A convoy of two trucks, carrying over 100 people from the small town of Arlit in northern Niger to Algeria, broke down just over the border and the convoy ran out of water during the day it took to fix the problem. Northern Niger is in the center of the Sahara desert. Ninety-two people died of thirst.
The news of this tragedy quickly spread throughout North Africa and then worldwide. The present account is based on the testimony, given to the BBC on Oct. 31, of a 14-year-old girl, Shafa, who was going to visit relatives in Tamranasset in southern Algeria. (bbc.co.uk)
The details are horrific. Over 5,000 people a month, according to the United Nations commission on refugees, have followed the same route and faced the same dangers. Only those who otherwise have no hope for the future and live in total poverty would be willing to confront such dangers.
Some died when the well they tried to use only had enough water for a few people.
Facing a truck breakdown, the drivers decided to return to Niger. One truck left to get water, but people started dying before it returned. The drivers asked the migrants to hide in a ditch to avoid Algerian security.
They spent three nights without water before the truck came back with some.
Once the trucks made it into Niger, they put the dead bodies on the ground; mothers first, then their children on top of them.
After one of the trucks ran out of gas, the other left to get some but never came back, and the group started walking after a few days.
Shafa buried a younger sister then. The next day, she buried her other sister; the day after, her mother. Some passersby gave her some water and tea, and she managed to make it to Arlit. She now is living with an aunt since the rest of her family is dead.
The U.N.’s Human Development Project ranks Niger as the poorest country in the world. Some migrants passing through northern Niger go on to Libya and try to get to Europe from there.
Others aim for Algeria. Half the countries in the world are poorer than Algeria. This makes Algeria attractive for Nigeriens living in the northern part of Niger, which is the poorest part of the poorest country in the world.
During its colonial rule, French imperialism did little to develop Niger or any of its West African colonies. Niger won formal independence in 1960, but has remained in the French economic zone as a neocolony. There was a short-lived boom from uranium mining in the 1970s, but ever since, drought and economic collapse have been the rule.
The extreme poverty in the country and the low-level conflicts flowing from the competition between French and U.S. imperialism to control the center of Africa have destroyed any possibility of a tourism industry.