Lost and carried away by the infinite roads, in the heart of the Tunisian desert, a long adventure has begun: taken by our own wishes and by the paths that lead to it. This is how we realized that it was not always up to us to choose our destiny, torn by the dilemma between staying, continuing without means in an immense desert, or giving up. But as we say, alone, we go faster, but at two we go further, especially when the company is .. a bit peculiar.

After enjoying the splendor of Ksar Ghilane, the southernmost Oasis of Tunisia and one of the doors of the Tunisian Sahara, a moment of relaxation was imposed before we decided to continue our road trip towards new destination. When one speaks of destiny, it is to say that there is no following stop to the program: it would be the unknown direction of the next hitchhiking; sometimes you have to let your instinct and desire to do things.

Ten kilometers on foot : this was the distance we had to travel to reach the only asphalt road, passing through a few species of sheet metal houses, where the only source of income for their inhabitants is the illegal sale of fuels.

Photo : One of the differences between the equipment of the road leading to the oasis and the residence of a local resident : the difficulty of dealing with the problem of unbalanced development, especially as a result of the worsening of the crisis economic and social congestion that many segments of the youth undergo because of poverty and unemployment of populations in poor southern border regions, which explains the regional manifestations in the province of Tataouine, which claim a share of the wealth natural, intensified as evidenced by demonstrations where slogans say “Where is oil?”

 

Two hours of waiting without any sign of life, in an empty place, vast, infinite, reveal the other face of the desert. Alone in the world, we decide to hang on to the first mean of transport that passes, a truck, a car or even a tractor. The essential thing is to move.

The National Guard has been a good help to us during a surveillance patrol : a few questions and they decide to give us a hand. We are offered to drive in their 4*4 to another road, where the chances of falling on passersby to continue the adventure will be greater.

Thirty minutes later, a truck appears, a small glimmer of hope that does not last long : the back is filled with cans of fuel, smugglers. We momentarily took a step back, seduced by the idea of ​​adventure, but here the risk is great.

Nevertheless, we felt the adrenaline rush when the truck stopped, and the driver offered his help.

The moment of reflection was intensified : take the risk and accept their help to go to Tataouine, or stay on the edge of a totally deserted road. But after all, if they wanted to harm us, they would not have bothered to offer help. They could do whatever they please, without the presence of a soul witness, forgotten that we were in the middle of nowhere.

After a little behavioral analysis, the choice is made: go for the proposed help. We board the contraband truck. The co-pilot helped us put our luggage over the cans.

Let the adventure begin and may the luck be on our side; given the impetuosity with which the driver drives, we will need it.

In the truck, there were only two places that included the driver’s, which pushed the smugglers to a typical and usual solution : the two men will share the driver’s seat, and we two the other seat!

The road resumes silently, and it seems that they themselves are not quite convinced to have strangers with them. On our side, we are also a little afraid, especially after our meeting with the National Guard : we are now on the other side of the chessboard between “good and bad”.

 

The discussion begins with the usual questions about our origins, and what are we doing alone in a place like this …

“We have 70 km to reach Tataouine, and I’m in charge (he talks about the cans) so I can not cross the city’s borders. I will drop you 10 km before. If you do not find a hitchhiking there, I will go back to you after the ‘’emptying”, or I will send you one of my contacts to pick you up” said the driver while he is speeding up.

They must drive at speeds above 150 Km / hour so that the car and the license plate are not captured or identifiable to the eye.

 

And this, is according to the driver ; his companion is more discreet, he speaks or laughs sarcastically, but on rare occasions.

We find the courage to ask them more about the subject of their field, that was relatively developed in Tunisia.

“It’s an ocean my friend .. Smuggling is an another world; it’s a way of life. The error can be fatal. Moreover, yesterday on this same road, a friend was caught by a cadre of the Ministry of the Interior who came on vacation with his family… This area can be risky” He said that and suddenly change direction to borrow the trail to the left and leave the main road.

Throughout the road, we observe the installation materials of a new oil transportation channel coming from the south and over a distance of more than 300 km.

Explanations continue as the discussion proceeds : camouflage techniques may vary depending on the nature of the merchandises being transported, ranging from fuels to weapons, archeological items, jewelry, diamonds, cash, drugs, and even human beings.

 

In the dust cloud that surrounds the truck, we learn that the cycle of smuggling passes through several stages from a smuggler from one country to the partner of the other country who collects the fuel, until the specialized smuggler reaches the distributor for the final distribution to the small sellers who sell individually or to gas stations without a permit, that’s why crossing the borders taking advantage of the aggravation of the security chaos in the zones of armed conflict under the banner of organized gangs or random groups, the drivers are gradually replaced by others, in order to avoid being recognized. Moreover, their extensive knowledge of the routes to be taken that they can easily avoid the National Guard, even if according to him they even have contacts within the State that help them by providing information or by protecting them to facilitate their passage sometimes even at official border crossings points.

When lawsuits occur, smugglers have their escape routes with free speed to escape, especially when they face firing !

There are areas geographically declared “safe” and “guard free” where we meet some kinds of houses or garages to take shelter and spend hours, until the atmosphere calms down and before resuming the road.

 

Fuel smuggling networks from Algeria to Tunisia use donkeys or camels as a means of camouflage because of a rugged mountain range. The smuggling of Algerian fuel therefore increases the price of donkeys in Tunisia. The networks can use trucks or cars with large tanks because of the large number of Algerian and Libyan tourists coming to Tunisia, and these tourists usually use family cars with an additional tank.

They smuggle quantities of fuel allowing them to travel without having to obtain supplies from Tunisian petrol stations.

This illegal sector is still controlled by a network of big heads of the Republic, businessmen or even the mafia according to our fellow travelers. They share “the sectors of this market” with each other ; there are also so-called barriers to entry, people working in this field must pass several tests of confidence, courage and take risks before being admitted as one of the carriers among the rest of the band .

Merchandise trade must happen very quickly, in record times and usually on hidden tracks between mountains, where the telephone network is absent, and otherwise using other people’s SIM cards and which must be destroyed soon after every call to avoid the traceability of transactions made in the middle of nowhere, places so unlikely that even the most cunning can not guess.

 

“Take this for yourself,” he says, offering us a bottle of traditionally preserved dates. “It will allow you to have energy, it is necessary in order to spend a few days here in this desert.”

At one point, he asks us to close our phones for a few minutes, while he just received a message on his luxury iPhone, of course.

He shows us a 9.5 thousand Tunisian Dinars fine, issued against our driver, for smuggling, but he adds – always with his smile – “it’s nothing in front of the recipe I’m going to receive today, that the bribes I can pay too many times (he talks about corruption). ”

 

With the differences and fluctuations in fuel prices, this trade is profitable and offers attractive financial returns. In some cases, the population can not do without it, especially in the absence of development programs or investment projects in certain areas that alleviate poverty and absorb unemployment that is clearly applicable to the people of the south of the country. Tunisia compared to the capital or large states such as Sfax, Sousse, Gabes and Mahdia. Some Tunisian families present themselves as specialists in the trade of fuels.

 

For the money, the smugglers, have several bank accounts in their own name or those of other members of their families, that allows to distribute the amount of the receipts in several parts and thus to avoid attracting the attention in a useless way. The rest of the money often stays hidden in their homes.

 

We are again on a road between the mountains of the old, almost-abandoned Berber village of “Guermessa”, where the smugglers quickly drop us and go back to the drain. They leave us a number on which they will be reachable after 30 minutes exactly if we have not found any transport.

 

Twenty-two minutes later, a trax stops and took us at a speed of 20 km / hour this time, but probably it is wiser than relive a risk like this: enough adventures for today hui.

Thirty-one minutes later, my phone rings: it’s our friend the smuggler making sure that everything is fine on our side, leaving me in a cloud of questions about what could happen to us ?

And our questions still hang : what is his interest in all this : using us to camouflage, or finally, these outlaws do they show us that above all, they remain helpful and generous despite and beyond the risks and crimes they commit ?

Fuel smuggling : 

 

  • 30% of the total market.
  • 400 million dinars / year of loss of revenue for the state in terms of tax and social security contributions.
  • Mobilization of 20,000 people.
  • Between 100 and 150 barons of fuel smuggling.
  • Increase in fuel smuggling from less than 10% before 2011 to more than 30% after.

SIGMA Conseil

 

Oasis of southern Tunisia located on the eastern limit of the Grand Erg Oriental.