The 22-year-old Nigerian woman knew that traveling to Europe along the Sahara desert’s smuggling routes would be the most arduous experience of her life. If she had known how close it would bring her to death, she would never have left home at all.
Adoara and roughly 50 others spent 10 days wandering the Tenere section of the vast desert in Niger (West Africa) after being abandoned by their smugglers in an utterly barren expanse of land the size of Texas.
There is sand and only sand for hundreds of miles in the Tenere. As it shifts in the wind, it covers the rutted tracks of vehicles, and any sense of direction is lost. Slowly dying of thirst, Adoara resorted to drinking her own urine. She and the others buried the dead under the shifting sands until they were too exhausted to perform those last rites. Six survived, including Adoara.
Hundreds of thousands of mostly West African migrants fleeing war, poverty and persecution have crossed this stretch of the Sahara over the past few years. They scrounge together life savings and bet them all on a treacherous journey–first across the Tenere; then farther into the Sahara, into Libya; then the choppy seas of the Mediterranean–in hopes of a better life in Europe.
Once migrants are in Libya, many are bought and sold as slaves, and housed in fetid, disease-ridden cells while they work toward earning passage on boats crossing the Mediterranean.
The world has looked on in horror at the thousands who have died when their overloaded boats capsize at sea. And while more do perish on that final leg, so close to European shores, the sandy graveyard of the Tenere has claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
“I think we’ve overtalked the sea and undertalked the deserts,” said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.