|space image of Northwest Niger, Northeast Mali, and southern Algeria, showing the Azaouad / Azawad / Azawagh region and surroung geographic regions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|English: Tuareg/peasant near Tahoua, Niger, Africa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Tuareg people are spread across a large area of West Africa, settled and transient amongst other cultures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|English: Picture of tuareg nomads in the south of Algeria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I have just seen the first part of a two-part al Jazeera series called Orphans of the Sahara. It deals with the fate of the Tuaregs of the Sahara, long renowned as one of the toughest and most skilful of nomadic peoples anywhere in the world.
It appears from this superb documentary that they have reached literally the end of the line. Because of drought in their traditional homelands within the nations of Niger and Mali, many years ago thousands of them emigrated to Libya, where they were welcomed by Colonel Gadhafi, given work, and in effect joined the modern world, with its electricity, education, constant supplies of water, and instant communications with the outside world.
Following the death of the Libyan dictator, however, the people of Libya took revenge upon their support of these people for the deposed leader, and drove them out of the country, many thousands of them, forced to flee for their lives, which they did piled high on trucks along with all their belongings, to end up in the middle of the Sahara in either Mali, or neighbouring Niger. This latter state, Niger, is renowned for harbouring, whether willingly or unwillingly I am not sure, radical Islamists who have made a livelihood from kidnapping foreigners and holding them for ransom. I believe a former Canadian ambassador, Robert Fowler, when working as special representative of the UN Secretary-General to the Niger government, with special reference to their problems in the north with the Tuareg, was kidnapped late in 2008, and held for 130 days before his release could be negotiated. It has never been altogether clear who was responsible for his kidnapping, but Al Queda linked groups have been implicated.
In all, the Tuareg strung across the Sahara from Libya, through northern Niger, southern Algeria and northern Mali to Burkina Faso, number an estimated two to three million. Mali has a million of them, and they have engaged in at least three serious rebellions since the 1960s.
The Al Jaeera documentary records, in unforgettabe images, the return of these thousands of Tuareg from Libya perched on top of trucks, surrounded by their worldly goods, trucks that seemed almost on the point of collapse as they made their uncertain way through the desert, so overloaded were they. Once arrived these people, most of whom had grown up in Libya and knew no other form of life, found themseves in a countryside, basically a desert, with so litte water as to make their lives virtually impossible, The documentary records the visit of an earnest young man visiting the grandmother he had never seen since he was six, begging her to remember him, and clearly devastated when this withered old lady who looked as if she were only two steps from death, failed to even remember his existence.
“Our father never told us about the conditions of our family in Niger,” he said and was obviously appalled by being stuck in a place where the animals were dying, and the heat and lack of food and water was driving people mad --- two members of his family were insane, and spent their days wandering around, often hiding in the improvised wells that people dug in their desperate search for water. One of these persons actually disappeared one day into one of these wells and was never seen again. Many other people would climb down these wells hoping to bring up water, and find their lives snuffed out when the sand above them began to collapse and bury them.
I have seen --- it is impossible for anyone with a television these days to avoid such scenes --- many films of people in desperate circumstances, and I have myself been as a visitor to slums in Africa, Latin America, to impoverished villages in India and China ---- but I never remember having seen any group in such desperate straits as these dying Tuaregs of Niger.
It seems there were two groups of refugees from Libya, the first to Niger, who were beaten and attacked as they made their escape, and who arrived to a hopeless situation; and the second appear to have been members of Gadhafi’s army, who quit with their weapons, and arrived in northern Mali with the intention of creating there a new nation for themselves. There they formed with other rebellious groups (who had, incidentally, not long before lost their charismatic leader in a suspicious car crash) the Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA). Apparently, according to the documentary, they were shadowed in all their movements by a more ruthless group said to be affiliated with Al Queda, whose aim had nothing to do with creating a separate nation of Azawad, but was concentrated on establishing an Islamic republic with Sharia law. When the Mali government proved incapable of handling these two challenges, the French army was called in to re-establish the status quo.
The overwhelming impression the documentary left me with was that the dying Tuaregs of northern Mali were suffering primarily from the prejudice and racism of the Libyan people who (with Western support it must be said) eliminated Gadhafi. They it is who drove the Tuaregs out into the desert, where they have ittle choice but to die. Inhumane, brutal and dreadful in whatever respect one considers it.