Sunday, May 1, 2011
Refugee Camps diary
I am a Moroccan student going to Tindouf! Yet being the one going, I spent much more time in digesting this idea than the time of my whole trip. Was I a fool or a suicidal to do so, a traitor conspiring with the enemy maybe? No, I was a freeman with a free conscience and free will, looking for something beyond conventional ideas and opinions channeled to me through different mediums.
With only a backpack full of clothes, a laptop without battery and a newly acquired camcorder, I sailed toward an unseen destination, a place lying somewhere in the desert which has witnessed so many events that it ultimately shaped the history of my country as I see it today.
When I went into the aircraft and finally found my seat, something strange and interesting happened, pushing me to start a long period thinking and wondering about the essence and nature of my trip to the refugee camps.
Once seated, the first thing I thought was: ‘Awesome, I got the seat next to the window, I’ll have the chance to contemplate the wonders of the view from above!’, and indeed I saw an interesting thing, but the only difference was that we didn’t need to fly over the skies to gaze at the terrific landscapes.
The thing I saw was simply a sentence written on the wing of the plane “Do not walk outside this area”.
Astonishingly, I made a direct connection between the sentence and what I was up to, overlooking the literal meaning of the notice. I was indeed walking outside a specific area; I was getting out of that delimited box which has been shaped for me for so many years. Whether calling it a leap of intellectual freedom or a reality prison-break, it was at the end something beyond the conventional standards almost every Moroccan was abiding by.
A ‘normal’ Moroccan, being generally defined as a nationalistic and patriotist citizen, would have never dare explore the idea of challenging the official story about the Western Sahara, to critically think about the information we are asked to ingurgitate every day, without wondering about its nature, source and level of veracity.
Whether to refute or to strengthen the pre manufactured opinion every citizen jealous over his national integrity has, my trip was far beyond the simple detective work aimed at modeling a certain political stance over the Sahara issue.
My main purpose was to adopt a new perspective in dealing with issues I had an opinion about, yet never experienced. Hearing about international crisis and throwing shiny statements and speeches in the air, with the only justification of working toward the resolution of the conflict is totally pointless if we have never worked toward analyzing first hand data and direct interaction with the parties involved in the problem.
Media has so long been discredited, and the biased coverage of international events is widely recognized as a political tool to serve specific agendas and parties.
Independence and objectiveness are in nowadays lifestyle myths frozen in the past centuries, or even in the past millenniums since no historical transcripts or documents can testify of a fair and transparent information processing in ancient civilizations where no outside force has intervened to deviate the truth for a certain purpose.
Once I set foot in the college, I knew that a new period of my life has begun, a period characterized by dynamism and action, thing which would push my interaction with the outside world to become full of tension and highly instable.
This tension clearly appeared in the behavior my family had toward my trip and the project I was involved in. As a Moroccan son of a Moroccan family, the fact of intruding the world of officials and political figures, of disturbing the area of the grown-ups who deal with international affairs and sensitive dossiers with my little stubbornness to prove something no-body cared about, was a serious challenge for me and a lifetime battle to definitively trace my path: A conventional obedient citizen or a stubborn troubles seeker rebel.
My choice was clear and not subject to any change or remodeling.
For the simple purpose of gaining self-satisfaction and fulfilling the personal defiance I set to myself, I would have chosen to be the rebel, but my choice was motivated by factors which are far more pure and intellectually high-standardized than to fall into the childish decisions or rushes of revolutionary anti-social needs, typical of all teens who are fed up with social and parental control.
Now that I am writing these lines, I already started feeling the righteousness of my decision. The life of tension and electrical situations, the seeking for adrenaline and spy-agents-like rush of emotions was emerging from the imaginary scenes I used to appreciate during my free-time day-dreaming slot, to the real life situation I was bored of living few days ago.
The flight from Paris to Algiers was quite fast, and before ending up my small play inside my head where I was arrested for spying in the camps and other weird stuff, I found myself in the passport check area, with armed police forces and serious Algerian officers behind the desk, all in uniforms.
The moment I got to talk to the officer charged of the passport inspection, things turned like the endless scenes spinning restlessly in my mind. The officer took a more serious position, hardened his features and asked me what I was attempting to do in Tindouf, as specified in my traveling form. Quite hesitantly I started formulating words about the purpose of my travel, and my shaking hands put several documents on the desk, papers testifying of the cause of my trip, ranging from recommendation letters to written invitations from Saharawi organizations.
The guy seemed oblivious to me for a while, not paying attention to the papers or to my confused speech. Before ending my talk, the officer turned and asked some other people to call a certain ‘Mohamed’. Meanwhile, I was asked to step aside, and the officer sank again in his mechanical work, dealing with the rest of the passengers who seemed to flow constantly.
After few minutes, the supposedly named Mohamed showed up, and from the bits of conversation I got, they were talking about ‘that Marroqui who is screwing something in Tindouf’, a conversation cut short after Mohamed mentioned something about certain ‘people who came in the morning and the Marroqui was with them’. They both looked back at me, smiled and asked me to take my passport and go ahead.
Quite surprisingly, I managed to focus on what was happening after a period of total confusion, since I had no idea about who were those people who came in the morning and with whom I was apparently with, and why I was suddenly freed to leave with no questions or further administrative procedures.
That was how ended a long journey of expectations, fears and excitement about an unknown future where only a blind could find his way, while a normal individual would ultimately end up trapped in the many holes his minds creates, hole not meant to exist, but by the constant effort to speculate and forecast unpredictable events, one’s ends up bringing them to life, regularly feeding them by wondering, fearing and doubting about what’s coming next.
Finally, after hours of waiting and flying, I found myself in Tindouf, which appeared at first sight like a modern and normal city, far away from the ghost place described constantly by the national media back home.
At the borders checkpoint, the officials followed the normal procedure, taking care of the paperwork and asking for few information, among which one would have caused me troubles if my Saharawi host didn’t show up to finalize the details of my stay and accommodation:
When I was asked to state the location where I’ll spend my week, I simply answered ‘in the refugee camps’, not knowing that these camps were a set of six separated blocs, each one with a specific name and with a notable population.
I walked outside the small airport, my head still spinning from the realization that I was here, in Tindouf, the stronghold of the Polisario. My bewilderment soon vanished when I knew that this was in no case a Polisario HQ, but rather was an Algerian city, which the close distance from the refugee camps gave the reputation of a Sahrawi city.
After few steps out, a huge and dark Land Rover, with a nice embedded logo in the car door saying ‘PROTOCOLES’, appeared in the street, overshadowing the rest of the vehicles present in the surrounding.
The driver’s appearance was more surprising than anything else: He was small, dark skinned, his head was covered in a black scarf typically folded in the Sahrawi way and he was curved behind the huge wheel, almost his size. Everything contrasted, from the setting to the driver’s appearance, giving the impression that we were in terrorists training camps in Afghanistan.
It sounded unreal when we climbed up the back of the Land Rover, called by the Sahrawis the tank or in Arabic ‘Dabbaba’ for obvious reasons, and started driving along the sandy track at a crazy speed, throwing us in the air from side to side painfully each time the truck bumped on a rock.
Driving in the dark, with dunes everywhere and sand coming out like flames from the ground, I realized that this is the life I was hoping for, the action I wanted to live. A huge smile was on my face the whole trip, but a strong fear was building inside me, a fear from the so called mercenaries the media warned us against, an anxiety from ending up in an unknown place with masked people torturing me and pointing AK-47s at my head.
It was definitely my imagination working full-speed, and the any movies I used to watch apparently substituted craziness to reason in my overwhelmed brain.
The travel from Tindouf to the school of 27th of February camp was quick, yet the distance we crossed was a considerable 19 Km.
I couldn’t remember how I ended up sleeping in a modest house, but the flash of images recorded during that night gave me the conviction that the most amazing part was yet to come.
After a deep and relaxing sleep, crucial after the 12 hours of travel, I woke up, aware that this time, it wasn’t the fjord I would see when looking outside, but an endless horizon filled with dunes and clay houses, it wasn’t the fresh and cool air of Flekke I would enjoy but a hot and dry wind biting the skin.
I opened my eyes on a bright room I couldn’t recognize, and when I ate eagerly the breakfast, still excited to gaze at the camps, I set off to the door, opening it quickly, only to see at a first glance a ginormous Land Rover again rotting under the sun.
‘Those Land Rovers are everywhere’ I thought!
But when I moved my eyes around, it was barracks everywhere, pieces of metal, barrels and Land Rovers, and above all, red shiny sand and dunes.
It was like the way the Moroccan media depicted them, but as I noticed afterwards, the Saharawi society wasn’t limited to the camps’ superficial appearance, but it was a whole set of customs, traditions, institutions and more.
‘Get in the Land Rover Mohamed’ shouted Hamdi.
We got in and he started to turn on the engine, but the car refused to growl and to give a sign of life. So basically, the first thing I did, as a guest in the camps, was to push a decades old Land Rover on the track until it turned on.
As I spent two or three days in the camps, that Land Rover became part of my daily life, pushing it around two time a day until it accepted to go on its own. The ironic thing was that, once independent from human assistance, the truck turned totally into a war vehicle, or as Hamdi like to repeat a ‘Dabbaba’.
Hamdi never kept on track whenever driving: always moving over rocks and bumps, and driving crazily over the dunes.
I always wondered how it could keep on rolling on its wheels, especially that the dashboard was a set of wires rolled on sticks and rocks. There were no keys; the only thing you needed was connecting two wires to turn the truck on, like in movies.
I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to not see armed forces around, AK-47s or military vehicles. Where were those checkpoints and those walls imprisoning the people here? Nothing!
People were driving around, walking behind their goats or chatting around a cup of tea under the tents.
The myth of the Polisario started falling apart in my mind.
People I met and talked to, stayed with and drank tea among were the most natural and friendly people I ever met.
This posed a new challenge to my beliefs and ideas, since after what I saw and lived, I had to make a huge cleanup in my messy mind, changing a whole story I took for granted into a totally different set of facts and events, but the challenge didn’t stop here. This experience, still freshly started, pushed me to question the dogma of absolute truth, its component and the way to defend myself against the deliberately implemented ideas I was asked and convinced to follow.
A museum in the camps! That was my exclamation when Hamdi told me that we are spending the morning visiting the national museum. The first image to jump into my mind was the conventional setting of a museum with ancient reliques and huge skeletons belonging to unknown creatures, but as usual, the Sahrawis surprised me with a place I could best describe as a History teacher frozen into walls and pieces of papers and metal.
When I got into the truck, Hamdi, with a shiny smile in his face, said “There are no brakes, they were screwed up yesterday!”
WTF! Did I sign up for some sort of survival competition or what?! Every day, it’s a new story with that Land Rover! I still can’t imagine how it is able to be driven anymore.
“Anyway, just make sure to get us alive to that museum!” I replied quietly, almost used to the fact that the truck was falling in pieces, and it was only a matter of days before it dies completely somewhere in the desert.
And so we set off, with NO BRAKES, thing which made our trip to the neighboring camp quite funny, especially when I was hearing Hamdi begging the truck to stop, and praying God that it stood still at the right moment and in the right place.
At some point, we managed to get to the Museum alive; a Museum which I thought at first was a military plant because of the tanks, jeeps and mortars I perceived from the entrance.
We went into the building, accompanied with two military guide, and the modest place, dull and poorly furnished, disappointed my wild expectations. The whole thing was about documents, pictures and lot of readings -which I am not fond of-, reminding me painfully of the History classes back home. But, at some point, paying attention to the guy explaining the issue of colonization and talking fervently about the military confrontations between the Polisario fighters and Moroccan troops, I thought he was talking about a different country than mine.
Too many facts, too many memories, too many contradictions with my version of the conflict… That was a lot to make you think about. As if it seemed not enough, the last area of the museum, and which I was looking forward to visiting, gave the achieving shot to the excitement which motivated me few hours ago.
The planes, military trucks and missiles didn’t make me clap hands, because I realized these weapons didn’t serve in a movie nor in a parade, but instead it blew people up in bits, made children orphans, women widows and men lifetime haters and revenge seekers of the Moroccan Kingdom. Surprisingly, Morocco had a lot of friends as it appeared from the huge range of arms coming from all over the world, ranging from Israel to Germany and passing by the apartheid period South Africa.
How could a nation of few tens of thousands of people endure all this, yet never give up? How come hundreds of Sahrawi fighters kept up with a well-equipped military machine counting 40 thousand individual at that time? If it’s not the conviction and the faith in a just cause that motivated the Saharawi struggle, then I’ll seriously consider joining the UFO and ET believers clubs.
But even still confused, I said to myself: This is the great nation you are so proud of belonging to! Look at the exploits your country made; look at the paragraph of history written in blood which will soon remind the world of us, not as heroes or a country of peace, but the oppressing power and oblivious people who gave themselves the right to steal the memory of a nation, the lands and wealth of those who became homeless and deprived from a life of dignity in camps harsher than any prison, yet their will and faith pierced every standing obstacle to reach the conscience of the ones still alive, those who refuse to claim something they don’t own and who cannot accept building their happiness and comfort with the misfortune of others.
Maybe people would tend to suspect and criticize this sudden change in convictions, although I wouldn’t describe the fact that I was supporting the Moroccan position as a conviction I believed in.
It was a natural process for me to be pro Moroccan while discussing the Western Sahara issue, because at that time the only set of information I was exposed to and the ultimate version of history I was taught in school and through the media has never been challenged by alternative sources, within Moroccan borders at least.
But as I was brought into a new setting, where I was claiming something everybody refuted, things started clinging inside my head, and the obvious for me became suspect to change. Is it enough to walk out with a rigid and unshakable opinion just for the sake of preventing my mind from brainwashing and misleading facts other tierce parties might seek to implement? Was I holding the truth only because I believed in it, or is the truth a common good everybody had access t, a common property we are all doomed to partition in the best way possible, not ultimately the more just and fair, but at least what would lay foundations for a consensus on what is true and what is not?
That’s why by challenging my own perception of the conflict, I tried to prove to myself that there is only one way to be comfortable mentally when unveiling your convictions, and that’s through building strong bases for your position, bases which are to be brought to life by direct witnessing and searching in the source place of the issue, criticizing ourselves before others do and never take things for granted.
Life is an endless show full of ‘coups de théâtre’ where things turn out totally wrong, wrong according to our previsions and speculations which might be rooted in fake yet convincing lands, and thus the events which we don’t envisage or don’t want to happen bring us back to new tracks -not necessarily the right ones-, like an enlightenment or a revelation we are the only ones to appreciate and to fully understand, like a precious secret we hold on tightly and confide to ourselves for pleasure and unique satisfaction.
Mohamed Amine Belarbi