For centuries colonialists have bypassed the Sahara. The largest sand desert on the planet was too hot and too impenetrable.
Now, Europe seems to have shifted its southern border to the Sahara in order to stop migration and combat terrorism. How do the inhabitants of the Sahara feel about this interference?
In Sahara, a new three episode series, Bram Vermeulen crosses the desert from west to east, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
He experiences the heat, the dangers of advancing jihadism, the desperation of migrants, the hidden world of slavery, uncovers human trafficking networks and he meets with locals in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
In the far west of the Sahara lies Mauritania. Ten years ago, this country was a busy crossing for migrants from West Africa to the Canary Islands, but since the Spanish coast guard have taken up patrols, no one has gotten through.
Mauritania is one of those countries that has managed to escape the attention of the world press. A country of sand where the first cities were not built until the 1960s, but urbanisation has brought many desert customs to the city. Notorious is the habit of force-feeding young girls with camel milk and breadcrumbs dipped in olive oil, a banned custom intended to make them more attractive on the marriage market.
It turns out that there is much more happening in Mauritania that they would rather hide.
Officially, slavery was abolished in Mauritania in 1981, nearly a century after the rest of the world had banned it, but activists are still fighting every day to free tens of thousands of black Mauritanians who are owned by others. They have no rights. They do not get paid. Women who have children, often by their owners, have to give their children their owners’ last names, and the children are not entitled to an education. And the battle against slavery is hazardous for activists, lawyers and the journalists who report on it.
Timbuktu was a dream destination for any traveller brave enough to cross the Sahara. Centuries ago, mythical stories were told about Timbuktu; the streets were said to be paved in gold.
In 2012 the city was taken by an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Ansar Dine Jihadists. They realised the dream of generations of Tuareg nomads: their own state, under the name of Azawad. Ancient tombs were destroyed and for nine months, Timbuktu lived under the strict sharia regime until the French army was brought in to free the city.
We meet the owner of the only bar in Timbuktu, the son of a mixed marriage between a Malian mother and a French soldier. It was this ancestry that saved his life on the day that the Jihadists took over the city. Everyone in Timbuktu has two identities. The local journalist who had to run propaganda for the occupiers to stay alive. The young women who were abused by the Jihadists, but then came back to celebrate and dance to a song that praises the ideals of their abusers.
Timbuktu it seems remains a dangerous city in the grips of an identity crisis.
For centuries, the frontier desert-city of Agadez was the starting point for travellers crossing the Sahara; the hub between West Africa and the Mediterranean, but the European migration panic has had a huge impact on Agadez. Under pressure from Brussels and in receipt of substantial payments, the government of Niger has adopted a law prohibiting the transport of migrants.
The law has left over 6000 smugglers unemployed. Their cars have been confiscated, many have been arrested, and most of the migrants in Agadez have been sent back to neighbouring countries of Algeria and Libya.
Today, Agadez is an angry city. The EU had promised alternative employment, but of the 6000 candidates, only 200 jobs materialised. The former smugglers blame their own bureaucrats who charged fees to assist them in filling in forms, but then sat back and did nothing.
Some of the smugglers have moved to the goldmines in the Sahara, indescribably difficult work in the 45 degree heat, and a far cry from their lucrative former employment.
There is a volatile atmosphere in the streets of Agadez. Monday always used to be the day of departure for the smugglers. Can it be that the smugglers of Agadez have found a new way to circumvent the wishes to Europe and the blockades?