On the ground: A dark, dangerous journey across Niger to Libya
September 21st, 2011
10:55 PM ET

On the ground: A dark, dangerous journey across Niger to Libya

Dark shadows were lifting themselves off the sidewalk, slowly stretching, shaking the slumber from their limbs.

It was 6:15 a.m. in Niger's capital, Niamey, and I was setting off on a 12-hour drive, leaving its lush boulevards for Agadez, the sands of the Sahara, the desert trails to Libya, and the chaos Moammar Gadhafi's war there is causing.

The sun had yet to raise itself over the roofs but already the first hints of day were breaking the sleep of the destitute at the roadside.

I have seen poverty before, but even shrouded in the predawn gray, there is no mistaking it: People with little of anything save a public place to lay their heads.

Despite tough lives, the people here are warm, welcoming and hospitable.

"Bonjour," they say, hinting at their recent French colonial past. It seems to have overlaid, in part at least, their far earlier conversion to Islam. "As-Salaamu Aleikum," the Arabic greeting, is rarely used. Long French loaves - not Arabic flatbread - are on sale at tiny stalls.

We've already passed through the checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital before the countryside begins to take shape.

Gendarmes in what look like fading French military fatigues checked the car's documents and a man in orange overalls took a few dollars' road toll for the 950 kilometers, or 600 miles, we will drive.

The rope blocking our way across the road was dropped and we were released onto a strangely empty highway. Slowly the countryside began to show is colors. Gray shaded to blue, to a dark olive green.

Then in an instant the sun smothers everything, washing away the stains of the night. Our journey lurches into gear, no longer feeling like we're sluggishly passing anonymous vegetation. Our momentum, at least in our minds, increases as we streak past the newly revealed rich green towering maize, the thickly leaved luxuriant trees.

This land is green and fertile. Everything is vibrant in a way Timothy Leary could truly appreciate.

In the villages, strange, bulging, round mud buildings - like an oversize, slightly squashed rugby ball - mingle with mud and straw shacks. They have no door, only a scant straw roof: grain stores hinting at the bounty of the land.

Village after village, we pass them. The more there are, the bigger they are, the more grain is held and the more prosperous the people who own them. Lest this give an illusion of wealth, consider this: Most children we see are barefoot, and that's almost half Niger's people.

Within a few hours of leaving the capital, none of the villages have electricity, running water, sanitation, a building that's not made out of mud and straw. The slightly larger towns have slightly more. But that's all.

The farther we go, the villages become fewer and farther between. The muddy ponds, courtesy of the recent rains, shrink, and the striking longhorn cattle and goats jostle for a place to slake their thirst.

The tarmac on the highway begins to break apart. We slam into potholes, lurching, juddering forward. The bright greens are gone, the vegetation paler and browner here. The great trees have shrunk to tiny shrubs.

We are still 200 miles from Agadez. Grass covers some of the land, the grain huts are long gone, and quickly so is the road. We are no longer dodging potholes, we are driving in one big long one.

The cell phone service that has surprisingly kept us company so much of the journey has also disappeared. In over a hundred miles, we pass but two tiny towns.

This is what it means to be remote, where the land and sun are so unforgiving none can live, and this is where the bonds that tie a nation together begin to fray.

The crowds that gathered about the car with rounded faces we saw in the morning have by afternoon given way to the thinner, lighter features of the Touareg. Those features are often hard to see, shrouded as they are by turbans that wrap around the face.

By instinct, by life, by tradition, they are desert mountain people. Twice in the past two decades, they've risen up in armed rebellion against the government. Some joined Gadhafi's forces over the border in Libya.

The government in Niamey worries Libya's war will create instability in Niger. Officials publicly say they fear Gadhafi's weapon stockpiles could be falling into al Qaeda's hands. Privately there's another fear, that the newly liberated guns could one day be turned on the government in another Touareg rebellion.

But for now a Touareg rebellion seems the more distant possibility, because al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is exploiting the Arab spring and every crumb of opportunity that might fall unnoticed from the battlefield.

Their drug-, gun- and people-smuggling routes through the sparsely populated land we are crossing are hungry for the sustenance turmoil can bring. The more confusion and chaos there is, the easier it is to keep their networks hidden.

It is these last few miles to Agadez that worry us the most. Al Qaeda has kidnapped several foreigners in this remote region in the past few years. We don't want to be unlucky names added to the list.

While our driver is holding up well, almost 12 hours at the wheel, our fuel light has been on for a while. We've been running on reserve. He stops to top up the tank from a solitary liter bottle of fuel we purchased earlier in the day.

There have been no milestones for a while and the sun is edging down to the dirt of the desert. We're hoping Agadez will soon come into view. How far can a four-wheel-drive off-road truck go on a liter of gas? Then we see a red-topped stone marker come into view.

It reads 30 kilometers, 20 or so miles, to go. And not a soul around. We're racing the sun, our dwindling fuel and our fears. Each bend in the road I hope will be our last.

Can the red light on the fuel gauge be any brighter? Probably not; it's a trick of the fading light easily worked on tense, tired eyes.

Then, as if by clockwork, almost exactly 12 hours after we left Niamey, Agadez slips into view - low, dusty, dilapidated, but a delight to see. Uniformed gendarmes and a man in orange overalls greet us at the checkpoint, lower the rope and wave, their job for the day almost done; there can be few more drivers behind us.

The litter-strewn streets are cluttered with vendors packing up their shabby wares. Dust and smoke cloud the air, making it hard to see much of this town. With better light tomorrow we'll get a good look at this place where Gadhafi is rumored to have spent millions paving roads, putting up lights, even building a hospital.

A few hours later as I settle in to my bed, I can only wonder at the irony. Gadhafi is out there somewhere on the run, and I'll be getting a good night's sleep in the Agadez hotel he built.

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Filed under: Libya • Niger • World
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. sjdsh

    'the chaos Moammar Gadhafi's war there is causing' LOL...How about the NATO/WAR w/endless bombing? not a problem.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
    • STFU


      How about the NATO/WAR w/endless bombing? not a problem.
      Nato is not targeting civilians and infrastructure like Gadaffi now is, smart ass.....

      September 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kevininvancouver

    god bless hid murderous soul – may he find a cop in heaven to kill – amen!

    September 22, 2011 at 5:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. moses kestenbaum ODA

    Kill him, someone find Gadhafi and top him off

    September 22, 2011 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
  4. Halliburton v Nigeria

    1.) In the law case 'Halliburton v Nigerian citizens', where Halliburton was accused of bribing Nigeria's government into granting Halliburton access to the Nigerian citizens vast oil reserves, the case was settled out of court. Halliburton settled for an undisclosed amount, and paid that amount to the government of Nigeria, adding to the still undisclosed amount of bribe-money already paid.2.) Nigerian citizens are still denied access to their own oil reserves. If they were to be granted access by their own leaders, they would be among the wealthiest people on earth! (per-capita, obviously) 3.) What say you, banasy?

    September 22, 2011 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Hello

      Dude, Niger and Nigeria are different countries. Thanks for trolling though. Cheers,

      September 22, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mr. President

    Niger – a wonderful place for me to give military support to. They need a few more missles or maybe I should promote chaos there too? So many decisions to make. I better go on vacation again and think about it.

    September 22, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  6. Israel v Libyan citizens

    1.) This legal matter never saw the light of day in a court of law nor in The US mega-media. 2.) This case was decided out-of-court by the Isreai secret service, god's little helpers, the MOSSAD. 3.)March, 2011: Israelis are exposed recruiting 50,000 men from Libya's neighbor, Chad, the poorest nation on earth, arming them and paying them 200 US dollars per day to fight in Libya's war. 4.) Gadhafi is charged 2,000 US dollars per day for each man. 5.) As NATO forced bombed predominantly villiages populated ny citizens faithful to the Koran, Sura 2:191- "Slay them [invaders] wherever you find them", citizens and their families naturally fled into the desert. 6.) When the carpet-bombing ceased, these citizens naturally tried to return home. 7.) As they would arrive to find the rubble of what used to be their homes, they were labled 'rebels' and murdered by Israeli backed forces. 8.) 60,000 (as of about 1 month ago) have thus-far been butchered by Israel/Gadhafi forces. 9.) CNN reports that...(cont)

    September 22, 2011 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Truth Not HIdden

      Reportedly, Israeli officials met with Gaddafi's officials in Chad back in mid-February to bring the plan into action.
      The plan was to send tens of thousands of African mercenaries to Libya to slaughter the Libyans.
      There is plenty of evidence showing that is what happened in 2011.
      Lots of Israelis of Libyan Jew background strongly support Gaddafi, including his cousin Gita Boaron.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Israel v Libya

    Test?(trouble posting) Hay CNN! I'm just posting what you already reported. Wat's up with blocking me from shoving your own words down your collective throats?

    September 22, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Israel v Libya

    Bbl to try and finish. In the meantime, if anyone recalls CNN reporting that the CIA has been backing Gadhafi this entire time, pls. post it here. ty 🙂

    September 22, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  9. Onyilo Simon

    I dont agree with u that CIA is backing Gaddafi cos America is a pro-democracy country & they would do anything to ensure that democracy is installed in all countries of the world

    September 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kent in Dallas TX

    Israel & Libya...

    You claim that Israel
    recruits & pays black Africans to fight for Daffy Gadhaffy–who is dedicated to destroying Israel & killing all the Jews.

    You also claim that NATO is carpet bombing villages where the villagers are devout Muslims & that Israeli financed mercenaries help Gaddafy's murderous thugs kill devout Libyan Muslims.

    You are so crazy that all of the world's best psychiatrists & the best antipsychtic medications couldn't do much to help you.

    You are so crazy that no psychiatic hospital in the world would let you in.

    Your heart is so full of hatred that you have already damned yourself to the fires of Hell.

    You are hopless.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  11. adewale osifowokan

    Israel backing Gadaffi,is tale from the moon. Like to read chaves backing US.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Truth Not HIdden

      No, it is true.
      In 2011 the truth cannot be hidden.
      The world already knows about this.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dizz

    Being a barbarous tyrant was never a detriment to an alliance with the U.S, until the hundred years war we are engulfed in to this day. It actually seems like being a third world tyrant gets you a fast pass to a FREE TRADE AGREEMENT and an alliance. That's the way Foreign Politics works today it seems. Gaddafi saw this, that's why he played ball and signed up for IMF loans years ago, which is why he was given a reprieve. Remember a couple years ago he came to the US for a conference, and kicked people out of their homes so he could build a tent palace in their back yards in Maryland? He didn't play ball, however, when he began to set up an African currency which would help bring his nation and the rest of Africa out of poverty. Now he is the boogeyman under your bed. Its just another step along the road to renewed war. All the posturing that's been going on between the great power nations right now is a parallel to the posturing that went on during 1886-1914. Get ready for a wild ride.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dizz

      was instead of wasn't in the first sentence*

      September 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dizz

    Why is it the moment someone points out questionable activity by the Israeli government they are labeled an anti-semite? You can't talk about the Israeli government? They have corruption just like every other government in the world. I thought religious Wars in the West supposedly ended after the 30 years war? Why would the British set up a state "for the Jewish people" in an area that would obviously inflame millennial conflict? Couldn't they just as easily have picked a different, less inflammatory piece of real estate in their (at the time) vast empire? When Israel preemptively strikes Iran and starts a general war, I won't blame the Jewish people for this, although by the reasoning of internet warriors on this forum Israeli state=Judaism and Judaism=Israeli state, so they will probably be racist and decry the Jews universally.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ed Sr

    Certainly.................EVERYBODY wants to go to Niger or Libya........they are great vacation spots.

    September 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. felixelgato

    Where was the dark and dangerous journey? This reporter must have taken a correpondence course in journalism.

    September 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
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