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Friday 7 February 2020

Photo Essay

Line in the sand

The Sahel splits north Africa from the rest of the continent. It offers passage – at a terrible price 

By Pascal Maitre

The Sahel divides the sands of the Sahara from the tropical forests of Africa; the mainly Arab north from sub-Saharan, black-African nations in the south; and nomadic pastoralists from sedentary agricultural communities. It is home to around 125 million people and is one of the poorest and most vulnerable regions on the planet. The Sahel’s population is expected to increase by two thirds over the coming 15 years.

One of the perennial causes of instability in the Sahel is food insecurity. Long-standing patterns of drought and desertification have been exacerbated by climate change and rapid population grown, while dwindling resources, numerous conflicts and poor governance have laid the groundwork for the latest scourge: jihadi violence.

Over the past five years, Operation Barkhane, led by French soldiers and comprising forces from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, has been fighting an intense desert battle with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and other jihadist groups that have retreated from urban centres, widening the battlefield across thousands of square kilometres of desert.

Some of the worst fighting has been happening in Mali, whose vast northern deserts provide plenty of territory for guerrilla warfare. The jihadists have been able to recruit new fighters from pastoral communities. Meanwhile, ethnic militia that were armed and financed by the government to fight Islamist rebels are no longer under its control, using the conflict to settle other scores.

Islamist violence in the Sahel will continue to destabilise the region, leaving the few oases of relative calm like Niger struggling to maintain stability.

Vehicles packed with migrants from all across West Africa set off to cross the Ténéré, a region of the Sahara Desert, in order to reach Libya and beyond.

Pupils study the Koran at an Izala school that teaches a reformist, conservative form of Islam.

A Tuareg woman places her family’s ballot in a box during the election for village chief.

Mineshaft heads at the Tagharaba gold mine, near the Algerian border.

A young miner at the Tagharaba gold mine.

Covered mineshaft heads at the Tagharaba gold mine.

Women wearing complete face veils study the Koran at an Izala school.

Each night in Agadez, buyers who have made their choice at the livestock market drive camels, sheep and goats to the municipal slaughterhouse. After being killed, the meat will be shipped to the city’s butchers

Fatiam Omgoiba, a young Dogon woman from the Douentza region, was kidnapped by Fulani jihadists and repeatedly raped, resulting in her becoming pregnant and later giving birth to a son. She had to leave her home village and now makes a living washing clothes.

Vehicles packed with migrants from all across West Africa set off to cross the Ténéré.

Members of a Nigerien military patrol careful look through Aghali Ahmet’s possessions to make sure he is not terrorist. Ahmet says the car in which he was travelling to Libya broke down and he was abandoned by the other occupants of the vehicle.

More migrants from West Africa set off to cross the Ténéré.

In the migrants’ “ghetto” in Agadez, young people from Niger and other West African countries sit and wait for a vehicle to take them across the desert to Libya.

A group of Dogon hunters who have formed a militia known as “Dan Na Ambassagou” (“The hunters who confide in God”). The group was suspected of killing 165 mainly Fulani people during a village raid on 25 March 2019.

Two girls walking past a mud-walled building.

A group of West African migrants in the back of a vehicle as it crosses the Ténéré.

American troops prepare a base that, once complete, will host hundreds more soldiers as part of the fight against terrorist groups.

On a smugglers route, used to avoid military patrols, a migrant’s grave is marked by some rocks and their empty water container. The person died trying to cross the Ténéré.

A group of Dozo hunters armed with various weapons and wearing protective amulets. Dozo hunters in Mali have been co-opted into the fight against jihadhists but have been accused of several massacres.

A patrol, made up of local civilians armed with machetes, passes through the night. Six years after Malian and French forces fought a week-long engagement here against invading militant Islamist forces, there is still a limited government presence, leading to the creation of militias to provide security.

A priest says mass at a temporary French army base during Operation Koufra, which was part of the larger Operation Barkhane. The soldiers were searching for terrorists from ISGS.

A French soldier from the Barkhane force walks among women shopping in a covered market.

Members of FAMA (Malian Armed Forces), armed with a heavy machine gun mounted in the rear of a pick-up truck, participate with the French army in Operation Koufra.

French soldiers fire mortar rounds at Islamist fighters’ positions.

A so called “coxeur” (people trafficker) stands next to his motorcycle near the bus station in Agadez. From the bus station, he takes migrants to the suburbs of Agadez, where they wait to be transported north.

A trader carries a rack of sunglasses past a herd of goats and camels standing in an open air market.

Market traders sell their goods outside the bus station in Agadez.

A man looks out from underneath a makeshift covering made out of old sacks, near a large gold mine. The miners come from all over the country and live in very primitive conditions, while working long hours for small finds of gold.

Aghali Ahmet, a young migrant, sits in the back of an army truck after being picked up by the military in the Ténéré desert between Amzergem and the ‘Well of Hope’. He had been waiting for days after being separated from a convoy that was taking him north.


Pascal Maitre was born in the village of Buzançais in France and studied psychology before starting his career in photojournalism in 1979 with the Jeune Afrique magazine. Over the past four decades, Pascal has documented the life, politics, conflicts, traditions and environments of over 40 countries across Africa.

He has published numerous books, including In the Heart of Africa and Madagascar: Travels in a World Apart, which gathers images from 15 years of working across the continent.

Pascal has also won numerous awards for his photographic work, including World Press Photo awards and the Visa d’or d’honneur/Figaro Magazine Award. His work has been exhibited around the world and published in magazines including Newsweek, Life, Paris Match and National Geographic.

All Photographs by Pascal Maitre/Panos Pictures