On 16th June 2016, we made our 20th border crossing (thanks to entering Senegal twice around The Gambia) into our 19th and 20th countries. Officially, we were moving from Mauritania into Morocco. But as far as South Africa is concerned, we’d just entered the occupied territory of Western Sahara.
That day was the 40th anniversary of the Soweto riots of 1976, a lifetime ago for most of us. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that Western Sahara has been a disputed territory since 1975, with the majority of its population living in the Tindouf refugee camps just over the border in southern Algeria, stranded on some of the most inhospitable land on earth.
South Africa is one of a handful of countries in the world to stand firmly in solidarity with the Sahrawi people and recognise their right to self-determination; as a result SA citizens are often given a hard time on entry into Morocco. If you recall, our SA passports were full by Senegal, so thank God for our dual citizenship: we were now travelling on our British passports.
After the Berlin Conference of 1884, Spain seized control of the desert area it had been using as a slave trading and commercial fishing port for the last couple of hundred years to establish a colony, which endured for another nine decades. In 1970s, when calls for decolonisation became too loud to ignore, Morocco and Mauritania argued claims to sovereignty of Western Sahara, but Algeria supported the Polisario Front’s demand for full independence.
The border post on the other side of No Man’s Land was monolithically massive with concrete boulevards, a huge hangar and floodlights, very much setting the tone for the display of Moroccan military domination to follow. (I definitely wasn’t risking taking any photos.) It was due to open at 8.30am by which time 10 or so lorries were jockeying for position in a queue outside. We were bracing ourselves for a long day.
On 6th November 1975, King Hassan II encouraged 350 000 Moroccans to converge on the southern city of Tarfaya to await his signal for the ‘Green March’ to cross the border in a symbolic show of hegemony. Moroccan Army troops had moved in the week before. But the Polisario Front resisted annexation and in 1979 Mauritania withdrew their claims to the land due to guerilla attacks on their capital. Morocco on the other hand retaliated by bombing refugee camps in Western Sahara, forcing the population to flee to Algeria.
First we were told to get out and ‘register’. There was a shouty man outside in a high vis vest throwing his weight around the gathering throng. Toxic Masculinity Walking. I warned the kids to keep their heads down and NOT to catch his eye while he bawled some poor sod out in front of the queue.
As Shouty Man barked orders, a nicer fellow motioned me to follow other ladies to where they were sitting on the high kerb. I wasn’t sure whether it was a ‘ladies and children this side’ or ‘foreigners this side’ situation. (My companions were American-accented white Mauritanians in full traditional dress with two little boys with crew cuts who looked like their Dad, who looked like his Dad, who looked like a missionary. I would have loved to know their story, but they had the demeanour of women from a different century and didn’t seem keen to chat to me.) Either way, Shouty Man eventually took our passports in the back door and we got to jump the queue. I kept my eyes averted and just bobbed a little thank you when he returned them, glad to move on.
From 1981- 7, Morocco extended its control by building a 3m high, 2700km long sand-berm in the desert to exclude Polisario’s guerillas and annex 259 000km² of resource-rich land. The belt that runs along this structure is thought to be the longest continual minefield in the world. The bulk of the land on the north and west sides of the wall are now referred to as Morocco’s ‘Southern Provinces’; the east side is the remaining ‘Free Zone’ of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with an estimated population of 30 000 nomads.
Next stop was the Passport Office where a man sat outside on a tiny table in the howling wind filling in Embarcation fiches with a scrum of truck-drivers around him. I realised later this wasn’t an official thing but a professional service for the bulk of drivers who are functionally illiterate so pay 5 dirhams each (R7.50) for him to fill in the form for them.
Not much thought had been given during the design of this enormous place to accommodate either the brutal wind, beating sun or queues of exposed people. There was zero shade, sheltered areas or seats, just intimidatingly high marble countertops and dark glass.
The bloke inside asked how we got to Mauritania – it was the only stamp in my renewed British passport – and without thinking I replied, “We drove from South Africa…ah”. My heart sank as I prepared to drag out our SA passports to demonstrate, but although someone out of sight next to him was checking the Congolese visas in the kids’ UK passports with a magnifying glass, I wasn’t asked any more questions. The Arabic translation of our Letter of Introduction was proving invaluable. There were no exclamations or enthusiastic curiosity, but no further interrogation either, as all our details were painstakingly entered into the system. We weren’t given a visa stamp, just an entry number, but finally the family was in; now we just had to clear the Big Green Truck.
The UN oversaw a cease-fire in Western Sahara in 1991 and ordered a referendum giving the local population the choice between independence or affirming integration with Morocco. This referendum, scheduled for 1992, has yet to take place. Despite determined efforts to negotiate a way through the deadlock made by former US Secretary of State James Baker between 1997-2004, ongoing disputes about who qualifies to participate have left the process permanently stalled.
I took a deep breath and trotted three doors down to the tiny customs room. A man with sparkly dark eyes, a grey beard and a white turban, whom I immediately recognized as lovely, kindly explained to me each step of the procedure I had to follow: take the green slip, fill it in, get a customs official to check it and the vehicle, come back to him, take it to the inspector, then the truck gets le scanneur and you’re done. Phew.
Ruby fed the cats an extra meal to get them sleepy, and got them cosy up in the net. I then went and invited the customs official to look round and help me fill in the form. He declined to get in truck, possibly because he felt too tubby to get up the ladder. A couple of other uniforms came along and asked what “all this” was hanging off the back? I explained the containers were to collect waste veg oil, waved the explanation, and he signed it off. There was no scouring of inside as expected, despite a dog handler taking the most gorgeous Alsatian through his circling paces outside just beforehand. It seemed like drug trafficking was their main priority and we didn’t look the type? On the other hand, we were asked if we had any hunting weapons or spray can cream…
In the absence of political will to solve the impasse, the 90 000 Sahrawi inhabitants of the Tindour refugee camps continue to be almost entirely dependent on Algerian and foreign aid, with all food, water, clothing and building materials having to be transported in. Ironically Spain may be the only other country to regularly feature their struggle in its media or offer sympathetic support. Next to the West Bank and Gaza, Jammu and Kashmir, the Crimea and even Tibet, there seems to be an egregious lack of global consciousness of the fate of this occupied territory and its abandoned people.
Back at the customs office, the door was now locked and I got chatting to a Malian truck-driver outside who does this regularly and had great line in eye-rolling. When Lovely Greybeard came back trailing a posse, a huge argument ensued about who was first and my Malian guy solved it by calling for “la dame, la dame”. Though I demurred, I was sent to the front and everyone else had to wait ages because it was Big Reg’s first time in Maroc and he also had to be comprehensively entered on the system. I tried to be as entertaining as possible to make up for the interminable delay; as Lovely Greybeard translated my patter from French into Arabic for the crowd he added a few bits on himself: “I just told them you have a goal – you are realising your dream.”
After working the room, it seems I’d been sufficiently charming to ensure that when, 20 minutes later, our South African VIN number had one digit too many for their chassis number spacing, he entered it anyway. I walked miles up and down to find the inspector in another random poky Kafkaesque office – there was no signage, no clarity, no logic – but he signed off our green card with a smile.
Back in the truck, Sampson drove into the vast hangar he’d been worried was hiding a weighbridge, but turned out to be a massive X-ray machine, a giant version of the one that scans your bags in the airport. This one scans lorries. The scanning vehicle was driven by computer, so we couldn’t read any faces as Big Reg was programmed in, and passed through. We held our breath…. and nothing happened. No sirens triggered, no eruption of blustery officials looking incensed, no fines issued on the spot. Bombs and guns were their main concern, and not, apparently, little warm cat bodies.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, 3rd Secretary General of the Polisario Front from 1976 and first President of the SADR died on 31st May 2016, just before we entered Western Sahara. He spent his entire life campaigning for the freedom of his people. He abandoned the guerrilla war in favour of diplomacy, condemning terrorism, insisting the Polisario fight a “clean struggle” and refusing to target private citizens’ safety or property. The OAU seated Western Sahara for the first time in 1982, the year he became President. Morocco withdrew two years later. When the OAU became the AU in 2001, Abdelaziz was elected vice-president at its first summit, and he received the Spanish Human Rights Association’s prize in 2005.
We pulled out of the scanner into an adjoining parking bay at noon and decided we deserved lunch. After noshing egg fried rice and salad, we were just about to drive out when I realised I’d forgotten to get our green slip back from the scanning office. As Sampson got down to let me jump out of his door, the three policeman at the gate looked up simultaneously and saw Tiger’s sleeping face in the net. “Is that a cat?” “Is he DEAD?!!” Sampson just shrugged. The first guy asked “Do you have his passport?” then grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. They were pulling our leg. PHEW.
Big Reg pulled away, past a very long queue of articulated lorries waiting to get in before closing time at 3pm. With all due respect to Morocco, there hadn’t been a single suggestion of bribery the entire day. As our AA carnet was not valid in Maroc, we’d been certain we were going to get clobbered for ‘insurance’ if not for cats. We were so elated as we drove out, high fiving each other, into an abundance of nothingness, I neglected to pay close attention to the road signs. I was very cross with myself later for not insisting Sampson stop and go back so I could take a photo of what turned out to be the only one we saw with a skull and crossbones stark on a red triangle saying “DANGER: LANDMINES”. It was the only time we were near the berm.
Even though the terrain was undoubtedly harsher and looking increasingly like the surface of the moon, we began to feel silly about being worried about getting stranded without water or food. Here in the occupied territory of ‘Southern Morocco’ there were radar points and police posts every 50km as well as petrol stations with taps every 100km.
We stopped at the first (indeed only) town that day. C. Bir Gandouz had a very spooky vibe and seemed to have been constructed to test the theory “If you build it, they will come”. The Moroccan government offers their citizens tax breaks and cheap gasoline to live in Western Sahara, but we weren’t surprised that not many had been tempted.
Its pristine terracotta squares and streets were very much in the style of the toy town city of Duloc in the movie Shrek, if King Farquaad had pretensions to Stalinesque architecture, with a tense dash of High Noon. Only the tumbleweeds were missing. It looked eerily brand new and completely empty.
There was a very despondent young man in the first grocery shop we stopped at, stocked to the rafters with consolatory sweets. When three SIM cards failed to work, he allowed me to call my Mom on his phone to tell her we were safe and refused to take payment for it, bless him. You got the feeling that everyone stuck down here was missing their Mom.
I was so looking forward to a shower, we took the first possible turn off as soon as we saw the sea, and drove down to a tent inhabited by two fishermen. We went to greet them, but they seemed bemused by us – they spoke no French and were unable to read my Arabic translation.
By the time we’d walked 100m back to the truck, the cavalry had arrived: it seems that the minute he’d seen us pull up, soldier M. Hassan had set out to walk half an hour from the next military checkpoint along the coast. He was taking our passport details when a van full of crayfish suddenly pulled up outside and a cheery man stepped out offering to give us some.
Ndour Moual Ali refused to consider payment. It seems almost everywhere on this continent, apart from South Africa, even in the very middle of the biggest desert in the world, to lavish hospitality on strangers is the norm. When I tried to remonstrate that his gift was far too generous, he shrugged my nonsense away: “We are Sahrawi” he declared in French, as if this was more than sufficient explanation.
Crayfish and coriander, with side helping of dahl, followed by Nouakchott Pudding. A feast fit for a desert prince.
On Jan 30th 2017, the AU voted to readmit Morocco after 33 years’ absence. King Mohammed VI had spent a year touring Africa signing trade agreements to leverage support for readmission to counter heavyweights such as SA and Algeria standing firm against it. Nigeria and Ethiopia were persuaded by big deals involving gas pipelines and fertilizer (Morocco’s Saharan phosphate reserves are the largest in the world) and in the end 39 of 54 members voted with Morocco. You’d think the AU might doubt itself when the decision was chastised for its lack of principle by Robert Mugabe. The King’s intents as to the future of the territory are debatable, but, as he had been forced to sit down with them after a lifetime of refusing to do so, the SADR diplomatically welcomed the opportunity to reopen the debate around the long promised referendum.