, I noticed he was dressing well and seemed happy. He told me that he was earning good money as a manicurist. I thought that this was something I could do. I went to a hair salon in Niamey and paid 30 euros to be taught how to do it. Now I go to the market and offer my services, either going to people's homes, or right there in the street," he says. He pulls out a plastic-covered photocopy of nails painted in dozens of different colors. He charges three euros per hand. He says the business is doing reasonably well, and that he is expanding: "Yesterday I learned how to do eyelashes."

I feed them believing that God will help me. I cannot look the other way"

In the city's Buropa neighborhood, which sits next to a vast garbage dump lit up by the fires of children looking for anything to salvage and sell, is the foyer of a group of young men from Mali. Ibrahim Ouattara and Demba Tandja spend most afternoons sitting at the bar of a street stall selling coffee. Boubacar Traoré says things are better in Bamako than they are here. "There is work there, you don't see people sleeping in the street. But if we want to go on, we have to pass through Niamey."

Niger, with a population of 16 million — and a soaring birth rate — is one of the poorest countries on the planet, despite holding some of the world's largest reserves of uranium, most of which is sold to France. The majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. The process of desertification, along with frequent famines, has pushed much of the population into the south of the country. Father Mauro says most of the young men seeking a new life are as poor as the locals, and simply add to Niger's problems.

For the moment, the majority of the newcomers will have to stay. Since the death last October of around 100 migrants whose truck broke down close to the border with Algeria, the authorities have prevented people from leaving. Little matter that those who died were local women and children working as temporary agricultural laborers. The story made headlines around the world, so the police have begun rounding up migrants staying near the border with Algeria, sending them back to Niamey and the south of the country. Nobody believes that the current situation will last for long. There is too much money to be made from the migrants, with police, drivers and guides all dependent on the trade.

Making the crossing to the shores of the Mediterranean is becoming more and more dangerous, but there is no sign that the millions of young men like Sidi Djeri and Abdel Karim Coulibaly, trapped in Africa, are about to give up on their dream of a new life in Europe any time soon.


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