Through a cleared minefield as Moroccan soldiers watch... The liberated wasteland... An underground
I am at the frontline, which has been literally set in stone in the shape of a wall built by Morocco: 1,500 kilometres long, it snakes across the desert enclosing the whole of the Occupied Territory. The Wall, known as the berm by the Moroccans and the rapt by Saharawis, is in front of me now, following a line of hills. We are beyond reach of gunfire, thank goodness, but we can see soldiers moving up and down, many of them watching us carefully through binoculars, just as we are them. It is a strange feeling, to say the least, this one of being watched by hundreds of hostile eyes, each pair of them with a rifle or a machine gun close to hand. We could hardly be more exposed, on top of a hill in the middle of a desert. It occurs to me that if the ceasefire ended we would be the last people to hear of it...
The Wall is less impressive than its reputation had led me to expect basically it is a pile of rubble to a height of one-and-a-half metres or so, which means that if you were standing beside it you could see over with ease. But it is still a formidable obstacle. My guide, Salma, a tall, elegant-looking man who is a specialist in demining, explains that there is a Moroccan military base which is 80 or 90 soldiers strong every five kilometres along the Wall, with a watchpost halfway between each of those. A minefield is laid on this side (anti-tank mines surrounded by anti-personnel mines, many of them manufactured by the Italian Valmara company featured in our September issue). Salma says there is a minefield on the other side, too, through which Moroccan soldiers pass on safe 'bridges'.
I point to the barbed wire which is littered around us on our knoll and ask why it is there. Salma explains that the Wall used to be where we are standing before it was withdrawn to a more defensible point on top of the line of hills. Hang on a minute. If the Wall was here then all that land we just walked through used to be a minefield. Salma nods his confirmation, amused by the aghast look on my face. 'But I cleared it myself - it is perfectly safe.' Salma has a warm face with a smile that bursts out like the sun but he also exudes calm strength. He is the kind of person you instinctively feel you would trust with your life. Well, actually, I suppose I amtrusting him with my life.
I follow in his footsteps extremely carefully when we make our way back towards the distant Landcruiser. He is amused again but approves, saying this is a sound military technique that his demining units used to adopt, especially in difficult early times when they had no sophisticated detection equipment. He points out some small cairns of stones piled at intervals and explains that these are sighting devices, used by the watchposts to direct the shells of the artillery behind the Wall. He says we are following another sound military tactic by returning a different way from that by which we came, so as to keep the enemy guessing.
Salma is 30, and has been here at the front since he was 19. He had five years' experience of demining in combat. Under cover of night he and his team would be sent in to clear a path through the minefield for Polisario soldiers who would then cross the Wall and cause the maximum damage on the other side before retreating again into the night in classic guerrilla style.
He says he does not worry about the work - he is confident of his own ability to detect and disarm mines without mishap and feels he knows the layout of every Moroccan minefield in his region. But I think of his family at home in the camps and imagine how worrying this particular line of military work must be for them - he has two sons, one born just a month ago and he has just returned from three months' special leave around the birth (three months' paternity leave? This is, as you will see, a very special kind of army).
We are in what Polisario call the Second Military Region - of the seven into which the liberated zones are divided. It has taken a full day's hard driving across the desert to reach here from the camps in Tindouf. The border between Algeria and Western Sahara is a couple of hours out of the camps. Here piles of stones mark the edge of a dirt track that the colonial French used as a 'road' from Tindouf to Nouakchott in Mauritania and beyond that to Dakar in Senegal.
Beyond there, in 'liberated' Western Sahara, we are launched upon a fascinating journey, but one difficult to describe in its phases since the landscape is so amazingly, relentlessly the same. I had thought that this would be my chance to see the Sahara of my, and probably your, imagination in these hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres there must surely, I reasoned, be all kinds of different desert wonders, including the sunset-hued dunes of romance.
But there are not. Instead there is the flat, rock-strewn terrain called hammada. The easiest way to describe this is to ask you to imagine a gravel track and then extend that to the horizon on all sides. Nobody could call this attractive; the adjective 'blasted' is the one that keeps coming into my own head. The colour is dirty brown or grey, with more black rubble than golden sand.
The sheer relentlessness of it is, however, somehow impressive in itself. I don't think I would ever have conceived of a land so flat, so lifeless. The Saharan landscape of myth has a character - a threatening beauty, an hypnotic softness - but this is like a void, a vast and bitter wasteland.
The only variation is provided by the mirages. These appear not as isolated pools of virtual water but as wide lakes or seas shimmering beyond a beach. At one point the effect is such that I could believe myself looking out over tidal mudflats on the English coast. At another I watch the 'water' being blown by the strong wind, making it look like waves breaking on the shore.
But if hammada would not win any aesthetic prizes, it is an ideal driving surface: you can point your vehicle in any direction you like and just drive there at speed without fear of hitting anything living and apparently without much danger of sand.
Lunchtime is more than memorable. I will never have a more extraordinary lo ation for a picnic than this: squeezed under the surprisingly cool shade of a thorn bush. And we are not talking about a hunk of bread and a sip of water here. Abida, the driver, builds a fire and proceeds to cook spaghetti and prepare salad. He follows this with the indispensable Saharawi tea, taking as much care as ever to pour the tea over and over into the glasses from on high, building up a suitable head of froth.
As we drink it the first human we have seen for hours appears - a nomad boy called Hamdi, about ten years old, herding his family's goats. He points out their tent and, now that I look, I see that there actually is more vegetation here for the goats than there has been elsewhere - though no-one passing would ever remark on the place's fertility. Hamdi's life is that which would have been shared by almost all Saharawis 50 years ago - moving from one clump of thorny pasture to another. Now the gigantic forces of colonialism, war and modernization have between them squeezed the nomadic life out of existence. On the one side a walled-in police state, determined to keep tabs on its inhabitants, and on the other refugee camps in a foreign land. Only in the thin slice of liberated land between is it possible for nomads to carry on their traditional way of life, availing themselves of the freedom of movement which is their very lifeblood - and until the ceasefire Moroccan planes made even this a perilous place to be.
Hamdi cannot read and has never been to school - but has no wish to do either. He says he and his family prefer to live here than in the refugee camps. But, perhaps surprisingly in view of this, he seems to share the nationalist sentiments of the refugees: when I ask if he has heard of Britain, he says no, but he knows of London via the BBC Arabic Service, which many Saharawis listen to regularly. When I ask if he would like me to relay a message to the BBC he volunteers that they should mention the cause of Western Sahara more often.
The end of the day's journey is Tifariti, announced by hills on the horizon which seem to rise out of the mirage like islands in the stream. This was once a small but significant Spanish colonial town, though the few ruins that now remain give little sense of that now. The Moroccans occupied Tifariti in 1975 but Polisario surrounded them and cut off their supplies by guerrilla attacks on their convoys. The Moroccans duly built an airstrip and flew in their supplies but when Polisario started shooting down the planes too they were forced to withdraw, in 1977, right back to Smara. The Spanish colonial buildings were not destroyed until Morocco launched a major attack in the run-up to the ceasefire in 1991.
A soldier takes me on a walking tour of what is left of the town: the burnt-out tank, the crater made by an aerial napalm attack in 1982. I stoop to examine a big lump of metal, only to jump back when he tells me it is an unexploded shell...
As we head back up the hill to the headquarters it is getting dark. He points into the night to the north-west. 'On a moonless night you can see the lights of Smara,' he says wistfully. The refugees in the camps all have their dreams of home, but here the dream has a tantalizing physical form: so near and yet so very, very far.
The next day, after our visit to the Wall, which is a good two hours' drive away across much more difficult, sandier terrain, we pull in beside a shale-strewn hill. Fadel, my interpreter, asks if I can see it. 'See what?' I say. 'The military hospital.' I cannot. There is a truck parked but besides that all I can see is a flimsy structure of leaves and sticks such as they erect for goats in the camps. All is revealed when I set off up the hill. A hole in the ground gives onto some whitewashed steps which take us down into a commodious underground hospital. Each room has an opening in the roof which affords it a measure of natural light but can be closed in the event of rain or at night when the lights are on. This is no functional series of mud tunnels like those I once saw in Vietnam: real care has been lavished on this place, from the mosaic of small stones around each door frame to the colourful paintings applied directly to the walls of the sick ward. The floors are tiled and the passages painted bright colours. Not for the first time, I think of the Eritreans, who were famous for such underground hospitals.
Then it is back to Tifariti for the night. If I ever imagined what it would be like to be in a military headquarters in a war zone I would never have conjured up anything like this. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and utterly informal. It takes me a while before I pin down what is so different about the Saharawi soldiers I spend time with over the next couple of days. It is not just that they are gentle in manner, it is that they display none of the features associated with a conventional army: nobody ever salutes or seems to take much account of rank; there is no drill, no spit and polish.
I ask a group of soldiers from the First Battalion about this when I visit their base the next day. They have received me in a room that has been cunningly fashioned out of a rocky outcrop: where the rock naturally overhangs they have built a wall of the same grey colour, creating accommodation that would be utterly invisible from the air. From the inside the wall is tastefully decorated with paintings - between this and the natural slope of the rock roof, the effect is quite comfortable, the very opposite of military functionality, despite the desert conditions.
The soldiers confirm that they might call their battalion commander by his rank when they are on an operation but aside from that they are called by their first names. There is no saluting unless one particularly wants to show respect - and no punishment for those who refuse to salute.
This is a very appealing idea to me, since I have always found the routine brutality and dehumanization demanded by conventional armies profoundly disturbing. But I play devil's advocate and put the standard military case to the battalion commander, that armies need to enforce an automatic, unthinking obedience to even stupid orders so as to ensure machine-like efficiency on the battlefield. His response is a remarkable one: 'We want people to be convinced rather than ordered. I believe the conventional army is not as efficient as our own - if you have friendship, understanding and commitment this will be more effective on the battlefield than cowering obedience.'
They are full of stories about the entirely different attitude of the Moroccan soldiers who oppose them. I add a pinch of salt to these, since it is clearly good for the morale of any army to believe that its enemy is incompetent and uncommitted. But it is bound to be true that the Moroccan soldiers - who are for the most part conscripted or doing their military service in a desert environment that is utterly unfamiliar to them - will have less appetite for risking their necks than the Saharawis, whose whole existence over two decades has been channelled towards reclaiming their homeland.
The battalion commander puts it like this: 'In short, the Moroccan soldier is interested in his pay, his rank and his own safety; the Saharawi soldier is fighting for liberty with no fear of death and a willingness to be martyred if necessary.'
Or as the slogan I saw on a poster in the underground hospital had it: 'Our Whole Homeland or Martyrdom'. They mean it.
It is this kind of commitment to a cause, transcending self-interest, which has always made guerrilla armies effective, however poorly equipped or outnumbered they are. It is the lesson of Vietnam and Afghanistan. Yet it is a lesson Western observers seem still not to have absorbed. The 'experts' on the region that I phoned up before my trip to hear them dismiss Polisario's as 'a lost cause' were also adamant that if the Saharawis returned to war they would be massacred by a vastly superior Moroccan force. This seemed dubious to me even at the time but having visited the front it seems totally wrongheaded.
Nevertheless it was an obvious point to put to Ahmed Fal who, as Commander of the Second Military Region, is one of the six 'generals' who report directly to the Defence Minister. Given Tifariti's strategic importance he is probably at present the most senior soldier in the Saharawi Army. Yet, again, you would never know it when you talk to him. He is affable and astonishingly open in his responses to my questions. I keep expecting him to plead security reasons for not answering but instead he even digs out the military plan for the whole region, pointing out the troop strengths of the Moroccans in each sector of the Wall.
'I'd say completely the opposite to your experts. I think the military situation is very favourable to Polisario now. Between 1975 and 1987 the UN was not overseeing things at all and the US and France supported Morocco with arms and in France's case with pilots and planes. Since then the UN has been involved, which has made it impossible for Morocco to be supplied in the same way. They are better equipped than they were but so are we and our own army is twice the size it used to be.
'It's impossible to say who was winning the War militarily by the time of the ceasefire in 1991. But what I am sure about is that Morocco had become convinced that the issue could not be settled by military means. The building of the Wall was a sign that they were thinking in terms of defence, not attack. And you might say that building it backfired because it meant that the bulk of the Army had to be maintained right at the very frontline, deep in the desert, at huge expense. Imagine having your whole army distributed along one line 1,500 kilometres long no one point is any more important than another, so you have to defend the whole equally. This has affected the morale of their soldiers enormously. It has also crippled Morocco economically it cannot afford a war of this kind eternally.
'I wouldn't call ours a guerrilla war but yes, our main military goal is to do as much damage as possible rather than to gain territory. We're aiming to sap the Moroccan strength and morale.
'We are a peace-loving people. But when it is a question of dignity and sovereignty over our own land we have no option. We would prefer a peaceful solution and we won't close any doors. But if there is no other choice we will go back to war. We are ready.'
Again, the parallels with Eritrea seem inescapable. There too an idealistic, committed and egalitarian rebel force was up against an (Ethiopian) army massively superior in numbers and military hardware. They had little else to rely on but their own intimate knowledge of the landscape and their own passionate commitment. Yet in the end, against all odds, they won.
If the peace process founders and the war resumes, you can bet that Polisario's fighters will be more up for it than the Moroccan conscripts shivering on the Wall in the cold desert night.
Salma is certainly ready. He's been my guide not just at the Wall but for my whole time at the front and I've come to feel a real affection for him. He holds my hand as he takes me to see his own quarters just before I leave a communal room carved out of the rock, with magazine photos decorating the walls. As we say goodbye he holds my hand again and starts praising my 'humility', my willingness to 'muck in' unlike other Western visitors. It makes me wonder what on earth other Westerners get up to. It also embarrasses the hell out of me. But I swallow that and give him a big hug, telling him not to go stepping on any mines.
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