The checkpoint on the way out of the Saharan town of Agadez in Niger is nothing more than a long metal chain that stretches across the road. On a Monday afternoon in March, a handful of pickup trucks and lorries loaded with migrants mostly from southern Niger waited quietly at the barrier to embark on the long journey up through the Ténéré desert. An overweight officer inspected the vehicles and then invited the drivers to show him their paperwork inside a somber-looking shack on the side of the road, where money most likely changed hands.
Every Monday afternoon a convoy, protected by an escort of three military pickups, two mounted with machine guns, begins its arduous journey toward Dirkou, 435 miles away, on the road to the Libyan border. Protection has long been needed against highwaymen—or, as they’re called locally, coupeurs de route. These disgruntled Tuareg youths and former rebels roam the foothills of the Aïr Mountains just beyond Agadez. If a vehicle slips out of view of the escort for even a moment, the coupeurs seize the opportunity, chasing and shooting at the overloaded vehicles to relieve the passengers of their money and phones—or sometimes even to take the cars. A cautious driver sticks close behind the soldiers, even if they are pitifully slow, stopping frequently to sleep, eat, drink tea, or extract bribes from drivers trying to avoid the checkpoints.
The first 60 miles out of Agadez—a journey of about two hours through the mountains—were the most hazardous. But then we reached the dusty Ténéré plain. As darkness fell, lighter vehicles picked up speed, making good headway during the night as the cold hardened the sand. Sleepy migrants, legs dangling over the side of the tailboard, held on to branches attached to the frame of the vehicle to keep from falling off.
The following day, there was a stop at Puits Espoir (“Hope’s Well”), midway between Agadez and Dirkou. It
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