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The ‘normal train’ that crosses the Sahara

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. He documented slavery in Mauritania in 2011.

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Photographer George Popescu took a 40-hour train ride in a remote part of Mauritania

His images show normal life in a place that's both harsh and almost surreal

CNN  — 

This is a train most of us would not take.

It traverses a particularly remote part of Mauritania, an off-the-map sort of country in West Africa that’s known to harbor modern slavery; hugs the border with the Western Sahara, which essentially is an international no-man’s land; and rumbles through a largely lawless expanse of desert that is often seen as a good hideout for kidnappers and terrorists.

That’s the geography. Then there are the actual conditions of the ride. Ticketed passengers sit in enclosed cars that feel like the inside of a human washing machine. Illegal passengers, meanwhile, ride outside, often with livestock and on top of heaps of iron ore heading to and from a mine deep in the Sahara. They battle dust and sun and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

In October, Romanian photographer George Popescu took a 40-hour round-trip journey on this remote and seemingly dangerous route, starting in the coastal town of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, and ending at the mine site in Zouérat, deep in the desert.

Photographer George Popescu

But Popescu, who described the extreme conditions to me by phone, said he was struck by the train’s normalcy. It’s full of normal people trying to do normal things – get somewhere, sell something or meet someone.

“For me it’s safe,” he said. “It’s a safe country – but you never know. (There are) very vast areas where you can disappear, and the army cannot reach you.”

The 35-year-old was hesitant to complain about any of it.

“I caught very, very nice weather,” Popescu said. “The dust was the only issue I had. When you get up, you’re red and black from the iron ore and dust. It was difficult to breathe. I had a T-shirt on my face all the time, and I had some dust (that I was inhaling) all the time.”

The photos Popescu shot reflect this odd juxtaposition of normal life in a place that’s both harsh and almost surreal. You see two young sisters, their heads wrapped in bright cloth, huddled together at the edge of a gray mining cart; a young boy sitting on Mars-colored dirt amid a heap of blankets and suitcases; and three young men sleeping in the crevice of a dining cart, one of their faces wrapped in green cloth and another wearing what looks like an Adidas soccer jacket.

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    One man in particular stood out to Popescu.

    It’s a guy with his face wrapped in black cloth and a Jim Morrison T-shirt on his chest. Popescu told me most Westerners might see him and think he was a terrorist because of the black turban. “But this guy was a train mechanic,” he said. “He had this T-shirt on him and he was a Doors fan.”

    There’s a message in these photos: Don’t be victim to first impressions and stereotypes, and make the best out of even the most trying situations. Popescu was quick to tell me about the bright people he met en route in Mauritania, but slow to mention how the train almost left him in the desert. He had to jump back on the train while it was moving to avoid being left behind. At another point, he ran out of water because he’d shared all of it with other passengers.

    Eventually the train stopped, however, and he was able to buy more.

    In this tough environment, people are inclined to help each other.

    “It’s this train brotherhood,” he said.

    You don’t have to be on a dangerous train rattling through the desert to understand that.

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    George Popescu is a photographer based in Bucharest, Romania. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.