Tag Archives: Rainer Bracht

K is for Kidnapped in the Sahara 2003

Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

See also: Sahara Kidnappings


Towards the end of Desert Riders in 2003, Jon and I met Rainer Bracht and his party in Tam (left), a couple of weeks before they were all abducted off the Graveyard Piste (Route A2 in the book) along with what eventually proved to be 27 other tourists.

The 6-month journey of Group 2

Part of ‘Group 2’ who did the full six months and ended up in far northern Mali, rainer co-wrote 177 Tage Angst with his wife Petra who waited in Germany for his release. At the time I considered having their book translated, but in 2004 was told by my German reader (a bike rider but not a Saharan) that is wasn’t so good.
Then in 2015 I came across parts of their story archived on a German Motorrad (page now a 404) magazine’s website from 2004. Even reading it through Google translators helped fill in the many gaps in their baffling ordeal – not least how they got from a canyon near Illizi, right across Algeria to northern Mali as far as Taoudenni (see map above).
In 2019 the links were no more (actually they got renamed) but I had the foresight to copy the translations and pictures which are a gallery at the bottom of the page. As you can read, I didn’t make any attempt to tidy up the translation.
At this time I also came across this interesting article (now paywalled) in the New York Times, which includes video footage from the event.


Hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 1

The Nightmare

177 days of the Sahara driver Rainer Bracht was with 31 other hostages in the hands of Algerian terrorists. At home, his wife Petra experienced during its one of the most spectacular search and rescue operations in postwar history. In a multi-part documentary MOTORCYCLE now published the records of the two. What happens when a motorcycle vacation for inferno?


Sahara hostages

Petra: Tomorrow is Sunday, the 9th March Rainer’s birthday. Slowly, I am in great trouble. For a week of Rainer and the other three boys no sign of life from Algeria. On 7 they wanted to be on the ferry. Something’s not right. Yesterday called on Christian’s friend Esther, totally excited. Christian was overdue for a week. I reassured her still, he was sure stayed with Rainer, Martin and Arjen longer. But the latest from Genoa to Tunis or Rainer would have reported it! He has frequently called by this tour. Said that I’m missing him. Normally we always travel together, but due to a surgery I’m not going this time. In his penultimate call from Djanet he raved about the beautiful dunes that told how well run everything, the mopeds, the tour. From Illizi he reported yet, that they have abandoned the planned route over Tarat or Qued Imirhou – the Tarat-east route is only an unattractive junk slopes and Qued impassable after heavy rains. There go to the graves runway tomorrow. As much as I would like! As much as I love myself on a previous trip to Africa into this landscape, the red sand with black stones and green bushes. And then he added that he call back from Tunisia! And would never go on vacation without me, because that would somehow nothing! Thanks, Rainer. I am glad that he missed me! Arjen friend Marten ringing through. Where is Arjen? In the night I call the emergency number of the embassy in Algiers. Everything in me is terrified! I feel that something has happened. Petra Bracht senses instinctively that Rainer can not stop calling. However, they do not know that he is being held by Islamist militants for the past two weeks. Approximately 24 hours after the call from Illizi was the holiday of four desert rider with one blow to end. Rainer: It is the evening of 23 February. We camp just before the fountain Ain el Hadjadj in the dunes. Suddenly bikes are heard. Really strange, because usually no one goes in the twilight. I look carefully and discover a convoy on the graves slopes. Several pick-ups with fitted machine guns, a red Toyota Hiace and three bikes. Back top long-bearded passenger with Kalashnikovs slung. Does not look good. When I turn around, I discover my passengers are visible from afar on a dune. Damn! The convoy promptly turn off in our direction, the armed men grouped around us. Strangely, I have no fear. If it were fundamentalists of the GIA, it would not have taken the other, but equal murdered. As it turns out, they belong to a Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC. We have nothing to fear, they assert. Once a few “little things” would be regulated, we could go again. But first we have to come. We pack and start each with a guard on the bike after a short runway graves to the south. These side slope is extremely difficult and the pillion-riding in the dark plus hairy. In a heavy rock passage Arjen crashes, dislocated his arm. He can drive, but has a lot of pain. At least the shoulder is not dislocated. Completely exhausted we camp at daybreak in hiding. We are to eleventh. The Swiss Toyota crew Marco Hediger, Reto Walter, Sibylle Graf and Silja Stäheli and Frank Gottlöber, Jürgen Matheis and Sascha Notter with two KTM and a Africa Twin. They were taken the night before us. Under cover of darkness, the convoy sneaks into the next night on. We build on the desert slopes just 20 km until dawn. Three nights is the way until we reach the final hiding place. We must be about 90 kilometers southwest of Illizi. Petra: On Monday, the 10th March Algiers confirmed that the four men did not leave the country. I totally messed up. What do you do now? The Foreign Office has been informed by Christian’s mother. The idea of going to the police, I reject. ‘m Afraid to hear my husband had grown up, and anyway, who go to Algeria would not be surprised. The sub-forum on the web! That are closer! Who has the four Endurists Martin Hainz, Christian Green, Rainer Bracht and the Dutchman Arjen Hilbers last? On the same day we put the members first demand the net. The Foreign Office to take the matter seriously, however, not really. They probably have their reasons, but at the moment I am almost mad. It will be better when we explain to assume the cost of cars and helicopters. Finally, the search begins. On the graves runway first. A friend of Tamanrasset reports by mail from previous heavy rains in the region. They may have difficulty getting by. Let there be progress but also bandits and raid possible. Esther thinks about flying to Illizi. She speaks fluent French and has a valid visa for Algeria. I ponder half the night: When the four a technical problem forced to stay in an unhappy place … We had Qued Imirhou years ago just such a situation. Nightmare! The idea of being surprised in the night by a half meter high mud avalanche … Meanwhile, more and more people are signing in forum Sahara give untold information. The nights I sit at the computer during the day often up to eleven hours on the phone. Can call, call: the information go back and forth. And Martin’s parents in Bad Tolz do not have an internet connection! I think they laboriously by phone to date. Martin was always of the view that the Internet is a waste of time killing machine. For me it has become the hub of the world. Rainer: By day, our hiding place turns out to be a partially covered with stone slabs crevice in a canyon of Tamelrik Mountains. Two meters wide and 20 to 30 feet long. »Hotel mujahedin,” as it is called our guards. Since October live some of them here, even built the connection to the graves slopes and managed everything you need for a hostage-taking approach. Within sight of the guards we can move relatively freely in the canyon, build a stone seating set and table out of my tent over a solar sail. Loamy brown water, there are a few holes in the bottom of the gorge. Some of us are disgusted, but I decided to drink and eat everything that is there. In the morning there is bread as much as we like, noon and night lentils, beans, rice, pasta and cereal in various combinations. Marc conveniently, nor can save jam, cereal and other goodies from his Toyota before the car was left on the road with motorcycles. We were allowed to take our luggage. Some even still cheat by camera and film, while GPS, maps and guidebooks migrate to the kidnappers stocks. The one needed for the jihad, the Holy Krieg.Petra: Search on the graves runway is terminated unsuccessfully! Meanwhile, the sub-forum announces another missed group: four Swiss Toyota driver, also overdue since the end of February. I’m in the greatest excitement. When the storm had passed through a disaster, but then you would have to find something! Garments, motorcycle parts, tents … something! One could certainly save themselves! It just can not be that all fall at the same time a mud avalanche victim. Arjen’s relatives say suddenly, our people had never arrived in Illizi! Arjen’ve only spoken of Tarat and Qued Imirhou and this is also stored in his computer. Ominously, provide neither tents nor sleep in Illizi proof of the group. Maybe the stupid registration forms were not merely been filled … I’m now almost crazy because it all depends on my memory of the last call. Rainer was Illizi – I’m sure. Repeatedly call people who were themselves in Algeria or tell me who might have seen her last. Including tour professionals like Gerhard Göttler, Axel Därr, Dieter Werner and Hoepfner Nöther. Especially they are important people! I do not know what I do without them würde.Rainer: Soon we come with our guards talking and find out that their organization GSPC, an offshoot of the Islamic FIS party was, who won the early 90s, the elections in Algeria. However, this was subsequently annulled by the military, after which the GSPC moved against the regime in Algiers in underground fights. A motley group sits around us, from the farmer to the university graduates, only united by the belief that an Islamic society is the solution to all problems. The GSPC is organized into nine divisions, each comprising 40 to 50 fighters and a commanding Emir. We are prisoners of the 5th Division with the Emir Abd el Razak Amaria Abu Haidara – as a former paratrooper and Army deserter also called Para el. He is regarded as extremely ambitious, experienced in abductions and manages our action supposedly alone. The troupe was apparently been on his way to Niger to buy weapons. As they hit the slopes the graves, they came up with the brilliant idea to fund their arms purchases by kidnapping tourists who are traveling on the slopes. Petra: A new motorcycle group is missing. Jürgen Matheis, Frank Gottlöber and Sascha Notter. They are not on the 14th for Booked ferry and arrived in March were also on the graves piste. In the opposite direction, from Bordj Omar Driss to Illizi. When I think of the German Embassy in Algiers by giving the new development Maas woman, she almost loses his composure. Now is finally clear that something very different is behind it as getting lost or mishaps. Rainer 9 March, today is my 46th Birthday. It’s pretty bad. Although Sibyl and Silja even muster a bouquet of desert flowers, I can not repress the thought of home. Normally, I would come home today, and we would have celebrated. Petra is now final for a certainty that something bad must have happened. I hope she keeps it by. The next day the Mudjahs appear with four other hostages. Accidentally discovered by our guards, as they sought an escape route for road Illizi Fort Gardel. A path through the deep canyons they did not, but the four Augsburger, who made their all-wheel Iveco’s on a guelta, a water point, pause. With Kurt and Erna Schuster and Michaela Spitzer and Witek Mitko we are now to the fifteenth. It is tight in the Felsspalte.Petra: To limit the search area, we ask Ms. Maas on scanned again that our people may have entered at a military outpost in Hassi Bel Guebbour, El Adeb or Larache In Amenas. The thing now seems to be taken more seriously. Zermürbenderweise are the Dutchman Arjen records unchanged for the view that our group had never arrived in Illizi! The chaos in my head is continually increasing. Why I remembered the last phone call not accurate? But who would ever have guessed how important this would not? The search is directed to the opposite direction. Esther has now finally flown to Algiers. Messed with the nerves she called. I do not get it right what she wants. Just that it is now looking even. With Mr. Zegri, the campground operator of Illizi, she drives two days long from the Tarat-piste, while helicopters and search there on Qued Imirhou from the air. Mr. Rainer Zegri knows, and I put all hopes on him. But the search has no result, after two days they returned with ruined tires back from driving too fast on the crummy slopes. So also on the route Tarat nothing. I am driven by the fear that we are looking in the wrong place. I express the Foreign Office to assume that they may have been arrested by the military near the Libyan border. Could not be, it is from Berlin, an incident should be reported within three days of the German authorities! Well, the good man has never been outside Europas.Rainer: With a small radio we hear German wave. Thus we learn that we are at least missing. Apparently, there are suspicions that we had lost our way, as the Americans would eventually shut off the GPS because of the early Iraq war. Or be drowned in a wadi or left lying without gasoline. No word of a Bekennerschreiben.Petra: In sub-forum, travelers who have obviously made the last picture of our boys report. It shows it on the afternoon of 21 On February Tin Taradjelli Pass. Tragically, the pass is before the crucial bifurcation Tarat slope or Illizi. So the key question remains open. Now all three groups. All disappeared between 23 and 25 February and must have been in the area of the dunes along the Oued By Stieges Samene. Arjen’s members have taken leave and research team. I find it even more difficult for alone, either friends or traveling far away. Finally I will make with our brothers and sisters the “free table everyday crisis.” We try to give each other and Rainer Kraft. Rainer: Finally! With the disappearance of the Augsburg seems to be clear that a crime exists. Algerian army helicopters circling suddenly over the region. We must now crevice day no longer leave. First, we are totally euphoric, try to enter characters, painting at night SOS in the sand. But they circle and circle, turn off again. They need to see us! Eventually, they stay away. Frustrated, we slump back into the now adopted lethargy. Almost a month it is now already. Up the smokes tobacco, read everything readable, already played the homemade card games list x times. Some shimmy from day to day, hoping constantly new, I’m trying rather to adjust to the situation. Worst of all, never to be alone. As the source dries up under the rock with the beginning of the summer, I volunteer to fetch water at a guelta. An hour way. Easy. But it’s a change of pace. But when others then wash with the high difficulty towed water hair or feet, it is difficult to remain friendly. X. will tablets. We have a few, but ration them for really severe pain. X. is depressed, it was probably before. An attempt to break the journey, which now went completely wrong. I do not know how you have to be built to endure this eternal waiting. Unstable anyway nicht.Petra: In sub-forum offer all people who wanted to continue for now to Algeria, their help! We ask them to warn other tourists, because so far hardly anyone knows about the matter. They distribute leaflets with messages Search on the ferry, beat them on the campsites in Tunisia and Algeria. However, in Algeria they disappear immediately. On 17 March brings PICTURE first little article. The beginning of an avalanche! Rainer: On the fiftieth day a helicopter lands near and burns down a pick-up of fundamentalists. They see us in the rugged terrain not? We must immediately leave the hideout and pull 500 meters into a cave. Petra: On 19 March flies Maas woman from the embassy with a Swiss colleague itself to Illizi. You rent cars at all, which can roll and provide Mr. Zegri commissioned to conduct the search operation. Weird is how I learn later that all search teams, 17 against clock every day back. Strange in the size of the area. I often wonder which side of the Algerians are actually. It was decided to send out a camel caravan that was to scour the area for two weeks. So you would see more than cars, they say. Luckily, the Swiss have money there. The people down there so far, all expenses on their cap. Sometimes I am speechless. On 24 March breaks up the caravan. Parallel to this increase helicopter with thermal imaging cameras. And by the night when Illizi there is still no evidence. Rainer: On 30 April 19th is our Wedding day. A day that we hardly register at home. Here it feel quite different. To me it goes bad, and I’m afraid Petra also. I think a lot of sie.Vor some time, the Emir has disappeared with 20 fighters, only runs via radio contact. Finally, the message is that this squad has taken 17 other tourists as hostages. Now there are 32 prisoners, but not claiming responsibility. Meanwhile, food is scarce, rationed the bread and the water content in the soup steadily larger. Christian tries to speed up negotiations by our release. As a result, our leader Osama comes to such useful things like new shoes, otherwise nothing will change. In my opinion we do not negotiate, but other than us. With this view I am quite alone. That would probably beyond my horizon of “wait and see”, they say. I hate illusions. But I’m pretty patient and keep good relations with ordinary warriors more important. Like Osama, who regularly zusteckt us something, or Abu Hafsa, who sometimes secretly bread for us backt.Petra: More and more tourists are reported missing! Now the authorities are wide awake, so many well-equipped teams can not just disappear. On 1 April is the Foreign Office a crisis. Slowly all understand what happened. But if it’s a kidnapping – why is there no demands? Police report, I must now make a missing persons report. Note Rainer’s personal information. And take fingerprints and hair for DNA analysis … I hope that you will not ever need. I know they live! Part 2 follows in MOTORCYCLE 25/2003

The hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 2

The Wait

In the second diary part of the 177 days’ duration abduction by the mujahedin Rainer Bracht depicts the liberation of the hostages and the first subsequent grueling run through the Algerian desert. Meanwhile, his wife Petra followed the increasingly complex rescue attempts by the German government. And both try to survive the months of anxiety and waiting. He in Algeria, they in Detmold.

Rainer: For nearly three months, we are now sitting in the holes of the rocks Tamelrik Mountains, and nothing moves. The search helicopter not come for a long time, the food is scarce and nothing more depressing. We just doze off in front of us. The Constitution in our group is different. I, by nature, more patient, it is quite good, the other is our captivity to pretty. Some are depressed. The heat is more extreme. It’s almost May soon as the summer begins. Some time ago, the boss of the kidnappers has gone to a second group hostage, holding only by radio contact. Petra: The matter has now reached the highest levels. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Schily were in Algiers, Chief Federal Prosecutor Kay participants initiated an investigation against an unknown terrorist organization, GSG 9 is located in Algiers on standby as well as officials from the Federal Criminal Police Office and Interpol. No one would have ever expected such a thing! One suspects a daunting logistics behind it all. There are now 31 people disappeared, including vehicles. 15 German, ten Austrians, four Swiss, a Swede and a Dutchman. And to hide and care for them is not so easy in the Sahara. It is now convinced that the disappeared live. But there is still no claim of responsibility. Rainer: On 5/13/03 added a radio and a radio message saying our guards into euphoria: the other 17 hostages were free. They congratulate us, in three to four days was safe for us all over. Our group is in high spirits. Only Martin and I remain skeptical. We believe that only if the Mudjas without us disappear on the horizon, we are truly free. The hiding place we have to evacuate in haste and join the rest of the remaining troops. After four days of runway wild ride we meet the emir (commander) in Erg Issouane, north slope of the graves. What we learn is disillusioning: Non negotiations had our fellow redeemed, but the Algerian military. The hostages were unharmed, but some of it Mudjas to-come. Now there’s danger, the kidnappers are now on the run. Spread over several pick-ups, a new hiding is searched. Petra: Meanwhile, the detectives take care of the matter in Germany. Twice a week they come over, are quite touching. With them, everything will be better. I finally contact. The previously competent Foreign Office moved out voluntarily not a syllable. The officials also help me as mundane things like Rainer’s work situation, to regulate the health insurance and pensions. The absences are always longer, and besides, no one knows what state he comes back … Thank god Rainer employer behaves extremely fair.Rainer: After a few days we find a small and steep dunes boiler, which is available only from the air. By radio Mudjas order the food and spare parts that a little later – brought – presumably by members of the base of supporters. The kidnappers are well organized. Already on the way here we passed depots with fuel and food. We remain five days to repair the dilapidated and battered car accidents. Since Arabs only screws, if properly what is broken, there are regular periods. To pass the time we help. Missing a hole somewhere, it is promptly shot into the Kalashnikov. The heat is bad. We only have one side attached to one of Toyota’s plans, under which we crowded together like sardines squat. The water is transported in 200 liter barrels that previously fuel, oil or chemicals contained, thus affecting the taste impact is not always positive. One of the women prisoners, the question arises whether it is possible for the drink, but it was a health hazard. Leave it, I tell her, then you’re thirsty tomorrow, or drink it, then you might get in 30 years Krebs.Petra: We have an appointment at the Foreign Office! He-wait, I was not too much of it. However, I’m getting ready for the day as much as possible. We learn to work with the Algerians course good, everyone give his best. But it was a lot of tact necessary in order not to bite on granite. Even if we had trained hostage rescue teams like the GSG 9th From the family circle, I’m the only one who was ever in Algeria and can not imagine working with African authorities halfway. Rainer: Finally we leave, head north-west through the erg, again crossing the graves in the north runway and pass the dunes of Erg Tifernine. From there it goes through the slopes of Bordj Omar Driss to Amguid, direction Arak. Sometimes we are on the go 36 hours without a break, the day in the meantime mercilessly scorching sun. The pace is grueling, often we can just cling to the open shop space. Multiple roll over the pick-ups, but miraculously no one is seriously injured. It is really bad when the Mudjas see gazelles. Gazelle meat tastes delicious, like deer. With up to 100 km / h then rush yourself otherwise level-headed driver with us through the terrain, firing wildly until the animal killed ist.Petra: The press has finally added weather and reporters stationed in Illizi. As they get little information as soon circulate more audacious speculation. In general I can put away the things. But if in local stations now and leaves strangers any bullshit about Rainer tell me sometimes go through the nerves. On 5/16/03 we are in-vited to Berlin again. The atmosphere is more relaxed than last time I trust gradually, that everything possible is being done to rauszuholen our people there. In the evening I write a letter to the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, thank him for his cooperation with Germany, hit him my trust and hope from. Maybe it helps. Meanwhile, another German is still missing. Klaus Bockelmann, Archaeologist. I ver-seeking, endure with Arab peace. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the hostages are not abused. As past kidnappings in Yemen have shown that. I know Rainer is alive and strong in crisis situations. This also makes me strong! He is with me every second, we are one. Rainer: After a few days we will reach a water point in the Mouydir mountains, north of Arak. But all around is Kamelkot, the water is contaminated by urine. Hassan, with 72 of the elders assured, the Qur’an says, camel urine is healthy … Maybe rub the warts, but to drink? Two days later, we prefer to walk another hour to three beautiful lakes. Paradise we call this place, where we will stay for three weeks. There are water without end, we can even swim. In addition, we are out of sight of Mudjas and may move freely. Only at mealtimes, we come together to see about three months finally almost like privacy. How we have longed for it! Each dozing in a corner, up to 16 hours a day. However, there are poisonous vipers horn. Their tracks are visible in the morning sometimes 20 to 30 inches from the head end of the sleeping bag. In three weeks, we killed nine pieces. But since we are not on the menu for the Vipers, only danger is when one enters or proposes to one. But probably not affect us anyway too viel.Petra: On 13/05/03 logs suddenly by 21 clock the Cid Bielefeld. There had been a hostage rescue in Algeria. But not all are free. Whether they are still likely to come over? Course. Keep calm! It does not feel as if it would be Rainer. Confirm it when they arrive. There were two groups, and one had been freed by the military. All the hostages alive. One officer stayed here. No one knows what will happen in the next few hours. As of now, there is a news blackout – no info, even to close family members no longer. The next morning, it’s the top news on the radio, the freed Austrian ex-hostages texteten it euphoric in the mics at the airport, all are free. Unfortunately, only all Austrians. The phone is ringing is hot – endless calls and congratulations I must reject, no, Rainer is not there. Despite a news blackout, I now inform the next of kin. Rainer: The Mudjas were shopping. In addition to clothing and food they bring a large bottle of perfume for each of the women. Touching! In the ver-western clothes we suspect that it is the “estate” of the freed hostages. A camel is killed, which greatly improved the supply situation again. Only our vegetarian feels weak because he refuses even pasta and rice that have been cooked with the meat. Poorly comprehensible principles. As an avowed hater now I would eat carrots and carrots. Petra: 05/15/03. The Austrian newspaper Krone sold the expedition leader Gerhard winter dish exclusively the terrible experiences of the ten Austrian hostages under the scorching desert sun, Michaela and Andrew Joubert Kiehlechner also report on the weeks in the hands of the Mujahideen and their happy deliverance. It is almost unbearable. At 16.5. We are once again loaded into the Foreign Office. The relatives of the freed hostages no more. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer talks about his recent visit to Algiers and a long conversation with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Again, they emphasize the loading hutsamkeit, which must be negotiated with. The following Sunday, I write one more time to Bouteflika, but also to Joschka Fischer, Gerhard Schröder and Schily. I am now convinced that everything conceivable is done to bring back the remaining hostages unharmed. Wait, wait again. I grit my teeth. The rest I can do also, definitely. I have to stay strong! Rainer will take me when he comes back. In the evening, I ask the police to talk to Rainer’s parents. I think she does not trust me anymore. The cops can something beruhigen.Rainer: On 06/25/03 our guards shoot a video and write a letter of confession with our help. Addressed to the Swiss and the German Embassy. Arjen gets nothing because his Dutch representative is not in the guide. When we read that the Emir calls for 45 million euros for us, we are horrified. His confidants reassure us. Firstly, three million per person would be clear, on the other hand it was indeed only the basis for negotiation. Originally, he had wanted to extort 150 million and the release of Algerian GSPC members from custody. Of which they would have dissuaded him. We also have the opportunity to write a personal letter. Sybille my translated into French, so that it can be controlled. I report that we have no worries, because our “tour guide” takes care of everything. Even the weather was good, no one would freeze. With such stupid jokes Petra will notice that I hale and hearty bin.Petra: On Monday, 05/19/03, chaos breaks out again! The remaining hostages were on their way home, it trumpeted from all channels. The phone is not standing still. But again, it’s not true. An unconfirmed report, many of which could be carried away. Even Claudia Roth announced that four Augsburg were on their way home. It is their constituency. The children have decorated the apartment. A day later we can see in “Beckmann” Family Bleckmann in the ARD. At 21.5. Family Rupping on ZDF in “Johannes B. Kerner.” Day after, there is a major earthquake in the near Algiers. But I’m sure the hostages are far enough away. On Friday, 5/23/03, there are 90 days! I am getting tired, which is not to describe. The moment at which we can take us back into the arms will come. And only ours. Our 19 Wedding day! Somehow I pack also. Send love letters friends. Rainer: When the written letter of confession and our belongings stowed in the car, nor will quickly patched the tire, then we leave. Add up to 48-hour marathon stages we race towards the southwest. To Mali, as we suspect. The water supplies are replenished way. In a former French nuclear test site. No problem, the secretary of the Emir claiming radioactivity is washable. Petra: Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer Schily have meanwhile written back. I have read several times Mr. Schilys letter. It is very personal and helps me badly. Meanwhile, soon is Pentecost. With the Africa Festival in Lißberg to which we have been going for many years. Since I can not away, I pray, read a message. Also, in the Sahara Club and the “DÄRR ‘meeting. There they even want to take a minute of silence for the hostages. I can not put into words how I am pleased that! Thank you that it is people like you! Soon available on my second hip replacement surgery. I’m afraid not to be there at the crucial moment and have to force myself not to cancel the surgery. Today is the 113th Day since the last time we talked. We have not seen us already four and a half months. At that time there was snow. The almond tree that Rainer so like, he did not see bloom. Meanwhile, we already harvest the cherries. Rainer: The Sahara summer is upon us, and the heat becomes increasingly worse. Often prevail loose 50 degrees in the shade. It exists only rarely. With us on the open shop space, the kidnappers chase through the desert südalgerische. As the water points are far apart, they ration the water. Sometimes two liters per day. I share it in, every hour a sip, the chewing and long in the mouth for. It is grausam.Petra: On 17.6.03 I have to go to the hospital. A serious way. I explain the situation in which I am, and it shields me, as much as possible. The operation runs smoothly, and I’m recovering surprisingly quickly. One less problem! The last day I treat myself to a visit to the hairdresser. It is glorious. After two weeks, I’m back home with crutches. Everyday life is arduous. I learn that a member wishes to be self initiative now, with an Austrian expedition and without professional police force. I hold my breath, people do not know this country. The parents of Martin and Arjen put him gently back against it. It should go well and it will turn out good, everything possible is being done – I leave no other thoughts. And I am convinced Rainer also nicht.Rainer: The 29.6.03 is one of those unbearably hot days. On an ongoing basis wältigen me obsessions of cold drinks – beer, water, milk shakes. Afternoon we rest scattered in sparse shade of acacia and tamarisk. Suddenly, someone hears a scream. Sascha, paramedic by profession, Michaela found before in a coma. Together with Abd el Aziz, the chef and physician, they give her a bag of saline infusion. More is not there. To save them, two to three liters would have been necessary. After an hour she dies, having obtained without consciousness. We buried her at night in the headlights of Iveco. It is awful. The Mudjas affected. Even completely exhausted, comes to me for the first time, the idea that our abduction could take a bad end. Not by violence of the fundamentalists, but I do not know how long we the heat and still withstand inhuman driving around. Not death scares me, Michaela died peacefully and without pain, but not afford to let alone the feeling of Petra. I feel that she needs me, waiting for me. Charged me very much that I could not help her with her surgery. The next day we reach a What-serstelle. So we could have had enough reserves to prevent Michaela’s death. Sasha is not about long hinweg.Petra: In Berlin letters have been received! The abductees re-port that they go well and they were well treated. I am infinitely glad Rainer buy new shoes. At 26.7. notify the police with me, there was a call. In Esther, Green Christian friend: all are healthy, have reported on a French. Not more. But it is enough. The police is preparing for further calls. The 155 Day. I have completely retired. Think of experiences that Rainer and I had together. Also funny that I have to laugh again. Presumably, they tell each other stories in the desert also. Three days later, on 7/29/03, the police shows up again. Michaela Spitzer was dead apparently died of heat stroke before some time. I’m as stunned. The rumor of a death already circulated a while. Christian Schuster, the son of the elderly couple Augsburg is, almost by-shot it. I have said repeatedly, without confirmation, I do not believe it. Now it is there. I’m hard to get over. Once again I call the family to free daily crisis table together. I would love to scream so loud that they can hear it to the Sahara: Stop finally on! It is enough to come to an end Rainer: We race on towards Mali. The kidnappers hoped to better negotiate there, the government is more cooperative. On the radio I get the message, the Algerian military would consider a corridor open to allow our passage to the neighboring country. Someone caught a glimpse of a GPS – we are located 35 kilometers south of Timiaouine. We did it, we are on Malian territory. First part and last part 23/2003.Dritter MOTORCYCLE MOTORBIKE in 26/2003

The hostage drama in the Sahara, Part 3 (archive version)

The exemption

In the last diary of the nearly six-month kidnapping by Algerian terrorists Rainer Bracht portrays the grueling escape through Mali. Petra Bracht persecuted under which the struggle of the German Government to a breakthrough in the negotiations. As on 17th August finally the saving “You are free,” sparks through the airwaves, it can no longer really believe.

Rainer: Finally we have crossed the border to Mali and may a few days to rest near a fountain. For weeks we have been in the now red-hot South Algeria with our kidnappers on the run. At the well succeeds Sascha, unnoticed to make a Tuaregs attention to our situation. In fact, the message a little later reached the mayor of Tessalit. There comes a radio message that we should contact you. But not as hoped by the German authorities, but the mayor of Illizi in Algeria. The kidnappers are now back on his feet! Way immediately! The limit is still too close to prevent access to the Algerian army. Petra: On 29 7 03, the 158 Day at 20.30 clock calls to the police. I would have the opportunity to write a letter Rainer. In half an hour they would fax it to Berlin. In my mind, chaos breaks out – there’s so much to ask and tell. And now find the right words in a hurry …. Actually ringing half an hour later a police officer to pick up the letter. Shortly after, it occurs to me that I have not even thought about kissing mitzuschicken! Rainer: A grueling long-distance journeys further phase begins. Up to 36 hours we will be shaken up in the SUV without a break. After a few days we arrive exhausted a dry river bed, where we stayed for some time. Fighters of 9 Rebel Division are with us for a while. You should support the action because they know here and allegedly have connections in Mali. Eventually a young Tuaregs marched boldly with his camel through our warehouse. Only when he has all greeted with a handshake, discover the Mudjas him and send him away. Petra: Only a day later he receives a letter from Rainer. It is overwhelming! Amazingly, he is exactly the questions that I have answered yesterday. I call on parents and siblings and I read each and every one before the letter. Our parents come immediately want to see the list with your own eyes. He reassures her, even if he spent five weeks old ist.Rainer: The kidnappers turn again a video. First a group shot, then everyone should greet his family. In a written statement, they explain that Michaela Spitzer’s death was a tragic accident bedauerter by themselves and we were well treated. We must all sign. We fervently hope that Michaela’s death was at least the sense to clarify the seriousness of our situation. As the kidnappers set we now all hopes for the Malian government. It is regarded as cooperative as the Algerian and could finally get things moving. Even I am cautiously optimistic. The next day, the emir (commander) breaks up with a squad to negotiate. Our fellow Christian Green take them with you. He and his girlfriend in Berlin fluent in French, so that the Mudjas hope to establish direct contact with the German government. Petra: On 31 7 03 announces the police a video of the hijackers. I am extremely anxious and drum up the rest of the family together. Nobody knows what to expect. How will they look like? I’m afraid. By 18 clock are all there. Also the police. We can not imagine the band would leaked to the media. It was eleven days old, all the hostages are to see it, and everyone says a short sentence. »Rainer Bracht, Allemagne, many greetings to the family and to Petra,” Then said Christian, that they needed medication, the extreme heat and the food supply are problematic and they mourn Michaela Spitzer’s death. And hoped for a speedy end. You see relatively good, are neatly dressed and not emaciated. But tired and annoyed. When the family is away, I am a completely hedgehogs, need rest, absolutely. My thoughts are with Rainer. Rainer: is brought to Bamako Even during the film to the German Embassy, we set off. 36 hours non-stop, it goes in the northwest Mali. A total of 600 miles. For the first time it starts to rain and we have water in abundance can swim and even do laundry. Petra: On Friday, the first 8 03, an interview with me, which I have never been displayed in the “world.” I think you can not sink deeper in journalism. Over the weekend I try to find my energy and patience again. I succeed, but there is also no other way. Hopefully Rainer and the others have not yet lost their. In Heiligenkirchen a memorial service for the hostages will be held, and a lady of a sect called already for the third time. You have written poems and wanted to help with the proceeds of the hostages … In the evening, the PC crashes. Diagnosis: disk is destroyed and all data gone. So start from scratch and re-enter everything. On Tuesday, the computer has made so far that you can work on it. My navel to the world. A day after another goes by, and I fall into a depression for a week, want to talk to anyone because I just constantly erupting into tears. Feel empty, tired and beaten. I mobilize all forces to get out of the hole. The only one who could comfort me, sits in Mali. Rainer: After two weeks of popping a few faithful of the Emir on again. Together with the SUV of the Malian government. Now what really seems to move. We are almost euphoric. They not only medicines and bottled mineral water, but letters from home! Petra! She answered my questions. How they survived the operation, which make the family and especially my ailing grandmother, as my pay comes without ends meet and so on. Only much later did I learn that at that time they had not even my letter. They just knew what would move me. I’m happy how close we stehen.Petra: On 9 8 03 held another meeting at the Foreign Office. Since I am handicapped by the operation, it sent me home a summary of the conversation. This finally the persistent rumor is denied, some hostages were sick. Only sciatic pain from a few hard chairs seem to plague, otherwise all are ok. Furthermore, Christian Green has apparently made telephone contact between the kidnappers and the German government, and the negotiations that have been conducted, a Tuareg leader named Iyad Ag Agaly, now governs the governor of Gao. A military action may not be remembered in Mali in order not to endanger the life of the 14th I sometimes think that Rainer and this fate will never leave me. Rainer: The Islamists are now as excited as we constantly have the radio on the ear, so not to miss a message. Partial several times daily sparked with the Emir. However, I am now experiencing the only threatening the entire hostage situation that emanated from the kidnappers themselves: When we want to look during the rain in one of the SUVs protection as agreed, trying to stop us because a fighter. Angrily, I reminded him of our agreement, which he in turn uses a Kalashnikov furiously and loaded by in front of me. Fortunately, his colleagues overwhelm him in time. What had happened? Amazingly, they believe my statement and apologize for their quick-tempered buddy. Why I was not afraid? With a joke I Wiegele the thing ab.Petra: State Chrobog flies on 12 8 03 to Algiers and then on to Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako. The talks take hours, but then Chrobog expressed very optimistic. It will not be long. A few weeks, maybe even days. I hangele me from one branch to another. Chrobog send a postcard with the image of a rusty padlock. Feel the need to thank him. Rainer: After two weeks, we set off again, roaring back in a southwesterly direction. Something seems to have changed, because the kidnappers not to hide, but to use for the first time normal slopes. However, they continue until a fatigued driver overlooks a wave and the car almost rolls over. Only then slept. And then repaired the Toyota. Mostly it would go faster if they drive a little slower, but that contrary to Arab mindset. Petra: The 175 Day I suddenly feel that something is happening. And my feeling has always been the most reliable indicator. I know Chrobog get the thing out. How difficult the negotiations must be, can be only guessed. In Algeria, the government could be dissuaded with difficulty by a second military operation. Then – as should all arrive intact to Mali? And there will be rebuilt trust between kidnappers and negotiating partners? As a transfer can take place without the kidnappers fear of being shot immediately? The Algerian military had reluctantly an escape corridor for terrorists held open – but they are still on the Mali border on the lookout. I’m afraid that in the end even use weapons is commanded. But I was assured that just should not happen … Rainer: We stock at an agreed meeting point, wait for the Emir. It is the same place where we had parted from him two weeks ago. A good sign. I just bring in the Mudjas to eat, sounds as motor noise. They immediately jump into their battle vests and shoot into the air. Intended for professional reception Emir Abd El Razak, who returns with his negotiating team. Personally, he appears to us prisoners, and solemnly declares that everything is regulated, we would be free! Petra: On Saturday evening, 16 8 03, a journalist friend informs me that the release was at hand, probably in the night from Sunday to Monday. It would be nice, but for me, it’s just THE call. The police asked me to now be available continuously. I can feel it tingle formally. Then it happens, on 17 8 03 calls to the CID at 22.37 clock – they are free! Berlin just have it officially confirmed. I weep with happiness. Rainer: We have to pack up and merged a few miles away with a group of Malian military and Tuareg. Including Ag Agaly, a legendary leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the early nineties. They had taken over the role of mediator, and to them we are now passing. It’s really over. Most fundamentalists say goodbye with Arab courtesy and friendly pats on the back from us, invite us even like to come back to Algeria, nothing would happen to us. However, other travelers threaten our fate, they emphasize the same time. Express, the driver with lenses like glass blocks, thinking about my health and forcefully admonished me not to smoke and to avoid pork and alcohol in the future. I promise to do my best, but suspect that I will not succeed. Recently, the Emir still want my email address to let them know, if they had recovered my BMW, if the Algerian military to take care not drum. The situation is grotesque. I’m not even angry them – they probably do not even know what they did to us haben.Petra: at 22.45 clock, it comes in the news. I stare numbly at the screen where Chrobogs is to see happy face in front of the cameras – he has really come, the moment. After 177 days and nights. I just celebrate a little with Andrew and Steffi from our house, as once again the phone is ringing at midnight. Who is calling now for? “Hello,” “Hello, it’s me, Rainer” In my mind there is complete emptiness? “Rainer, which Rainer” “Yes, Rainer, your husband,” Then I break into tears, immediately followed by croaking connection together!. He was, THE call. And I do not even know Rainer vote! Incredible! When he calls shortly afterwards a second time, I am aggregated. He says that he’s fine, if they had just eaten and went to sleep right now. For some reason, I wonder if he still had his sleeping bag. No, long gone. They slept so in the sand. Out of sheer noise I understand very little, but it’s overwhelming. Rainer: With the onset of darkness, we set off on our last trip. Around midnight stop the Tuaregs at a water point with dry wood to make tea. By satellite phone we can call home. Petra’s turn, but stunned, probably did not expect me. But it is wonderful to hear them. Petra: A little later, the first journalist to dive in front of the house, there’s no dodging, “How do you feel, how’s your man, you already had contact” day they assail Steffi in going for shopping right at the seventh?. She takes with Andreas incessantly bimmelnde the phone that can not be stopped because of possible further calls by Rainer. The next morning, the aircraft is expected to arrive in Cologne. Two CID officers want to go with me. I am pleased when I hear who it is: it all started with these two, they had made contact with me and helped more than once, to prevent the worst. Rainer: At dawn we set off, to Gao is 500 kilometers to go. Lunch will be served up in a village tea, milk and cookies, then it goes on as soon as possible. At dusk we reach the city and a little later the governor’s palace. After several speeches, during which I yearn mainly after a beer, it goes on by plane to the president in the capital, Bamako. He was instrumental in our release, as I hear from people mitfliegenden by the Foreign Office in Berlin. They tell me of Petra, what great job they made in Germany, how much optimism and replaced it had spread. Petra! Thankfully, I lean back. My worry about them falling off with talents seriousness, I am happy and a little proud. She seems to have moved a lot for us. Petra: With a pocket full of clothes, pipes, gummy bears, chocolate and the shoes that I had bought a few weeks ago, we set off at dawn to the airport. When we arrive, there is still enough time, and I watch the window, as the machine from Bamako lands. Now there are no search images on TV, now it’s reality. The moment when Rainer comes through the door, finally overwhelmed me. Very narrow and deep brown, he has become, has trained as a marathon runner. A mattress and a bag he still has one left not left of his possessions. Therein some clothes that never belonged to him, two stones from the desert, half a bangle and a small fossilized spine … When I take him in the arm, I still smell the dust and the dry air of the Sahara. “Finally,” I do not bring out more. I will never forget is his happy laughter at this moment. It is vorbei.Rainer: Now it’s finally back home to Germany. Of sleep is not to think of many conversations the night passes literally flew by. Suddenly a final conflict among us surges 14 – one of the Swiss do not want to pass on to the police, the coordinates of Michaela’s grave. Only needs to be discussed in the group what to do with it. My God! I am infinitely glad that it is over. But before I can really upset me, I discover Petra. And everything else faded to nothingness. I have arrived.


It is my great desire to thank all the people and agencies whose work ultimately led to our rescue. I’m overwhelmed by solidarity and support that Petra has received from the Sahara Club, the company Därr and countless private individuals members. If I had all of this would be even suspected, I liked my odyssey easier. Is difficult to accept, however, that local agencies and tour guides, months before the kidnapping of “peculiar people” did to the graves runway, but did not pass on the information. In addition, the Algerian military ignored the Tuareg messages in Tamelrik Mountains camps would create. And despite great gratitude that there later everything possible was done for us – the Federal Foreign Office travel warning for southern Algeria was definitely too late. The Sahara Club had already on 19 3 03 pointed out some missing.
Rainer Bracht

Kidnapping and Smuggling in the Sahara; two books reviewed


In late 2008 Canadian UN special envoy Robert Fowler was kidnapped near Niamey with his assistant Louis Guay and their local Malian driver, Soumana Moukaila (left). All were held captive in northern Mali by Moktar Belmoktar’s (MBM) AQIM katiba or group.
Following the lull after the mass kidnappings of 2003 in Algeria, it was a pattern that came to be repeated frequently from 2008. Excluding what’s currently going on in Nigeria, in north Mali today there ought to be nine non-African captives of six nationalities (mostly French) as well as five Africans taken from five separate abductions across the Sahara. Full list of dates, locations and outcomes at the bottom of this page.

But just a year before Fowler was grabbed, Oxford-based anthropologist, Judith Scheele was travelling up and down the Tanezrouft, principally between Gao and the Touat region around Adrar in western Algeria, researching the origins and nature of the ‘connectivity’ that has long linked the two regions.

Her book, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century is an anthropological treatise on south Algeria and north Mali. Fowler’s book is A Season in Hell, my 130 days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda – a self-explanatory title.

judsteelSmugglers and Saints of the Sahara; Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century
Judith Scheele
Cambridge University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781107022126; 286pp
£60 – $99
From CUP catalogue:
Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara describes life on and around the contemporary border between Algeria and Mali, exploring current developments in a broad historical and socioeconomic context. Basing her findings on long-term fieldwork with trading families, truckers, smugglers and scholars, Judith Scheele investigates the history of contemporary patterns of mobility from the late nineteenth century to the present. Through a careful analysis of family ties and local economic records, this book shows how long-standing mobility and interdependence have shaped not only local economies, but also notions of social hierarchy, morality and political legitimacy, creating patterns that endure today and that need to be taken into account in any empirically-grounded study of the region.

Smugglers and Saints caught my eye as it mentioned al Khalil, a frontier trading settlement that slipped out of the state control around the turn of the century to become a rough smugglers’ entrepôt right on the Algerian-Mali border and just 18km from the Algerian outpost and military base of Bordj Moktar (BBM) on which al Khalil depends. Steele writes in the introduction:

… On closer inspection, the various institutions that might turn al-Khalil into a town turn out to be optical illusions… The gendarmerie post is … empty, and here everybody knows what happened: “the government built this post, a nice building, you can see, and then they sent soldiers with guns, suwadin (‘blacks,’ that is to say people from southern Mali) who were already shaking with fear when they arrived. They lasted two days: on the second night, we stole there guns, and we never saw them again.”

Sounds like an interesting place. I visited the outpost twice in 2006, a short while after I was told the Malian douaniers (Customs) like the gendarmes above, had been kicked out, leaving the place to its own devices. One of my visits was while passing through with a car to offload in Mali (it was actually getting reprofiled to return to Algeria as my guide’s car). I took the chance to get in with the chummy crew who were my guide’s contacts in Al Khalil; what the exact connection was I did not ask. They occupied l’Ambassade (possibly an in-joke with those that frequented it), a compound or garaj like many others in town, composed of a head-high mud-brick wall where ancient MAN or Mercedes trucks were being overloaded or refuelled. Beaten up oil drums, axles and other junk lay all around and a couple of shacks or shaded reed zeribas perched against the perimeter wall. There was no running water or electricity other than truck batteries. The toilet was like a deleted scene from a slasher movie.


Al Khalil was by that time a stateless entity in No Man’s Land, some 100km north of the first Malian town at Tessalit where in 2006 at least the Malian army had a presence and stamped us in. The crew at the l’Ambassade weren’t like the braggarts that Judith Scheele describes, and  seemed a rather amiable  bunch of possibly Berabich Arabs, a consequence one likes to think, of their avowed trade in ‘soft’ commodities between Algeria or Zouerat and their distant home town of Timbuktu. I sold some sat phones or GPSs and promised to return with solar panels and other requests – something I occasionally do to help establish a connection with guides or other local contacts. In this case my motivation was to help ease my imminent traverse of northern Mali should I get in trouble.
In a way I was participating in the mutually beneficial connectivity about which Judith Scheele writes, while not going quite as far as marrying one of the ‘Ambassadors” daughters to seal a trading communion. Sure enough, two months later I was in trouble before I even got out of eastern Mauritania and was able to call in a truck via the Ambassade to recover me back to In Khalil. Last I heard my Hilux still rests under an oily tarp in the corner of the Ambassade  (right).

Al Khalil 2016 – a bombed-out war zone

Back to the book. It is of course a little unfair for a ‘civilian’ like myself to judge a painstakingly researched academic work like Saints. I suspect such works follow a certain well-defined format and other rigid conventions that pass over my head. But as I’ve had dealings in Al Khalil and know south Algeria as a tourist, I gave it a go, curious to learn a little more on how the outpost survives right under the nose of BBM and where the author speculates: “… by all accounts state officials are deeply involved in all aspects of transborder business.”

Steele describes the drivers and dealers in Al Khalil as a recognisable mix of bravado and exaggeration, boasting about their contrabanders’ adventures running goods along the hidden pistes while dodging patrols and ambushes from competitors. These traders claimed a distinct moral separation between ‘soft’ goods like sugar, fuel and staples, and harder items, the hardest of all being cocaine. It’s fair to speculate that as much as AQIM’s occupation of northern Mali, it is the similarly recent advent of a new cocaine route to Europe, from Colombia via Guinea Bissau or Mauritania right across to the Red Sea that has upset the trading traditions she documents. No longer can a plucky young guy knock out a couple of trans-border runs for a patron to earn himself the HJZ79 he was provided. As you’d expect with hard drugs, now much more organised mafias – in some places not far removed from state institutions – are running the show and paying flat rates for young guns in search of nothing more than adventure.

“Although al-Khalil might for all intents and purposes look like a town, it lacks in morality and is therefore locally understood to be part of the badiya…  As such it remains beyond the bounds of civilisation and is described as potentially dangerous to “proper” family life and sociabilities. This is perhaps why, in their interminable boasts, Khalilis endlessly endorse “traditional” morality, as though they were trying to integrate al-Khalil within known frameworks of excellence and moral propriety: al-Khalil is decried as a place where men can be men, although everybody knows that the moral autonomy and social responsibility this implies are often illusory.


The series of  traders’ compounds or garajs  shown in the sat image on the left isn’t a place where a European stranger idly noses around for too long, and you get the feeling that even with her protectors, the author didn’t spend much time there, as she did in the regular settlements in Mali and Algeria. That she achieved what she did over months in this area is a testament in her ability in getting to know the right people and gaining their trust. A short while after both I and Judith Scheele visited, Al Khalil became quite a dangerous place indeed and now, a few months following the French led Operation Serval, you imagine things may have turned full circle.


It has to be said that once beyond the lively and engaging  introduction, the book gets down to business and at times becomes a bit of an effort to read. The chapters are listed on the right give you an idea of what to expect. Credit is due to the author’s tenacity, bravery and fluency in local languages, although part her success may have been in being perceived by the men as just a ‘harmless woman’. It gave her the best of both worlds: sisterly access to local women no male counterpart could have achieved, while at other times able to move around as a protected ‘honorary male’, as lone women travellers often find, particularly in Muslim lands.


At one point her convoy is held up in southern Algeria en route to Mali until the driver explains to the brigands that he’s travelling en famille – as in ‘steady on chum, there are women present’. Travelling sans famille, on the way to meet us in 2006, the Ambassade’s truck (left) had a similar encounter and was less fortunate.

It’s a touching example of the sort of code of honour we like to imagine exists among Saharan smugglers. They are after all merely engaged in tax-exempt trading that was disrupted or penalised when the French began their century-long project of colonising Algeria in the early 19th century. Since then, following the post-colonial era of the early 1960s, new governments settled age-old racial scores. I have long assumed that the neglect of the desert Tuareg in Mali’s Ifoghas and the Aïr in Niger was a form of payback for the bad old slave trading days. It forced places like the Ifoghas to rely heavily on subsidised goods coming down from Algeria and until very recently the Malian government still professed that the ‘Tuareg problem’ in the north was a greater threat than AQIM and associated terrorist groups.

In Saints we learn much about the demography, racial make up and historical links across the region. The Tilemsi Arabs who originated from Mauritania and include the shady mayor or Tarkint (more of him below). Or the Kunta Arabs, a sect that led by a ‘saint’, settled from an oasis in the Touat Algeria a century or two ago. Indeed it was Arab traders from there who founded Kidal, the current ‘capital’ of the Kel Ifoghas Tuareg.

“Most [pre-colonial] settlements in the Sahara are said to have been found by saints, following divine guidance… [it] is always an achievement and relates to larger projects of civilisation, generally bound up in Islamic standards of justice and order. As such it can as easily be swallowed up by moral shortcoming and internal strife as by the shifting sands and greedy raiders”

These early traders and other notables have metamorphosed into ‘saints’ possessed of baraka (blessing) or even got upgraded to ‘sharif’, noble descendants of the Prophet. It’s a form of religious aristocracy mentioned in an earlier post about Judith Scheele’s visit to Arawan around the same time. Staying with PCVs in Mauritania in the late ’80s, I recall coming across a term ‘hassan’, with the same meaning or ‘legitimacy’ as sharif.

At one point the author profiles the ‘Alkacem’ clan of Tamanrasset, a successful trading family of business-minded Chaambi Arabs who moved there from northern Algeria around Ouargla and Ghardaia. From the earliest days of the French colonisation the Chaambi worked with the administration rather than fighting it, like the Ahaggar Tuareg  right up to their decisive defeat near Tam in 1911.
We learn that similarly, the modern Alkacem have shrewdly developed ties with the government to their great advantage. It chimes with a meeting I had with what I took to be a patriarch of that family a couple of years ago while organising a tour. I could tell this guy was a busy homme d’affairs who these days, more than ever, surely couldn’t be making a living from his tour agency. With his shiny fleet of Hiluxes, I assumed he must have more profitable interests like property or transport, his agency being a hang over from the good years and which had been palm-off to his somewhat feckless son. The patriarch told me his family had moved down a century ago from their home oasis of Metlili Chaamba just south of Ghardaia.

These passing connections made Saints a little more digestible for me but while there must be a certain received form to academic writing that is indubitably objective and correct, the jargon doesn’t exactly leap from the page with arms outstretched. It is after all a meticulous report on the author’s fieldwork to be pored over by her peers, not an adventure travelogue.

Nevertheless, as a tourist in the region you frequently feel that you’re skimming over what’s really going on around you, especially when pre-occupied with keeping your own all-terrain show on the piste. Saints helps fill in the blanks about a Sahara where people actually live, a place beyond the string of waypoints linking fuel stations, junctions and wells. We learn a lot about the complex interconnectivity of race, skin colour and Arab assumptions of moral, intellectual and religious superiority, despite the envied lure of the licentious suwadeen. About appearances, status, how to get ahead in business as an Arabic woman of standing while scrupulously maintaining a respectful pubic image (in short: travel for business but lock up your daughters).

Along the way Judith Scheele has amassed a bibliography on associated  topics that could keep you reading for years. There are many other anthropologists out there working to unravel the secrets of the Sahara. She concludes by politely scoffing at what you suspect she views is a rather male-oriented view of today’s Sahara as a lawless “swamp of terror” to quote an American general. A wilderness of wily bandits and fanatical mudjihadeen  that must be brought under control before it all gets out of hand. It’s an image that’s carried by the mainstream media too and the author admits that much of her research was completed before current AQIM activities hit their stride, let along the recent fall of Gaddafi’s Libya which has further stoked the fire. Al Khalil may get pushed off the map she concludes, but it will simply pop up somewhere else because in the Sahara, like elsewhere else, life goes on.

fowlbookA Season in Hell; my 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda
Robert Fowler
Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9781443402040; 320pp
CAN$ 11.99 Kindle up to 32.99 hardback
From the Harper Collins website:
For decades, Robert R. Fowler was a dominant force in Canadian foreign affairs. In one heart-stopping minute, all of that changed. On December 14, 2008, Fowler, acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda, becoming the highest ranked UN official ever held captive. Along with his colleague Louis Guay, Fowler lived, slept and ate with his captors for nearly five months, gaining rare first-hand insight into the motivations of the world’s most feared terror group. Fowler’s capture, release and subsequent appearances have helped shed new light on foreign policy and security issues as we enter the second decade of the “War on Terror.” A Season in Hell is Fowler’s compelling story of his captivity, told in his own words, but it’s also a startlingly frank discussion about the state of a world redefined by clashing civilizations.

I may have struggled to review Saints satisfactorily, having chipped away at it over a number of weeks. That’s not an excuse I need to make with Fowler’s A Season in Hell which I knocked back over a weekend. It doesn’t so much leap off the page as grab you by the ears and haul you back in. Here at last is what some have been waiting for since this whole threat to Sahara tourism started back in 2003*: a lucid, vivid and thoughtful account of an experience which those of us who still travel regularly in the Sahara often wonder how we’d cope with. And before the first page is turned Fowler answers that question directly with a reassuring “better than you’d assume”.

In December 2008 Fowler’s UN party was in Niger to help negotiate a settlement over the latest Tuareg rebellion in the Aïr. Their presence was not welcomed by the then Niger government who almost certainly betrayed the diplomats into the hands of AQIM, less than an hour north of Niamey, while at the same time trying to blame it on dissident Tuareg rebels, so killing two birds with one stone.

Stuffed into the back of a pickup, a breakneck flight ensues, over the border into Mali, hammering cross-country at which point Fowler – at that time in his mid sixties – injured his back and lost his glasses. Exhausted, terrified and dazed, a few days later the reality of what has befallen them becomes clear as Fowler and Louis Guay settle into life at what they called Camp Canada, somewhere in the hills northeast of Tessalit. The petrified driver Soumana was nearby but kept away from the two Canadians. The sound of what may have been French C130s coming in to land in Tessalit helps pin down their probable location.

Luckily, Fowler avoids the lazy Day 1, Day 2…  diary format, instead describing events or themes over their months en brousse. Just before their abduction two Austrians had been released after eight months captivity in Mali, and so Guay at least got his head around the fact that their experience may last that long too.

One night on the flight north Guay vehemently discouraged the myopic Fowler from grabbing a pistol from the glove compartment, but once in the Camp Canada Fowler still attempted to asses his chances of escape. From the way he describes it, even without the surrounding desert, it’s clear that wherever they were camped, they were always heavily guarded by lookouts and even guarded as they slept. The threat came for other AQIM groups as well as expected rescue missions by foreign forces, plans to which they were disturbingly privy.

Early on the obligatory video is made, backed by masked mudj in front of the black AQIM banner, though at the time Fowler was uncertain whether they were about to film a graphic record of his own grisly execution. Fowler admits that early on suicide was a valid option and later explains “by far the most taxing [of the trials they endured] were the ravages of the psychological roller coaster that racked us back and forth between hope and despair.”

At Camp Canada the duo settle into a routine of daily walks, hauling each other away from negative thoughts (‘rabbit holes’) and even honouring the prayers of their abductors by standing up while making their own invocations. Moktar Belmoktar (MBM – or [one-eyed] ‘Jack’ in the book) makes occasional visits, a figure that clearly carried authority and respect among his men. But during MBM’s longer absences the duo have to deal with the malice, mind games and rabid contempt of their captors, including the spiteful and petty depredations of ‘the Children’ – some as young as seven.

They may well have been kidnapped from local villages, or handed over by impoverished parents and since indoctrinated, otherwise you wonder what it is that drives young men to such extreme views and a pitilessly harsh and perilous lifestyle. Aside from the commonplace domestic difficulties or some adolescent slight which apparently pushes one over the edge (a suggestion made for the recently slain Boston bomber whose promising boxing career didn’t pan out), you can’t help feeling that the chips on their shoulders and all other corners of their bodies have some legitimacy in countries where unemployment is epidemic but where the elite factions of the state constitute the apogee of self-enriching criminality.

I recall one of the guys in the MAN recovery from 2006, a young Tunisian now living the life as a desert smuggler. His insecurity, resentment and hot and cold moods lit up the desert like a flare. When he drove the truck it was as if he wanted to smash every tussock into submission. One night at a camp in north Mali he blurted out of the blue ‘Christophe, why do Europeans think all Africans are stupid?’. The others were a little embarrassed by him but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that a year or two later he’d signed up  with the nearest AQIM katiba.


It has at times been customary to dismiss AQIM as nothing more than criminals making money by smuggling and kidnapping, but if that’s the case then Fowler’s abductors all sustained a pretty convincing performance. Not one of the score or more who occupied Camp Canada (right) failed to try and convert the two diplomats to Islam, while at the same time ceaselessly haranguing the unfortunate driver who lived right among them. In fact it became rather a procession – as with some religions and Islam in particular, a need to be seen as doing your duty as a devout, by-the-book Muslim.

To borrow a tract from Judith Scheele: “The two mosques [in Al Khalil] were constructed with private funds, but even they can hardly be taken to represent “Khalili society.” At least one of them, people say, was built by a notorious drug dealer, to show off his wealth and perhaps even but his place in paradise, but nobody ever goes to pry there – quite simply, because nobody ever prays in al-Khalil: for al-Khalil is a place of corruption, and their prayer would wither on the tongue… it therefore remains beyond the bounds of “civilisation” and is part of the badiya (steppe, wilderness).

Fowler is careful never to claim to speak on behalf of Guay who he nevertheless thanks deeply for helping him survive the ordeal, although you do wonder if the pairs’ fluency in French may have exacerbated their torment. Not all in the katiba spoke French but some of those who did left no doubt how dearly they’d love to kill and mutilate them, just on general jihadist principles. One, ‘Omar One’ who they got to know well had been a travelling preacher right across Africa and Europe, and was particularly skillful at relating stories from the Koran to the enthralled audience. Religious discussions between themselves dominated the abductors’ conversations.

The fact that Fowler seems to come out of the experience without lasting psychological trauma (he claims no nightmares or PTSD) makes you think that he at least had a relatively easy time of it, so perhaps the ability to communicate did help. An interviewer (worth clicking, btw) also came away with this impression after reading the book and to which Fowler replies:

RF: Sorry, if I left you that impression in the book then I didn’t write very well. It was never, not for an instant, ever relaxed. I don’t think we ever had a good time. I think I mentioned in the book that on a couple occasions Louis and I laughed about something, and then had a discussion if we should even be laughing. I mean, some of the situations were so absurd that the irony of it made us laugh. But, we were never relaxed. The 20 questions was with this fellow called Hassan, and he was among the most dangerous, difficult, and smart members of our captors. One could never be relaxed with Hassan, and let ones guard down. Even in the context of what appears to be a game, all the same stakes remained on the table.

But you wonder whether Guay – who has not written of the experience as far as I know – did not get off so lightly. For whatever reason he ended up a scapegoat, picked on for merely observing his assailants (‘what else was there to look at?’) or got persecuted for his ‘Jewish’ appearance. Both used their diplomatic nous and long experiences of working and negotiating in Africa as best they could to control this worrying situation. In a way, short of being Jean-Claude Van Damme clad in especially tight denim, you couldn’t expect two more experienced captives being put to the test. And tested they certainly were:

“Anything we believed, especially about religion but also about most anything else, they considered to be false, corrupt, and therefore not only unworthy of discussion but also intrinsically evil. Even talking about such differences was likely to incur the wrath of their vengeful and famously jealous god.”


As well as he was able, Fowler paints a vivid picture of those he got to know; some of who bristled at the duo’s transparent ploys to win favour and maybe respect, such as the aforementioned honouring of their praying. Others warmed a little and some came over to discretely discuss haram  topics outside the narrow strictures of their  fundamentalist dogma. There was only one thing that struck me as oddly missing from this book: obsessive discussions about food. If we on my camel treks are fantasising about the fare back home after only a week on the trail, you’d think Fowler and Guay would be crawling up the canyon sides eating plain cous-cous, pasta or rice (occasionally with meat) twice a day for months at a time. Some emotionally sensitive subjects were banned from discussion by the two in an effort to maintain morale, but you’d think the harmless pleasure in food fantasies would be quite fun.

It’s useful to be reminded that these may all be battle-hardened jihadists, but ‘extreme camping’ (as Fowler calls it) full time in the Sahara on limited resources is no picnic for them either. The captors too felt the pressure as negotiations of which the duo knew little off progressed in fits and spurts. Violent arguments broke out on the far side of the camp – for all the two knew the subject may have been ‘let’s kill them!’. For MBM who pops in and out of the drama, this is seen as a last resort or not one at all, and though he doesn’t spare the two a bitterly articulated sermon about the legitimacy of their cause, he still comes across as a principled and intelligent operator. (A whole lot more on him here -from a US ‘GWoT’ PoV).
Although it’s said he fought the Russians in Afghanistan (where he lost an eye) at least a decade before this event MBM was better known on the Saharan scene as a cigarette smuggler and audacious bandit without any links to the then GSPC (later AQIM). Among some he was even glorified as a Robin Hood-like figure: ‘El Laouar – the One-Eyed my guide used to joke, with one hand covering an eye, as we crossed northern Mali in 2006 at which time MBM had been reportedly  chased out of the Iforghas by Tuaregs into our path. It’s likely too that he was behind a huge convoy of ‘Marlboro’ laden pickups which passed our camp near the defile north of Amguid on New Year’s Eve, 2001. A few weeks earlier a whole lot of pickups had been stolen from oil installations nearby.

It’s still unclear how, why or when his conversion to militant Islam took place and whether his motives for jihad are genuine or more pragmatic. But that could be falling for the trap that MBM is not a ranting ABZ (see below). If he’s just building an empire he’s not had much time to enjoy it lately, and anyway has been blamed from some grisly massacres in Mauritania. He did of course recently leap to worldwide notoriety as the mastermind behind the suicidal gas plant siege at Tigantourine in Algeria last January and again in northern Niger in May 2013 – now operating under the MUJAO banner. The fact that he’s yet again seemingly escaped following the assault of the French on northern Mali while his nemesis, the paranoid and far less charismatic Abou Zeid (ABZ) met his end, does raise more suspicions about MBM’s cat-like immunity from capture or death. More of ABZ, later, but this interesting document recovered in May 2013 shows how even during the Fowler abduction MBM was a not a AQIM team player. Now MBM is clearly out of the fold but still continuing his own lethal operations.

Throughout his captivity Guay was comforted by his Christian faith, something which Fowler doesn’t profess and as a result suffered from doubts while endlessly trying to second guess possible scenarios or outcomes. There, in an anthropologist’s nutshell is a logical motivation for religious belief: it makes life’s trials more bearable. (Other explanations are possible). As to coming close to a religious experiences – again in that interview Fowler explains:

… I was almost abstractly curious to know that in those extremely fraught months I spent expecting to be executed whether I would have one of those religious epiphanies. I didn’t, and I’ve got to say I wasn’t surprised. It just clearly was not going to happen to me. I don’t regret that fact, it just is reality. Despite the enormous pressure of thinking I was going to be killed, that was not enough in my case to bring about a fundamental change in my religious outlook.

One day the troupe abandons Camp Canada and sets off west and north, ever watchful, and visiting previous camps and caches. One day a gift of goodies from the Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré is delivered and formally distributed before the fascinated and ragged throng. It’s never explained why Compaoré took on Fowler’s case once the Canadian government’s tactics had exasperated all involved, all the more so given that some years earlier Fowler had exposed the venerable Compaoré as a profiteer from sanctions busting during the Angolan war.


The weeks creep by and a phone call is made to Compaoré as well as to their families from a dune top within range of Bordj Moktar’s mobile signal (left). Progress is being made and the gang bundles back to Camp Canada.


Some of us on the Sahara Forum considered the map drawn for Fowler’s newspaper articles and this book to be a little inaccurate; my corrected version is on the left in blue with the dune identified below right. Getting there without being spotted necessitated a long westward arc as described in the book to make the GSM calls while still safely over the border in Mali (sat phone calls can be easily located). I know myself that the guys at the Ambassade in Al Khalil, 18km from BBM were able to use the Algerian GSM network; it was probably the very reason why Al Khalil was as close to the border as a Nevada casino.


A release finally becomes a possibility and the ordeal draws to a close with the very uncertain handover to Compaoré’s envoy, accompanied by the notorious ‘mayor of Tarkint’ Baba Ould Cheick (left; actually arrested in March 2013 for drug trafficking). Like Iyad Ag Ghali before him, Cheick was thought to be up to his elbows in crooked money while readily employing himself as an intermediary for the release of other AQIM hostages, all for a handsome cut of the ransom. He can’t be the only one – surely no one out there does any of this out of the goodness of their heart and you’d think Compaoré gained less obvious but more substantial concessions from helping resolve the affair.


Somewhere is the desert north of Gao a grand handover rendezvous takes place. Not only are the two Canadians being ceremoniously handed over (it turned out the Malian driver had been freed a month earlier), but so too are two desperately emaciated European women, Marianne Petzold and Gabriela Greiner (right) who had been kidnapped with Greiner’s husband and a Brit, Edwin Dyer on the Mali-Niger border a month after Fowler’s party was grabbed.


They had the deep misfortune to end up in the hands of the callous Abou Zeid (left – biography reviewed here), and whatever agreement had made for this combined release, ABZ was not buying it, possibly seeing it as a defeat. MBM seems to steadfastly overrule ABZ’s discontent and haltingly the jeeps with the four released captives shove off but barely stop moving for a day or more until they’re on safe territory in the vicinity of Gao.

As described in the book, you can’t help feeling that the stand-off between MBM and ABZ that day may have pushed ABZ into executing Edwin Dyer a couple of months later in an attempt to show he meant business. In turn, not unlike MBM’s recently organised attack on Tigantourine in Algeria in January and in May 2013 in Agadez and Arlit. Although MBM was not present their either, both have been interpreted as a show of strength following MBM’s alleged demotion among the ranks of AQIM in late 2012.

For Fowler and the other three, diplomatically staged photo calls, long-overdue ablutions and happy family reunions ensue, and the book ends with a warning that action must be taken against the scourge (as it is now), as well as an unapologetic swipe at the way the Canadian government and not least the police force (RCMP) handled the situation. The latter come across as a bunch of hicks so far out of their depth you feel like calling the RLNI.

The elephant in the room is of course the matter of a ransom. None was paid say the Canadians and you get the impression that neither Fowler nor Guay were ever filled in on how their release actually came about. Fowler explains it in appropriately vague terms:

“… there tends also to be a difference between what governments do and what they say, and this seems to me quite reasonable. There are good arguments on both sides and a wealth of unhappy experience to buttress just about every position. Every time a “principled position” is invoked, there are exceptions. Many countries  adopt what are more or less pragmatic approaches while others proclaim immutable doctrine, but I know for certain that everybody has blinked at one time or another.
I am also well aware that there is no way I can be objective about such issues…”.

Robert Fowler, Louis Guay, Moctar Ouane, Amadou Toumani Toure
Fowler and Guay thank Mali’s ATT (since deposed)

That will be a ‘yes’, then. Wikileaks  since revealed that prisoners were released and a ransom was indeed paid (€700,000 according to this document, a figure with AQIM leaders thought was way too low. As with other Saharan ransoms, the conduit for the Canadians’ release was the then convenient and well stocked treasury of Ghadafi’s Libya, while the relevant government in denial most probably provided some kind of concessions to Libya as well as the other African counties involved, while claiming its hands were clean.

Following their release we have at times speculated that a publicity ban is put on freed hostages by their governments; perhaps a condition of the usually denied ransoms that have been paid to win their freedom. If that was the case with Robert Fowler, he ignored it. A Season in Hell illuminates in all the detail you could wish what it’s like to be the subject of events which many of use interested in Sahara travel have followed for months at a time. It might even be read as a useful manual on how to cope with a long period of captivity in the desert. However you choose to take it, it’s highly recommend as a great read.

You may find this multi-page thread on kidnappings interesting. It started in 2009.

A full list of Saharan kidnappings, which includes current captives, is here.


* In fact Rainer Bracht who we met in Tam in 2003 a couple of weeks before he was abducted, co-wrote 177 Tage Angst with his wife Petra. Part of ‘Group II who did the full six months and ended up in far northern Mali, I considered having their book translated at the time, but in 2004 was told by my German reader (a bike rider but not a Saharan)  that is was not so good.
Then I recently came across parts of their story archived on a German moto magazine’s website from 2004. Even reading it through Google translators helped fill in the many gaps in their baffling ordeal – not least how they got from a canyon near Illizi, right across Algeria to northern Mali as far as Taoudenni – see map on the right. You can try and start reading it all here:
• Part One
• Part Two
• Part Three