The battle of Bir Tawil

Dmitry Zhikarev and Mikhail Ronkainen raise a Russian flag over Bir Tawil. Photo: Dmitry Zhikarev

King Dmitry Zhikharev is sitting at his table in Moscow gazing intently at three PC screens: one displays work emails, stock prices and company info; another is dedicated to comedy websites; the final screen is devoted to King Dmitry himself, with alerts triggered every time somebody mentions his name or the kingdom he claims is his. Dmitry is waiting for his rival ruler to show up online. It took a lot of patience to make this talk between two kings possible, including a whole series of unanswered letters. Behind the Russian king stand two reporters from the pro-Kremlin television channel NTV who are keen to capture the summit. Finally, they hear the familiar electronic burble as the man they’ve been waiting for logs on to Skype. The king types a message.

Zhikharev: “Hello!”
It takes eight minutes to get an answer.
Jeremiah Heaton: “Hi! Are you going to call me today?”
Zhikharev: “Yeah, in one hour, is that ok?”
Heaton: “Yes. What channel is going to tape it?”
Zhikharev: “NTV”

Zhikharev believes Heaton has been trying to avoid this talk. Heaton claims not to have received any of Zhikharev’s messages over the last five months asking to settle the pair’s territorial dispute.

Heaton: “Are they going to record this on video?”
Zhikharev: “Yes, you’d better get dressed.”
Heaton: “Ha-ha. I don’t want it to be misunderstood. I am really going to develop this territory. Those two guys from Russia, who placed their flag in my country, must be jokers. Are you their friend?”
Zhikharev: “I am one of them.”

The rest of the text conversation does not go well. Heaton, an American farmer, claims that Zhikharev is a fraud who wants to find out where Heaton’s flag was planted to claim his country and to remove it. Zhikharev tries to assure Heaton that he’s not going to deny his achievements, he just needs proof of his visit to the territory. In the end Heaton refuses to talk and the TV cameras are left to document the barrage of instant messages and emoticons that are the weapons in a two man Cold War. The prize is Bir Tawil, a 2,060-square-kilometre strip of African desert which is unlikely to top any natural beauty polls anytime soon. There are no rivers or forests, just dry wadi riverbeds that flood each springtime. Little grows, nothing changes.

PrintTerra nullius is a territory over which no government has claimed rights, meaning that anyone can stake a claim and start a colony: it’s the international legal equivalent of finders keepers, “turn around, touch the ground, bagsy I’m the king”. It is the same doctrine that allowed Captain Cook to claim Australia in the name of Great Britain when he landed in Botany Bay in 1770. Although there are no more wide open expanses like Australia left for the taking, there are still a few dots of unclaimed territory across the planet. On 13th April 2015, for example, Czech politician Vít Jedlicka bagsied a seven-square-kilometre parcel of wooded land on the Danube, on the basis that it had not been officially claimed by the bordering nations of Croatia or Serbia. He raised a flag, named his new country Liberland and proclaimed that it would be a libertarian haven. He was promptly swamped with applications for citizenship.

The land that had no owner for over a hundred years now has two rulers, neither of whom want to share”

Bir Tawil became no man’s land in 1902. It used to be the territory of Sudan, but then the British Empire rearranged the borders: Bir Tawil’s desert lands were to be transferred to Egypt, while Sudan got the oil-rich oasis Triangle of Hala’ib instead. Egypt was understandably unhappy with the exchange and refused to take Bir Tawil. Sudan did not return Hala’ib, however, and the countries continue to dispute ownership to this day. Bir Tawil, meanwhile, remained on the shelf, unwanted and long forgotten. Terra nullius. But the land that had no owner for over a hundred years now has two rulers, neither of whom want to share.

House Heaton

Once upon a time Jeremiah Heaton promised his daughter that one day she would become a princess. Heaton is a man who keeps his promises, and in order for his daughter to be a princess he first had to become a king. So the farmer from Virginia set out on a quest for a country in need of a monarch. And, after some committed Googling, Bir Tawil showed up as what Heaton believed was “the only piece of land on earth that is unclaimed”. In the summer of 2014 he received permission from the Egyptian government to cross its borders into Bir Tawil  so Heaton set off on the six thousand mile trip carrying a banner he’d designed with his daughter. Somewhere on this patch of desert, Heaton claims, he planted the flag on 16th June 2014 and claimed the Kingdom of Northern Sudan.

The future looked Disney-ish – Heaton was to be king, his daughter, as promised, a princess. The American announced he would build a water supply pipeline from the Nile and turn Bir Tawil’s desert into a modern-day Garden Of Eden. A grand declaration of sovereignty was issued. “The dawn of our nation begins as a blank slate in an arid, desolate desert,” it says. “Through the charity of the world community and the disciples of modern science, we will construct the most fertile, ecologically sensitive nation on Earth.”

American dad Jeremiah Heaton plants a flag his family designed in the unclaimed plot of land known as Bir Tawil

American dad Jeremiah Heaton plants a flag his family designed in the unclaimed plot of land known as Bir Tawil

Then the contender appeared. Dmitry Zhikharev made no claims of a future pipeline or of a blueprint for Utopia. One thing Zhikharev did say, however, is that he has solid proof that Bir Tawil is his. He can support his claims with a banner of his own, a geotagged photo and GPS logs. Heaton, Zhikharev claims, has no evidence of any kind that he planted his flag in Bir Tawil first and thus no rights to this land.

“Why would I need a geotag? So anyone could arrive and remove my banner?” asks Heaton when I speak to him. “If Zhikharev hasn’t found it, he can’t prove it’s not there! He spent just a couple of days in Bir Tawil and could have only explored a tiny bit of the country – his banner is not far away from the border. I’ve got plane tickets and a travel permission from the Egyptian government. He’s trying to say that I did all that and then what? Changed my mind?”

House Zhikharev

It was long after midnight on a winter’s night in 2014. A screen glowed with numbers and the jerky dance of visualised radio waves. An old man sat in front of the radio set and played with the tuning dial. He was 97 years old and he had tuned in to radio signals from every country in the world. Except for Yemen. And it seemed like he might not add it to his collection before he died. Suddenly a signal broke the silence. Yemen. Call sign RA9USU.

“RA9USU, are you there? Do you read me?”
“I am the king of Bir Tawil.”

The voice belonged to competitive amateur radio operator Dmitry Zhikharev.

Dmitry Zhikharev, the Russian satellite radio enthusiast who calls himself “King of Bir Tawil”. Photo: Sergey Karpov

Dmitry Zhikharev, the Russian satellite radio enthusiast who calls himself “King of Bir Tawil”. Photo: Sergey Karpov

Growing up in Kemerovo, Western Siberia, in the 1980s, Zhikharev dreamed of adventure. He subscribed to US geographical magazines, which were delivered with delays of up to a year. Those magazines told stories of expeditions to distant mountains and jungles, and the boy dreamt of becoming a traveller himself. At 18 he moved to Moscow and, despite being barely out of school himself, taught radio electronics in college while helping MA students run a radio station. Finally in 1994 his opportunity for adventure arrived. The student choir, Russkaya Pesnia, was selected to tour the US, and Zhikharev volunteered to accompany them to help with their arrangements. He’d fly to the country before the choir members as a one-man advance party, to help prepare the ground.

“You’re 19 and you’re somewhere you’ve never been before after almost a 24-hour flight into the unknown!” the self-proclaimed king recalls. “You have no idea where to spend the night, you’re almost ready to turn back and retreat home. You open a map, find a place to stay, and then comes the ‘Wow, I made it!’ moment. In this moment your whole body shivers and you understand the meaning of happiness.”

Other than this anecdote, Zhikharev isn’t very forthcoming on his past. He returned to America after the choir trip and spent nine years in the country “studying, working and stuff” before returning to Russia to set up a satellite navigation company which has allowed him to combine his two passions, travel and competitive radio. Radio competitions are curious affairs: the aim is to establish two-way contact with other licensed amateur radio operators in one of 40 geographical zones. Opening up a channel from your own continent gives you one point, opening one from abroad gets you three. Zhikharev is known in radio circles as the man willing to broadcast from the more obscure zones – as with his communication from Yemen. When he opens a channel, thousands of people are already on standby, eager to check a new zone off their list. The 34th zone – which covers Libya, Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan – is the most coveted. In 2014 Zhikharev was looking for a suitable place within Zone 34 to broadcast from and discovered a missing space between Egypt and Sudan’s borders. It was then that he knew he not only had a chance to open a new transmission, but to found a country.

In December 2014, Zhikharev set out to the terra nullius with his friend Mikhail Ronkainen, the soon-to-be Count of Bir Tawil. Zhikharev needed someone who would not allow him to turn back and Ronkainen was his man. The pair had met while they were both holidaying in North Korea and Zhikharev trusted his friend completely – anyone crazy enough to take a relaxing break in North Korea would surely treat a trip to take over a piece of African desert like a weekend picnic. At the beginning it was hard to find a guide who could lead them from Egypt. The whispered chain of “a man who knows a man…” led to the pair taking on the desert’s seemingly endless sands in a jeep and to cold nights wrapped in a tent, because they were too exhausted to put it up.

Trying to find a land with no border amongst endless dirt is not easy, and guides tried to fool Zhikharev and Ronkainen several times: “We’re already here, this is Bir Tawil,” they’d proclaim on a random patch of nothingness. But the GPS doesn’t lie, and Zhikharev drove them on, past one last village, one more swathe of desert. “We’d look back and the endless plateau was the only view,” remembers Zhikharev. “Ahead was exactly the same.”

Dmitry and his friend Mikhail Ronkainen. Photo: Dmitry Zhikarev

Dmitry and his friend Mikhail Ronkainen. Photo: Dmitry Zhikarev

Finally on 17th December they arrived in Bir Tawil, either Africa’s no man’s land or Heaton’s Kingdom of Northern Sudan, depending on who you believe. Zhikharev planted the Russian banner and called his friend Pavel Buyko in Moscow with a satellite phone.

Buyko: “Hello, Dmitry? Everything is falling apart over here [due to the financial crisis], it’s…”
Zhikharev: “What are you talking about? Do you know who you’re talking to? The king himself is calling you!”

The kings in the North

King Dmitry’s first act was to go in search of his subjects – an estimated 4,000 members of the Ababda tribe live in Bir Tawil, mining for gold amongst the dirt. Instead of houses they have rags spread taut between two sticks to protect them from the sun. The reaction to the news that they now had a king was muted. “It’s OK as long as we can live the way we always did,” was the general response. Zhikharev donated his big tent to the tribe on the proviso that when he returned the tent would become his royal residence. Nobody argued.

‘I didn’t call a TV company or [court] any publicity,’ says Zhikharev. ‘What for? So someone could say that evil Russians are stealing a little girl’s dream?’”

On returning to Moscow, Zhikharev wrote to Jeremiah Heaton contesting the American’s claim to Bir Tawil. A connection in the Egyptian government had told him that Heaton hadn’t crossed Egypt’s borders. Heaton’s photographs of himself posing with a flag against a desert background supposedly in Bir Tawil could have been made anywhere, insists Zhikharev. “You’d better not persist in your claims on my territory,” ended Zhikharev’s letter.

“I didn’t call a TV company or [court] any publicity,” says Zhikharev. “What for? So someone could say that evil Russians are stealing a little girl’s dream?”

The Russian king offered to allow Heaton’s daughter to remain princess – not that the eight year old had much interest in political quarrels between her father and some man from Russia. Like other girls her age, Princess Emily goes to school and likes playing with her friends. Sometimes she helps on her father’s farm. Heaton’s family leads a modest life and Emily’s father can’t throw her lavish parties like her classmates have, but he says he is trying to fulfil her wishes. “I made this journey for my daughter,” he says. “Children should know their father will do anything for them, even travel to the other side of the world.”

The early signs are that Princess Emily will be a munificent ruler: all that she wants is to provide food for African children. “There’s not much to eat in Africa,” she says.

Jeremiah Heaton and his daughter Emily stand alongside their homemade blue flag. Photo: David Crigger/AP/Press Association Images

Jeremiah Heaton and his daughter Emily stand alongside their homemade blue flag. Photo: David Crigger/AP/Press Association Images

“Emily lives on a farm so it’s normal for her that food must be grown,” says Heaton. “When she learned that her wish [of being princess] was going to become reality, she said: ‘We should make a garden there’.” In the Kingdom of North Sudan, the word of the princess is law. Heaton created a foundation and started searching for investors via a crowdfunding campaign. He is quite serious about it. “We’ll find a way to grow food there,” he tells me. “Human beings must help each other, there’s too much injustice in the world, we should be kinder. Once we start farming there everyone will see – one child can change the world.”

Heaton is sure Bir Tawil is nothing more than a plaything for Zhikharev. Following Zhikharev’s revelation that he had planted his own flag, the initial political confrontation increased. The kings would fire Skype messages at each other: Zhikharev trying to convince Heaton to reveal the location of his flag, Heaton arguing they should collaborate to develop telecommunications and infrastructure in the kingdom. Zhikharev is not convinced. “This guy [Heaton] is already raising money to build an airport there – that’s insane and [makes Bir Tawil] look like a financial pyramid for morons,” he says.

Zhikharev’s company is based in the south-east of Moscow. Zhikharev, a man of truly royal size, occupies most of his small office. The little decoration there is – maps on the wall, a flagpole in the corner and a couple of packed tents – hints at escape. Zhikharev has travelled to 99 countries, he’s climbed to the highest point of North Korea’s Mount Paektu – “there’s a lake right in the volcano crater” – and has slept on the beaches of Yemen with not a soul around and where the stars shine so brightly that “you think it’s day”. Each time he picks a place where others fear to tread. The travel bug he picked up as a child shows no signs of abating – he’s on a constant quest for that feeling he had the first night in US, the shivering of pleasure through the entire body. “Sometimes it seems you’ve gotten close, almost like you can grab it with your bare hand,” he says, “but then it escapes. That’s how you end up in an off-the-map place like Bir Tawil.”

We retire to a room thick with cigarette smoke and he barks orders at the designer developing Bir Tawil’s website and banner. “A photo of a desert should be on the main page! What the hell is this? Remove these ornaments from the banner! Why black, black is sad! Where is the coat of arms? Why haven’t you made it yet?”

“You need to think of a constitution,” ventures the designer. “What constitution? I am an absolute monarch, my word is the law.” The only law in Bir Tawil – a kingdom with no roads – is that women are not allowed to drive cars. The web designer came up with that. He is now prime minister.

An unlikely sanctuary

“The Kingdom of North Sudan has requested dialogue with Naguib Sawiris to build infrastructure and housing to host displaced refugees,” tweeted Heaton on his Kingdom of North Sudan Twitter account on 4th September 2015. The refugee crisis in Europe was at its peak; thousands of people were trying to reach Germany, and being held up by the barriers of Fortress Europe.

Naguib Sawiris is the billionaire politician who supported the protesters in Egypt during the revolution. In September he revealed his plans to spend between ten and 100 million euros to buy Italian or Greek islands and build a new home for the refugees there. Sawiris wants to call the new country “Independence” and plans to build homes, schools, hospitals, infrastructure – everything to give people a place to live and work, although he knows that “such a plan could face challenges”. Enter King Jeremiah Heaton and his offer of free land to support the effort. He is yet to receive a reply.

It’s great that Zhikharev wants his own country, but it doesn’t work that way. He’s just too late”

Things aren’t going very well for the American. His crowdfunding campaign failed after he raised only $10,638 out of a requested $250,000. The incentive of getting a knighthood for 300 bucks did little to help him: only 17 people snapped up the title, leaving him 816 knights and dames short of his goal. Heaton has stopped replying to Zhikharev’s emails, but their battle continues on Wikipedia. After Heaton promised to remove Zhikharev’s flag, the Russian Wiki page of North Sudan recorded that Zhikharev had officially designated him persona non grata.

Zhikharev is yet to return to his kingdom after troubles with documents made a planned trip to Bir Tawil in June 2015 impossible: Count Ronkainen had lost his passport. They are planning an expedition for next year and the king has already sent two 18-square-metre tents to his people with a help of some friends in Sudan. The tents, Zhikharev hopes, will add wings to his royal residence when he finally gets back to Bir Tawil.

It’s the middle of the night in Moscow, but the sun hasn’t yet set in Virginia. Bir Tawil’s American king is looking sternly back at me from the screen.

“It’s great that Zhikharev wants his own country, but it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “He’s just too late. When I came to Bir Tawil it was terra nullius and I had the right to claim it for myself. And I placed my own banner there. And then he arrives with a Russian flag. It figures he always has it with him. I’ll be in Bir Tawil in a few weeks, remove his flag and return it to the Russian embassy in the US. You can’t just stick a banner into the ground and own the place. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t violate international laws and take over the land.”

The Game of Thrones continues.

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