It took a whole day to fix the engine and after that the drivers took us to wait while some people went to get water. For a day and a night they hid us from Algerian security forces in a trench. A woman who protested – they beat her with a hose. They had water in jerry cans but kept it to themselves. They asked us for money and told us to wait while they went for petrol. But they never came back.
Shafa (aged 14) went nearly a week in the Sahara without water – and survived. Revived by milk, rice cake and finally tea administered by a passing motorist: Mister Toad meets the Good Samaritan. Tea: the best drink of her life; brought her back to it when she could easily have ebbed away, like her sisters and mother, like the 87 others who died of thirst surrounded by whirlpools of sand.
Family visit – Shafa finally reached her grandfather in Algeria; or economic migration – this year, an estimated 80,000 bubbling up through Niger to the North African coast? As if the one precludes the other. As if it matters why they started out, crowded into the back of an open truck, sitting on top of god knows what; why they ended up walking towards Algeria in temperatures topping 45 degrees. As if any of this mattered when so many of them toppled over. Had to stop walking, had to sit down, had to stop breathing because, finally, even breathing was more than they could manage.
Whatever they were doing it for, it’s clear they weren’t on equal terms with the drivers, who took us to wait – notice the note of coercion. Beat down any complaints when things got hot, hot, hot; and lastly left their passengers stranded at a crossroads: walk; die; die and don’t walk; walk and then die anyway.
Who wouldn’t blame the drivers? Dirty little killers, we might call them. Gunning the engines and driving away with petrol in the tank and water in the can.
But these drivers had a way to go. Back in Niger, Algeria, at whichever end of the road that isn’t there (only constantly shifting sand), there were lives to be lived, roles to fulfil, chores to finish, demands to be met. The people they left without shade, standing in the full glare of the desert sun, were just shadows compared to real life. Easily abandoned; just like that.
No harder than me going upstairs now to eat the meal my children have cooked for me (‘Come on, Dad, we’re waiting!), immediately forgetting the baked corpses and the desert rats.