High Tailing it out of Morocco and not a jolly Christmas on the Mauritanian border

Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.

I spent the day explaining Betsy’s drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone.

When I got to the Mauritanian customs I skipped losing my mechanic, losing my driver, the tons of metal I had left behind in Ceuta after 2 weeks of deliberation, the changing of Betsy’s “military aspect” into a hippy wagon, the cost of these trucks transport and the refugees project ahead. So I kept it to the past few days of this inadvertently epic journey. 

I skipped also how en route to Marrakech Betsy began her farting again which I had a Marrakech professional look into and then en route to Agadir a piston blew on me near a lovely lake and how Mocktar my Moroccan guide and his cousin Abdullai came to the rescue and before I knew it I was sailing across the a Sahara on the back of a breakdown truck. 

I jumped forwards to the present and how I had solutions to be towed to Bamako if only the custom’s chief would give me the normal tourist “laisser passer” which allows me to pass through the country rather than the normal lorry escort he was threatening to the Mali border. I even plunged into the whole refugee project ahead – something I have always kept quiet on official business as its amazing how much suspicion one arouses mentioning refugees – in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him. 

Despite the custom’s chief’s kindly face all was to no avail. My only options were: 

– put my truck onto another (towing not possible) and be escorted with all the freight lorries to the border, paying for the escort and of course my carriage. Arguing that Betsy is not exactly a lorry lorry, I have no merchandise, I am using her as a camping vehicle essentially, she is 57 years old….did not wash. 

– leave her at the border get my parts and return to repair here and drive her through Mauritania.

In that barren, sandy wasteland, the light went out on my journey, and like that crunching metalic thud that shuddered my hopes when the piston blew near Agadir, or the moment George announced he couldn’t be a driver, or when I lost Joe the mechanic and when the Moroccan customs couldn’t see beyond Betsy’s “military aspect”, I knew I was fucked. But this time – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps because this journey has broken me financially, and certainly because I realised that even if I passed this hurdle, I no longer had the resources personally and financially to climb anymore mountains – I could spy no chink of light.

So I packed up my personal things with my friend and guide Cheick and left Betsy at the border to go into Nouadibou wash, eat, drink, sleep. Cheick took me back to his family home. They fed me and watered me like one would a camel after a long caravan. 

I wasn’t able to stay at Cheick’s house. New security measures – all “tourists” (euphemism for white people) have to stay in hotels “for their security”. Don’t you love it! If I was looking for a tourist to kidnap, was I more likely to find my prey in a hotel or by searching all the houses of Nouadibou? But logic doesn’t work with security measures – the world over in my view, not just in Africa. It is just important to have rules, to have put in a measure, reacted. If someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb but they fail miserably, rather than laughing at their craziness we check everyone’s shoes when they get on a plane forever more. Thankfully the underpants bomber did not have the same effect – decorum bing more important than security I assume. But I’m drifting…!

So here I am, Christmas night, the only guest at Ali’s campement, everything seems to be over, the whole refugee return project hanging on a thread. As I lie down to sleep I have no new ideas other than turning up at the camps with a landcruiser and driving Radwan home and then relaying his family back to him and leaving it at that. I can still make a little effort, but its not going to be the caravan. 

What a Christmas.


Dawn has come, the sun is out – at least its warm here! – and something is bubbling away inside my head. 

If this journey has been trying to tell me something perhaps it is that these trucks are not my answer. They are a hinderance, a burden and I possibly should have been bold in Ceuta having lost Joe and done something that was fluttering in my head all the time: go it alone.

And if this campaign, 7 months in the making, has indicated one thing it is that I am best alone: whenever I have sought outside help I have been thwarted, cornered, delayed, frustrated and betrayed by others’ interests.

I have to work this out now from within the refugee community.

Perhaps  now I need, perhaps, to start shouting loud. I’ve been too cautious. Now I must just be bold, say it as it is and use my trump card. 

I can’t say too much about this for fear of scaring it off. It’s an ace card, someone who has it in their power to enable me to help the refugees. If I play it I have to be sure, I have to play it well.

Full speed to Bamako without the burden of vehicles, travelling as I like it: alone, on foot with my resources in my head and in my bag.


Boxing day I returned with Cheik to the border to decide what to do with Betsy. Either I give up now, and take her back across the Mauritanian border into “no man’s land”, a 5km chunk of mined desert between Morocco and Mauritania, a place littered with the carcasses of cars and trucks, where deals are done on vehicles between borders. There I’d park her up and Cheik would come each day, as he does anyway to help tourists through the borders and hope to find guiding business, and slowly he’d sell off Betsy’s parts or sell her whole.

Or I leave Betsy with customs at a charge while I go off and find her parts, do my business, come back and repair her. This would involve more spending on a truck that had lost its purpose. If I left her with the customs and didn’t return they’d sell her off themselves. I’d prefer Cheik to gain something. So caught between customs and no man’s land!

 Cheick wanted me to make my decision but I felt I had to give the chief of customs one last go. Cheick said it would be impossible, no way would they give me a laisser passer because they knew I’d get Betsy towed.  I was going to go for all or nothing. I wanted the laisser passer, because I knew I had the big man Oulibou waiting in Nouackchott and he owed me cash. He had already told me he had a truck that he was trying to sell and if he couldn’t he would take it to Bamako and could tow me. 

So the only solutions that suited me were leaving the truck for the wolves in no man’s land and forgetting it, or towing it to Bamako with Oulibou. The latter demanded a laisser passer.

The chief has a kindly face and I felt there was sympathy yesterday.  When I braved to tell him about the refugees his response was “you should help those in Mauritania too.” I jumped on that: “I am. Many of those in Burkina have relatives in the Mauritania camps”.

I explained to the chief that I’d tried to look for a breakdown truck to put Betsy on but not found anything (a wee lie, Cheick had told me they don’t have them in Nouadibou). I told him about my solution for towing all the way to the Mali border so if I could just get a laisser passer I could resolve my situation. If not, then I will have lost everything.

He interrupted: “I’ll come and see the vehicle”. My heart jumped, this was the opening I was looking for.

I waited and waited, hardly daring to hope. Eventually he came while I was scoffing a sandwich “No – continue eating” he said as I put my food aside “no, no not at all” I replied. He took a brief glance at the truck and turned back to his office.

About an hour or so later Cheick came back to me: “he’s giving you a laisser passer!”

Oh my God. Last night it was all over, I was resolved to going on alone by foot, and almost looking forward to it, but the loss of Betsy was hard to take. Suddenly its all back on. All I need to do is get her to Bamako. From there I have her forever. Now I just need to find a tow to Nouackchott!

Not sure I can cope with much more of this see-saw ride. What more is ahead?

Why am I doing this and why should you care?

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help – it’s a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

For me it’s not just the humanitarian principle of a state and an international politics that denies and ignores a cultural catastrophe that is happening to the Tuareg, some of the world’s last real nomads, whose ancestry recedes and branches back from the guardians of the Sahara to the Berber and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Moors of the Alhambra in Spain, protectors of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, to the shores and the sails of Phoenicia and perhaps, some say, on backwards to the centre of western tradition, the family of Israel. Are they the lost tribe of Israel? If they were this would explain the world’s blindness and deafness: it’s in our DNA!

For me it is the politics and mythology of the war on terrror, which is fundamentally the west’s war to wage on wherever it finds its strategic interests lie, that has driven the Tuareg to this catastrophe. Radwan Ag Ayouba’s story is testimony to this: in his 90 or so years he has weathered every Saharan storm thrown at him from drought to sword war fare to rebellions. He weathered this crisis – the rebellion, the coup d’etat, the MNLA take over of Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda occupation right up to the French “liberatation” and then he fled Timbuktu and Mali for the first time in his life, leaving all his livestock behind. The international world, represented by the French military, the UN agencies and 12,000 peacekeeping troops have been present on the ground in Mali for the duration of Radwan’s exile. During the past 6 months he has watched peace return to his country, a president elected, recent legislative elections done and dusted with no incident, tourists coming back and yet he is withering away in exile aong with most of the Malian population of his colour.

If Mali was in Europe, if it was say Yugoslavia, you’d know what was happening, but the only time you hear about Mali is when something happens in Timbuktu. Moreover, in the coming years, military chiefs would be hauled up before the Hague. No one will face justice for the campaign against the Tuareg, that’s for sure: no one has ever been put before a court for any atrocities committed against the Tuareg, and they have come after every rebellion, the camps are full of the testimonies.

I hear, though I cannot confirm, that the 2012-13 exodus from Mali is the greatest migration of people from the Sahara region ever. How often have you seen images of the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger on TV? Often enough to justify one of the biggest ever migrations of people in Africa? And what do you know about what drove them to migrate? Have you heard the term “ethnic cleansing” or a ‘colour war” applied to the Mali crisis? If not, why not when 95% of the refugees are light skinned Tamashek, aka “Tuareg”?

Before this journey, over the past 6 months, I have tried every angle I could to seek support for helping the refugees begin returning. The conditions are there for it to be possible, but they are stuck in political limbo. The UN will only help them back once Mali signs off that it is ready to take them back.

Meanwhile all the people of the north – Songai, Arab, Peul – are suffering. Those who are in, say, Timbuktu, suffer because without half the population the economy cannot get going, many displaced people within Mali (225,000 according to UNHCR) wont return because nothing is happening, and the refugees don’t go back because they have no means and they are not sure what humanitarian set up awaits them because they get no information.

The UN will only support the refugees to go home once the Mali government has signed off an accord with the UN to say it is ready and prepared to have the refugees home. Why isn’t it ready now? There are 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, with the French in force as well, all the UN and NGO agencies needed to reconstruct, development money waiting to come in: the country has never been safer. They have an elected president and have had two country wide elections. Peace is back and yet the refugees can’t go home.

The refugees are on their knees, many have been out of Mali for 2 years, all have had to support themselves with anything they want other than 12 kilograms of rice a month which is all they receive from the UN. Their resources have depleted, their animals stocks are again decimated or totally lost, their lives have been turned upside down, their children have missed out on education, students’ degrees are on hold, lives are all in limbo while the government and international institutions that should be looking after them continue to play the politics which got these people into this mess in the first place.

This journey aims to be a spark to bring this issue to light.