Saturday, 26 January 2013

Decision time: Terrorist risk in Mauritania

We stayed in Dakhla an extra day due to the updating news about the situation currently spreading through the region of north-western Africa.  Terrorists from sects of Al Qaeda have been taking over northern Mali since March 2012, but over the past week have gained ground over the whole country.  The French military were called upon by Mali's government as well as the worried neighbouring nations.  The French responded, were supported morally by the UN and logistically by other European armies, and within one weekend had entered Mali to expel the extremist groups.  This made the terrorists spread out, crossing the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, looking for hide-outs as well as foreigners to kidnap for hostages or to kill.

I contacted my embassy, and as always, I was welcomed with a big, fat waste of time and passed from one person to the next - none with the authority to give advice on where to go or what to do.  Wojtek and I had both spent hours researching, conversing, and worrying about what to do next.  We decided to take the bus to the Mauritanian border and then cross the country to Senegal as fast as we could.  The one bus that was available was at midnight and arrived at 5am.

We had the rest of the day to worry some more.  News came in that Europeans and Japanese had been kidnapped and two British been killed.  The numbers swapped and changed whilst more towns and regions were deemed unsafe.  I started to backtrack on my plan to take the bus.  Then I met a Rastaman outside a surf shop.  He was Moroccan but after his father had travelled the world, his whole family became Rastafarian.  They sat me down, poured me some tea and fed me some homemade cake (no, not that type), and we sang some songs together with my ukulele.  I had a feeling that I met them for a reason.  They made me happy after my stressful day; they were there to remind me of the faith that I have in humanity.

I got on the bus that night.  Maybe it was a stupid decision.  Yes, actually, it was.  It was such a big risk to take and I know that my family and friends would suffer much more than myself if something bad happened to me.  I convinced myself that if I cannot face this fear then how would I ever achieve anything in the future?  I tell everyone I want to make a difference in the world, so giving up when faced with a fear of a possibility is cowardly.

I was frightened for the whole bus journey; I wore my loose traditional shirt and a scarf around my face showing only my eyes.  We arrived at the border and had to wait four hours for it to open.  A man put me in a Berber tent, complete with a small mattress and pillow, where I desperately got some sleep.

The plan was to pay a lot of money for a taxi all the way to the capital Nouakchott where it was apparently safer than the rest of the country.  Upon seeing the mass of cars and trucks lined up at the border at 9am, we decided to ask a few people which way they were going.  One question later we were in a truck which was heading all the way to Senegal.

Mauritania is the real desert.  Rolling sand dunes fill the skyline, the mirage of water touches the road ahead, and herds of camels roam the land.  One thing I never expected was the number of goats; every so often there would be a small group of them, or one alone up-side-down and dead from thirst.  These were special goats though; it seemed they were bred with Dalmatian dogs.  Maybe that it natures way of adding life to the Sahara.

 I kept my hiding-clothes and headscarf on for the whole journey.  Good decision; a pick-up truck filled with wrapped up men with rifles and machine guns passed us in a hurry.  My heart almost jumped out of my mouth.  My disguise fooled them.  Either that or they just didn't feel like kidnapping a British girl that day.

Abdililah, our driver, saw my face for the first time when we stopped along the route for some food.  He knew I was scared, so went to the shop alone to collect some supplies.  He made a big tuna salad that the three of us shared.  We had some time in the sun taking in the scenery, staying on the non-person-filled side of the truck.  The desert smelled sweet, flies touched your skin every second, the sun baked my body under my thick layering of clothes.

We arrived in Nouakchott in the dark evening, where Wojtek left us, for he needed to apply for a visa for Senegal whereas I can enter freely.  The traffic in Nouakchott is the worst I've ever seen.  Two lanes were occupied by four or five invented lines of vehicles.  You want to turn left... it's ok if you are in the right-most lane.  Roundabouts serve no purpose but to confuse people.  A concrete curb was what caught Abdililah out, as he was forced to drive along it, scraping the bottom of the vehicle until grinding to a stop.

We escaped the chaos of the city, took a short break for a hot meal, then arrived in the border town of Rosso to catch some sleep in the truck before crossing to Senegal the following morning.

UPDATE: Hundreds of people were kidnapped and around 40 foreigners were killed in north-western Africa over five days after the French military first entered Mali. They were all innocent victims and did not deserve this. My happy, fortunate story is dedicated to the victims, and their friends and families.

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