NIGER: The Damned of the "Lampedusa of the Desert"
AGADEZ (Niger) – “Aboubacar Traoré! Nadim Issa! Didier Bina! Matteo Koffi!”
It’s three on a Friday morning in a bus station at the outskirts of Niger’s capital, Niamey. An employee from the transport company Rimbo yells out the window the passengers’ names. Almost everyone has slept in the station because they are just passing through. We’re traveling in a convoy for security reasons. Two Rimbo buses depart along with those of Sonef, the two best coach companies in the region. Owned by a mixed Arab-Tuareg family, Rimbo is considered to be sophisticated and precise. Tickets cost 19,000 francs CFA, about 28 euro. The vehicles are almost all new, have air-conditioning and two television sets. They travel twice a day, every day of the week, leaving at 4am or 2pm and going from Niamey to Agadez, the latter named the "Lampedusa of the desert", in 17 hours. If everything goes well. The engine begins to puff. We depart on time. The first stop is Dosso, 130 km south of the capital. About 50% of the passengers are non-Nigeriens. They come from different countries in West and Central Africa. After a few days bus-trip, they hope to get to Agadez and then continue toward Libya or Algeria by lorries or, if they have enough money, by 4x4 Toyota pick-up trucks. Only a minority wants to reach Europe. As you get close to Agadez, the historic gateway of the desert at more than 900 km from Niamey, the fear is to be arrested and sent back. Many have neither passports nor identity cards. Others are travelling with a sum of money not sufficient to bribe the authorities.
And here is in fact the first checkpoint at the exit of Dosso. A robust policeman, with dark glasses and a gun, starts asking for every passenger’s documents. The Nigeriens may remain seated. Foreigners, who also have documents, must get out of the bus. It’s the second time that I make this trip and I know that in my case – a Westerner of African origins – the decision to get out of the vehicle or remain seated is totally up to the policeman’s discretion.
"Are you Italian?" the officer asks while checking every page of my passport with great curiosity.
"Yes, but of Togolese origins," I reply.
"Ok, you can remain seated."
The policeman goes away with a score of documents in his hand including passports and identity cards and screams to the row of migrants who have been expecting him to go to the “security office”: a hut. After 20 minutes they’re all back and the driver resumes the journey. The same thing happens at the two following checkpoints. But once we reach Abalak the tension rises. A policeman starts slapping Mohammed, a Malian, using his own identity card. One by one, the non-Nigeriens get out of the bus.
"Are you Italian? Get out now! ", the skinny officer tells me in a matter-of-fact way while holding my passport.
Ironically, I’m relief. Only by disguising myself as a migrant I can see what actually happens at the checkpoints. The agents continue to scream and push while forcing us to enter the hut. Another policeman, with a deep scar on his left eyebrow, looks at us, laughing:
"Delicious meat packs we have here! If it were not for my colleague, I’d eat you all, one by one," he tells us.
I know that every minute in this situation is one more line in my newspaper. After a few moments, an equally aggressive military officer arrives while pushing in the hut a group of 7 young girls, Nigerians and Ghanaians, and their trafficker, a rugged 30-year-old Ghanaian. "I have paid double the tickets to the driver for every girl that I'm bringing with me”, he confessed me during the travel. “We will arrive in Libya in two days." John, not his real name, got on the bus at Tahoua with the girls after a journey from Cotonou, Benin. At least 4 of them did not appear to be more than 16 years old.
"All inside, all inside!”, screams the military officer, threatening to hit us with a kind of whip. “Sit down, sit down!"
A man from Burkina Faso doesn’t want to sit. He protests saying that "by force people don’t get anything." However, he’s clearly scared. His eyes begin to fill with tears. The officer with the scar trips him down: "Now take out 10,000 francs each, otherwise all of you will be soon in prison and you won’t leave this place!"
The harassment continues: "You, where do you come from?!" the military officer asks repeatedly to a girl too frighten to speak. With every word screamed at her, she slowly moves backwards until her back is against the wall. After moments of hesitation, she replies shyly: "From Nigeria". Suddenly, the policeman who requested the documents on the bus enters the hut.
"Be careful, there is an Italian in here!", he quickly points out in French. His colleagues look at him amazed.
"An Italian? Who's the Italian here?!". I let out a smile. They tell me to join them in front of the group and the questions begin with a much more contained tone: "What do you do? Where are you going?”
The policeman with the deep scar looks at me quizzically. After explaining them that I am “a photographer”, they want to see the camera. They inspect each photo and confiscate the equipment. "Go out of the hut and wait, please." I’m told. In the long 15 minutes passed under the sun, it’s not difficult to understand what’s going on: the passengers had to pay for their release.
After his "findings", the military officer comes back to give me the camera and says:
"Since you have all the documents in order, then you can continue without problems – he tells me in a tone of hypocritical professionalism –. Niger is a rule-of-law State. "
John, however, admits he doesn’t have any more money to bribe the officials. The bus driver tries to resolve the situation while the girls are pushed over the back of a police pick-up truck. The smaller ones are crying, the others have frightened looks. One is staring at me from afar with the hope that an Italian journalist might do something for them. While John convinces the policemen to be arrested to avoid abandoning the girls he’s trafficking, I rush onto the bus and snap some photos through the tinted windows. Agents get the group’s bags, throw them onto the girls and leave.
I transfer the images onto a USB stick to prevent the next officer from finding them in the camera. After more than 5 hours we reach the outskirts of Agadez. Here, too, despite my passport, I’m told to get out of the bus. As I walk in a single line toward the next detention-hut, I look up. An incredibly starry sky is a witness to the injustices that are committed daily in Niger along the migrants’ journey. Inside the hut, about twenty of them, passengers from another bus, are sitting at the feet of another military officer. He tells us immediately that: "Who will not pay 10,000 francs can go to that dark corner for the rest of his life without the document." Even here, they realize too late that they have an Italian passport in their hands.
"Who is the Italian?!" the officer asks surprised. After the same questions, they release me. The bus, by now decimated, reaches Agadez’s Rimbo station at 10.30pm.
*****The translation is mine.
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