‘Miss Melody, you follow!’ the Judge repeated, getting exasperated. His lack of comprehensible English would have been funny, if not for our situation.
Ahmed tried to ask him in Arabic exactly what he wanted to know, but the Judge would not have it.
‘OK Miss Melody, you Ahmed know in Europe yes contact? You follow!’
‘But I don’t understand the question!’
I tried to intervene, which earned me an angry look from the Judge, but at least it took the heat of Melody.
‘As English understand Mister Nico better he follow!’ the Judge beamed. Melody was now of the hook, but if looks could kill… as if her English was not good enough.
Tensions in the room were rising. The Judge had spent an hour talking to our guide Ahmed in Arabic, before aiming his attention and incomprehensible language skills at us. There we were, in an Algerian courtroom, the three of us lined up on the accused stand, in front of a Judge, a Prosecutor and a man whose function is still not entirely clear to us… how did we ever get into this mess?
Several days earlier, we headed south from Ghadames towards Al-Aweinat in the southern Libyan desert, skirting the Algerian border at a minimum distance of 20 kilometers. Two desert-equipped vehicles, two guides, GPS’s, a satellite phone, food, water and enough diesel fuel to heat a small city for a week. Mussam the Tuareg (Harry and Elk’s guide) insisted taking the lead as he claimed to have most experience in this region. Our guide Ahmed, a true Arabian son of the desert, put his pride aside and accepted, though he clearly lacked faith in this decision.
The diversity of the Sahara in its full splendor left us breathless. The empty, dry plains drop down sheer cliff-faces to Wadi floors and dry mud-lakes, leading inevitably to the largest obstacles on our route: sand dunes. A day and a half of hard driving took us to a sheer wall of sand, blocking our way. Mussam claimed we should head west to find a pass between the easily 10-story high dunes. We refused, as this would bring us perilously close to the Algerian border. To Mussams chagrin we headed safely west along the sand dunes, to find an entrance about 30 kilometers away from the border. We headed south again, and watched a beautiful sunset in the incredible solitude of the heart of the Sahara.
Later that evening the trouble started: we had to decide how to bypass the next row of dunes. Again, Mussam said we should head southwest, towards Algeria, but this time Ahmed intervened. Having driven this route extremely often, and having verified our position by GPS, he advised we head southeast along a trail he knew well. Mussams reply was that both GPS’s and Ahmed must be wrong. We did not believe our ears… but in order to ease the tension, we reached a consensus: tomorrow morning Mussam would lead us southwest, to find the pass he promised was there, but if we could not find it in reasonable time we would take Ahmed’s advice to head east.
Several hours of heavy going through the highest dunes in the world brought us only three kilometers south… and about twenty-five west, much too close to the Algerian border. The tension reached boiling point and we made a decision we would later regret… we split up. This was all we could do to prevent a full-out fistfight between the guides. Melody, Ahmed and I would head back northeast to the civilized world, and let Mussam find his own way out of this mess. Harry and Elk would have a good talk with him, and make him do their bidding. Since there were no hard feelings between us and Harry and Elk, we arranged to meet them several days later at the Ubari Lakes. Ahmed used Harry and Elk’s satellite phone to make an appointment for that evening with some of his friends. They would expect us, knowing we were travelling with only one car and no satellite phone, just our emergency beacon.
The majesty of the dunes, the whispers of the wind on the red sands, the sheer beauty of the area is indescribable. So dumbstruck we were that we did not realize we made a classical mistake: never travel in the sand dunes alone! Heading straight north, it only took us only an hour to get stuck to the axles in the softest sands imaginable… and three hours to dig ourselves out. As the sun crept towards the horizon, we realized we had made another mistake: our appointment. Ahmed’s friends would unnecessarily start a search party the next day, as we could not drive on in the dark.
A burning flare in the far distance brought a solution as darkness crept upon us. To Ahmed’s knowledge, this had to be the Italian oil-company with a pumping station in the area. Surely we could use their phone to cancel our appointment, three travelers seeking help in the desert, only trying to let their friends know they were safe? Our GPS’s in-built map indicated the light would still be several kilometers from the Algerian border, so we assumed we could safely get there. Upon arrival, a slightly surprised man in oil-stained coveralls greeted us…
“Welcome to Algeria.”
An hour before our trial we told the Prosecutor this exact story. He quickly assured us not to worry; this was not the first time desert travelers had accidentally wandered into Algeria. He would have to take the case to court, as there were rules and procedures to follow: technically we were illegal immigrants, no visa and no entry stamp in our passport, to be extradited to Libya. He would make sure we would not be sentenced. He also wondered how we could have missed the border markers (stone pillars several kilometers apart…).
We had pleaded and practically begged with the oil people to send us on our way, unreported. After all, we were only a kilometer over the border, according to them, and our GPS still marked us well inside Libya (thank you Garmin). They refused, stating this would have severe consequences for them. Even if we would turn the car around and drive away, they would notify the border police and the Libyan authorities. They called in the local police force from In-Amenas. Ten minutes later four cars raced up, filled with five military types each, armed with Kalashnikov machine guns. They searched us for weapons, contraband and explosives. Extremely friendly, but not exactly what we expected at the end of a long day. It would get longer and longer…
Finally satisfied he had impressed us with his grasp of the English language and sense of etiquette, the Judge smiled smugly and retreated to the antechamber, to debate with the Prosecutor and the unknown man. We finally had a chance to ask Ahmed what was going on exactly. The Prosecutor had asked for the smallest punishment possible, and was pleading to let us go free. Ahmed, clearly upset, explained the injustice of these Algerian proceedings. In comparison, if travelers accidentally end up in Libya, the border police only check the car and occupants. If clear, they are helped to find their way back, no problem. We however had now already spent two nights camping in a police station, had mug shots taken, at least 40 fingerprints were taken of each finger, signed 20 statements, been subjected to a medical check at 03.00, been questioned three times, and been escorted to a courtroom in Illize, 300 kilometers away from the nearest legal border crossing. This experience was turning into an emotional rollercoaster, and we were at the end of the ride.
Nine months in jail and a 10.000 Euro fine is the minimum sentence for crossing the border illegally into Algeria. Ahmed told us this after we were cleared of all charges. A smart move or we would have been scared witless in court, all the time up to the verdict. Normally this would be the end of the story, but there is more.
It took us another day and a half to arrive safely in Libya. One night with the ‘extradition police’, as foreigners are not allowed to drive in the dark, and paperwork had to be processed so Ahmed’s mistake could be reported to the Libyan authorities (he was the guide, and would face another trial in Libya). The border between Algeria and Libya is restricted to foreigners, only Algerians and Libyans are allowed to cross. Luckily Ahmed could pull some strings in high places, or we would have had to travel through Tunisia back to Libya. For one special occasion, an exception was allowed, and two Dutch travelers with their guide crossed the Deb-Deb to Ghadames border post at midnight. The Libyan Secret Police was waiting…
With the strings Ahmed had pulled for us, came more trouble. The rules of Libyan hospitality dictate that Ahmed was responsible for our safety, and had clearly messed up. He would go to jail immediately, and we would be forced to take a replacement guide. The only way we could prevent him from walking away in handcuffs was feigning we did not speak English. Ahmed being the only guide in Libya speaking perfect Dutch, we still needed him to get to the Egyptian border, so we lied. Our ruse was believed, but he would have to report to the police immediately after our departure. Finally, we were free to find a good hotel and a long, hot shower. The necessity to make a simple phone call had cost us four days and nights. Physically and emotionally wrecked we crashed.
Racing towards the Egyptian border the next day (we had five days before our visa ran out, and over 2000 kilometers to go), Ahmed received a phone call from his contact in the Secret Police. Word of our bureaucratic mistreatment in Algeria had reached the highest echelons of the Libyan government. Four days for an accidental border crossing in one of the most dangerous terrains on earth was impossible to swallow for them. After all, we were their tourists and therefore their guests. Saif Ghadaffi, Colonel Muammar’s son and next president in line, made the unilateral decision to close the Libyan-Algerian border for a week, to indicate Libya’s displeasure with this kind of behavior. After all, travelers in distress are to be helped, not hindered. Strangely elated, and definitely awed to have caused an international incident, we laughed like maniacs and released our tension.
Later that day our smiles evaporated as we spotted footage on Al-Jazeera. Video evidence had come to light creating another international scandal. Two weeks earlier, in the very south of Algeria, border guards had executed fourteen refugees from Niger, illegal immigrants. Without any from of trial…
P.S. The “Gendarmerie National”, the Algerian police force in In-Amenas treated us extremely well. We were provided with everything we needed (including some of the best home-made food ever), we were not allowed to pay for anything we needed, and we were reassured time after time that no foreigner in our situation had ever been found guilty and sentenced.
P.P.S. Ahmed never felt threatened by having to go to jail after this little escapade. In his words: “Good opportunity to make some new friends and lift some weights”.