Published: October 2005
Cruelest Place on Earth
Baking temperatures, wastelands of salt—it's hard to imagine a more brutal landscape than Africa's Danakil Desert. But for the Afar people this is a home to die for.
By Virginia Morell

"I have news," Edris Hassan announced gravely. Seating himself on a boulder above Ethiopiaís Saba River in the northern Danakil Desert, he propped his Kalashnikov assault rifle beside him. Edris was tall for an Afar, one of the pastoralist peoples who roam this harsh land, and built like what he was: a warrior and militiaman. For our small party of travelers he was also guard and guide, his reputation and weapon smoothing our way through the Afar, considered among the fiercest people in the world.

In the town of Hamed Ela, while waiting to join the salt-trading caravan we were now traveling with, I'd learned from Edris that news, or dagu as the Afar call it, is a weighty subject, something to be pondered and assessed. It is more than a bush telegraph or village gossip, more than the latest headlines. Instead, in a ceremony of handshakes and hand kisses, the Afar pass along recitations of all they have seen and heard, a poetic litany that can bealmost Homeric in its detail and precision. It is through dagu that they learn of any newcomers to their desert realm, of the conditions of water holes and grazing lands, of missing camels and caravans. They learn of weddings and funerals, of new alliances and betrayals, of the latest battles fought, and the conditions of the trail ahead. They learn about what has changed in a changeable land, and in the world at large, and from all this they pick a course of action. Those who pay the closest attention to the news, they say, may go on to survive, Inshallah—God willing.

Edris turned now to share the latest dagu with us—photographer Carsten Peter and me—speaking in Amharic, Ethiopia's lingua franca, through our interpreter, Zelalem Abera.

"I met a friend here," Edris said, tilting his head toward a small cluster of thatched huts that make up the Afar village of Asso Bollo. "He has news of trouble ahead. The Ugugumo are in the canyon. They're stopping all the caravans, asking for money, causing trouble. It's not safe for us to continue. If you go ahead, you're no longer my responsibility."

The Ugugumo: We'd heard rumors about these rebels (the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front) from the first day we set foot in the desert. They were, we'd been told, wild and unpredictable and as hard and unforgiving as the sands of the desert. But they were also heroes, men of courage, since they were fighting to regain Afar territory that was lost in the early 1990s, when Eritrea defeated Ethiopia and became a separate nation. Edris sat back and uncorked his canteen, then upended it and symbolically emptied his water into the sand: He wasn't about to tangle with the Ugugumo. For him this was the end of the trail.

Carsten, Zelalem, and I looked at one another, stunned. We'd waited over a week in Hamed Ela to join these Afar salt caravans, which had ceased their long-distance journeys during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And now that we were at last with them, we wanted to keep going. We'd been warned that the three-day trip would be hot and exhausting, a thirsty plod from the salt flats beyond Hamed Ela through rocky desert and canyons to the larger town of Berahile where the caravans unloaded their salt, but we'd never expected it to come to such a sudden end. What were we to do? It was nearly three o'clock in the morning. Below us, in the silky glow of starlight, the caravans we'd been with continued to make their way up the riverbank and disappeared around a bend into a sandstone canyon—pursuing the very route that Edris had declared too dangerous for us to follow.

Yet danger and hardship were what we'd come to the Danakil Desert for—or at least wanted to observe. By traveling with the salt traders, we hoped to gain insights into the Afar way of life. Already, following our week in Hamed Ela, a dust-and-fly-stricken hamlet, I'd formed some opinions. One was that people can and will live anywhere—even in the Danakil, a place of dry sands and even drier gravel beds, rocky lava flows, active volcanoes, burning salt flats, temperatures that often top 120°F, winds that choke you with dust, and suffocating days of no wind at all. Even worse, this place where rain falls sparingly at the best of times was now in the grip of a bad drought, and the half-mummified carcasses of camels and goats lay strewn across the sands.

And the Ugugumo wanted to liberate this land. What was there to be freed, I wondered? Why would anyone fight over this hellacious place? And how had it come to have such a hold on these people?

The salt merchants I'd asked the day before looked baffled by my question. "It's the salt," they said, hoisting blocks the size of encyclopedias onto their camels. "It's our corn; it's our gold. Of course we would fight anyone who tried to take it."

He'd met the merchants at the salt mines that lie beyond Hamed Ela and border Lake Asele in the heart of the northern Danakil. More than 300 feet below sea level, the salt lake and plains are one of the lowest points in Africa (the absolute lowest, at 512 feet, lies farther southeast in the Danakil at Lake Assal in Djibouti). Here, teams of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the Ethiopian Highlands gather daily ten months out of the year to mine the salt and ferry it by camel, mule, and donkey to markets in Ethiopia's mountains and beyond into Sudan. In the past the salt blocks (called amolé) were used through-out Ethiopia as money. Although hard cash has replaced the salt, the trade itself remains the main livelihood of the northern Afar, and they guard their treasure—as well as every grain of sand in their desert—like the Argonauts of old.

The Afar make sure that no one robs them of their salt by studiously overseeing the mines and caravans. Every merchant must stop at the salt-tax collector's hut in the dusty enclave of Hamed Ela on the edge of the salt flats and pay a fee for each camel, mule, and donkey in his caravan. At the mines, every job—from levering the salt from the earth to running the outdoor tea kitchens—is assigned and managed by an Afar. Theirs is a strict monopoly, and it has made them proud and dictatorial. They do not hesitate for a minute to let you know that once you set foot in their salt kingdom, you are subject to their commands.

We found that out in Berahile, which sits about midway up the escarpment that rises above the desert. The government offices of the northern Afar region—a semi-autonomous part of Ethiopia—are located in Berahile, the main market town for the Afar caravans, which is presided over by the turbaned and dignified Ali Hassan Bore. Before venturing to the mines, Carsten, Zelalem, and I paid Ali a visit, joining him and his retainers on the veranda of one of the squat government buildings. In his 50s, Ali had the bearing of a sultan. He wore a beige polo shirt and green plaid sarong with a wide leather belt; a short dagger was discreetly tucked into it. Over his shoulder he displayed a not-so-discreet, but holstered, Colt .45-caliber pistol. His front teeth were chipped to points, crocodile-style, a cosmetic embellishment that Afar men and women consider beautiful. Ali sat soldier-straight in his chair, while his assistants crowded close by, some squatting on their heels, others leaning against a wall. Like Ali, they were all heavily armed, and they listened carefully to our request to visit the salt mines; their eyes were narrowed and suspicious as they squinted against the sun.

The negotiations lasted a full afternoon, but at the end Ali granted us permission to enter the land of the Afar and to stay in Hamed Ela until we joined the caravans. We were their guests, Ali said. They would help us, but he made it clear that we would have to abide by their rules. He then assigned Edris to protect us and make sure we did what we were told. Which is why now, in the wee hours of the morning, we couldn't very well say to Edris that we were simply going to continue our journey with the salt caravans without him. Besides, if the Ugugumo rebels were in the canyon, as Edris claimed, they knew full well that we were heading their way. We were, after all, part of the dagu, and news of us had undoubtedly been broadcast across the desert.

"I don't believe this story about the Ugugumo," said Carsten, as we pondered our dilemma. "None of the other caravans are stopping, and they must have heard the same news. We should find a new guide and go on."

I too wanted to continue, but I wondered what chance we had of finding a guide at 3 a.m., or of finding anyone to disagree with Edris's decision. Zelalem suspected Edris was simply tired, or that he just wanted more money, so he took him aside and gently began to cajole him.

I took advantage of this enforced pause to rest my eyes. The previous morning we'd gone to the salt mines to meet the traders who'd agreed to let us join their caravans, then waited for them to load their animals with the blocks of salt. Just after noon, the merchants had urged their heavily loaded camels to their feet and turned them toward Hamed Ela.

The camels, linked nose-to-tail, crunched in a long line across a landscape that glistened and rippled like pack ice in the Arctic. Salt stretched away from us in all directions, but no one looked at it. Animals and men alike pointed their noses and eyes to the northwest, where the highlands rose like a rumpled fortress on the horizon. Over there, far beyond Hamed Ela, was Berahile; over there was rest.

Our own small party had stopped in Hamed Ela long enough to hire mules to ride behind the camels to the first night's campsite, nothing more than an empty stretch of rock and sand. Like the caravanners, we slept in a chill, howling wind for about three hours, then broke camp just after midnight. When I asked some of them how many times they'd made this journey, they'd laughed, "Always." There was never a time, they said, when they were not walking across the desert.

"We can go now," Zelalem said softly. I came to with a start. "Edris says we can go with the caravans. He just wanted us to hire his friend so he has someone else with him." We already had hired another of Edris's friends in Hamed Ela, so we chuckled at this explanation.

"Why did he warn us about the Ugugumo, if that's all he wanted?" I asked. Zelalem shrugged. "He still says they are there ahead of us. But he says he and his friend will protect us from them—the 'enemies.'" Zelalem smiled. "That's what he calls them, enemies."

A few straggling traders were heading up the sandy riverbed with their camels, and we mounted our mules and fell in behind them. Edris took his position at the head of our party, walking with determined strides into the narrow darkness of the canyon, his Kalashnikov balanced across his shoulders. He would keep an eye out for the enemy, he promised. And then he began to sing.

Little is known about the origins of the Afar people, but linguists classify their language as Cushitic, deriving from an ancient tongue of the Ethiopian Highlands. Their wandering way of life has left no obvious archaeological record, yet scholars know from 2,000-year-old stone inscriptions in the highlands that nomads traveled with (and taxed and harassed) camel caravans in the Danakil Desert even then.

Today the Afar regard themselves as one ethnic group, but geopolitically their population of about three million is divided among three countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. It is a territorial reality that has split clans and families, spawning rebellious groups like the Ugugumo. Regardless of which country they live in, the Afar share a general lifestyle, traveling across the desert with their livestock.

"We are the people who move," one woman said. "From the beginning that has been our way."

Nor is there really any other way to survive in Afar Land, or Cafar-barro as the Afar call it, particularly if you depend on a diet of camel and goat milk as they do. Less than seven inches of rain falls each year in the Danakil, often in a sporadic manner, and the only fertile soil lies far to the south of the Lake Asele salt mines, along the Awash River, one of the unusual rivers on Earth that never make it to the sea. It sinks instead into another salt lake on the Ethiopian-Djibouti border. Aside from the garden strip of the Awash, the rest of the desert is as dry and sterile as a Martian plain.

Yet the Danakil is also a creative, hyperactive geologic wonder, its volcanoes, fissures, faults, hot springs, and steaming geysers all part of the birthing process of a new ocean. The Earth's crust is separating here, tearing apart along three deep rifts geologists call the Afar Triple Junction. One day in the very distant future (some scientists have calculated about a hundred million years), when the rifting is complete, the salty waters of the Red Sea will spill across Cafar-barro, erasing forever the camel trails of the Afar.

"That will happen if it is God's will," Ma'ar Mohammed, the chief salt-tax collector in Hamed Ela, had shrugged. He was a tall, thin man with sharp features and a beaked nose, and he had a wad of qat leaves, a mild stimulant, stuck in his cheek. We'd rented a palm-thatch house from Ma'ar while we explored the salt plains and mines near Lake Asele before joining the salt caravans, and some afternoons he stopped by to talk about Afar history and culture.

"Only Allah knows these things," Ma'ar said on the possibility of waves lapping across the Danakil. Like his fellow Afar, Ma'ar is a Muslim. Islam seldom came up as a topic, but the Afar clearly regard their faith as the one true religion. "But there are things a man can do, and even though we Afar are men of peace, we should fight for our unity like Osama." Despite the remoteness of the Danakil, the Afar know all about Osama bin Laden. "There is only one Afar," Ma'ar continued, raising his index finger high in the air, "not three. We must fight to be whole again."

But few outside observers expect the Afar to be reunited—at least not in the near future. They are very territorial, even between clans, and inward-looking, not outward. Although they're well known as determined fighters (despite Ma'ar's disclaimer), who don't think twice about killing their enemies, they don't have a history of strong leaders, men capable of holding their clans together in some common cause, largely because of fierce rivalries among their clans.

It was that lack of leadership that Ma'ar fulminated against. Getting an Afar to fight and die for the Danakil, for Cafar-barro, or for their clan was the easy part. The desert may have struck me as hellish, but for them it was their gift from Allah—land and grass and water that gave them life and that they, in turn, would lay down their lives for. And, indeed, young Afar men were dying for it regularly; we heard of battles and killings throughout our six-week stay in the desert. In that context Ma'ar's reference to Osama bin Laden made sense since the Afar associate him with bravery and aggressiveness, two skills an Afar man needs in quantity. In fact, strength of mind and body were really all anyone required for survival in the desert, Edris and Ma'ar had told me. For them it was perfectly natural to live in a land of firebrick-red and black stones, where it hadn't rained in over a year, where every Afar had lost most of his camels because of the severe drought, and where any living green thing popped out at you like the Hope Diamond. There was really nothing to it, except that you must be brave and you must fight. "In our history we have always been fighters," Edris said one afternoon, joining in Ma'ar's discussion. "We live in the desert, and because it's a hard land, we must fight, even though killing is against the law of Allah. And when we fight, we use whatever we have: guns and knives, rocks and sticks. We will even bite with our teeth. You use everything when you fight against your enemies."

It was that kind of ferocity and tenacity that by the 20th century had European explorers almost reflexively combining the word "castration" with the Afar, as if any man unlucky enough to fall into their hands was certain to lose his manhood. "I was prepared to accept the fact that they would kill a man or boy with as little compunction as I would shoot a buck," wrote the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger about his 1933 expedition along the Awash River. "Invariably" the victim was then "castrated. . . . It was impossible to exaggerate the importance that the [Afar] attached to this practice, rating as they did a man's prowess by the number of his kills."

Such passages, of course, have made their way into every guidebook, together with sweaty-palmed descriptions of the instrument used in the operation—the 16-inch curved dagger (gille) most Afar men wear strapped below their waists. But not one Afar man we met would own up to ever using it for anything other than dispatching a goat. (Other recent visitors have reported seeing dried human male genitalia hanging from the rafters in Afar homes, or in one case used as a snuff pouch.) The Afar intensely dislike the image of themselves as murderous barbarians and especially as masters of castration. It's a bald-faced lie their enemies spread about them, they insist, and if they'd ever done such a thing, it was only because their enemies had done it to them first.

The enemies. This is a favorite term among the Afar, and they apply it to anyone who hungers for their land. As strange as it seemed to me, there are other people who want this desert terrain, and not just for the salt. Although limited, there is grass after it rains, and the oasis-like valley of the Awash River offers year-round crops and water. The Issa Somali, nomads like the Afar, have pushed into the desert from the southeast, and west of Djibouti's Lake Assal the Afar and Issa Somali regularly kill each other over animals and pastureland. But these battles mean nothing, Ma'ar said; they would not lead to a united Afar.

And the Ugugumo? Ma'ar gestured indifferently, as if waving away a fly. "They're fighting, but without support. It's not like a real war; it won't bring us together." Ma'ar had checked his watch. It was nearly sunset, and it was time to collect the taxes on the salt caravans. There was gold in the desert, all right, and he wasn't about to let any of it slip past him.

Our caravans had paid the tax too—seven Ethiopian birr (about 80 cents) for each camel, five for each donkey and mule (and twice that sum if you were not an Afar). With hundreds, sometimes thousands, of animals passing through Hamed Ela each day, the taxes amounted to a princely sum. As we rode through the night with the salt traders, it occurred to me that an underfunded liberation army like the Ugugumo might want a share of that money.

Edris walked just ahead of us, taking the canyon rocks and sand in long, steady strides. Starlight showed steep red walls, in places scoured into hollows, clefts, and caves from flash floods. Edris shot his flashlight into these and other secret hiding spots, ever watchful of the enemy. But if he saw one, or if some were spying on us from the canyon rim, we never knew it. The caravans didn't pause, nor did we.

"The girl I love is not the short one, not the tall one," he and his friend Abdallah sang, their voices echoing up the canyon. "The girl I love is the perfect height: medium." When they stopped singing, the only sound was the splashing and squishing of camel, mule, and donkey hooves in the Saba River as the caravans climbed up its banks and farther into the canyon. Sometimes a man would utter a few quick commands to a camel, or swat a mule's backside with a stick, but then the silence fell over us again—the quiet of hard labor and tired men and beasts. It was difficult keeping sleep at bay, and more than once I nearly tipped off my saddle. Then I knotted my fingers in my mule's mane and bit my lips to force myself to stay awake.

Edris had said the salt traders would stop to rest soon after dawn, and as the sun peeked over the canyon rim, I began to hope "soon" was now. But the merchants traveled on for another hour, finally halting where the canyon widened into a broad, sandy gulch. Curiously, no caravans had passed us in the opposite direction—toward Lake Asele—and none were resting here either. Where were they?

"Maybe they're farther up the canyon," said Zelalem. Now that day had come without any enemy attack, we were further inclined to disregard Edris's warning about the Ugugumo. "Maybe they have a different place to rest."

The last few camel teams in our caravan came slowly up the canyon, and the merchants led their animals up a gentle slope above the river, then ordered them to kneel. Each man had a task: Some unloaded the salt blocks and hobbled the camels and mules, some lit small fires for brewing tea and baking bread, while others fetched sacks of hay from a cave to feed their animals.

"Assabah—yassaboh," they sang as they worked. "Be strong—I'm strong."

When the men finally fell asleep, they did so where they sat drinking their tea. Their bodies spilled across the rocks as if they were resting on pillows of eiderdown. Edris [Hassan] joined in the work. "I would be traveling with the caravans too, if my camels had not died," he said when he returned to our campfire. He had lost five out of his herd of six in the year-long drought, one so severe aid organizations were now trucking in sacks of grain to help. Edris's loss wasn't something exceptional, he added—all the Afar were suffering similarly. Besides, they were accustomed to times of hardship.

"Sometimes the drought comes because of war or politics," Edris said, explaining that government intervention at border crossings had on occasion prevented the Afar from following the rains and the greening of the grasses. "Then you can blame men for it. This time, the drought is from Allah. It's a blessing He's chosen to give us." In the gift were lessons of survival. In the desert, you accepted what came your way; you learned to live with loss and to live without material desires.

Four hours later, just after noon, we got under way again. The route led slowly upward, taking us into the first tier of mountains, but there was no respite from the sun. Its searing heat danced over the rocks and up the canyon walls, and there was still no sign of the other caravans.

And then, in the late afternoon, we rounded a bend and came face-to-face with the merchants bound for Lake Asele. There wasn't a single line of camels and mules like ours. Instead they were arrayed like a wall, with lines of animals three and four abreast. In an instant we were engulfed in a brown sea of men and animals and dust. For the rest of the day there was no end to the caravans—it was a migration of biblical proportions.

"Where have they all come from?" I asked Zelalem.

"I don't know. They're Tigrayans," he replied.

Now the canyon widened into a landscape of pointed hills and dry plateaus. The trail split, and Edris led us away from the Lake Asele–bound caravans, up a sandy wash where there was at last some shade. An Afar man stood alongside the canyon wall, and Edris went over to greet him—to get, I thought, the latest dagu. The man was not like the salt merchants, sweaty and disheveled; his green plaid sarong and polo-style shirt looked fresh. And unlike traditionally dressed Afar men, he had a fully loaded hand-grenade belt strapped around his waist, instead of the curved gille. He balanced a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and gave Edris a welcoming smile. They stood close, laughing, kissing the backs of their hands, and pressing their shoulders together.

"He's Ugugumo," Zelalem whispered.

"The enemy?" I asked. "But Edris knows him. They look like friends."

"Maybe Edris once fought with him," said Zelalem. "Maybe that's why he knows the enemy's habits.

Maybe sometimes Edris is also Ugugumo."

I took this news in silence. At times the desert was full of shifting shapes—the dancing figures of mirages on the salt flats, the dust devils that spun out of nowhere and vanished into nothing. It did not come as a surprise that the Afar, so much a part of their land, had learned the desert's tricks. Three other men, armed like Edris's friend, came walking down the wash. They nodded pleasantly at us and stopped to give Edris more hand kisses. If these were the enemies Edris had wanted to protect us from, they certainly didn't seem hostile or intent on causing us any trouble.

"But they might have," said Zelalem, who had gathered his own dagu from the passing Tigrayan caravans. The Ugugumo—these men whom Edris was now embracing—had formed an armed blockade in the canyon, right at this very point, for two days. They'd refused to let any caravan pass until Ali Hassan shared some of the salt-tax wealth—the Afar's gold—with them.

"They need money for bullets, guns, and grenades," said Zelalem. "They want to fight the Eritreans."

Ali Hassan had given the Ugugumo what they wanted, and they'd released the caravans. That explained the masses of caravans we'd encountered.

Would the Ugugumo have harmed or robbed us if Ali Hassan hadn't negotiated with them?

Zelalem shook his head, as mystified as we were by the mixture of enmity and friendship among these Afar men. "They have their own ways," he said.

Edris came up to join us. He was smiling, as one does after meeting friends. He rested his Kalashnikov across his shoulders. He hadn't lied to or cheated us. He'd given us reliable dagu about the Ugugumo—they'd been in the canyon causing trouble for the caravans, just as he'd said, and hiring another person to help him protect us had probably been a wise move. He was now ready to guard and guide us the rest of the way to the salt market at Berahile.

Tired of the long ride, I slid off my mule and fell in behind him. Twilight was settling over the desert, turning it soft blue and gold. Somewhere in the hills ahead of us, other members of the Ugugumo were plotting, readying their weapons for a skirmish, trying to make the border disappear with bullets, to make the Afar one again.

"Allah put us here," Edris said, when I asked why they loved their desert. "It is a hard life, but this was His biggest blessing to us, Cafar-barro."

The desert has shaped the Afar, and it would shape us too, if we stayed long enough, Edris said. Then we would come to know it not simply as a place of harsh rocks, gravel, and lava but as a shelter, a home, an open stretch beneath the sky that offers all a man and his family need: grass for the livestock, palms for weaving the thatch of a home, special shrubs for making a toothbrush or curing a stomachache, and canyons with deep, cool water holes. In time we would come to be like the desert, spare in our needs, sharp in our wit, fierce in defense of our family. We would become, like the Afar, independent and self-reliant, a people who regard strangers warily. We would trust no one but other Afar and, even then, only those in our kedo, our clan.

We would have dozens of words for water and rain, and we would smile and thank Allah for His blessing when the sky poured, even when it brought floods. For after the rain summer would come. The grasses would sprout. And we would, like the Afar, move to those green pastures.