Billy's journey: Crossing the Sahara

Mamadou Saliou "Billy" Diallo is one of the many millions of people living in the developing world, whose lifelong dream has been to seek his fortune in the West.

As immigration controls in Western countries become stricter, they resort to increasingly desperate methods to reach their "promised land", and every year, an unknown number of people, probably in the tens of thousands, die in the attempt.

Billy, 41, from Guinea, tells the extraordinary tale of how he crossed the Sahara Desert to reach Morocco, where he smuggled himself into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. He is now working in Italy, where he has been given a residence permit, and has just been back to see his family for the first time since he set out on his adventure more than four years ago.


 It has always been my dream to go Europe.

When I was a young boy, Africans living in Europe would visit us wearing their fancy clothes and flashing their money around. We also knew some French people, who told us how wonderful France was and that Father Christmas lived there.

Growing up in the Fouta Djalon region of Guinea, life was extremely tough. I had to walk 5km to and from school every day and then work in the fields for three or four hours.

I was told it would take a week to reach Spain... Little did I know how wrong that was

When I was 22, we moved to the Senegalese capital, Dakar, where I found work helping out in the main hospital.

I got some training and became a nurse. I stayed there for 17 years and got a medal for my long service.

Although I had a job, I could never look after my wife Idiatou and my baby daughter as I would have wished on my meagre salary of $130.

I wanted to have my own house and give my children the good start in life I never had.

Going to Europe seemed to be the best way to achieve these goals. Many of my friends had emigrated - I felt I was being left behind.


I had heard that travelling overland was much cheaper than flying - and you didn't need a visa.

I was also told it would take a week to reach Spain. Little did I know how wrong that was.

Billy's journey started in Senegal and ended more than five months later in Italy.


I left Dakar in November 1999, hoping to be in Europe for the millennium.

I paid $1,300 to a man, who said that would cover the cost of the transport, food and water all the way to Europe. I left with just $90 on me. I took the train to the Malian capital, Bamako, but there, the man I had been told to contact said he hadn't been paid.

I phoned Dakar and asked for my money back. The man said he could only refund $930, which my dad sent by Western Union.


In Mali, I met people from across Africa - they were all trying to reach Europe.

Speaking to them opened my eyes for the first time to the true dangers of the overland trip.

Billy with his wife Idiatou


I heard about many people who had died trying to cross the Sahara and met some people who had decided to return home rather than risk losing their lives.

I met a Senegalese man, who had reached Ceuta before being deported to the border between Morocco and Algeria.

He had managed to make it back to Bamako but he had no money and his feet were badly swollen from the journey back across the desert.

He told me that because of the conflict with Islamic radicals, the Algerian police often shot on sight people they came across in remote areas.

I also heard about armed robbers who would rob migrants of all their money and leave them for dead in the desert.

I was really afraid, but I was also encouraged when he said that three people he had been with had managed to get into Europe.

I began to have real doubts about the trip and phoned my family. My mum was terrified and told me to go back home. But my dad said that he had had a dream that I would be okay. He blessed me and told me to carry on.

I met a man who said he was organising a trip. Eight of us flew to Timbuktu, where we joined another seven migrants from across West Africa.

Graves in the desert

In Timbuktu the 15 of us got into the back of a lorry. We traveled by night before reaching Gao, the last stop before the desert.

Our driver stopped and showed us the graves of seven people, including a 21-year-old woman from Nigeria

There, we met thousands of other migrants waiting for transport across the Sahara.

We bought bread and tinned sardines for the journey. We poured water into the inner tubes of car tires, which hold more than bottles. Normally we only traveled at night.

That first afternoon, our driver stopped and showed us the graves of seven people, including a 21-year-old woman from Nigeria.

He said he had found their bodies - their lorry had broken down in the middle of the desert and they had waited in vain for help, before dying of thirst.

I had terrible diarrhea, probably because of the water. But I had to keep on drinking it or I would become dehydrated.

At night, it was cold and windy - we were only covered by a tarpaulin in the back of the lorry and hardly got any sleep.

During the day, we rested underneath the lorry, because that was the only shade. But we couldn't sleep because of the suffocating heat. And the sand got everywhere - in our noses, eyes, ears and throats.

It took a week to cross the Sahara before we reached Tindouf in Algeria.

There we were stopped by the police. Our driver was arrested and the police beat us up. I have still got the scars on my back.

Mountain crossing

We had given our papers and money to the driver and we never saw him again. We were given 24 hours to leave the country.

Billy's family in Guinea - Billy is the child on the left
Billy (left) was told as a child that Father Christmas lived in France

Luckily, one of the Nigerians had hidden some money in his shoes and he gave us each $5. With that we bought some trinkets to sell so we could raise enough money to continue our journey.

We stayed in Tindouf for three weeks in an abandoned house, until we met a Senegalese man who told us he could take us across the border.

One Nigerian man had become very sick on the journey across the desert, so he stayed in hospital in Tindouf.

Three others gave up the journey after we were told that we would have to walk for 20km through the mountains into Morocco, to avoid the official border crossings.

Our guide told us that lots of migrants died in these mountains after being deported from Morocco and abandoned.

After two days of walking, the 11 of us reached a village, where we got a bus to Casablanca.

Hope in sight

In all the time since we left Bamako - more than a month - we had not washed. My body was covered in fleas and I had bites everywhere. It was terrible - we looked like mad men.

It was an amazing sight - after all I had been through, to finally see my destination, even if I knew I hadn't reached it yet

In Casablanca, five of us managed to find work on building sites but we didn't earn much and we only ate one meal a day - a few mouthfuls of rice and little fish.

I knew I would need to find more money to continue my journey and used some of my first month's pay to phone home again.

My wife sold our television and my family managed to borrow some more money from friends and relations.

When I went to pick up the $700 they sent me, I met two Senegalese men who were also collecting money to pay for their trip to Europe.

They had a Moroccan guide, who agreed to take me as well, for $600.

In Casablanca, the three of us boarded a bus for Tangier, where we found a hotel full of migrants, all trying to reach Europe.

That night, I went up to the roof-top and saw about 20 people gazing across the Mediterranean Sea, where they could see the lights of the Spanish mainland twinkling on the other side.

It was an amazing sight - after all I had been through, to finally see my destination, even if I knew I hadn't reached it yet.

Our guide in Tangier advised us to buy lots of black clothes and said that at midnight a taxi would pick the three of us up, along with seven others to take us to the forest near the border with Ceuta.


The conditions there are terrible - there's no water, so you can't even wash yourself after you go the toilet. Diseases spread really quickly.

Every night, people try to climb over the twin barbed wire fence which separates Morocco from Ceuta. Many of them are caught.

After two weeks, a Moroccan man showed us a tunnel which had been dug underneath the fence.

We tried to get through, but when we were just 200m from the tunnel, we heard the sound of heavy boots running towards us - we had been sold out.

The police started beating us with their rifle butts - one knocked my front tooth out and I fell down unconscious.

That was when I reached the point of no return - I was determined to reach Europe or die trying. After everything I had gone through, I didn't care any more.

Disappointment in Italy

A week passed before our next chance came. The guide who had been with us since Casablanca took us to the coast and showed us an inflatable raft.


We all got in and lay on the floor, while he rowed, staying close to the shore, where the shade of trees would stop us being picked out by the searchlights.

I was the only one there who knew how to swim.

We arrived on Spanish territory two hours later. Luckily, we avoided the police and made it to the Calamocarro Red Cross camp in Ceuta.

I was a refugee from Rwanda and asked for political asylum. If I had said I was from Guinea or Senegal, they would have sent me back home.

That night I slept on a clean and comfortable mattress for the first time in four months - it was now March 2000.

After three weeks, I was given a residence permit and put on a boat to the Spanish mainland.

I couldn't believe that after everything I had gone through to reach Europe, this was what the life of an immigrant was like

It was only when I landed at Armilla that I really felt I had reached my goal - especially when I saw the policemen wearing Spanish uniforms.

It was an amazing feeling. I was completely overcome but was still too weak to dance.

I worked in the fields in Armilla for a month to earn enough to buy a train ticket to Italy, where I was planning to join one of my cousins.

Although I had my residence permit, I never had complete faith in it. When the inspectors asked me for my ticket on the train, I thought they were the police and was terrified of being sent back home.

I didn't speak Spanish and nervously pulled out my wallet to show them my residence permit but they laughed and pulled out my ticket instead, which they stamped.

I was devastated when I got to my final destination, Brescia, six months after I had left Dakar. The phone number my cousin had given was no longer in use.

Finally Legal

At the station, I met two Senegalese men who took me to a hostel. There were 15 immigrants living in a single room and there was no room for me.

In the end, I found some space on the floor of the cellar, even if it was filthy.

I was desperate to see my wife Idiatou again - she had been through so much, bringing up our three children on her own

I couldn't believe that after everything I had gone through to reach Europe, this was what the life of an immigrant was like.

I spent a year living on that filthy floor and selling African trinkets, lighters and bracelets.

Then, a friend who had managed to do well as a businessman, gave me his work permit. We looked quite similar and I was able to get a job in a factory making agricultural tools.

Last year, the Italian government announced that they would give residence and work permits to illegal immigrants who had a job.

I got my papers in May 2003 and immediately thought of my family back home.

Now that I was legal, I was free to go and see them for the first time in four years.

No regrets

I was desperate to see Idiatou again - she had been through so much, bringing up our three children on her own.

I went through hell to reach Italy and would never have left if I had known what the journey really entailed

Our youngest daughter Aissatou was just one when I left and she thought that one of my cousins who was living with them was her dad, not me.

I was able to go back home last December and it was truly amazing to see my family again.

Life is tough in Brescia - I'm still sharing a single room with 11 others - but it's better than what I went through on my journey.

Although I don't earn that much, I am able to send enough money home every month to look after my wife, children, mum, dad and other relatives who are living at home.

I have also bought a plot of land, where I hope to build my own house when I earn enough money.

My children are going to a good private school, so they already have a better start in life than I had.

I went through hell to reach Italy and would never have left if I had known what the journey really entailed.

But I don't regret it now because I can look after my family far better than when I was working as a nurse in Dakar.

If I had to do it again, I would have waited until I had enough money to buy a plane ticket to Europe and got a visa somehow.

After getting my papers, my first object was to see my family again. Now that I have done that, I hope to get a job as a nurse and earn enough to bring my wife over to join me.