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Published Apr 16, 2015

In a Forgotten Corner

The world’s largest minefield marks the front line of a frozen conflict over the Sahara Desert. With Islamism and impatience rising in Western Sahara, old grievances may ignite a new insurgency.

RABOUNI, Western Sahara refugee camps, Algeria

There were three in the truck when it happened. Said Mohamedfathal Ali was riding shotgun with a fellow guerrilla. Both of them made it. The driver never stood a chance. It was late November 1982, and in Ali’s opinion at least, his fellow Sahrawis, the native inhabitants of Western Sahara, were winning the war for their homeland. Tales of great victories, inflicted on the many by the few, swept across the desert like its sands.

Ali and his fellow marine units played a big role in that. By night they’d wash up on the region’s Atlantic coast beside garrisons, towns or outposts, surveying the scene ahead of an attack. By morning, dozens or sometimes hundreds of Sahrawi guerrilla forces, the Polisario, would storm — in most instances successfully. One attack, he recalls, in the territory’s featureless south, sent some 3,000 Moroccans running. A thousand were killed, he says, his voice elevated. Two hundred were captured, and some ran across the border to Mauritania, the once-aggressor that had bowed out of the war three years previously.

Each triumph brought renewed camaraderie accompanied by card games, lots of smoking and the drawn-out process of making sickly, sweet Sahrawi tea. “It was a beautiful friendship, everybody fighting for the same cause,” Ali says. “It broke the barriers between us, made us brothers.” The young men — Ali was 29 in ’82 — would swap tales of their wives back home.

Tales of great victories, inflicted on the many by the few, swept across the desert like its sands.

He wed Selma in 1978, when the war he’d eagerly volunteered for was three years old. She was nine years his junior. They were in love. But he was in love with the Polisario, too. “I wasn’t just someone who found himself caught up in it all,” he says. “I was someone who believed in the need for Sahrawis to fight for their independence, and to stand up for Sahrawis my age. To see the successes of the Polisario — the fights, the prisoners, the weapons — gave us great hope for the future.”

Ali’s own future was decided that November morning. As the three men rattled along a section of mountainous scrub, their truck’s front wheel hit a Moroccan landmine. The driver died instantly. The other passenger escaped with light injuries. Ali didn’t wake up from the blast for a week. When he did, in a military hospital in the Polisario-controlled “liberated territories,” he was paralyzed from the neck down. Only a right hand moved, and not very much. Insomnia gripped him; he thought it might be a bad dream. It wasn’t.

Twelve years later, in 1994, Ali was moved to the Wounded Veterans and Landmines Victims Center, a small, browbeaten courtyard some 20 minutes off the road to Rabouni, one of the Polisario-administered Sahrawi refugee camps, in Algerian territory. In 21 years, he has never left. He remains, back flat, staring up at a fly-ridden, tungsten strip-light in a small room. A blue awning hangs above, fixed to the ceiling with plastic incident tape. A television is stuck between channels, static. Few visitors come any more, not least Selma.

Ali’s voice is weak and, at times, barely audible. He lies, wrapped to the neck in a thick brown fleece cover with a cotton candy beard whose head has receded into sunken, wishbone shoulders. Only his hand protrudes skyward, in defiance of symmetry, its bony fingers curling and straightening as he tells his tragic, tearful story: a life broken in a forgotten conflict. Said Ali hasn’t moved in 33 years.

Western Saraha Landmine Victims Center
Said Mohamedfathal Ali lies in bed at the Landmine Victims Centre near Rabouni, Western Sahara. He has remained in this position, able to move only his right hand, since a truck he was traveling in hit a mine in 1982.

On the outskirts of each Sahrawi refugee camp, the coffee and copper tones of mud-brick homes make way for seas of twisted, rusted metal, mostly old auto parts, which comprise sprawling car graveyards. Some are piled four high, their machinery and wheels stripped like desert carrion. Thousands of young men make their money from these Mad Max junkyards, refurbishing and refitting in the blistering Sahara heat.

Beyond them, there are the goat pens — dozens, perhaps hundreds of them — marking each camp’s boundary. All are fashioned from craggy strips of wrinkle-tin and chicken wire. At dawn their doomed inhabitants howl at the blood-red sun, desperate to escape their tiny jails in the world’s largest sand desert.

In many ways, the goats share a fate with their shepherds, who, after 40 years of war, death and awkward peace, have found themselves cornered in a vast land they call their own. Perhaps 200,000 Sahrawis live across the border, in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara (which Morocco calls its “southern provinces”), tormented as second-class citizens.

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Another 150,000 or so live in the Polisario-administered camps. They are technically in Algeria’s Tindouf Province, but they are almost entirely autonomous. Their inhabitants eke out an existence relying on humanitarian aid and working amid the dusty, rock-strewn streets of mini-towns. The Polisario built them as placeholders while they masterminded a grand return to their lost homeland, a place wrenched from them by Morocco in 1975 when it marched in 400,000 citizens and soldiers. Now their resource-rich territory lies out of reach behind armed patrols, as many as 10 million landmines and a 2,700-kilometer-long dividing wall, known as the Berm, second in size only to the Great Wall of China.

These outposts have, by now, caused an almost spiritual clot in the minds of today’s inhabitants, who are not only living in limbo, but with the knowledge that the Polisario have made little or no progress in winning back Western Sahara since the UN brokered a 1991 ceasefire.

The ceasefire ended 16 years of brutal guerrilla warfare and the napalm-soaking of civilian sites that claimed up to 20,000 lives. It came with the promise of a referendum for the Sahrawi people, which Morocco has never come close to honoring.

The Polisario is a staunchly Marxist outfit that grew from pan-Arabism-inspired classrooms in the early 1970s. For four decades it has kept its people, on whichever side of the Berm they live, on point with the ultimate goal of independence. But with peace patently failing that goal, and with the internet opening locals up to a planet of facts and opinions, a divide between the old and the young is growing fast within the camps. Every young man I spoke to wanted to take up arms again. “Fuck Morocco,” one yelled, as he treated me to rice and camel meat in his brightly decorated khaimah, his tent, one evening. “I would give anything to be martyred for this cause.”


For the dozens at the victim’s center, martyrdom would have been a dream.

The day I visited the Wounded Veterans and Landmines Victims Center, a thick pillar of sand was storming across the horizon, battering homes and the long line of piebald shipping cans that mark the road out of Rabouni. The center itself lay another 20-minute-drive away, beyond the junkyards and the goats, veering off an asphalt road, over a rocky outcrop and across violently shifting dunes, on which camels were walking and hopping, in the vain hope they might snap the rope shackles around their ankles. Headscarved male herders strode against the storm, whipping their chattel toward a brackish stream that rounds a palm-filled oasis. The greenery allows patients a rare chance to stroll safely among nature.

Inside, Mohamed Omar was doing his rounds. He has worked at the center since 1996, as a nurse, tending to the victims of what is thought to be the world’s biggest minefield. Mafhoud, a patient he was seeing when we met, is a frail old man with thin white hair who was curled up, in the fetal position, on the bare, concrete floor of his shuttered room.

Omar handed Mafhoud a 20mg capsule of Benalapril, an inhibitor used to combat high blood pressure. He’d do the same in two hours, two days — probably in two years. Mafhoud, like so many of the center’s patients, had been there ever since Mohamed arrived. He’ll probably never leave.

Omar came to the center five years after the ceasefire. Then, he was strong and angry. It had not been long since he lost both his parents to the war. He would move every now and then, pick up odd jobs elsewhere. But he would always return to the center. It was a “national duty,” he told me, proudly.

Omar stands about 6 feet tall, with an orange checked shirt rolling over rawboned shoulders. Patients have come and gone; many have died. But his love for the role, and the deep sense of pride it gives him, has never left. He loves the patients because they are all his heroes. There is “the Mexican,” who used to go into battle wearing a sombrero, who lost both his legs and now sits most days, squint-eyed, in the sun.

And there is Bashir, an old man whose jaw was shot half-off and with whom Omar sits each day, sharing small talk and joking. Bashir can’t eat meat, but Mohamed cooks it anyway, gives the meal to his visiting family and feeds the old man its stock. “I consider him to be my friend,” Omar says. He didn’t get the chance to grow old with his own mother and father. “So now my parents are all the Sahrawi people.”

Bashir’s daughter cooks some tea in the corner, while one of his old army friends sparks up a Rym, a rough, Algerian-brand cigarette. Beside them the radio is playing loudly, tuned to RASD Radio. The República Árabe Saharaui Democrática, the state for which it is named, was declared on Feb. 27, 1976, after Spanish colonists left “Spanish Sahara,” and Morocco and Mauritania invaded. (In English it is known as the SADR, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.)

In those days there was little concept of a consolidated Sahrawi nation. Its inhabitants were a nomadic mix of Arabs, black Africans and Berbers, tied by little more than their Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic, who for centuries had migrated up and down the barren lands of the Maghreb for trade and conquest.

In 1971, a group of Moroccan students began discussing ways to oust the Sahara’s Spanish interlopers. Ba’athism was well established in Syria and elsewhere; Gamal Abdel Nasser had long flummoxed the West by nationalizing Suez; and a good-looking socialist called Muammar al-Gaddafi had recently ascended in Libya via a coup d’état. The political left, and pan-Arabism, was strong.

On May 20, 1973, a group of seven young men, led by El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, launched a raid at El Khanga, a Spanish military outpost deep in the desert, under the banner of the Frente Popular de Liberation del Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro), or Polisario. According to a small museum near Rabouni, dedicated to the Sahrawi resistance, they came back with five prisoners and five camels.

Buoyed by small victories, and with the modest backing of Gaddafi’s Libya and neighboring Algeria, Sayed and his cohorts set about building a cult of nationality among the local nomads, speaking of Spanish oppression and the promise of a glorious, Islamic martyrdom. The imagery of that cause is still seen today, from socialist realist paintings of crying Sahrawi women and dreamlike ships riding through the desert, to the erection of each Sahrawi tent, prescribed and utterly uniform.

Alongside the tents, the Polisario also mobilized its language. Local kings and nobles had for centuries hired Hassaniyya-speaking political poets for entertainment. In the ‘70s they were re-hired by El-Ouali and his men to write verses calling Sahrawis to war, to fight a just cause and relish martyrdom. Many of them are still performing today, every hour, on RASD Radio. While other places resonate to the sounds of traffic, conversation and street noise, it is poetry which dictates the daily mood of the camps, where boredom is boundless. In Western Sahara, words are warfare, too.

By the time the Spanish left and Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania, the Polisario numbered a few hundred bodies. What they lacked in equipment they more than made up for in local knowledge and innovative desert combat. The United States is widely reported to have studied the Polisario’s tactics ahead of Desert Storm.

Landmines Victims Center
The Landmines Victims Center holds around 138 patients. Conditions, by Western hospital standards, are poor. But compared to the rudimentary homes so many Sahrawi refugees must abide, carpets, windows and televisions are luxuries.

By 1978, Mauritania’s hard-left ruler Moktar Ould Daddah, buckling under economic catastrophe, mutinous soldiers and a coup, pulled out of the war. To this day the nation’s position on the conflict is neutral. As one of the world’s poorest countries, there is little else it can do.

For years the Polisario’s volunteers continued to stymie Moroccan King Hassan II’s efforts to control his southern provinces, part of a “Greater Morocco” he envisaged would bolster his family, the Alaouites. France, under sinewy President Valery Giscard D’Estaing, helped Morocco, a former colony, by dropping napalm over Polisario positions, scorching the earth, killing thousands and leaving vehicles littered across the landscape. (France still does not recognize the Sahrawi cause. A French academic who accompanied me admitted that, should one organize a demonstration in favor of the Polisario in Paris, pro-Moroccan lobbyists will mobilize thousands of youth to block it. “If you do put anything on,” he said, “you have to be really quiet.”)

In 1981, Hassan, with the help of allies in Washington and Tel Aviv, began work on the Berm, a sand wall around two meters high, erected in six parts until 1989. At one point 200,000 men stood watch over it, which, in a population which was then 20 million, meant that it was the job of one in 100 Moroccans to keep out the Polisario.

Hassan, though, knew Western Sahara wasn’t just a good PR stunt. Keeping out the Sahrawis meant access to riches west of the Berm, including iron, fisheries and huge deposits of phosphorus. To date Morocco is the world’s biggest exporter of phosphorus, used in fertilizers, detergents and pesticides. About 120,000 soldiers still man the Berm, to the east of which lies the minefield.


The mines along the Berm were manufactured in the United States, Britain, Romania, Mexico, France and many other countries. Last year, a Brazilian filmmaker and his colleague drove over one, maiming both men. Since 1975, the mines have killed more than 2,500 people. Shifting sands and heavy rains only serve to make their locations less perceptible. ASAVIM, the Sahrawi Association for Mine Victims, claims there are over 10 million of them, a spokesman tells me. “But we don’t have better equipment to know for sure.”

IMG_5273
Ahmed Khattari, aka "The Mexican," is known for his fondness for sombreros and Sancho Panza. He stepped on a mine that blew off both his legs. He spends most days in a small room with friends, smoking and drinking tea and reminiscing about the war.

For some Polisario volunteers, a life in the army meant heading out to the Berm at night to dig up mines — by hand — and dump them on the other side of the wall. Bashir Raja did it from 1986 until 2014 (by which time he was working with UK-based charity Landmine Action, now Action on Armed Violence). He’s an uncommonly muscular, smooth-skinned man, whose thick, navy shirt and black workman’s boots betray his muted sense of duty. He barely flinches as he tells incredible stories.

“It’s difficult to grasp the risks,” he says, drinking tea at an English school in Smara. “We used to do it at night. We would study a contaminated area during the daytime. At night we’d move towards it. We were four guys. Once the first two mines were marked, the third and fourth guys would show up, defuse the mines. The process for digging them wasn’t with any machinery: You used a stick, or your hands.”

The Moroccans would normally place mines in a triangular formation, with an anti-tank device at its center. Raja’s men began tallying the number of mines they’d defused. It became a competition without any prizes. Once, they left a fuse on top of their Land Rover. It slipped and went under a wheel, killing one of them.

Many were lost in the minefield back then, but the Polisario cause consumed Raja. He didn’t have any material possessions. He didn’t even have a salary. Sometimes five men in the desert for 15 days would share just 100 liters of water. “We would do anything we could to resist,” he says. So exhausted was he once, that he left an explosive detonator in his T-shirt pocket for an entire week. He only found it when he washed the shirt. Another time a snake hissed at him while he was carrying mines. Raja hates snakes. “I’d rather that mine had exploded than the snake get me,” he says, laughing.

Sometimes, at night, the Moroccans would see them. It happened to Raja once. First, a yell. Then a flare squirreling into the night sky. He stood completely still. Then, each of the men made their way across the wall. “They wouldn’t be looking there,” he says, raising a cheeky, gallows smile. “You have to be patient.” Raja waited on the Moroccan side for four hours — the longest of his life — before crossing again, at a point farther down. “There was no GPS,” he says. “It was just skill, and knowledge of the landscape.”

Until last year Raja swept mines with Action on Armed Violence, which brought all sorts of fancy detection and defusing machines to make the process as safe as possible. “But they are so cautious,” he says, his teeth grinding. “In one year we cleared six mines. Six. And they were the random ones.

“What burns my heart and pains me the most about this are the random ones that were just planted anywhere,” he adds. “If they were placed there for war then I could just about understand it. But this is something that generation after generation of Sahrawi kids will be paying the price for.”


Near Smara’s administrative center, called the Protocolo, there is a small, 300-meter-long souk, or bazaar, filled with whitewashed, single-room huts that act as the camp’s main marketplace. Supplies are scarce: Most food comes from UN rations, and clothing is particularly hard to find. Among them, opposite a store called Xbox that sells, it seems, everything but Xboxes, stands Mahmoud Mohamed, a former Polisario soldier who was held in the Moroccan city of Agadir from 1985 to 1999.

Mohamed’sstore, like Smara and all of the camps, is a quiet, confused mix of the wanted and unwanted. Walls are lined with brightly colored used clothing, Chinese shower gel and a sunglasses rack with only two pairs of sunglasses. A dozen off-white bras sway gently from a beam above his head as he coolly recalls the day he was shot in the back, then bundled into a Moroccan military wagon and disappeared for 14 years. He is wiry, with wirier white hair and a crooked back that suggests far more than his 58 years. That is due largely to his time in prison. Rats and insects bit at him each night, and the food was so bad that, even suffering acute hunger, he couldn’t eat it.

It is hard for Mohamed to reconcile his own past with today’s limbo, but he gamely supports the Polisario’s pursuit of a diplomatic resolution, however unlikely. As we leave I tell my interpreter, Mohamedsalem Werad, a local journalist, that a story like that back home would probably earn a guy a six-figure book deal. He looks ahead, shrugs his shoulders. “We have many heroes,” he says.


Western Sahara minesweeper
"At first I just thought it was something I was doing for my country," said Bashir Raja, who spent 28 years clearing landmines by hand. Only in retirement does he realize it was a "crazy, almost suicidal thing to do."

The sun is setting on Smara, and, as we walk back through the souk and across a necropolis of broken Mercedes, the Sahara’s sharp yellow-blue horizon is fading to an inky blue, before merging altogether, leaving just black and the bright glow of the stars above. Sometimes, at night, the moon’s light is so solitary the sand looks white as snow, like the wasteland of some dystopian pulp fiction.

Werad points out yet another mid-’90s E-Class getting its undercarriage welded together, probably for the ninth or tenth time. There’s a deeper reason Mercedes are so valued in Western Sahara. It’s not just their trendy, Teutonic reputation, he insists — nor that their parts are relatively cheap. “We value things that have been used, well worn,” he tells me. “We like to know that a car has been a long way.”

Perhaps it’s this faith in the well-worn that is why Sahrawis have been so patient with the international community’s inaction since 1991. Then, Morocco was supposedly compelled to hold its referendum as soon as possible. But arguments over who could vote — for example, the many hundreds of thousands whom Morocco has settled in Western Sahara — prevailed. And so, nothing.

The U.S. has a close relationship with Morocco, now governed by Hassan II’s son Mohammed VI. Since 9/11 its strategic value has “only risen,” according to a 2013 U.S. Army report, adding that “the more recent uncertainties of the Arab Spring and Islamist extremism in Africa have further increased the strategic value and operational relevance of the Moroccan-American alliance.” Intelligence, training and materiél have all been exported across the Atlantic wholesale.

Islamism is a very real threat. In 2011, three European aid workers were snatched from their lodgings in Rabouni. An al-Qaida splinter group called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa eventually released them in neighboring Mali. It was once free and easy to move around the camps. Now checkpoints are everywhere. Foreigners are often required to travel with a military escort.

The Polisario carries out maneuvers it says have eradicated terror cells on its land. When I met Western Sahara’s defense minister, Mohamed Lamine Ould El-Bouhali, he admitted that there is a real threat of violence from groups working the borderless hinterlands to the east. But most crime is “coming through Morocco, with the hash, and other drugs.” The truth is difficult to ascertain. No Moroccan official answered my calls for comment on this article.

The U.N., too, has become a huge sticking point for Sahrawis. Its mission for the referendum, MINURSO, is based in the city of Laayoune, the capital of the occupied territories. Morocco will not let its people travel freely around the rest of Western Sahara. It is one of only four U.N. stations globally without a human rights mandate, despite repression and violence on Sahrawis in the occupied territories that has included the disappearances of around 400. Some of their faces are depicted on a mural outside the offices of a Rabouni-based charity, Association for the Families of Sahrawi Prisoners and Disappeared (AFAPREDESA). A meeting next month will determine whether MINURSO’s mandate is extended for another year. Few think it will make any difference.

In 2005, the Polisario, exasperated by its lack of recognition, announced an “independence Intifada.” In 2011, Sahrawi protesters, tired of being second-class citizens, marched through the streets of Laayounein what many experts claim to be the true antecedent of the Arab Spring. Reprisals were swift, and severe. Still, no word from the West. This year the Texas-based oil exploration firm Kosmos has been drilling off the coast of Western Sahara, with consent, it claims, from local Sahrawi elders. Those in the camps decry this as lip service: Morocco has merely wheeled out anti-Polisario stooges, it says, to nod and smile for the American businessmen.

That’s not to say the Polisario’s slate is clean. They have had the same ruler, Mohamed Abdelaziz, since 1976. His wife, Khadija Hamdi, is the current culture secretary and his son is the lead anchor on RASD TV. Many leading figures now travel between the camps and posts in Barcelona, Madrid, London and New York. They do not suffer as we do, many young folks told me during my trip. Indeed, as I left via Tindouf Airport several Polisario figures boarded the same plane. It was a little like meeting actors in the greenroom: They suddenly became cheerful and relaxed, asking me about home, soccer and music. The word “Democratic” in SADR may have been a nod to a future state, but it is becoming a risible misnomer.

El-Bouhali, the defense minister, conceded his biggest task now is to keep his youth on the party line, and away from another war, which even he says is in the cards. It has to be: Morocco is happy to play the waiting game, and the Polisario needs something to threaten it with. But equipment is outdated, and support now is scant: Any threat of war is a threat of suicide. Perhaps only a fresh generation of martyrs will make the world sit up and notice the Sahrawi cause.


Polisario veteran
Bashir Said Bouf, a nomad, shunned the Sahrawi struggle, "until one of them took me aside and told me that if I died doing it, it would be a martyrdom. ... Sometimes being a martyr is the only way to remove an aggressor."

Bashir Said Bouf wishes he could have been martyred when his van hit a mine in 1981. He was shepherding camels in the liberated territories when the blast killed two others and left him with a broken back. Since 1995 he has laid in the victim center, front down, switching television channels with a remote holstered in a carpenter’s belt across the end of his bed frame, alongside toothpaste and other daily items.

The center is OK, Bouf says, and he has made many friends in his 20 years there. But, he says, flicking through TV shows, “I would be more satisfied if I had died in battle. That would make it worth it. It’s not the same as dying for ISIS or Al-Nusrah Front. I would have died for a just cause.”

He pauses and looks out the small window. A shaft of light throws a corona around his strong, angled cheekbones. I ask whether he think he’ll see an independent Sahrawi nation in his lifetime. “My lifetime? It’s a matter of when God will take it,” he says flatly. “I can see my grave alongside other Sahrawi martyrs. I can’t see a way to change without armed struggle. In truth I don’t see any hope for a change to happen.”

Said Ali, the paralyzed ex-guerrilla, doesn’t hold out much hope either. Sometimes he still dreams he’s walking through the desert, though it happens less often these days. His life with Selma, too, ended in that blast.“I just sent a divorce letter when it happened,” he says, a tear rolling down his cheek. “I told her it wasn’t for her, staying with me, so I gave her the freedom to live, to start a new life. They said she cried.”

Western Sahara will remain a frozen conflict unless one of its actors makes a move soon. Until then, people will be able to put it aside, to forget it and move on to the big news stories. That’s not possible for the Sahrawis. They must live with the fallout of a war that barely ended and a small strip of their land that, while liberated, remains riddled with death. It’s almost too much for Bashir Raja, the minesweeper.

“I don’t think there’s a way it can get better in the foreseeable future,” he says. “It’s hard when it’s such a beautiful landscape … but you never dare to put a foot in it. Or, you see your camels cross into a landmine field and you have to lose them, let them disappear because you cannot tread there.

“What makes it more evil is knowing that it’s not possible to be cleared,” he adds. “Or even if by magic it was cleared, you would always have this fear that what if some were still there. You can never pretend it doesn’t exist.”

That is precisely what the world has done here, in Africa’s last colony.

Sean Williams is a writer and reporter living in Berlin, Germany. He has written for The Economist, The Guardian, Vice, Esquire and others. You can follow his work here.

Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley.

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