Tag Archives: military

The road to Nouakchott

Time had passed us by faster than we had realised, it was the 2nd November and as we opened our eyes to the same grotty walls of our hostel room we contemplated another day of waiting and searching for a lift through Mauritania before our visas expired. Our bikes sat unloved in the garage while we pined for them as we began our daily round of asking truck drivers if they were Nouakchott bound. Lunchtime came and went and our spirits were sinking, we had been informed that owing to a major lamb festival (and national holiday) that was nearing no sane minded truck driver was going to get himself stranded from his family in Mauritania. Finding it difficult to argue with the ‘not wanting to miss the party’ logic we began to consider other options. But luck was on our side…

We spotted the beautifully painted trucks of Lise and Tony from a distance, we had met them in El Aaiun (Western Sahara). What we couldn’t communicate via the blog was that our French friends had organised to be smuggled into a nearby camp of Sahrawis (‘refugee’ camps in Western Sahara are tightly controlled by the Moroccan military).

Tony and Lise were in trouble, whilst their time at the camp had been immensely constructive, the material they had filmed had hit the French and Spanish press along with their names. The police, gendarmarie (special police) and military had now been following them since they left the camp, so they were even more pressed than us to reach Mauritania. By the time we met with them we were at the border and it only took our acquaintance to ignite problems with the police. Though we had finished all the border formalities and had our passports returned the police confiscated them and began to question us on our relationship with the French.

A 14 year-old boy had been murdered in the camp, shot dead by the Moroccan forces. The achievement of our friends and the risk they had accepted in circulating evidence was huge. When you see such injustice, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, so we knew we had to do whatever we could to help our friends. So as their vans were meticulously searched, we made out to be happy-go-lucky tourists who simply adored the jokes of the police.

After what felt like an eternity of waiting in the sun we were reluctantly given our passports and together we crossed into the stretch of no-mans-land, which was ironically quite a relief. We passed the sand piste and its famous land mined surroundings without a problem and made our way through the bureaucracy of the Mauritanian side. But a few hours later, it was all over and as the heat of the desert cooled to welcome us the evening closed in while we pitched our tent in Nouadhibou.

Now after some sweaty driving time in the breath taking scenery of the Mauritanian desert we have taken a day off the road in Nouakchott the capital city. Here we are enjoying the hospitality of the Association de Development et de Promotion des Droits de l’Hommes (Association of Development and Promotion of Human Rights) who today took us to a human rights conference of all the countries of the Maghreb region. There is so much we would like to write about the conference today but we are so frustratingly limited by time!

Our stay here is too short, our visa has already expired and we must now leave whilst we can pass the border ‘in transit’ to avoid hitting enormous overstay taxes. There is so much more we could and eventually will get around to writing but for now we have a musical meeting in the city before we leave tomorrow for the border of Senegal at Rosso where we will cross the river Senegal and end our cycle break at long last!

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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’.

to Laayoune…

Our bodies have been wonderful to us, they really have. We on the other hand have not been so wonderful to them.

Things were going well, kilometers were being covered and our daily mini-yoga ritual appeared to be working. But the last few days we have pushed ourselves too hard and we are both feeling it. Covering up to 120 km per day has tested us and although we have no major injuries Imran is experiencing some knee grumbles.

So as we always agreed we would we are airing on the overly-cautious side and resting. We made this decision 50 km from Laayoune (El Aaiún) when we flagged down the first truck that passed us.

To our delight Ahmad pulled over and hopped out of his truck asking what the problem was.

Imran limply hopped at him and pointed at his knee, this was enough.

‘My truck is full, there is no space for your bicycles’.

Our faces dropped and we smiled to him accepting rejection, we had thought hitching might be tough.

‘But my friend Rachid is just a little behind and he has an empty truck’.

Sure enough Rachid hauled up, jumped out of the truck and rushed over. Bouncing over to us he shook our hands with a grin. In a moment he had seized the guitar and the scarf that cushioned it. Rachid began dancing and strumming the guitar, throwing the scarf around his head he imitated a woman and continued the performance.

Ahmad looked on and with a familiar sigh and announced Rachid as crazy.

We trucked along happily entertained by Rachid and his countless impressions of stubborn camels, until around 10 km before the city checkpoint where the military would not be happy to find the truck drivers helping us out. We threw ourselves out of the cab with little grace and about as much dignity as Rachids camel impression.

Thanking them for the ride we cycled towards the checkpoint into the biggest city of Moroccan occupied Western Sahara.

The checkpoint was busy with soldiers and though friendly we immediately felt a sense of the kind of city we were visiting. One of a controlling military presence.

We cycled away from the officials and towards the slightly clinical looking newly built city. For now we are resting but we might have to hitch a ride, knee dependant. Fingers crossed…