No man’s land

No Man’s Land

When I was living in Athens I talked to Constantine, a Greek friend, about the immigration problem. He observed that borders can be real or imaginary – or both.

The El Shalatin Camel Market in Egypt

 I asked him to explain this point. Smiling and looking at the bright blue Athens sky, he continued: “The suffering of people who are unable to cross certain borders because they are ‘not authorized’ is real. And, of course, those borders are politically real but they are only imaginary lines that someone, once, decided to mark on a map on the basis of sometimes strange and incomprehensible criteria, or because they were somehow convenient for them and only for them, certainly not for those who lived there, in those lands.”

An immense white road of rock and sand crosses the territory of Hala’ib

And now there are people who risk their lives crossing imaginary lines. Think about it. Suffering and death for something that doesn’t exist.” I thought it was a somewhat naïve reflection but ultimately, in some respects, true.

A mother of Sudanese descent with her baby in Hala’ib.

I wonder what Constantine would say if he knew that there is a real no man’s land, not that far from Athens. In fact, there are two no-man’s lands.

In the disputed land on the border between Sudan and Egypt there are few dwellings, mostly small and basic

It’s a land where borders are real but at the same time unreal. That is to say they mean nothing, since no one claims the land that these same borders define. On the contrary, the other territory, very close to this border is strongly contested by the two neighboring countries, Sudan and Egypt.

The inhabitants of Hala’ib live off pastoralism and small shops

If you look at a map of Egypt and move south, you come across a precise horizontal straight line marking the border with Sudan. At one point something strange appears.

A girl sells bead bracelets to those crossing the Hala’ib triangle

Below this line other boundaries are marked, including those of a small patch of land called the “Bir Tawil triangle” (meaning “long well” or “deep well” in Arabic). Bir Tawil is called a triangle but in reality it is a quadrilateral with a trapezoidal shape running along the twenty-second parallel of latitude north. This patch of land, with daytime temperatures reaching up to 45°C, is the only part of the planet – with the exception of one of the western regions of Antarctica called Marie Byrd Land – that does not belong to anyone since it has never been claimed by any state.

The Hala’ib triangle

Hence it is terra nullius. The British drew this straight line to coincide with the parallel in 1899, when they controlled the region. They established that to the north it would formally belong to Egypt – which at that time was under British rule – while to the south it would have an Egyptian representative in Sudan and hence also be controlled by Britain.

The population lives in the disputed area in poor and precarious shacks

The inland region of the territory, with an area of 2,060 km, is mostly desert hills, rock and sand, occasionally traversed by a wadi (Arabic for a seasonal watercourse). However it is a completely uninhabited patch of land. Both Sudan and Egypt have no interest in claiming this barren, empty region.

Girls in the desert of the Hala’ib triangle

By contrast there is another region just east of Bir Tawil that is disputed between Egypt and Sudan. It is called the “Hala’ib triangle.” The border area of this territory, which includes the areas of Halayeb, Shalateen and Abu Ramad, is controlled by Egypt. Since the 1950s, Sudan has claimed sovereignty over the Halaib Triangle overlooking the Red Sea coast on the Egyptian-Sudanese border and covering an area of approximately 20,580 square kilometers. Ever since Sudan gained independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956, the region was open to trade and the movement of people from the two countries without any restrictions. This lasted until 1995 when the Egyptian army took over it.

El Shalatin camel market in Egypt

Cairo claims the Halaib triangle is Egyptian and in 2016 it refused to attend negotiations or resort to international arbitration to determine the right to sovereignty over the region, which Sudan claims, reiterating its complaint every year before the UN Security Council.

Artisan workshop in the Hala’ib triangle

This patch of land is definitely more attractive strategically than the nearby Bir Tawil because of its outlet to the sea and 260 km of coastline, but also because in recent years minerals and oil fields have been found here. Naturally this legally uncertain situation makes it difficult for large oil companies to invest in the area, at least until the dispute is resolved. Since 2006, the area has been managed by a sort of Egyptian Sudanese co-administration.

El Shalatin camel market in Egypt

But now cracks are appearing in the surface tranquillity. As reported by the Arab website Al-Monitor, President of the Transitional Military Council of Sudan Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan delivered an emphatic speech to army officers and soldiers on August 24, 2020 in the Wadi Seidna military zone of Khartoum marking the 66th anniversary of the army’s foundation. He once again raised the issue of the disputed border region with Egypt. Burhan said the army will not give up an inch of Sudanese territory.

El Shalatin camel market in Egypt

“We will not abandon or forget our right until the flag of Sudan is raised in Halayeb, Shalateen and any controversial area along Sudan’s borders,” al Burhan said. While the fate of this strip of land is still being disputed, nomadic populations and small permanent groups of about a hundred inhabitants occupy the area, living by herding and small-scale trade. The most important of these is the El Shalatin camel market, which in reality is located in Egypt but in its far south on the border with Sudan, just north of the disputed territory, about 300 km from Aswan.

 A mother and her child on the border with Sudan

As we travel along this strip of no man’s land, basically neither truly Egyptian nor truly Sudanese, we find ourselves in an immense white and dusty street, with sporadic poor buildings and tents made of poles covered with fabric to protect them from the sun.

A mother and her child on the border with Sudan

Exchanging glances with the men, women and children who live, as best they can, in this place enclosed by disputed borders, I feel that Constantine’s statement becomes more meaningful.

 Hala’ib desert tea seller

Not because they risk their lives crossing the borders of Halaib, but because you are moved to wonder what difference it would make to them if they were Egyptian or Sudanese. You also wonder what these children of clear Sudanese origin scrambling among the white rocks will do one day when they are told by an armed Egyptian soldier that they cannot live where they have always lived. These are also naïve questions, I daresay.

Hala’ib desert refreshment area

But impossible not to ask yourself when you look at the history of a strip of land that inevitably mirrors what is happening worldwide in larger countries and regions and therefore with more complex problems, including religious ones that often result in bloodshed or even war.