Saturday, 11 April 2009

Falling off the map

There are not many borders in this scared and surveilled world where you can just fall off the map, but we found one of the few. We drifted down the Omo towards Omarati, a desiccated township beside the Omo river, marked only by a vast, and failed, North Korean attempt to build a collective farm. Nothing of which remains now but powder-dry field markers where the irrigation scheme failed, and a ten-acre yard full of rusting North Korean bulldozers.
In a baking border control office we checked out of Ethiopia, sitting on requisitioned school benches while a charming young immigration officer stamped us out of his country.
We then drove sixty kilometers further through Ethiopia, heading south towards the top of Lake Turkana, seeing virtually no-one except a young warrior who stopped to share our lunch and drink several gallons of our water. While he rested, I cleaned and oiled his AK for him, then (after I'd removed the mag - and the round that was in the breech) he let the boys all hold it.

The border was marked on our GPS, but as we circled towards the Lake, there was nothing to see - no border marker, no barrier, no sign saying "Ethiopia wishes you a safe journey" or "Welcome to Kenya". And so we crossed into Kenya - across a tangled thicket of thorn scrub, with no witnesses, no officials, no sign. We met Matthew and Alice, and Ruby and Guy, and Mike, under a tree, as planned; ten minutes late, in the middle of nowhere, on a plan that had been made six months earlier - which is, I think, not bad.

We chose to go to the police post at Iloret, a blasted, ruined collection of buildings overlooking the Turkana basin, no sound but the blast-furnace wind and the crackle of static on the police radio. The cops registered us; and that was it. No stamp in the passport, no paperwork, no checking of visas. If we had decided to go round Iloret, rather than through it, we could have disappeared.

And this is a good part of the world to disappear; Sudan, Chad, CAR, Congo only a few hundred kilometers away; this is a part of the world where those with an inclination to drop off the map could indeed drop off - and stay off.
This is a time when governments in the West are becoming more and more fascist in their obsession with watching their own citizens - yet where known terrorists can pass through immigration into the UK on a student visa with evil intent. A time when the citizenry of the West seems to be sleep-walking into a police state that would delight a Stalin or a Hitler.
Yet down here, where the world's bad guys come to play, you can drift out of one country, switch passports in the bush, and simply vanish.
Excellent. Sleep well.

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