World and Nation

Bodies of dozens of migrants found in Niger’s desert

DAKAR, Senegal — The decomposing bodies of 87 migrants from the impoverished West African nation of Niger were discovered in the Sahara this week just a few miles from a well, apparently stranded after a desperate search for water, said the head of a local humanitarian organization who helped bury many of the bodies.

Two trucks carrying the migrants — men, women and children — broke down in the northern desert while trying to reach neighboring Algeria, said Almoustapha Alhacen, speaking by telephone from Arlit, where they started their journey Sept. 26. Responders found groups of corpses — 15 here, 11 there — scattered in a wide radius around a well that the victims had tried to reach. Five other victims were discovered earlier, for a total of 92 dead.

At least 52 of the victims were children, said Alhacen, who heads a nongovernmental organization called Aghirin Man in Arlit, 120 miles south of the border. One of the trucks broke down less than 10 miles from the well. The mayor of Arlit, Abderrahmane Maouli, said by phone, “Between the vehicle and the well, they were scattered here and there, a bit everywhere.”

Alhacen described a grim scene.

“It was horrible,” he said. “Very difficult. They were dehydrated, decomposed. Some of them had been eaten by jackals. You couldn’t recognize them. Some had died of thirst.”

The victims are thought to have been Nigeriens fleeing one of the world’s poorest countries — Niger ranks last on the U.N. Human Development Index — in search of opportunity in relatively prosperous Algeria, flush with oil revenue, across the border.

Maouli said migrant deaths in the desert were relatively common. But the scale of the latest disaster was beyond anything the region had yet experienced.

“This is the biggest,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Migrants pushed back from more prosperous lands in the north congregate in the Nigerien desert city of Agadez to the south of Arlit, said Ismael Mahamane of the International Organization for Migration in that city; thousands more use Agadez as a staging point.

Marou Amadou, Niger’s justice minister and the government spokesman, said: “This is a huge worry for the government. It’s growing by the day.”

Scattered among the remains were copies of the Quran, as well as the small blackboards that young Quranic students use to copy verses, Alhacen said. Those details officials to speculate that teachers and their students were among the victims — perhaps would-be mendicants in the regional culture of religious begging. Out of 113 who plunged into the desert in late September, bypassing the main road and its checkpoints, 21 survived, Alhacen said. Two, both smugglers, made it back to Arlit and are in jail, he said; 19 reached the Algerian city of Tamanrasset and were sent back.

“This has been really, really tough,” Alhacen said.