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Saharawi Refugee Camp, Algeria
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Moroccan Soldiers on the Wall
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.
The Sahawari resistance, known as the Polisario, declared war. They easily pushed the Mauritanians back to their border in the south. Then, although the Moroccan troops outgunned and vastly outnumbered the Saharawi soldiers, the Polisario troops circled and destroyed the Moroccan units one by one in daring guerrilla operations.
The Moroccans were forced to change their tactics. With the help of France, Israel and the United States, Morocco devised a new strategy based on desert walls, or berms. Each time they gained a swath of territory on the eastern front, they built a wall to secure it. By the time the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991, six walls had been built. They extend eastward like ripples in a pond, and their combined length stretches to over seven thousand kilometres, longer than the Great Wall of China.
Only the last wall, the longest wall, is still manned by Moroccan troops and watched over by U.N. peacekeepers. It was completed in 1987 and it runs north-south along the Algerian side and east-west along the border with Mauritania. The Saharawis and their sympathizers call it the Wall of Shame.
And in the summer of 2000, after eleven months in hiding, Malainin decided to cross over it. At the time, he couldn’t even see his parents for fear of implicating them: activists leave a stain of suspicion on everyone they touch. He and his brother Salama, and another activist named Massoud, decided to escape to the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria. The three men chose to cross over the Wall on the Mauritanian side. They had heard there were fewer land mines buried in the south.
Malainin and Salama met with their father the night before they left their homes in El Aaiún. It was a serene meeting. “Be good men,” their father said. “And follow the Milky Way. In the summer it will always lead you south. Remember, too, that we are Saharawis. It is better for us to die in the desert than in a Moroccan prison.” He gave his sons two hunting knives in case they needed to kill someone.
Massoud carried a teapot and some loose black tea. Malainin and his brother held the knives. They each brought along a single bottle of water and their derahs, the long slit-sided tunic of the Saharawis. Though they were all heavy smokers—Malainin smoked three packs a day at the time—no one brought cigarettes. They only carried essentials.
The men hired a smuggler to drive them within twenty kilometres of the berm. They would walk the rest of the way in a few hours, wait for dark, then take their chances crossing the mine field to climb the Wall. They planned to reach Nouadhibou, a city on the Mauritanian coast, before noon the following day. The men could rest with friends in Nouadhibou before making their way across the Algerian border and into the camps.
Malainin knew they could cover the twenty-kilometre distance in a little more than four hours. After five hours they had not reached the berm, and after eight hours they knew something was wrong. They kept walking. The sun set, and the men followed the Milky Way south just as their father had instructed, but they still didn’t reach the Wall. The sun rose. They walked through the morning and into the heat of midday. In spite of the scorch of the August desert, the men never drank their water. “We are Saharawis,” Malainin says. “We save our water for tea.”
The men learned later that their smuggler was a poor judge of distance. He had dropped them over a hundred kilometres from the berm, and it wasn’t until the evening of the second day that the men spotted it on the horizon. They had intended to save the tea until they crossed over the Wall, then drink it as a sort of celebration. But reaching the Wall after their thirty- six-hour march was reason enough to rejoice. They hid behind a rock, built a small fire and drank tea.
The men waited until dark to cross the mine field. They unwrapped their turbans and each man held onto an end of the cloth so they were all a turban’s length apart. If there was a problem, they could communicate with each other by tugging on the fabric. And if one of them stepped on a mine, the other two would be far enough away to survive the explosion.
They were a few metres from the Wall when they saw the soldier. Half his face flashed into view in a spark of orange light from his cigarette lighter. Linked by strips of black cotton, Malainin and his brother slid the knives from their sheaths and stepped quickly across the sand. There was no moonlight to glint off the blades and betray them. Ahead of them, somewhere in the blackness, a soldier smoked. Better to die in the desert than in a Moroccan prison. Better to kill in the desert than to die at the Wall.
Malainin is a poet. He writes verses about jasmine buds, doves, and hearts that bleed and blush:
She came to me with memories of the feel of sand Of her beauty when we made the desert our bed. Do you remember the colour of my eyes when the moon is full? Do you remember the poems You sang for our parting on those sleepless nights?
It is difficult to imagine Malainin a murderer. It is difficult, too, to imagine the Moroccan prison cell where he was forced to stand for two days, then was beaten and tortured with electric shocks for eighteen days more. Still, I ask him if he really was ready to kill.
“I was ready to walk across a mine field,” he says.
Nobody died that night. By the time the men reached the spot where they had seen the lighter flash, the soldier had moved along. The lingering scent of cigarette was too faint to follow. “We were all lucky,” Malainin tells me. “We didn’t have to kill anyone, and he didn’t have to die.”
The nearest part of the berm is a metre-high sand wall lined with flat rocks. It is designed to stop vehicles rather than people, and the three men climbed over easily. Then they crossed a half-kilometre of no man’s land to a second wall, this one about three metres high. Once over this second wall the men were safe, but they did not stop moving until they reached the railway that links Mauritania’s iron ore mines in the north to the port at Nouadhibou. They sat on the side of the tracks, put on their derahs and brewed tea again, this time in true celebration. They had made it.
They found a transport truck mired in soft sand on the other side of the rail line. The driver offered to take them to Nouadhibou if they helped him. It took two days for the men to unload the truck, dig it out of the sand, and reload it. When the men reached Nouadhibou, Malainin and his brother gave the driver the knives. “We didn’t need them any more.”
Abdulahe, a friend of Malainin, takes me to a hill overlooking February 27 camp, named for the day the Polisario declared the formation of the Saharawi “nation.” From here we can see the tents rising between the houses like white sailboats on a sand sea. In Hassiniya, the Saharawi language, the word for “tent” is the same word as for “family.” Abdulahe points to the tent where he was born. “When I travel from here I miss the tent,” he tells me. “The tent makes me feel my roots. My nation. I was born in a tent. Grew up in a tent. You know, it means a lot to me.”
When Abdulahe was a boy, his parents sent him to a boarding school in Algiers; many of the refugees study “abroad,” some as far afield as Spain and Cuba. “I remember my mother telling me I was a refugee, but I never knew what that meant until I went to Algiers,” Abdulahe says. “The Algerian students had money. They had sweets and toys and bicycles. The Saharawi students at the school had nothing. Not even a house to live in. When I came back to the camps in the summer I asked my mother why the boys in Algiers had so many things that we did not have, and why they lived in houses and I lived in a tent. My mother told me, ‘It is because you are a refugee. They have a country. You do not.’”
We descend the hill and take lunch in the tent of one of his relatives. The tent is cool and spacious, with a few blankets piled in one corner and a sewing machine in another. A wire runs from a television to a solar battery outside. Two cell phones are strapped to the central tent pole, which acts as an antenna and improves the reception.
Inside the tent we are welcomed by three young women, Abdulahe’s cousins. One lays out a blanket for me to sit on. Another dribbles lemon-scented perfume on my head by way of greeting. The third fetches a charcoal brazier, which she fans with a flattened milk carton, and brews tea. Abdulahe’s mother, whose face is as round and inviting as ripe fruit, asks me if I find the desert too hot. “It is snowing in Canada right now,” I say. “I like the heat.” She points to the door flap of the tent where the noon light pours in and asks if I would rather sit in the sunbeam.
Abdulahe’s uncle Mohammed joins us and we all eat from the same platter of lamb couscous and curried camel kebabs. My hosts push the best morsels of lamb over to me. They fill my glass of apple Fanta before it is finished, and when I mention how much I like the camel, the rest of the kebabs are saved for me.
There is nothing separating the visitor from the Saharawis. There are no social protocols to meander through, and it takes no time to earn their trust. Every family I visit is the same. I need only appear and their world opens to me. The moment I sit, a glass of tea is placed before me and a pillow comes for my head. Laughter is immediate. I am invited to rest, to eat, to sleep. There will be bread in the morning. Sterilized milk from a box. A can of berry jam. These rations come from international donors, and they are precious.
After we eat, Abdulahe, Mohammed and I stretch out on the blankets while one of Abdu¬lahe’s cousins brews more tea in the corner. Mohammed tells us about fighting the Moroccans as a Polisario soldier in the 1970s, when the war was at its fiercest.
I turn to one of the cousins. She is in her early twenties and was born in the camps. She has never seen the land her father fought for. “What do you think the Western Sahara is like?” I ask.
She turns her eyes upward. “El Aaiún is very pretty,” she says. “There are real streets and buildings. Lots of cars. The ocean is nearby, and it is a huge distance filled with water. You can swim in it, and there are fish. And it can rain there for days.”
In the Saharawi tradition, tea is a trinity. The tea ceremony is a refrain of three holy essentials, each beginning with the Arabic letter jim. Jama’a is the gathering. To drink tea alone is to waste it. J’jar is slowness. Proper tea cannot be brewed in haste. Jmar is the charcoal. Tea demands burning and boiling.
At another house, I don’t know whose, in Auserd camp, Abdulahe and I take tea with Kamal, his mother Damaha, and a cast of Abdulahe’s relatives who come in and out of the room at random. A considerable jama’a. Kamal splashes a stream of hot tea into a row of glasses and tells me about the Scottish trader who first brought tea to the Sahara in the nineteenth century, and how you could once buy a camel for a cup of dry leaves. Then he tells me about his mother.
Damaha was already a fighter before the Wall. She was a regular face among the protesters in the town of Tan Tan who agitated against the Spanish colonizers in the years before 1975. Damaha had little education, but the leaders of the resistance tutored and inspired her. By the time the Moroccans replaced the Spanish as the region’s occupiers, Damaha had given birth to Kamal and divorced her husband. Her home became a Polisario safe house, where Damaha hosted activists to discuss strategy and raise money. “Everybody gave what they could,” she says, eager to add to her son’s account. “I know one woman who stole her husband’s revolver to give to the soldiers.”
One morning, in the winter of 1978, Damaha was at home, hosting a monthly committee meeting, when an out-of-breath Poli¬sario official pounded on the door. “There will be a battle today. Our soldiers are ready to attack Tan Tan. Be ready to assist the soldiers with whatever they need.”
The soldiers attacked Moroccan army positions at midday. They held the town for four hours, during which time they released prisoners from the jails. The streets were in a panic. Three Land Rovers drove up to Damaha’s house in the early afternoon. Polisario soldiers came out. “It is no longer safe here. We are collecting all the activists and taking them to the refugee camps.”
Damaha had known this day would come; Saharawi activists in the Western Sahara may cling to hope but not illusions. She already had a bag packed. But Kamal was not home. He had gone to play with his cousin that morning and had not returned. She called for him but he didn’t answer. There was no time to look for him. She said a prayer that Kamal would find his way to his father’s house, boarded the Land Rover and escaped to the camps.
Almost a year passed before Damaha heard that Kamal was alive and safe. “It was October 14th,” she says. The date hangs at the front of her memory. Twenty more years passed before Damaha actually saw her son again. They reunited in the camps in 2001.
I want to ask her how she could leave her child behind in a city at war, but Abdulahe won’t translate this question for me. “You cannot ask her that,” he says. “She is a mother.”
Our driver remembers to stop for cigarettes. And he stops for camel meat, which he buys out of a white van holding a butcher and two swinging carcasses. He remembers his cigarette lighter just in time. But he forgets to bring a functioning jack. When a tire blows out he spends an hour digging a hole around the offending wheel to remove and replace it. We drive to a Polisario border-control post, where we pick up a soldier to act as our military escort. He wears army fatigues and plastic sandals but has no gun. I’m finally going to the Wall.
We stop near some thorny bushes about three hundred metres from the berm. This is much closer than I predicted. Salek walks toward the Wall and waves me to follow him.
“What about the land mines?” I ask.
“The mines start fifty metres from the Wall. We are safe to walk a little farther.” Many of the decades-old anti-personnel mines planted near the berm that continue to kill Saharawi civilians and livestock were made in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, countries that don’t exist any more because their composite states have since gained independence. It is a callous irony.
I follow Salek, walking in his footsteps and staring at the ground in front of me. Salek laughs at me for being afraid. I can’t see any mines, but I find the perforated end of a machine gun muzzle in the sand. The detritus of war. Salek warns me not to touch it.
For the Saharawis, the berm defines their struggle and keeps them from going home. It is a prison wall. But the Wall itself is not impressive. I expected towers and barbed wire and steel. I expected hard edges. Instead it is built with the same rocks and sand as the surrounding desert. It could have grown out of the hamada itself. A massive version of the sand ripples made by the wind, more natural than sinister.
And perhaps, after so long, the berm is an organic thing. Though they may dream of the sea, an entire generation knows no other boundary than this. The Wall has evolved from a military barrier into a symbol of Saharawi identity. It is the curved spine of a nation that doesn’t exist.
Two Moroccan soldiers stand on top of the berm. I can see them clearly with the zoom lens on my camera. Both are dressed in drab army fatigues and are clean-shaven. One wears an olive green cap, the other a helmet. They are smoking cigarettes and watching us. A radio stands between them in case we do anything worth reporting, and they must be happy we showed up. At least they have something besides the emptiness to look at for a little while.
A small belt of rusted machine gun shells hangs on a thorn bush near our camp like a macabre Christmas decoration. Our driver snaps a few branches from the bush to build a fire and our soldier brews tea. The camel meat gets hacked apart with the driver’s knife and is laid on the embers next to the teapot. Salek and I make tuna sandwiches and eat green olives while the camel roasts. We drink tea, wave flies away from the charring meat and stare at the Moroccans staring at us. Our driver stands up and calls out to them, sarcastically inviting them for tea.
Someone told me that after independence, whenever it may come, the Saharawis would keep the Wall as a souvenir. But I wonder how quickly the desert will reclaim this land. Winter floods, like the one in 2006 that destroyed much of Smara camp, could melt away the sand berm in a few seasons. Sandstorms would grind down what is left. The hamada will renew itself. The desert will forget the Wall.