For centuries the Saharawis have called the desert home, but they don't belong here. At least not on this side of the Wall. Nominated for the 2010 National Magazine Awards.
The Wall is built of sand and stone, but also of rumours, half-truths and bluster. It is the world’s longest and oldest functioning security barrier, and it runs through disputed desert land between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Near Tindouf, on the Algerian side, lie several large refugee camps whose residents are Saharawis—the name means “people of the Sahara”—and they don’t belong here. At least not on this side of the Wall. They are from a patch of sand called the Western Sahara on most world maps, its borders drawn with tentative dotted lines. The Spanish called it the Spanish Sahara. The Moroccans call it their southern provinces. For centuries, Saharawi camel herders called it home. Now it is the “occupied zone.”
The oldest among the refugees arrived in the camps during the 1980s, when the war with Morocco over the land was at its peak. These old men and women sit cross-legged and talk about the French-built fighter jets that doused the fleeing refugees with napalm. Most of the people in the camp, however, were born here. Few have ever seen the land on the other side of the Wall. The only home they’ve known is these tents and mud-brick shacks.
There may be a hundred thousand refugees in the camps, but no one knows for sure. With a United Nations ceasefire holding and guns lowered, counting has become an act of war: each side exaggerates or understates their numbers. Even the Wall itself cannot be measured. No one knows exactly how long it is—some say it stretches for more than 2,700 kilometres—and no one knows how many Moroccan soldiers stand atop it, or how many land mines hide in the sand along its route.
The Saharawi refugee camps were established on land given by the Algerian government in a show of solidarity with the Saharawi cause and a thumbed-nose at Morocco. The Saharawis are grateful, but the land itself is not much of an offering. The few plants that survive on the Hamada du Drâa, a rocky limestone plateau, grow armed with thorns. Like most of the Sahara, this land is far from imagined desert scenes. There are no sudden green oases, no slow shift of curving dunes; only pallor and the whip of cold winter gales.
The Saharawis themselves interrupt the paleness. The men walk through the camps in blue or white robes that crinkle like tissue, embroidered with gold thread and fragrant with tea steam and tobacco smoke. The women swaddle their bodies in bold reds and tie-dyed blues and greens and purples. The colourful fabrics keep the skin beneath cool and colourless. Pale skin, pale as the desert itself, is prized among the women here.
Malainin Lakhal fetches me from the Protocol, the whitewashed complex where foreign visitors are housed. He is tall and thin, wears glasses and speaks in a whisper. He is the secretary- general of the Saharawi Journalists’ and Writers’ Union and speaks internationally at conferences about life in the camps and the Saharawi struggle for independence.
Outside the peeling walls of the Protocol, the morning air is still cool and the sky sallow and overcast. Old shipping containers and wrecked cars lie on the sand. Wind tosses the trash while Red Cross trucks sit idle; the refugees could not survive without international aid. A half-dozen taxi drivers wait for fares inside their cars, but hardly anyone else is around.
We enter a small shop that sells essentials: cooking oil, canned fish, detergent, tea, a bin of wrinkled potatoes, and a few bolts of cotton on the counter for lithams, the long turbans the Saharawi men wear. “Choose a colour,” Malainin says. I take olive green and the shopkeeper measures out a couple of metres. Malainin drapes one end of the cloth over my head, pulls it tightly over my chin and wraps my head with the rest. “You can pull it over your mouth when the wind blows,” he says, tugging on the flap of fabric beneath my chin. He buys a black litham for himself. “I am always losing my turbans.”
Then Malainin asks me what I want to do in the camps.
“I want to see the Wall,” I say.
The world’s walls are supposed to be coming down. We speak of globalization, international markets and global villages. Barriers to trade keep falling, and it is now possible to communicate instantly from nearly anywhere in the world. But just as these virtual walls come down, real walls rise. In 2003, Israel built a cement barrier around the West Bank. The United States flirts with a wall along the Mexican frontier and turned Baghdad into a labyrinth of vertical concrete. India is building fences along its borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Economics and electronics may link us, but we are increasingly divided by bricks, barbed wire and steel.
Malainin was an agitator for Saharawi independence and known to Moroccan police in El Aaiún, the largest city in the “occupied zone.” He endured two months in prison in 1992, then spent the next few years working as a human rights activist collecting information on Moroccan abuses of the Saharawi people. The Moroccans arrested and interrogated Malainin many times. The situation in the region intensified. In the wake of mass arrests and the “disappearances” of known activists, Malainin was forced underground in his own hometown.
The Saharawis had been battling the Moroccans for independence since the “Green March” of 1975, when King Hassan marched 350,000 volunteers into the Western Sahara and claimed the area for Morocco. The region was part of the Spanish Sahara at the time, but the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was dying in hospital and had little energy to resist. The U.N. insisted that the Saharawi people be allowed a referendum on sovereignty, but Generalissimo Franco signed a secret document that divided the Spanish Sahara territory between Morocco and Mauritania.