16 Aug 2012

Conjuring the gods of longitude and latitude

Rain pounded on the tarpaulin roof. Cockroaches scuttled across the concrete floor and, occasionally, my feet where I was sleeping on a narrow mattress. I turned over, careful to avoid dislodging the mosquito net hanging precariously from a rusty nail in the wall. We’re here for a bit, I thought. The runway will be waterlogged and the chances of the plane landing, let alone taking off, are next to nothing.

Cameraman Mike Goldwater and I were in Bassikounou, in eastern Mauritania, staying at the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since January, when a rebellion erupted in northern Mali, 100,000 refugees have crossed the border. They live in a sprawling camp called Mbera, half an hour’s drive from Bassikounou along a rutted track.

They have built themselves shelters, bending pliable sticks to form a frame which they cover with cloth and UNHCR sheeting. The “baches”, as they call them, frequently blow away in the wind and rain. About 20 per cent of the children are malnourished.

Most of the refugees are Tuaregs. Their leaders started the uprising, but were pushed aside by Islamists from a Malian group called Ansar Dine and foreign jihadis from al Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM). Northern Mali is now in the hands of men who cut off the hands of thieves, and whip men who smoke or women who don’t cover their heads.

In other words, my living conditions were nowhere near as bad as theirs, and I would reach home sooner, but still: we needed to get the story out and we were stuck.

Salvation, said M’bemba Diallo, the Guinean running the UNHCR office, would come in the form of a contingent of Mauritanian soldiers who would guide us across the desert to Nema, another outpost, but with an all-weather runway. We were not the only ones who needed to get out: there were several UN staff, local NGO workers and Bonnie.

We had met Bonnie a few days earlier. A Seventh Day Adventist from Ohio, she had that beatific smile displayed only by the born-again. Despite her training as a GP, she was thinking of a different kind of project in the camps, maybe involving a rotating fund for goat purchase.

Having arrived by public transport, dressed in traditional Mauritanian costume, ¬†she wanted to leave the same way but the UN put down its collective foot: al Qaeda kidnapped foreigners some 200 miles away the year before last, and they weren’t taking any chances. So Bonnie was stuck, and we were stuck with Bonnie.

At 6am we were ready for the 5 hour journey to Nema, to catch the plane leaving at 2pm. Unfortunately, the Mauritanian military were “en panne” – broken down. Two hours later, a dozen men in jungle fatigues, with khaki cloths wound round their heads Tuareg-style, arrived in a black Toyota pickup with a PKM machine gun mounted on the back. We were off.

We drove through the low mud-walled alleyways of Bassikounou and into the desert. Rain had not waterlogged the track, unlike the road to the border we had taken the day before where our pick-up had sunk into the mud and our driver had to dig us out. Instead, the earth was sprouting green. Camels picked happily at spiney clumps. Tuareg herders in magnificent blue robes waved. The driver put on some Ethiopian music.

We drove. And drove. Hours went by. Where was the road? We were driving cross country, lurching uncomfortably between sandy mounds, the soldiers leading the way, the other three pick-ups following. I was bouncing in the back seat next to two hard cases of camera gear. Surely this must end soon, I thought. It’s been four hours.

After about six hours, we stopped and I jumped out to ask the soldiers where the road was. “Je ne sais pas, madame,” said the one who spoke French. This was not encouraging. The rain had washed the track away, he explained, but he thought we would arrive soon, inshallah, even though no-one was quite sure of the way. I banished from my mind the thought of Al Qaeda kidnappers roaming the desert looking for prey.

We had already worked out we were heading more or less in the right direction – first use for the compass app on Mike’s iPhone – but it was time to get out our map and satphone to find our GPS location. The Mauritanian army, it seemed, had neither. I read out the coordinates while Mike knelt on the sand with the soldiers gathered around and marked our position on the map. We weren’t far from the road, but nor were we very near our destination.

At this point I fear I may have shown a little frustration with the situation. Bonnie smiled. “I have faith that my God is watching over us,” she said. “Well, I have faith in my map and GPS,” I snapped.

We drove a little further, through undulating dunes. The soldiers stopped to pray, kneeling down and touching their foreheads on the sand. I took another GPS reading on the satphone. I began to feel that Mike and I were aliens from some far-off planet, conjuring the gods of Longitude and Latitude by brandishing our fetishes, iPhone and Satphone.

After ten and a half hours, we arrived in the stony featureless settlement of Nema. We were exhausted. The kind UN staff based there invited us to stay not just one night but two – we had missed Monday’s plane and there wouldn’t be another one until Wednesday.

I slept well, despite the now familiar crackling sound of cockroaches being crunched under the mattress. In the end, I thought, our gods hadn’t done any better than anyone else’s. It made me feel happier to know where we were, but while the soldiers had been interested to plot our location on the map, they had proceeded by their normal method of trial and error and asking the occasional passing herdsman. They hadn’t taken any notice of the information we had provided.

As for Bonnie, instead of waiting for the plane, she took the 16 hour bus-ride back to Nouakchott the next morning, wrapped in her Mauritanian robes, presumably smiling beatifically as she bounced along the rutted road safe in the knowledge that her God was watching over her.

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