The Court of Appeals in Cairo had sentenced me to three years in prison in absentia, on charges of spreading false news. Overnight, I had become a fugitive. I had no choice but to run.
I was directed to a group of traffickers, and my friend advised me to be careful in my dealings with them; I was not to object to the orders I might be given during the trip. Otherwise, I might end up discarded in the middle of the desert.
My phone rang, showing an unknown number. The man on the other end told me: “You have to move now.” I packed a light bag. The hands of the clock were pointing to just a little before seven in the morning in Cairo.
I went to the train station and booked a one-way ticket to Aswan. I tried to call the number back for more information, but to no avail.
My anxiety grew, and I tried to keep myself busy reading the newspaper to evade the gazes of police officers roaming the train, questioning passenger after passenger, in pursuit of fugitives like me.
After a few hours on the train, I received another call, and was given a password. The speaker told me not to speak to anyone on the phone unless I was given the password. Shortly afterwards, I received another call, and the conversation began with the man uttering the same password. He went on to give me instructions to get off the train in a remote station. I arrived after midnight and found the station deserted.
"On the road of death, in pursuit of life."
An illegal migrant recounts his own journey through the Egyptian desert
My phone was almost dead when I received another call, commanding me to take a taxi to a certain location.
I reached the destination before dawn, where I was taken by masked men into a car.
We set off on a dirt road in the desert, on a trip that lasted for nine days, between March 16 and 25, 2016.
Despite the dark and rugged roads, the smugglers did not use headlights, to stay off the radar.
Most smugglers on the southern borders of Egypt are from the tribes of el-Basharya and Ababda. They have extraordinary capabilities for navigation through the vast dessert.
The Borders: The Crossroads of Migrants
We covered a stretch of desert, interrupted by just a few breaks—just as though we were in an adventure movie. Even the names the smugglers gave us were not real—as a security precaution. One of them told me wryly that his job was simply to get me to Sudan, and told me not to ask for anything more.
We took up residence in the shack in the middle of the desert; not even a tent. For five days and four nights I shared my life with the smugglers and 20 other Africans from Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. We all shared food, water, and sleeping mats. They were on their last stop to enter Egypt, and I was on my way out.
We met in the "storage" phase; that is, kept in a safe house in the desert, waiting for security conditions to improve. During this phase, they ensure that the road is safe for the resumption of the trip. These periods of rest were my windows to learning more about the other migrants and hear their stories.
The Egyptian desert is the path for illegal migrants, leading to Israel through Sinai, or to Europe across the Mediterranean.
I spoke with Michael R., a 32-year-old Eritrean man. He studied medicine at the University of Asmara, before he was forced to drop his studies to join the army, where he and his friends were used as fodder in the war against Ethiopia, as he put it.
This young man did not surrender to the policies of his country's "tyrannical dictator", Isaias Afwerki, and decided to leave to the north, in pursuit of a decent life.
He could not take the usual route. The young man could not obtain a visa, and his country does not permit young people to travel. He was left to try his chances on this fatal road.
Michael said illegal migration is a booming trade in Eritrea—growing with the rise of tyranny, and the increasing numbers of young men forced to drop out of school and join the army. An Eritrean pays $6,000 on average to flee their country to Egypt. Some decide to stay there, while others prefer to head beyond the sea to Europe.
"In our country, we die as victims of dictatorship and tyranny," he told me. "Death is inevitable if we stay, so why not look for life somewhere else?" Cognisant that the road could also lead to death, nonetheless, he said "at least we have a chance of survival".
He told me that he traveled for 10 days on foot and in cars between mountains, dunes, and rugged roads—thousands of kilometers away from civilization. He said some of his companions died of starvation on the way. He traveled with women, girls, and children. "It is a road of death in pursuit of life," he described it. "We bury the dead and keep moving."
Food and Drink
The cars moving immigrants carry water tanks, gas, and legumes, such as lentil and beans.The prevalent drink is a dark, spiced coffee popular in Nubia and Sudan, called Jabanna, which is prepared during the breaks.The coffee beans are roasted on wood until they become dark brown, put in water and mixed with ginger. It is offered to migrants as they gather around it in huddles.
One smuggler says this particular coffee helps to keep them awake on the road. It also helps protect against sunstroke and nausea while traveling, he added.
The women migrants prepare lentils and beans, while the men collect wood, light fires, and prepare the coffee.
Death on the Road
Some smugglers are younger than 20 years old; nonetheless, they drive through these difficult routes at extreme speeds. Many die due to accidents.
A few days before I arrived, a car had flipped over with its passengers on board, due to high speed. Some immigrants died, and they were buried in the desert.
The survivors had to move fast; they covered their bodies and moved on.
A Conversation with a Smuggler
B.T. is one of the smugglers. He told me it is a good way to make a living, albeit very risky. He said that his own family does not know what he does for a living—in efforts to keep them safe.
“At the beginning of the January 25 revolution, most of the migrants [from Egypt] were police and state security officers. But since the overthrow of Morsi, most migrants are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition, who were either up against prison sentences, or travel bans,” he said.
Moreover, he added that about 5,000 people cross the desert each month from Africa to Egypt, where there are 50 smugglers’ organizations, each handling about 100 immigrants per month.
He noted that illegal migration peaked in the early 2000s, with immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, and Djibouti traveling to Europe via the Egyptian and Sudanese desert. The numbers grew again after 2005, as these countries became less and less stable.
With regard to security, he said they used satellite phones, noting that all smugglers help each other on the road and communicate when danger is present. "We have our own checkpoints on the road," he pointed out.
Furthermore, he explained that there are dozens of smuggling routes—all of which are known to all the smugglers, who are also skilled in tracking all passing by cars, especially the border patrol SUVs. "Just by looking at the tire marks on the sand, we can know when they have passed, so we constantly change routes," he said, with a tone of pride in his voice.