Miners from around West and Central Africa sit crammed more than 20 people deep and weather the Sahara's incessant dust as they tear across the sand as they travel nearly three days through the desert to the sprawling gold mines at Tchibarakaten, Niger. Every week a convoy of 40-50 trucks carrying migrants from around the region speed through the bandit-riddled desert where hijackings are frequent and breakdowns cost lives. For centuries Niger has been a thoroughfare for trans-Saharan trade as caravans of camels shuttled salt, slaves, and gold across the desert’s unforgiving expanse. In recent years that transportation infrastructure was repurposed to make Niger the epicenter for smugglers ferrying migrants to Europe. As EU pressure to curb the flow of migrants mounted Niger was forced to criminalize the lucrative trade.
A massive dust storm barrels across the desert, its intense winds throwing walls of fine grain sand and dust up as moves.
Flung nearly three days journey from the nearest settlement, one of the many sections of the gold mines at Tchibarakaten cuts through the immense Sahara near the border with Algeria, Tchibarakaten, Niger. Including the surrounding mines the government estimates the area's gold rush has drawn more than 35,000 people from around the region to this patch of land in the middle of one of the most inhospitable places on earth. When Niger's government arrested hundreds of smugglers as part of the deal with the European Union, conventional routes through the smuggling hub of Agadez town and Libya were replaced with new pathways through Algeria that run close to Tchiberakaten. For many, the mine has become not only a way of financing the rising fares of smugglers but also a way station along these new routes.
With a small double loop of rope knotted around his legs, a young man named Nafiou, 21 descends into a mine at Tchibarakaten, Niger. "Of course I was afraid going down my first time," says Nafiou before descending, "I was afraid of dying."
Miners at a new mine a few kilometers from the main site look into the darkness and lift a bucket from the bottom of a 20 meter mine in Tchibarakaten, Niger. While most mines at the main site reach more than 120 meters deep, new and shallower satellite mines are dug each day with miners often descending by hand and without ropes.
Miners hammer away at the earth 120 meters below ground in Tchibarakaten, Niger. Miners often work two 5-6 hour shifts underground.
A miner named Haruna, 38, takes a moment to rest from the hours of hammering 120 meters below ground in search of gold in Tchibarakaten, Niger. "We are in the darkness all day," says Haruna into the thick, humid air, "The danger is great every day we are down here, but there is gold we hope. How much gold is a body worth? I don't know. I don't know..."
Workers peer down a 120 meter mine as someone ascends to the surface in Tchibarakaten, Niger.
Nazirou, 23; Sanoussi, 18; Haruna, 38; Iliassou, 25; Zaberou, 33; Samaila, 24; Saley, 28; Aboubacar, 25 (left to right) are all miners who have been swept up in the gold frenzy and come to Tchibarakaten in the hopes of striking it rich, Tchibarakaten, Niger. Miners stay a year or more. Some return home once they have found enough gold to build the lives they want, while many others use their spoils to pay the rising smuggler fees and head north in the hopes of starting new lives in Europe.
One of the many new mining sites surrounding the main mine at Tchibarakaten, Niger. As miners find gold, neigbhoring mines sprout up quickly, following productive veins of rock and forming long lines that cut across the endless desert sand.
Seidou, 32, works a rock pulverizer in Tchibarakaten, Niger. Every morning Seidou dons a painting mask and works a rock grinder, collecting pulverized rock and weathering an incessant wave of dust.
A young man cradles his arm after injuring it while working in a new mine in Tchibarakaten, Niger. As miners descend new mines by hand until depths reach 30 meters, new mines pose some of the greatest risks. According to Abdouraman Mohammed, the head nurse at the mine's only clinic, per week they typically see four to five cases of severe head trauma from falling rocks and two cases of someone falling down a mine shaft. Shattered legs and broken backs are often the result. On average, they see one death per month.
A miner named Abuha, 20, staggers out of the clinic as he attempts to walk after falling 15 meters to the bottom of his mine in Tchibarakaten, Niger. Over the past two years the infrastructure at the desert city has improved as miners built a clinic, trucked out massive water tanks and generators, and streamlined a supply chain for goods and water. The work is still treacherous. Like others working new mines, Abuha uses his hands to climb but lost his footing as he reached the surface and fell the entirety of the mine, caroming off the sides as he went. While Abuja was lucky enough to survive without an major broken bones, the clinic - which was built by miners - sees an average of five cases of severe head trauma and one death per month.
Goldsmiths melt down gold mined from Tchibarakaten.
Gold traders point out gold they have bought and intend to sell in Agadez, Niger. After cleaning and melting gold from Tchibarakaten into small bars and bricks, traders sell the precious metal, often kilos at a time, to buyers from Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali who then carry it onward to Dubai's massive gold market.
A caravan of miners screams across the desolate sands of the Sahara.