NIAMEY: Niger’s government yesterday announced three days of mourning for 92 migrants, nearly all of them women and children, who died in early October trying to cross the harsh Sahara desert.
In a statement published in the official Sahel daily, the government said it was “profoundly moved” by the tragedy and that the country would “pray for the memory” of the 52 children, 33 women and seven men who perished in the desert and whose decomposed bodies, some of them eaten by jackals, were found last week.
Flags flew at half-mast on official buildings in memory of the victims, who all came from the south of the deeply poor west African country and were headed for Algeria.
Those who died were “migrants like we see them pretty much everywhere, such as in the dramas on the Mediterranean Sea,” said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, the main town in north Niger.
News of the desert deaths came after more than 360 migrants, mostly Eritreans, perished at sea near the Italian island of Lampedusa at the beginning of October as they sought to reach Europe.
Only 21 people survived out of 113 who tried to cross Niger’s desert border into Algeria on board two trucks, which both broke down, according to a highly placed security source.
Sadafiou, a man in his 30s who lost three family members, recently told the private Sahara FM radio that the group he was with had left the south because of an impending bad harvest, a perennial problem in the drought-prone country.
“One of us saw his wife and his nine children die,” he said.
‘Thirst is merciless’
The victims “died of thirst, since their two vehicles almost simultaneously broke down,” Feltou said.
“In the desert, thirst is merciless. The strongest can hold out three or four days, but in general at the end of 24 or 48 hours, a swift death process ensues,” the mayor of Agadez added.
The bodies were discovered in small groups “in a radius of 20km”, said Almoustapha Alhacen of the non-governmental organisation Aghir In’man (“Human Shield” in the language of the ethnic Tuareg people of the desert).
A security source said he believed migrants had managed to survive for five days and then “began to leave the broken-down vehicle in search of a well”.