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Monday, 7 May 2018

They tell us we are going to walk until we drop. They mean it. The hot desert is unforgiving on the feeble and the weak. Like a predator, it waits until its prey is weak and tired. Then it pounces. The one to be consumed struggles to walk, each step becoming as laborious as the last. Finally, fatigue sets in. The blazing sun beats down relentlessly, smiling, sapping whatever energy the unfortunate one has left. In the absence of sustenance, the body begins to shut down. It needs rest. It needs food. It needs water. The mind hallucinates and the eyes begin to see blurry images.

They only intend to rest for a while but the desert takes it as a cue to end the game. They close their eyes and never open them again. Dehydrated, if the heat of the day doesn’t finish them off, hypothermia will, when the temperatures plunge overnight.

And they die, becoming part of the desert. There is no burial. In time the flesh will rot away and turn into dust, the wind scattering it far and wide. The only testimony that they were once human beings will be the sun-bleached skeletons we see embedded in the sand as we walk by.

There are fifteen of us. Twelve men and three women. Our two guides, two vicious looking Libyans, bring our number to seventeen.

Our guides have done this walk before. In fact, they do it all the time. They are desert people and know every nook and corner of this inhospitable terrain. They make it their business to take people across, just like a ferryman would take people across a river. They don’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts. They charge money. A lot of money and it has to be in American dollars. A lot of American dollars.

They do not ask where we’re coming from or what we’re fleeing from. They are unconcerned about the famines, the wars or whatever calamity we left behind. It is not their business. Their business is to take us across the desert, past the many country borders and put us on a boat to Europe. From what I hear, it can be any boat – a trawler, a goods ship, a life boat – in fact, anything that can float and carry people. And that means as many people as they can possibly cram in.

The thought of being packed like battery-hens in the hold of a freighter, with no real individual space, is frightening. We’re all frightened. But when we think of what we’ve left behind, the danger of crossing the sea is worth the risk for the dream we want – a life in Europe.

In Europe, we are told, the White man will feed us, clothe us and house us. All we have to do is cross over. And that means crossing a desert and a sea.

We don’t carry much. I carry a small backpack with bottles of water, a stale loaf of bread, a T-shirt and some papers. Others just carry themselves. We cannot afford the luxury of bigger bags or suitcases. Nobody out here will carry your bags for you. And of what use is a suitcase full of old tattered clothes when new ones can be bought in Europe?

The desert is a strange place to be. It changes us all. The Muslim boys who were threatening to cut my throat when we first started out are now my friends. We have become united in a quest that has quashed all our cultural and religious differences. We want to go to Europe. To do so, we need to help one another. Team effort. We support each other as we walk. We cheer each other up. We bond. As we bond, becoming one, the desert and the relentless sun no longer have a hold over us. We can fight back. We have strength in numbers. We will win.

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