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A Saharan Shangri La



Since February 21, 2003, seven groups of foreign tourists of different nationalities, totalling 31 people, disappeared in southeastern Algeria. Most of them were Germans or German speaking individuals, and many were experienced in desert travel and well equipped.

On August 20, the captives returned home after having been freed by their abductors, a militant Islamic group operating in southern Algeria. The following article offered an alternative hypothesis for the mysterious abduction which may appear far fetched and surreal. But in the central Sahara mirages are rather commonplace.



It all began in 1919 in Upper Silesia's rust belt where a special military unit, the Industrieschutz Oberschlesien, had been formed by the Germans to defend Europe's largest coal and steel industry against Poles and the French occupation force. A plebiscite took place in 1921, organized on the German side by Hans Lukaschek and Carl Ulitzka on behalf of Deutscher Schutzbund, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization. Thanks to the Industrieschutz' efforts to prevent Polish voters from infiltrating Upper Silesia, and to clever busing of German voters, Germany won the plebiscite with 60 percent of the vote, and the special unit was subsequently transferred to other "sensitive" locations.

Since 1938, the special unit, now called Deutsche Kompanie and kept under the command of the Abwehr secret service, was relocated to Brandenburg near Berlin, and the unit was henceforth called the "Brandenburgers," one of the least known German elite troops in World War II.

Their assignment was covert, clandestine action. For their commando activities in eastern Europe and the Balkans, ethnic Germans — Volksdeutsche — from the respective countries were enlisted who after extensive training at Brandenburg entered their area of operations in local garb, speaking local dialects, and being for all practical purposes unrecognizable among their host population.

These teams performed very successfully. Therefore a special unit called Brandenburger Tropeneinheit was established for Hitler's African projects and arrived in North Africa in June 1941. These men, some of them former members of the French Foreign Legion, spoke English, French and Arabic. Their first job was to perform reconnaissance for Rommel's Afrika-Korps. Later, commandoes were sent to Cairo and to Assiut in central Egypt where their leaders met with Anwar El-Sadat — the later President — who promised to help instigate an Arab rebellion against the British which, however, never happened.

In July of 1942, Leutnant von Leipzig started the ambitious Unternehmen Dora as a reconnaissance operation in what is today Niger and Chad to determine how the important Allied supply route between the Gulf of Guinea and Port Sudan on the Red Sea could be interrupted. One of Leipzig's teams arrived in the Tassili n'Ajjer mountain region of southeastern Algeria, established a camp there, terrified the (free) French, and withdrew to Libya after a skirmish with the dumbfounded French who did not know how to deal with strange soldiers in French uniforms who spoke fluent French.

Von Leipzig's second group, about 30 men under the command of Corporal (Feldwebel) Stegmann moved south to the Tibesti mountains in what is now northern Chad, with the objective to proceed to Lake Chad and disturb the French. With the help of the Tibbu bedouins who hated the French, Stegmann succeeded in occupying the ancient caravan town of Bardai in the northern foothills of the Tibesti.

Shortly after overpowering the small French garrison, news came that a large French contingent was on the way to Barzai, and Stegmann decided to return to Libya where all Brandenburger teams were summoned by Rommel.

After the battle of Al-Alamein, all Brandenburgers in Africa were captured by the British. This is the end of the official history.

But there were still a few Brandenburgers who had been lost sight of.

Stabsgefreiter Besemer noted in his diary:

"When Feldwebel Stegmann decided to return to Marzuq (in Libya, ed.) we were dumbfounded. There we were, in the heart of Africa, surrounded by friendly tribespeople who urged us to stay on and help them fight the French. Since the days of Leo Frobenius no German had set foot here; we were looked upon as half gods (Halbgoetter, ed.).

We were perfectly well organized. We had a few British Bedford lorries, Norton motorcycles and other captured vehicles, our own arms and the guns taken from the French at Barzai. Petrol arrived in barrels on camel back from Faya Lardeau; food was abundant, and we still had quite a stock of pastis and red wine supplied by the French, plus their horrible cigarettes.

When Stegmann decided to withdraw rather than face the French, several of us protested. Why not hide in the mountains, burying our German uniforms and dressing in local costumes? Our outpost would be invaluable once Rommel had defeated Colonel Stirling and General Alexander and could send the three divisions necessary to occupy the western Sudan, as Stegmann had calculated.

From our base in the Tibesti we would be able to undertake reconnaissance missions to Khartoum, to Ndjamena and Moundou — thus exploring the central part of the Allied trade and supply route.

Stegmann was not swayed by our arguments. But he decided that those who volunteered to stay should stay on and follow their own strategy until the Afrika-Korps would expand southbound and catch up with us. That is why eleven of us decided to remain here and establish our camp in the Tibesti."

The course of events, however, did not match Besemer's expectations. Stegmann returned to the Cyrenaica, Rommel was defeated, and the German presence in North Africa came to a sudden end. Besemer and his men found themselves lost and isolated in the Tibesti mountains of the central Sahara desert with nowhere to go. Give themselves up to the French or to the British in Sudan? Facing detainment possibly as unprotected irregulars and perhaps later — under the best of circumstances — returning to a devastated Germany which for some of them was not even their home country, anyway?

They decided to stay on in their rather comfortable cave dwellings in the Tibesti, passing for Arabs from one of those coastal Libyan tribes whose men are red-haired, blue-eyed and freckled. They loved hunting, taking local women, trading with the Peul and Tibbu in arms, animals, technical gear and — occasionally — slave children on their way from the South to the markets in Dongola and Omdurman. Their trusty old Wehrmacht radios worked fine, and replacement P800 and P2000 valves were easy to find.

The years passed. In the 1950s, a German illustrated magazine (was it Quick or Deutsche Illustrierte?) published a reportage on members of the German Tibesti colony seen shopping in Khartoum. Since then, their traces have been covered by quicksand. But that does not mean they have vanished.

As years became decades, things changed considerably for the tiny German colony. A new generation of Arabic, French and Tedaga (a local language) speaking children grew up, taking business and defence over from their fathers who, however, were successful in maintaining German discipline, culture and — to some extent — language in the colony. In practice, the boys learned to speak and read German whereas the girls were allowed "to go native."

In 1964, the Tibesti had ceased to be part of the French military administration of Equatorial Africa. It came nominally under Chadian sovereignty. From the 1980s onward, the idyllic life in the Tibesti was disrupted by warfare. Libya's Ghaddafi occupied the Aouzou strip north of the Tibesti which had always been claimed by Libya. However, the French — in support of the Chad government — drove the Libyans out. As the main result of warfare, both sides had buried thousands of land mines along the roads and caravan paths through and around the Tibesti.

This fact brought two different results for the German colony: as travel had become extremely hazardous, the scarce Tibesti population was largely left alone and protected from tourism and government military; however, trade was badly affected by the mine scare. In the late 1990s, the Tibesti region rebelled against the N'Djamena government but the rebel leader, Youssouf Togoimi, was badly wounded by a land mine and died in a Libyan hospital.

As a consequence of hardship and insecurity during past decades, many of the pastoral people in the Tibesti region had migrated south and to the more developed area around Lake Chad. The small German colony was hence threatened by shortage of labour and supplies.

The membership of the colony itself which had once been growing due to large numbers of children, started to shrink as many of the young people left their relatively comfortable but desperately isolated Shangri La in search of modern life and fellow humans.

At this point, we surmise, the project arose of recruiting new German members for the colony. Since, for obvious reasons, it was not possible to advertise job openings in German media, the elders decided to engage young Germans and other German speakers already available nearby: tourists.

They are crossing the Sahara in scores every year along paved roads and the established caravan routes of southeastern Algeria where they could easily be abducted and taken along the Niger-Libya border line to the Tibesti. After all, the distance between Tamanrasset or the Tassili and the Tibesti is not longer than between the Tibesti and Khartoum, for instance.

Hardly anybody searching for lost tourists in Algeria would suspect that they might have been moved across two borders into Chad. And yet, for a determined and knowledgeable crew of kidnappers with a history of covert operations that would not seem an impossible task.

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—— Ihsan Al-Tawil