Tag Archives: freedom

It’s a nomad’s life…

You would think that the potholes, wasps stings and bazooka bearing military men would be enough to put us off Casamance but we can’t think of a more beautiful route.

A typical roadside view

Casamance is alive. The fresh air hums with the sound of colourful birdsong and the crickets buzz all day long. The region really is breathtakingly beautiful and we both struggle to avoid hitting the enormous potholes as we gaze out towards the rice fields or catch sight of an amazing bird.

From the road to Ziguinchor onwards the route became much tougher, it’s as though the Senegalese government has forgotten this place. Whilst the Dakar area enjoys newly surfaced roads, the people of Casamance struggle to travel a meagre 30 kilometers to the next village. Cars cannot pass these roads, it’s only the bush taxis and an occasional four-wheel drive that dare tread on the broken tarmac and dusty sand pistes.

Another beautiful roadside view

With a little guilt we have to admit that we benefit from this lack of transportation in the region. With the cars scared away by the difficult conditions, our main encounters are with other cyclists, large groups of school bound children and groups of women travelling to the rice fields. The normal hazards of cycling alongside traffic have faded into the distance and our brakes now respond to the unpredictable crossing of goats, cattle and donkeys.

One of the many rice fields

As we cycle towards the border with Mali we find ourselves reflecting upon the strange life we are living here. Eating and sleeping wherever the road takes us, filtering cool well water at regular stops and relying on solar power for all our electrical needs. Wherever we go we feel the same sense of self-sustainability through cycling. It’s an independent existence we are living, one that tastes of a pretty sweet freedom. It’s a nomad’s life.

100 km into the day, Mikaela finds a restful cycling position
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Western Sahara: still waiting for independence…

Mohamed screws his face as I mention ‘Western Sahara’,

It is Moroccan Sahara’ he proclaims with his hand in the air, dismayed at my ignorance.

‘Well yes, I understand the Moroccan-Polisario problems and the occupation…’

‘No, it is not an occupation. How could we occupy our own territory?’

Mohameds view is not unusual, most Moroccans beleive they share a historical connection with the desert and its people. But like it or not, the will for independance in this region is very much alive.

Rachid is Saharwi, born and raised close to the Algerian border.

‘This problem was the making of the Spanish colonisers, now the Moroccans control us, but this is wrong, the Saharawis’ people deserve and want freedom’.

Formerly a Spanish colony the region was subject to something of a scramble for its resources at de-colinisation with both Mauritania and Morocco making claims for the territory. In 1975 the International Court of Justice ruled to reject these claims and recognised the Saharwis’ right to independence. However, this right remains a distant promise to more than 100,000 refugees who remain displaced.

I shake the hand of Rachid, ‘You support Polisario. Its good to meet someone who supports Polisario’. He accepts the handshake and holds my hand as he continues to explain, ‘It is not easy to talk about these things.’ Rachid is not wrong, here in Western Sahara Polisario are outlawed, just to fly their flag is a criminal offense.

But you see Polisario are not terrorists, they are the army of the Saharwis people. They fight for our freedom.’

Whilst the guerilla war faught by Polisario has been brought to cease fire since 1991 the progress of the United Nations mission here (Minurso) can only be described as at a stalemate. For years they have attempted to find a method to identify eligible voters in the region so as to carry out a referendum which in theory would end the conflict, giving the people the choice between independence or Moroccan integration.

But Morocco know that they have done little to win hearts and minds in the Sahara and given the wealth of natural resources at stake (including possible off-shore oil reserves), its no suprise that they have done their best to sabotage the referendums proceedings and increase the strength of their 35 year occupation here.

Mohamed may tell you that this territory rightfully belongs to Morocco, that their is a special relationship and that Morocco is providing valuable economic prospects to the region and its people. But ask a Saharwis and he will speak of another story, one of human rights abuses, riddled with bully tactics, an oppressive regime led by a suffocating military presence and a powerful neighbour willing to go to any length to gain valuable resources.

The desire for independence is in the eye of the Saharwi as he passes the military checkpoint and embrace of the Polisario supporter who holds my hand in his,

‘Inshallah, one day we will have our freedom’.