The Unrelenting Sky
photo by CHRIS BRAZIER
Scorpions and baby camels... The world’s best-run refugee camps in the world’s bleakest place...
The old man who devotes his life to coaxing plant life out of the Sahara...
There is a scorpion in my room. I catch a glimpse of its movement out of the corner of my eye and there it is, wandering across the floor, its stinging tail looping over ominously and unmistakably. Initially I am glad to see it scuttle into the shade of the bed. But when it comes to bedtime I am altogether less sure. I lift the bed and try to track it down but it is nowhere to be seen.
I’ve met scorpions on my travels before and am used to looking inside my shoes before I put them on. But I have never, as far as I know, spent the night with one and am not that keen on the prospect. I pull my bed out from the wall and make sure none of the sheets touch the ground but I can still remember all too vividly an incident in the novel I’ve been reading – Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky – when a woman dies having rolled on top of a scorpion in her sleep.
I am in the Saharawi refugee camps in the westernmost tip of Algeria. When the refugees fled from the Moroccan invasion in 1975 they were given sanctuary just over the border by an Algerian Government whose memories of their own struggle for independence against the French were still fresh.
Algeria has since descended into its own nightmarish civil war between an embattled military government and Islamic fundamentalists whose 1991 election victory it suppressed. Almost daily there is another atrocity and my relief at leaving Morocco is tinged with apprehension about my next destination, Algiers, which must be current holder of the title ‘Most Dangerous Place on Earth for a Westerner to Visit’. There is no other way to reach the Western Saharan refugee camps but via the Algerian capital. This is probably the only place in the world where I could feel justified in hightailing it to the most expensive, most secure hotel in town – the old St George, which has armed guards at the gate as well as a plaque outside the room from which Eisenhower commanded Allied forces in North Africa.
The Algerian Government’s human-rights record in its battle against the fundamentalists is dire but it still deserves credit for the steadfast way it has supported the refugees – and for its unprecedented readiness to hand over a portion of its own territory to be governed by Polisario.
When you see the land they handed over, mind, you might wonder why anyone would want it. This part of the Sahara is bleak beyond words, as hostile and infertile as you would expect but without a trace of the strange beauty or romance with which we also credit it. The English Patient this is not.
Over the two decades they have been here, the Saharawis have established themselves in four distinct refugee camps, or wilayas, each of which is named after a town in their homeland (see map).
These are not like the refugee camps of popular imagination, teetering on the brink of despair and disease, kept from the abyss by the unstinting efforts of international aid workers. On the contrary they are models of efficient local government, whose achievements in health and education alone are remarkable given such a hostile environment. The Saharawis may be dependent on aid – and will remain so until they are able to return home. But they require no help at all in the administration and distribution of their scant resources: these are without doubt the most efficiently run refugee camps in the world.
The schools are in their summer vacation when I visit, which is a shame because the Saharawis could well claim to be the most educated people in Africa: the literacy rate is around 90 per cent and the proportion of people in higher education verges on Western levels. This is astonishing considering that at the time the Spanish colonists left only 22 years ago the Saharawis were among the continent’s least-educated people.
The dramatic turnaround is in part a tribute to the solidarity efforts of countries supportive of the Polisario cause – most notably Algeria and Cuba – who offer Saharawi students scholarships to their universities. But it also demonstrates the energy with which Saharawis themselves have pursued their own development, seeing education as a vital part of preparing for independence.
Mulay Mustafa Mahmoud is the quiet, likeable man who is responsible for running education within L’ayoun wilaya. ‘Without education people can’t do anything useful for themselves,’ he says. ‘You might think that a people without its own wealth and its own land would not be interested in education. But we are. All our children are charged from the first with the notion that education is important. And I think we all retain this faith in education not just for our country but for us as individuals.’
As always with a Saharawi, though, the individual’s needs and ambitions are elided into the nation’s – and how could it be otherwise for refugees whose whole existence is channelled towards the moment of return?
‘I escaped to the mountains to join Polisario in 1975,’ says Mulay, ‘because I knew we had to fight to achieve our independence, that it would never be handed to us. For my generation there is no point in looking for comfort – we have sacrificed this for the good of the next generation.’
The schools in the camps suffer from all the usual problems of education in the South: the lack of decent materials and books; classroom numbers often as high as 50. But they benefit not only from a passionate belief in education’s importance but also from the isolation and insulation of the camps from the outside world and the market economy. Here children are not pulled away from school by the attraction of the street or by the necessity of earning money for their family: idleness would be the only alternative, and what would be the attraction of that in such a barren environment?
Education and health have been flagship achievements for Western Sahara’s government-in-exile. But I can’t help but be still more struck by their valiant efforts to coax plant life out of this unforgiving earth, which seem inexpressibly poignant.
Hamudi Najem is 73 years old – a ripe old age for these environs. His spectacles have the disconcerting effect of mirrors in the fierce late-morning sun. We have come to be given a tour of his world: the ‘garden’ of L’ayoun wilaya. Surrounded by a high wall that keeps out goats and children and mitigates the force of sandstorms, his farm is an oasis of greenery in the dusty wastes. And, as with all oases, water from underground is the key: a large hole gouges deep into the earth and a long snake rears up out of it – the tube through which a hydraulic pump sucks up liquid to be distributed along channels to the farthermost plots.
Hamudi shows me each crop – potatoes, onions, tomatoes, dates – with the utmost pride. The pride is justified – and not just because they are cultivated against all odds. Each potato, each onion, has an infinitely greater value than those we see and take for granted in our Western hypermarkets.
All Saharawi refugees subsist on a standard, bland diet of food aid – flour, sugar, oil, rice, tea and lentils with maybe one tin of sardines, tuna or corned beef a month. Fresh vegetables, though nutritionally vital, are not supplied to refugee camps because they do not keep. So any plant Hamudi can persuade to take root is precious beyond words. He looks an unlikely David, wrapped up in his robes and peering from behind his glasses, but within these walls, at least, he fells the Saharan Goliath every day.
‘I remember the first time I grew tomatoes I took seven boxes to the Governor of the wilaya. He accused me of buying them in Tindouf, thinking it impossible I could have cultivated them. It was hard for even Polisario leaders to understand at first.’
But now the gardens are a vital part of the Saharawis’ identity as well as of their nutrition; proof of their commitment to achieving the impossible. Children visit the gardens from school so that they can understand what the harsh outlines of the land they live in would seem to contradict: that food is something you grow and that there are green places in the world.
The achievement is all the more unlikely given the Saharawis’ nomadic heritage. Hamudi, though, has always had a passion for farming. ‘As nomads we used to chase the grass with our goats. But ever since I came across cultivated fields as a child I have been fascinated by farming. From the 1940s I learned about agriculture from the Spanish and in 1962 I started my own project in Amgela. I just dug a well and asked others to join me in trying to use the water to grow things. Soon we had 60 families digging wells and growing food. In 1964 the Spanish Governor in L’ayoun said he had been going to appoint a governor for the province but that I was doing such great work that he now would not bother. So you could say I was the real governor!
‘This garden is my life. I come here each day at six and I leave at nine in the evening. I still don’t feel I can hand it over but when I’m ready I’ll train someone. Would I like to be Agriculture Minister when we go back home? I think I’m too old now. I’d rather go back to my farm in Amgela. But I wouldn’t mind being a consultant...’
We stop for tea in the shade of a bush. I tell him I am a vegetarian and he approves, stressing the nutritional wonders of his produce. But in truth my visit to him makes me wish I could refuse the vegetables offered to me here in the camps. They are too precious and every one that goes to a foreign visitor could surely go to a local who needs it far more. Of course I cannot refuse: it would be discourteous in the extreme.
But it brings to mind the story of former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda’s visit to the camps. In keeping with tradition a baby camel was slain for him and served up with its head still intact. Kaunda, a vegetarian, refused to eat it, and in the same circumstances I must admit that I would have had to be discourteous and do the same.