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Sons of the Clouds

More than 30 years since the end of Spanish colonial rule, the Sahrawi people are still awaiting self-determination and an end to Moroccan occupation. Toby Shelley reports from Mauritania, where a forgotten Sahwari population lives in a permanent state of transit

December 1, 2007
10 min read

Nouadhibou is a place of transit. On the landward lip of a spit running into the Atlantic from the coast of northern Mauritania, the port town lies in the shadow of the border with Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

Only a few years back it took several days to drive to the capital, Nouakhott, driving along the beaches. Illicit petrol comes in by sea. Cocaine is trafficked through the airport. In the market Guineans and Ghanaians, Ivorians and Malians rub shoulders with black Mauritanian fishermen and traders from the south of the country, and with the majority Arab population. Many of the Africans are awaiting their turn to make the perilous and illegal sea trip to the Canary Islands, outpost of an unwelcoming Europe.

A smattering of Asians and Europeans are to be seen. A Vietnamese man, complete with high straw hat, strolls the market. Shipping agents and traders meet in a Spanish club. A Russian tries to make a go of a bar. Two Chinese restaurants compete for the ex-pat population.

A community ignored

But the largest population in transit is invisible. In this town of perhaps 100,000 – nobody knows quite how many – live perhaps 15,000 Sahrawis, a community largely ignored by the outside world. What little attention is paid to the Western Sahara conflict focuses on the refugee camps in Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Moroccan repression of the population inside the occupied territories.

When Moroccan and Mauritanian troops moved into Western Sahara after Franco’s death in 1975 and the subsequent Spanish withdrawal from its African colony, more than half of the Sahrawis fled. Most went east to camps set up in the forbidding environment of the Algerian hamada. But some of the refugees moved south into northern Mauritania because it was nearer or because they had kin there.

There are probably 20,000-30,000 Sahrawis in Mauritania as a whole. The numbers have increased over the years, not just through births but because people have come from the refugee camps to seek work. They toil in the great iron ore mines deep in the desert, mines linked to the sea terminal at Nouadhibou by the longest train in the world. Two kilometres long, it bursts through a red cloud of sand to the end of its ten-hour journey through the dust and heat, its massive wagons ridden by travellers too poor to ride in the one or two coaches.

Others still herd camels. In Nouadhibou itself, Sahrawis work in the fishing harbour – $4 a day is the going rate – or in petty commerce, from internet cafes to second-hand clothing to spare parts stripped from old cars. In an echo of their days as nomads, many are here for just part of the year, visiting from the camps, meeting up with family from the occupied territories lucky enough to secure passports, easing bronchial conditions with a few weeks or months of sea breeze. All are in transit, even those born and bred here. All are waiting to go home.

Prison thoughts

Abdelsalam holds out for inspection what appear to be two grey school exercise books. Opening them, the paper is rough and brittle. The text, too, reminds one of the careful work of somebody learning to handle a pen. One book is written in Arabic and one in Spanish. Both have delicate illustrations. But they are not exercise books and were not written by a child with an unfamiliar pen. The paper was salvaged from sacks of cement and the backing from plasterboard. The ink was made from crushed charcoal and water and the pen an improvised quill.

In 12 years in Moroccan prisons where detainees died weekly, Abdelsalam had plenty of time to write his thoughts – eight thin volumes, smuggled out page by page.

He was released in 1991 after a ceasefire was implemented between the Sahrawi guerrillas of the Polisario front and the Moroccan army. That was supposed to lead to a referendum on self-determination. The Sahrawis are still waiting.

In another house we drink tea with Bet’a Haymid. She meets her mother here for a few months a year; then they part, Bet’a and her children returning to the camps and her mother going back to Laayoune, the main town in the Western Sahara. The family was divided in 1975, Bet’a fleeing to the camps and marrying a fighter who was killed in the battle of Smara in 1983, her parents remaining.

For 13 years she had no idea if her father and mother had survived ‘the years of lead’. She only discovered they were still alive in 1998 when tribal elders working with the UN were allowed to visit the occupied territories to compile an electoral roll for the referendum that never happened.

Deep kindred

Outwardly, Arab Mauritanian and Sahrawi are indistinguishable. The women wear the same bright cloth strips, worn like saris, and the men revert to the traditional blue or white daraa robe. They speak the same hassaniya dialect of Arabic. Colonial borders divided tribes that ranged across the Western Sahara, Mauritania, southern Algeria, southern Morocco and beyond, so there is a kinship between many northern Mauritanians and many Sahrawis that runs deeper than nationality. That link has made it possible for Sahrawis to live ostensibly normal lives in Mauritania. But it has also left them in a permanently delicate situation.

Every coup, every change of government, every reshuffle is watched to see if the balance of power in Nouakchott has tilted power towards those sympathetic to the Sahrawi cause or those inclined to ally with the menacing Moroccan presence to the north.

Since her husband died Fatimatou has continued the traditional family role within the community of teaching the Koran to children. Her family fled to Mauritania from Dakhla on the coast of the Western Sahara when Moroccan troops invaded. They had not calculated that the Mauritanian junta would seize part of the territory two weeks later. Sahrawis suspected of independence sympathies were persecuted. She was beaten in a Mauritanian prison. The family lived in the desert for three years before moving to Nouadhibou – then little more than a village around the former French port and border emplacements. There they lived in an animal shed.

Polisario’s long distance raids deep into Mauritania forced withdrawal and renunciation of territorial claims and since then life for Sahrawis has improved. Polisario works among the community, tolerated but clandestine. A young professional, born and bred in Nouadhibou, speaks of the glass ceiling that will restrict his career. Sahrawis do not discuss politics in public. Getting permission to host a music troupe from the refugee camps was a major achievement for the community, brandishing their flag during the concert an act of bravery.

Sand-filled Lagouira

Are there tears in Soudi’s eyes as we survey Lagouira? If so, are they tears of nostalgia or tears for what it has become? The sand has filled the main street so we stand almost at first floor level of some of the buildings. The beehive shaped barracks of the tropas nomadas, the Sahrawi troops recruited by Spain – many of whom then defected to Polisario after it was formed in 1973 – are to our left. Soudi remembers the family who lived in the house on our right. He looks north. A few kilometres distant is the western extension of the Wall, a berm 1,500 kilometres long, mined and garrisoned to keep Polisario fighters out of their homeland and to keep Sahrawi families divided.

‘From here,’ he says, ‘I began my walk to Aoussert to join up with Polisario when the news came of the Moroccan invasion.’ He walked 100 kilometres, travelling at night. On his arrival he was dispatched to help evacuate civilians hiding in the desert at Umm Dreiga. On the first day the Moroccan Mirages arrived. They strafed and bombed the refugees and when they were out of ammunition they returned to base for more. He became a fighter.

Lagouira stands for all the absurdity and pathos of the colonial legacy in a region spattered with the remnants of empire. It is on the same narrow spit as Nouadhibou, perhaps five kilometres away but on the side exposed to the Atlantic. The Spanish developed it as a trading and fishing port with a military base. Even now, sand filled, roofs and windows blown out, inhabited by a few black fishing families and a detachment of Mauritanian troops, it has a charm. Soudi remembers it fondly. A notional border runs through the scrub and desert of the spit. Once it divided French-held Mauritania from the Spanish Sahara. The ruin of an absurd border post remains although the road running past it has long disappeared.

Mauritania seized Lagouira with some brutality. The Spanish residents had long gone but the Sahrawis were expelled. The town was abandoned except for the army. But when Mauritania abandoned its territorial pretensions it did not withdraw from the town. Holding on to this tiny sliver of the Western Sahara gave it control over the whole spit. To relinquish that would give the Moroccan military the ability to seize Nouadhibou in a moment. And as Morocco for many years claimed sovereignty over Mauritania as well as the Western Sahara, the fear was not ill-founded.

The Sahrawis have not been allowed to return. Soudi and some other older men slip back to spend a few hours fishing up the coast. Ba has never been here before although he has lived in Mauritania all his life. He sees not just the ruins of the past but the foundations of a future town in an independent state.

Renouncing a referendum

With the backing of France and, increasingly, of the US in the UN security council, Morocco has been able to snub international law. It renounced the referendum plan when it became clear during voter registration that it would lose and the Sahrawis would opt for independence. It then rejected a proposal that would give the territory autonomy for a period and then a vote in which even Moroccan settlers would participate. Now there are direct UN-sponsored talks at which Morocco is pushing for an autonomy plan that would be grafted on to the system of repression and intimidation, patronage and appointment it has established in the territory.

Polisario has rejected anything short of self-determination as a betrayal of its people. Is this just rhetoric, the words of leaders anxious to preserve their status while the people languish? Not from the comments we hear in Sahrawi homes in Nouadhibou. People from the occupied territories and the camps and those who are born in Mauritania all say the same, that they will not renounce their right to decide their own fate.

A few years back the Paris-Dakar rally was scheduled to go through the Western Sahara. The organisers sought Moroccan permission, ignoring Polisario. The issue became a diplomatic crisis. Polisario called for mobilisation. In Mauritania, Sahrawis in their hundreds packed their bags to set off for the camps and prepare for war. Conflict was averted but the point was made that, even after years of fruitless ceasefire and military demobilisation, the Sahrawis would take up arms.

Women and men, young and old, the message was the same in Nouadhibou: if the UN-sponsored talks fail and no political solution is found, the ceasefire will be pointless. The trucks will be loaded up and the refugee camps will swell with returning veterans and inexperienced volunteers and the Sons of the Clouds will prepare for war.

Toby Shelley is the author of Endgame in the Western Sahara – What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, Zed Books, 2004

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