Between 1990 and 1995, various Tuareg groups rebelled in Mali, with the aim of achieving autonomy. By 1994, the rebellion had been quelled almost completely; only a few small militia groups still roamed the desert. Several NGOs, including healthcare outfits, reached out to assist the local population in smaller villages that were spread across the desert by setting up small medical camps. To increase accessibility to the locals, the camps moved location every fortnight. Being located deep in the desert, traditionally Tuareg territory, the local government was unable to provide security for them.
In the summer of 1994, one of these camps was attacked. Three doctors and a nurse managed to escape with a driver. For twenty-four hours they were chased across the desert by rebels. This is their story.
The Driver heard the shots in the distance and ignored them. They were louder than a few minutes back; which meant they were getting closer. The 4 others in the car with him were silent. The only woman among them was holding a small cross in her hand, her head bent in prayer.
The wheels of the Land Cruiser Troopie spun again, digging itself a bit deeper into the sand. He cursed softly under his breath and laid off the accelerator. He put the car in reverse, slipped the 4WD into a lower gear and slowly gave it some gas. The wheels spun, grasping for traction and kicking up sand, but there was none to be found.
Slowly, he turned the wheel from left to right and back again, letting the spinning wheels move the sand out from around them. He stuck his head out of the window and looked at the pit around the front wheel. He hoped it would be enough. He straightened the wheel and gave it some gas; the Troopie inched its way back out of the sand rut and back on to firmer ground.
He heard the shots again; they seemed to have moved away to the left. Sound carried further in the desert at night and it was hard to be sure. The dunes were the only thing that had saved them. On a flat stretch, they’d have stuck out like a tree on the barren landscape. The only other thing that would give them away now, was sound.
“Stay in the car and don’t make a sound. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” He told them as he softly opened the door and stepped out without waiting for an answer. He was careful not to close the door behind him; it would have made an unnecessary sound.
His car was about halfway down a gentle decline of a dune. He slowly walked back up to the top, feet digging into inches of sand with every step. At the top, he lay down and surveyed the land. He hadn’t bothered to get the binoculars from Dr Swain — they wouldn’t have done him any good in the dark. There was a sliver of a moon and he was thankful for the darkness. It provided an extra modicum of safety.
He looked to the direction where he’d last heard the gunfire. In the distance, he made out 3 sets of headlights and he could hear the faint sound of their engines. They were about 2km away, he estimated. By the way they were fanning out, he guessed they were looking for tracks — which would be nearly impossible to find in the dark. Or so he hoped.
He surveyed the rest of the land around quickly before returning to the car and laid it out for them. “They’re searching for us to the east. With any luck, they won’t find our tracks in the dark. They might just hear us if we continue to drive. And I can’t study the sand in the dark, so we can easily get stuck in another sand bank. I estimate that we’re about 200 km north of the Agadez. That’s a 6-hour drive in this terrain. We stand a fair chance of outrunning them. Also, the army should have patrols out looking for us.”
The woman spoke up first. “So what do you suggest we do?”
“That we stay put for a few hours. Right here. They can’t see us because of the dunes. We start again at first light.”
“Is that really the best course of action? If they’re far away, can’t we just drive on and try our luck with the sand? The further we get…”
The Driver cut him off. “Dr Khouri, the distance will mean nothing if they come after us. They know these sands better than we do. With 3 cars, they can outflank us and force us back deeper into the desert. If that happens, we’re finished.”
Another of the men spoke up. “How far away are they?”
“About 5 km.” The right answer was closer to 2 km, but the Driver he saw no reason to worry them further. The group looked at each other and nodded.
“Right…” The Driver looked at the woman. She was a nurse and looked the most tired. “Get some sleep. It’ll get a bit chilly, so pull out a couple of blankets.”
He turned to the others. “We have a jerry can of water and some cans of food. We can’t have a fire. Be sure you don’t bang the car doors when you close them. Dr. Khouri, you know how to work the radio. I’d like you to keep trying to raise Agadez every 30 minutes. Be sure to use the headphones. Turn on the GPS, get our bearing, write down the coordinates and turn it off again. We’ll conserve the battery just in case. Use the small flashlight only when you need it.”
Khouri nodded and the Driver turned to the third man, who’d so far been silent. He was the most senior of the three doctors. “Dr. Temple, I’d like a word with you in private. If you’d just step out for a moment.”
He led Dr Temple a few yards from the car and they spoke for a few minutes. When Temple came back to the car, he looked even more worried. While the others set about eating, the Driver prepped the car.
He got a couple of the gas cans from the roof and refilled the car’s tank. He opened the bonnet and propped open the radiator cap and waited patiently till the engine cooled enough for him to top up the radiator. He left the bonnet open; he wanted that engine as cool as possible over the next couple of hours.
Khouri then watched in astonishment as the Driver took out a bag with their lab coats and proceeded to empty it out into the sand, stamping on them. “What the hell…” He began.
The Driver cut him off. “We’re going to cover the side and rear glass windows with these on the outside. I don’t want the sunlight bouncing off it tomorrow. And anything that white increases our visibility. You’ll find a couple of rolls of heavy tape in the tool kit. We’ll stick it to the glass with that.”
He turned to the other doctor. “Dr Swain, please empty the car of everything extra. The water cans, the fuel, extra food, medicine boxes, blankets.. all of it. Keep just a few bottles of water, the dry fruits, the biscuits and the toolbox on board. Tomorrow, the car needs to be as light as possible.”
They didn’t argue with him. Thirty minutes later, the car was draped in dirty lab coats and the side mirrors were folded in. All the additional supplies were strewn out in the sand around the car.
“Now do get some rest,” the Driver told them. “I’ll be up the dune keeping an eye out.”
He filled his canteen with water, which he holstered on his belt, put a few things from the tool kit into a small messenger bag and set off up the dune.
Down on his stomach, the Driver surveyed the landscape slowly, taking his time to take in as much of the details as possible. He could make out the campfire to the east. He could make out the outlines of their pickup trucks. They were camped together for the night.
They had nothing to fear and would simply resume the chase at dawn, he reasoned. The probability of them getting away from the militia was far lower than his previous optimism with the doctors had reflected. He’d decided to change that probability.
Slowly, he crawled, slid and rolled down the other side of the dune. He couldn’t see their campfire anymore because of the smaller dunes in between. But he got his bearings and started off at a brisk walk, carefully moving around the smaller dunes and clambering up the higher ones. Every so often, he stopped to scan the tops of the dunes around him, checking to see if they had posted lookouts. There was little chance of that, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
It was an hour before he was hunched down around the corner of a dune just 30 meters away from the camp. He could hear a couple of them. Their voices clearly carried over to him and he could tell they were drinking. Which was good because they would hopefully be sleeping deeply after that.
The Driver glanced at his watch. It was a little past two. He put his back to the dune and relaxed. He would do nothing till they were asleep.
About thirty minutes later, when the banter had died down, he risked a peek around the dune. There was just one man. He was sitting by the dying fire. The Driver counted 8 of them in all. The remaining 7 were strewn about the sand, sleeping with bags or their shirts as pillows. A couple had handguns next to them. One had a rifle.
In a poorly funded militia, rank dictated the weapons you carried. The one next to the rifle was probably the senior-most in this bunch, the Driver reasoned. He glanced at his watch again. He couldn’t wait anymore. He’d have to do execute his plan now. He took a sip of water from the canteen on his belt and got to work.
From the messenger bag at his side, he took out a screwdriver and the few long screws he’d found in the car. Leaving the bag behind, he began a careful slow crawl to the nearest car. He reached the far side of the pickup and flattened himself, out of sight, near the rear wheel on the driver’s side. He listened for a full minute to make sure no one had stirred.
Only then did he take out one of the screws and begin to slowly screw it into the wheel. He’d wanted to screw it between the treads, but these tires had run so long, they were almost smooth. So, he’d had to choose a spot near the bottom on the inner side, where it would be harder to spot.
He screwed it in about halfway, judging that the screw was almost through the thick rubber, and not through the inner tube. He didn’t really want to puncture the tire right now — the air rushing out might wake up someone. That would happen when the car moved. He then crawled to the front wheel and repeated the process.
The trucks were parked in a manner that roughly circled the camp. So the next one was about 10 meters away — that was 10 meters of sandy ground with no cover. There were no dunes on that side to hide his approach — so circling around was not an option. If just one person stirred and glanced his way…
The Driver listened for a few minutes and made up his mind. He’d have to risk it.
He crawled under the tailgate to the rear wheel on the other side. One man was asleep near the front of the car he was at. And another near the front of the car he needed to get to.
Closer to the now-dead fire, a man was sprawled out, a bottle near his hand. The Driver would be well within his line of sight if he stirred. The other weren’t within his line of sight — but would be seconds away if any sort of alarm was raised.
The Driver lay there, listening for a minute. There was no sound. He looked up at the sky. It was dimly light with the stars and the crescent of the moon.
He took a deep breath and decided to risk it.
Slowly, he pulled himself forward, his eyes on the man sleeping nearest him near the front wheel, less than 3 meters away. Slowly, he moved. First, a few inches, then a few more, stopping to watch at the sleeping men. The Driver almost smiled as he heard the soft snore of a man that was, for all purposes, dead to the world. He decided to make his move.
He crawled out from behind the car and stood up. If someone on the far side of the campfire did spot him, he’d be less likely to be suspicious of a walking silhouette than a crouched one.
Forcing himself not to hurry, he walked to the next car.
Disappearing behind it, he let out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been spotted. He crouched down behind the tailgate and looked around. There was no one on the other side of the car. The nearest guard was sprawled out next to the fire — a good 20 meters from the front of the truck and out of the line-of-sight.
The Driver pulled out the screws and the screwdriver as he bent down next to the rear wheel. Almost immediately, he swore silently. This tyre was considerably thicker and larger than the ones of the previous truck. There was no way, the screws would suffice. He forced himself to calm down and think. He looked down the side of the truck. Just behind the driver’s cab, there was the fuel tank inlet. Keeping his head down, he walked to it. There was no covering plate, he noted, and the large heavy-duty fuel cap was exposed. Holding it, he turned it anti-clockwise, praying it wasn’t locked. His gamble paid off as it spun easily, coming off in his hand. He allowed himself to smile.
Twenty minutes later, he was back behind the sand dune where he’d left his bag. He glanced at his watch. It was a half past three. He had about 90 minutes till dawn, possibly less.
Grabbing his bag, he set off at a slight jog to the north west. There was still one more car to go and he would need to circle around to the other side of the camp to get to it.
Forty minutes later the Driver found himself behind the tailgate of the third truck. He’d been able to come up directly behind the third truck — which had been parked with its back to a short dune that he’d clambered over. As he took a peek around both sides, he realized he’d been incredibly lucky. Because he could now see the two men who’d been sleeping on either side of the truck near the front wheels. He’d missed seeing them because the moon had been hidden behind a cloud, shrouding the entire clearing in complete darkness.
Moreover, these men weren’t sleeping in that motionless way that people do when they pass out drunk. They were simply asleep using their shirts as pillows. Which meant they weren’t very comfortable — and probably weren’t sleeping very deeply. One had a pistol near his head.
Fixing the tires — like he had with the first truck — was out of question. As silent as he might be, there was a chance they might hear him. Trying anything with the fuel tank was definitely not an option. He would be within a meter of one of the men and that would be pretty close to suicide. He thought for a few minutes, aware that with every passing second, he was losing darkness.
When it came to him, he could’ve kicked himself for not having thought of it earlier. He bent down and quickly started to undo his boots.
An hour later, drenched in sweat, he clambered up the large dune behind which he’d left the Troopie. As he came to the top, he felt a hand on his neck, pushing his face into the sand. It lasted only a moment before it released him.
“Sorry” a voice said softly.
The Driver looked up to see Dr Temple crouched above him. As he brushed away the sand from his face, he noticed the tire iron in Dr Temple’s hand. He nodded and the duo walked down the dune to the Troopie. The woman and Dr Swain were stretched out on the long bench seats. Dr Khouri lay on a blanket in front of the car.
The Driver walked to a can of water they’re discarded earlier and silently poured it over himself, spitting out some as he washed away the sand. He took a few big gulps as the remainder of the group stirred and came out of the car.
“Where have you been?” The woman asked. She had obviously not slept a wink.
“To their camp”, the Driver replied softly. The strain of the previous day and his night’s adventure were catching up to him. He blinked it away.
“What…” Dr Khouri began.
“Later,” said the Driver, looking past him.
Khouri turned around, following his gaze. In the east, the first signs of dawn were showing on the horizon.
He turned to Dr Swain. “May I borrow your binoculars?”
“Sure.” Swain went to the Troopie, returning with a small case in his hand.
The Driver jogged up the dune and, lying down on the sand, looked through the Nikon binoculars in the direction of the camp. He was careful to shade the lens with his palm to avoid any reflections off the glass that might give him away.
The camp was coming to life. A few of the men were walking about adjusting their clothes and dusting off their shirts. A couple were relieving themselves on the sands behind the trucks. So far, there was no sign that they had discovered someone else had been in the camp.
The Driver then aimed the binoculars to the south, studying the land they would head into that day. The dunes continued for a couple of kilometers before giving way to a vast flat tract of land. There would be no cover there. He hoped the ground would be hard so they would be able to drive faster. He committed a few of the rock formations to memory. These would serve as landmarks, and could possibly provide little cover, if they needed it. He took one quick look again at the camp before making his way back to the group.
“We’ll leave now. We should have about an hour’s head start.” He said, climbing into the Troopie. The woman climbed into the passenger side next to him.
The sky was bright enough for him to see the land ahead. Unfortunately, the same would apply to the military convoy chasing them.
The Driver gunned the engine and aimed the car southwest. He wanted to get on harder terrain as quickly as he could. The going would be much faster, though not smoother, then. And there would be no hiding the Troopie’s dust trail — which would be visible for miles to anyone who looked. He would try to keep the dunes between their car and the camp for as long as possible, but there was no way to avoid a direct line of sight for long without going deeper into the desert — which they weren’t prepared for. Getting to Agadez was still their best bet.
With deflated tires, 60 km/h was the best they could do in the sand. The Driver didn’t want to risk pushing the engine, in case it overheated.
After a few minutes of silence, the woman spoke. “What did you mean you were at their camp?”
“They were camped about 2 km east of us.” The Driver replied. There was no point hiding it from them anyway. “I sneaked into their camp and tried to sabotage their cars.”
There was a moment of silence as they digest this. Dr. Swain broke it. “Could you do it…”
The Driver nodded. “Somewhat. They have three trucks back there. I punctured two tires in one.”
“And the other two?” There was a trace of hope in Dr Khouri’s voice.
“Poured some water into the fuel tank of another one.”
The woman looked at him. “Is that all it takes?”
“Should do.” He replied. “Water is heavier; settles down at the bottom of the tank. When they start the car, it’ll go into the engine and should put a stop to things.”
“And the last car?” Dr Khouri again. “Stuffed sand in my socks and shoved them into the exhaust pipe. Jammed it in a bit deep with the screwdriver.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Will that be enough?” Said Dr Swain, quietly.
The Driver sighed. “In another 20 minutes, I’ll have to go south. That will probably bring us into their line of sight. If they haven’t already started getting into their cars, they sure as hell will then. The first car will go about a 100 meters till they realize that they have two flats on their drivers side. The second car should stall out in 5 minutes when that water hits the engine. The third car should stall within a couple of minutes of it starting up. They’ll realize something’s up and that someone sneaked into their camp at night. Their commander will spend a few minutes shouting at his men. Someone there will realize that the punctured car is the easiest to fix. But all the cars have different sized tires and the one I punctured had only one spare. So their solution will be to change all four tires on that car. I’m hoping that will take an hour. In terms of distance, that means about 50 km.”
For the first time since the previous afternoon when they’d piled into the Troopie, the woman smiled. “Then we might have a good chance, after all. I think we can do better than 50km, don’t you?”
The Driver didn’t return her smile. “Not really… In about 30 minutes, the terrain will change to hard ground. At that point, we’ll have to re-inflate our tires. The compressor takes about 20 minutes to fill all four. That’s time that they will be gaining ground. But yes, we have a decent chance.”
“What if you’d been caught?” Dr Khouri joined in.
Dr Temple spoke before the Driver answered. “He told me. I didn’t tell any of you because there was no point in worrying you. We were to carry on driving if he wasn’t back by dawn.”
That put an end to any discussion on the matter.
They stopped twice over the next 5 hours. First, when they hit the hard terrain to re-inflate their tires a bit. And again, when they hit the Agadez-Azel highway. Each time, the Driver got out the compressor and filled the tires to the right pressure.
It was a little past noon when the Driver pulled up in front of the army check-post in Agadez.
Seven hours later, the three doctors and the nurse boarded a cargo charter for Niamey. The Driver had refused to come with them and they never heard from him again.
Based on a conversation with the security consultant who received the group at the airport in Niamey.