The driver jumps down from the Toyota HiLux, a pickup stashing five illegal migrants in its bed. He drops to the ground, gathering sand between his fingers, and watches as the tiny grains run back toward earth. He pulls out a compass, desperately trying to regain his direction.
Romeo felt worried. The nearest town in Libya was still hours away by car. Food was dwindling. Water low. If they had to walk, they would not make it.
“Lost in the desert, you feel you are not going to see your family again. You are going to lose your life,” Romeo recalls.
In the land of shifting sands and endless apparitions, losing your route is a death sentence. But for many, crossing the desert is the only path out of poverty.
There’s an old saying in Ghana: It’s better to suffer for something than to sit idle and die. For Romeo Baffour Amisare Dwomoh, who has paid for the schooling of his four siblings since the death of his parents, this is a mantra. “Sitting down won’t put food in my hand,” the 25-year-old says. “I can’t get anything [here], so I have to risk my life for something better.”
For many West African migrants, Libya is simply a transit hub, a stop along the way to Europe. Yet with higher average wages than most of Sub-Saharan Africa, it attracts thousands of young migrants like Romeo every year. They make the treacherous six-day journey through the desert, smuggling themselves across borders with forged passports, lathering oil on drums to keep water cool inside, and praying that strangers guiding them won’t lose their way in the scorching desert.
The journey starts with finding transport in the bustling market of nearby Techiman, a large city in Ghana’s central Brong-Ahafo region. Youth unemployment is high here, and opportunities are scarce.
Romeo first left for Libya in 2009, taking minibuses called trotros into Burkina Faso, then crossing into Niger. From its capital, Niamey, he boarded a bus crammed with 50 others that trundles to Agadez, Niger’s last outpost before massive expanses of desert.
As travelers stepped off the bus in Agadez, a cascade of voices called out destinations. “Niamey!” “Cotonou!” “Libya!”
It’s here that migrants like Romeo met “connection men” who found them transport.
Some connection men approached the buses, greeting travelers they’d met on a previous journey or family members also hoping to earn their fortune. In the chaos of crowds, Romeo chose the one he recognized or seemed the most trustworthy—a quick game of roulette.
Among the connection men is a hierarchy. Those calling out destinations lead passengers to the “upper connection man”. Police here know them by name and frown on their illegal trade. As in many places, small bribes smooth over differences and keep the underground network in business.
From the jostling crowd, Romeo arrived at a secluded compound. Once there, he waited. The connection man’s job is to gather enough passengers to fill a convoy of vehicles.
Romeo says he took the time to stock up on supplies before departing.
He bought a large plastic drum to fill with water. He slathered it in cocoa butter, a thick cream normally used to make chocolate but that also helps keep water cool. He also purchased a thick winter coat; despite the daylight heat, the desert cools at night. After three days, the convoy was ready to go.
Some trucks can carry as many as 200 people on the trip. At borders, migrants are stashed under merchandise, such as watermelons or tomatoes. Passengers near the top can feel knives jab them as border guards check the truck’s contents.
Travelers with more money, like Romeo, can take a smaller pickup truck. When smuggled through borders or past police checkpoints, five or six people can lie side by side in the pickup’s bed, under a waterproof tarp.
Supply containers are tied beneath the truck’s frame and all along its sides. They carry sugar, gari, a starchy powdered vegetable, and water— simple supplies for the long, bumpy ride.
There are no roads for much of the route, but the connection men know the path. That is, until a sandstorm stirs the landscape.
“They normally follow the sun,” Romeo says, adding that the connection men have been traveling the route for years. “But when the sun starts to set, they know which way to go.”
The drivers, who double as mechanics in case the truck breaks down, use a compass to ensure they are heading in the right direction. They carry few supplies, knowing that threats of military checkpoints and armed robbers mean the equipment might not last the journey. When they need to, they use makeshift tools.
They carry phones to communicate between trucks along the way, warning of checks or route changes. Sometimes drivers stash a weapon for protection.
On Romeo’s first journey, he saw a man in local clothing at the top of a rock. Those who had made the trip before warned it was a sign— armed robbers lay ahead. The bandits held AK47s as they demanded money, phones, and supplies. They beat those who refused. Two Nigerian women pleaded and argued with the thieves to return their money. (Many women travel the route with large sums of money, hoping to arrive in Europe or Libya safely.)
Romeo says he watched as two gunshots rang out. “We couldn’t do anything. We were sitting there shivering. Others were crying.” They left the bodies behind.
After Romeo’s truck was robbed, they were left with no food and just one barrel of water. For several days, he would urinate in a small bowl, saving the liquid to quench his thirst.
“You have to drink it for survival,” he says. “Sometimes, too, they give us a small bit of water. You will be taking a drop, drop, to everyone, just for a taste. To quench your tongue.”
Romeo was fortunate that his convoy was not far from the Libyan border, where there is an opportunity to restock before heading to Gatron, Libya. Life is left to luck in the desert.
Romeo tells of one car that broke down on the road, stranding its passengers in the heat. All 16 died. “You just have to bury them in the sand.” Another vehicle packed full of Nigerian migrants had an accident, injuring several women. But doctors are hundreds of kilometers away, and the weak and injured are liabilities. The wounded were left behind.
So far, about 40 or 50 young men from Romeo’s hometown of Tanoboase in Ghana have successfully made the journey. Romeo says Tano, the town’s river god, protects them. Nearby towns have lost many, but the steady work and high salaries remain appealing.
A Ghanaian company now offers a bus from Techiman to Agadez every Tuesday. Migrants climb on board, armed only with a pocket of bills and a prayer.
“Right now, even today, if you go to Agadez, you will see them there,” Romeo says. “Every day, they move.”