The heat rose as we followed the track, up a barren escarpment, down along a low ridge, opening at last to a wide valley floor.
Ahead the city of tents lay cowed by the land, in the shadow of the mountains. The camp had no name and it was not marked on any maps. Officially, it did not exist, but Samir knew it well, as did his father. Its perimeter was marked by woes, encircled by thirst, imprinted with hardship. Its inhabitants were Izeggaren – of the Harratin nomads who originally came into central Sahara from the oases of Tidikelt. They fled when northern Mali and Niger were at war.
Inside the tent the stench of sweating bodies was overpowering.There was no water for washing. A green plastic bag stood out like a warning; bright orange and violet Tshirts hung like flags; around the sides of the tent proud fathers hovered hawk-like. Soup was on the go on a gas stove. Women were diluting fizzy drinks in neon colours.
Mothers dressed in black with kohl eyeliner cradled babies while other children lay listlessly on mats, the girls with veils deftly draped, the boys with oversized tops over too-short trousers. Flies formed black rings at their mouth edges, although only the tiniest seemed disturbed by them.
‘Will you ever go back?’ I asked the young woman in the red dress.
‘We do not want to. It is too violent.’
‘So, how do you survive?’
‘We remain positive for the sake of the children.’
‘And what is your dearest wish?’
‘We hope the world will remember us one day.’
Samir was silent. This was not the great desert he had wanted to show off to me.
The prettiest little girl began to cry as I got up to leave. ‘Which people are yours?’ the woman said, tracing her face with her pointed fingers.
‘I’m not sure who my people are,’ I told her. Her dark eyes met mine, but even in the light I could not fathom their depths. How far she had to travel before she came to her dreams. How she craved the foreignness that I was cloaked in. How I reeked of it, this so-called winning streak of the West that she longed to savour, of which she had heard so much. How little I had to offer in response. I had nothing to give her but my inadequacy.
Niger’s border with Nigeria closed after Boko Haram tried to set up a base there and this has had far-reaching consequences in the region. When the Tillia, Tazalite and Intekane refugee camps in north-eastern Niger reached bursting point, around 300,000 refugees from sub-Saharan countries became doubly displaced. Out of these 3,600 people have been granted asylum in the West. For the vast majority, it is not the golden backdoor opportunity to enter Europe that they had dreamed of. It is a prison sentence.
Nowadays more and more people fleeing the violence in Niger, Mali and Libya flood northwards. Most do not make it. Only recently, ninety-six migrants’ bodies were found, among them women and children, who died of thirst after their vehicles had broken down. They were journeying from Arlit, ninety miles south of the Algerian border.
The people who live here survive in the face of their homesickness. Water for washing is rationed to once a month. There is not enough food to feed the children and, thanks to the irony of medicines made available by charities, the population is growing.
We waved our farewells and became small dots among the other dots fading on the horizon, locked in the spiral of our own frustration. Tribal feuds and conflict have caused many battles in Africa, but the greatest enemy of all is poverty.