In the deep South-Western corner of the vast sweltering Libyan Sahara, on the edge of the Murzuq sand sea, lies a desolate village of 3,000 people. The first thing you realise upon entering the village, apart from the lack of paved roads, is its isolation and bleakness. A couple hundred houses grow outwards from the mosque and then beyond that just open barren desert as far as the eye can see. But Al Katrun could be in for a monumental makeover with the UN to decide today whether to back the five-nation strong joint security resolution. Consisting of the deployment of 5,000 troops stationed in the surrounding regions at a cost of $400m in the first year. This major operation has backing from western European powers mainly France and Italy, but has met resistance from the Trump administration opposing a multilateral initiative. With so far only $125m being raised. The operation is aimed to put an end to the endemic levels of people-smuggling that passes through this part of the Sahara from West Africa on route to the Mediterranean, with Al Katrun sitting at the epicentre of this deadly trade. A trade that has seen over 30,000 killed since 2014 in the Sahara, and a further 10,000 perishing at sea.
Al Katrun sits as a logistical hub for human trafficking as it acts as the connection point between the two main roads coming North from Algeria and Chad/Niger. I had come to Al Katrun as a sort of bring your son to work day. Only my dad’s office was in the middle of the Sahara, accessible only by either plane or a 4-day drive in 4×4’s across mostly rough dirt roads. We had chosen to go for the latter. With Al Katrun the last fuelling point for our convoy of Toyota land cruisers we drove in as we continued our journey south towards the Chad border and the prospective oil acreage. As you near Al Katrun you notice something you had not come across during the past three days of driving. First, a steady constant stream of bulky, ragged, black smoke spluttering trucks. Piled high with, blankets, bicycles, water tanks and people at the top.
Each passing truck would beep their horn and the covered-up men sitting precariously on top of their belongings would wave joyfully. I remember their smiles vividly, as their white teeth would contrast against their dark head wear. We were greeted warmly with a mixture of either French or English.
Upon entering Al Katrun there is a distinct mood change. Endless litter and flies appear everywhere, hundreds of people sitting on the dark earth, under any shade they can find, all along the road stare aimlessly into the desert oblivion, where many have perished. The trucks are now lined up, flanked either side by armed smugglers and rusty pickup trucks.
There is constant shouting as the passengers are made at gun point to get off the truck and be counted. While the driver speaks with the rag tag checkpoint officers. The process can take anywhere from five minutes to five hours depending on how much the passengers are willing to grease the armed patrols palms. Some trucks are even taken out of the line and forced to have their luggage completely removed and searched. The rules in Al Katrun rests firmly with those that have control of the guns and thus the violence.
Our western convoy is waved straight on and within a couple minutes Al Katrun is a mere spec on the rear mirror, replaced by the familiar back drop of endless sand dunes. The sight and memory of Al Katrun has never left me seven years on. The tremendous joy I felt on this escapade with my dad I naively felt was mirrored upon the faces I first saw when we approach Al Katrun. Though, upon passing through the village the similar faces had now changed to fear and helplessness. Leaving me to wonder the duality of those two moments and what horrors lay ahead for the thousands of men that pass through this minor pit-stop on their perilous journey to a better life, and what had caused them to leave.
With the bloody civil war culminating in the overthrowing and slaying of Gaddafi in 2011, Al Katrun bore witness to heavy fighting between the Gaddafi loyalists and the Libyan National Liberation Army. It remains to be seen who as of now has control of this strategically located village, and whether this UN plan can institutionalise and formalize such an easy money-making operation. With the Libyan desert still awash with countless waring militias it seems unlikely that this deadly trade will be stopped anytime soon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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