Tag Archives: western sahara

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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A Dakhla Birthday for Mikaela…

Yesterday Mikaela celebrated her 22nd birthday. Having been reminded of the importance of birthdays in Mikaela’s family home, I knew that my well-being depended upon her day being special.

So I thought I’d begin with an English breakfast in bed. This was no easy task, and the menu choice was of course dictated by a lack of pork! The final result of my market shopping skills was fried tomatoes, eggy bread, scrambled eggs, avocado smoothie and the pièce de resistance Heinz baked beans. Not a strictly traditional menu but Mik was content to break from the normal routine of a cheese triangle smothered roundbread.

I hear you asking “where on earth did you find Heinz baked beans in Western Sahara?”. They were in fact purchased in a tiny shop in the even smaller town of Olonzac in the south of France, which had a small section for English holidaymakers. The tin then survived several thousand kilometers undetected by Mikaela in one of our panniers.

On the morning of her birthday, I snuck out early to seek a kind café owner who would let me use his kitchen (a stealth operation for those who know Mik’s light sleeping and early morning wakening). Using the fresh supplies from the market, I clumsily stuck the meal together, turning down a few potential buyers of her breakfast. I then cautiously loaded it onto the plate I had also bought in the market and woke Mikaela to the smell of beans and toast.

Sometimes the things that at home are pretty normal become much greater tasks and sweeter surprises in this case! Equally the hairbrush and nail varnish that Mik unwrapped with the excitement of a five-year old were appreciated so much more. The little, simple things that can make us smile.

So now, with a birthday behind us we are ready to leave Dakhla. As we try to make sense of my knee grumbles, we are approaching the deadline of our single-entry visa to Mauritania on the 4th of November. So it seems we’ll have to load our bikes onto another truck at least until the border where we will negotiate the generous no-man’s-land by bicycle.

The next part of the journey brings new risks that we have not had to consider before. The route we must take through Mauritania has seen a rise in kidnappings of Europeans and after seeking the advice of everyone from the FCO to security experts on the region we have taken the difficult decision not to cycle. This is really a simple case of risk outweighing benefit and whilst disappointing the timing is actually pretty good for my knee injury. Besides, we can’t deny the child within that relishes every moment of truck fun, sat high up above all the other cars honking at donkeys and camels, every cloud has a silver lining

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’.