The Tuareg of the Sahara are a people orphaned, literally and figuratively, the filmmaker writes [Al Jazeera]

‘Orphans of the Sahara’ – Behind the name

The filmmaker gives an insight into the Tuareg struggle and shares the story behind the title of the trilogy.

The Tuareg of the Sahara desert are a people orphaned, literally and figuratively, by colonial history and borders, by distant governments, by poverty, corporate exploitation, pollution, drought, and war.

Their Saharan homeland stretches across five countries and straddles the largest energy deposits in Africa. And they have risen up against their governments seven times in the past 50 years to demand forms of autonomy and independence.

Yet the decades-long Tuareg struggle is one of the world’s least covered stories.

In Orphans of the Sahara, Al Jazeera takes the viewer deep inside the Tuareg world.

We will go to their impoverished camps in the desert where life hangs by a thread, journey inside “Azawad”, the unrecognised Tuareg state in northern Mali, and into Timbuktu under al-Qaeda control. We will travel to the French uranium mining zone in northern Niger, an area now out of bounds to journalists, and into the refugee camps in exile, where Tuaregs and Arabs are calling for an independent state.

This is a story you won’t see or hear anywhere else. For a number of years, the Tuareg have been cut off from the world, surrounded by a vast “red zone” of al-Qaeda kidnappings and killings, preventing journalists, aid workers and tourists from travelling to the places where the Tuareg really live.

As a result, they have become increasingly isolated and poorly understood – seen and interpreted for the outside world through the eyes of their enemies. They have few friends and no state allies.

Their music has been one of the only genuine insights the outside world has into their stories and struggles. And for many Tuareg bands, their songs are a way to relay the message of their people and help the world understand their plight.

‘A generation of orphans’

In 2008, Al Jazeera met Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the lead singer of the Tuareg rock band Tinariwen, at his home near Tessalit in northern Mali.

We had just come from spending days in the Sahara with Tuareg rebels fighting the Mali state and there was a sand storm brewing. We wanted to stop somewhere and thought it would be interesting to know Ibrahim’s opinion of the rebellion.

As we took shelter in a small hut from the roaring wind, Ibrahim shared his powerful personal story — one that will be familiar to all fans of Tinariwen.

To us the Sahara means our origins. We are people who live in the Sahara, journeying in the Sahara. It represents our real nation.

by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, lead singer of Tinariwen

“I was young when the army took my father from here,” he said. “They took him and killed him. And then they killed our animals. I left with my grandmother for Algeria. And I grew up there. I always think about that day and this area.”

In exile, Ibrahim met other Tuareg youths with similar stories and experiences. Together they learned how to fight in Muammar Gaddafi’s military training camps in Libya. Then, in 1990, they returned in their thousands to Mali and Niger where they launched rebellions against their governments to fight for their rights as a people.

We spent hours mesmerised by Ibrahim’s stories and thoughts as he smoked cigarettes, slowly searching for the right words, often staring out through the crack of the door into the sand storm whirling around us.

The last thing he said was “my generation of Tuareg is a generation of orphans”. It was really important to him that we understand his story was no different to those of thousands of others who became rebels – that his pain was not unique.

After we returned to Doha, I put Ibrahim’s interview on a shelf and forgot about it. We are a news channel and I wasn’t sure what to do with such a long and deep interview on a subject that is obscure to most people and requires a lot of background and explaining. But he and his words lodged somewhere deep in my consciousness.

In late 2011, Al Jazeera returned to the region to document the new exodus of Tuaregs back to northern Mali and Niger following the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. We noticed a high proportion of orphans, both among the young returning Tuareg mercenaries, and among the families they were supporting in the desert.

Many of the fighters had lost one or both parents as children, to undiagnosed illnesses due to malnutrition and lack of medical care. Some had lost a parent to war. And every one of the men had tried his hand at both armed rebellion against his government, and emigration to Libya in search of work – the two options many Tuareg see available to them to improve conditions for their families and their people.

Many ended up entrapped as mercenaries for Gaddafi during the recent Libya war. They cried as they talked about the death of their relatives and friends in NATO bombings, and the immense pressure they feel to provide for their families – loved ones who they see deteriorating before their eyes in the harsh conditions of the desert.

One of our subjects died during the course of filming, leaving behind three orphans. Most of these stories remain on the cutting room floor because there is barely time, even in three hours, to cover the essential ground on this complex story.

We realised that Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s story has not lost its relevance. New generations of Tuaregs from northern Niger and northern Mali are simply living a modified version of the same old cyclical story of the Tuareg people: rebellion, exile, return, rebellion, exile, return …

The reason for the stubborn resilience of this pattern is that the conditions which give rise to Tuareg rebellion have essentially not changed.

The Sahara

The physical conditions of Tuareg existence in the Sahara have hardly changed in decades. Even now, sleeping in the Sahara is like lying alone on a boat in the middle of a vast ocean.

You are lying in the sand at 2am when suddenly a primordial wind howls up from infinite corridors of emptiness and time – terrifying in its loneliness, as awesome as the stars in the night sky – to confront you with the essential fact that you are alone in the universe, and everyone you have ever loved will die.

If the Sahara can inspire that terrible feeling of cosmic loneliness in an adult, what would it feel like to be a child in this environment who had actually lost their parents?

It is something I found myself wondering more than once during the nights we spent sleeping in freezing cold deserts, living the same way our Tuareg hosts do every day. Even the physical stamina required to live in a tent in the Sahara is incredible and always reminds you of your vulnerability and mortality. Just a few weeks of the constant exposure to sand, wind, heat and cold debilitated me to a point of exhaustion it took months to recover from.

On the other hand, far from being merely harsh and empty, the Sahara is a soulful place, embracing you with its solitude and beauty, its open space, and the company of gentle living things. Even the deepest parts of the desert are not dead, but filled with animals, people, culture, and history. All the feelings of being there – from sublime comfort and peace to terror and loneliness – are satisfying in their truth and draw you back to the desert, in spite of its hardship.

The Sahara enriches and impoverishes the Tuareg. It is their mother and source, but also their destroyer and grave.

Parts of this trilogy were filmed in the Sahara proper, and others in cities and deserts of the Sahel, the belt of scrub that lies to the immediate south of the Sahara. But wherever we found Tuaregs, even if they were knee deep in yellowing pasture, or standing on a busy city street, they always referred to their land as “the Sahara”.

“To us the Sahara means our origins,” said Ibrahim. “We are people who live in the Sahara, journeying in the Sahara. It represents our real nation.”