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.

Chapter ONE

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.

Chapter two:

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.

Chapter three

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.

Chapter four

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.

Chapter five

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


  1. Ziyad El MouniriMay 1, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    Hey Amine,

    Nice reading the epic story of your adventure.I could picture all what you went through in my mind, and I am just as surprised and thrilled about what you have seen out there.

    I admire the spirit of Tindouf, and their ever welcoming quality. I was quite scared someone would stub you in the back the very first day.I'm glad you came back safe and with a new perspective about the conflict.

    However, and as you seem so convinced about the unreality and false assumptions that our media persist on delivering to us, I must ask you some questions.

    You talk about how your view changed and how all what you were brought up to learn was wrong. What exactly is wrong?

    You have also said that the Refugee camp was divided into 6 different parts, have you visited the 5 others? If not, how can you be so sure that what you have seen in your camp exists in the others as well?

    I haven't had your experience and cannot say whether what I know is true, but I have always been told, in fact I have seen documents, that show that Moukhtar Ouldada, Hdrammi, Moulay Abdarahman, Biyadi lah, AbdLaziz Lmerrakchi and all the leaders and founders of Western Sahara were all Moroccans, living and studying in Rabat, Casablanca, Tadla, Marrakech and Laayoune.

    As our previous king rejected them, the people mentioned above went to Libya and Algeria and sought for help and military aid. Of course, and for quite obvious reasons, Algeria and Libya saw the benefits behind a conflict that would not only deepen Morocco into an ongoing problem but would also eternalize such a boon.

    My question is, what have you learnt that challenges the very basic idea that Western Sahara's founders are Moroccan? Maybe what we are exhorted to believe about the misery and the suppression is implausible, but is the so claimed Western Sahara really not Moroccan? Is half of Morocco, the so cherished and well known Sahara not our own land? If not, then what have you learnt that proves it?

    I bring these questions with a kindred spirit that only seeks for answers and clarification.

    Cheers bro',

  2. Hey Ziyad, thanks first for reading critically this article and bringing up these questions :D
    Well, first of all, the things which I came to see and which were totally different fom what I was told are:
    1. The sahrawi people were held against their will in the camps.
    Well, I can assure you I didn't see a single individual emprisoned or held hostage in the camps, and even the checkpoints at the entry and exit of these camps were simply monitored by one weaoponless military which showed up from time to time, and everybody was circulating freely and frequently between Algerian soil and the refugee camps. Moreover, the people I talked to eveyday, youth, elders, women, men, activists and simple civilians, all assured that they prefer to stay in the camps and wouldn't leave them because that's the way to keep their struggle and keep the flame of the resistance burning. They said that going back to Western Sahara under the Moroccan would legitimate the occupation and doom their national cause to oblivion.
    Also, we are always told that the Polisario is a dictatorship and that the political elite is imposing its will on people.
    Actually, the camp I was living in -27th February school camp- was the one hosting the political figures and the president, and what's amazing is that I was passing by everyday by the president's house, a normal residence like all the brick houses the civilians have. I got to talk to the active youth and they openly criticized the fact that Mohamed Abdelaziz was in power for more than three decades and said it is a disfunction in the political system, but afterwards justified it by the fact that the front was still in war and couldn't afford political disturbance in time of hostilities, while confirming that that would change in case there was a future independent country, which ultimately would be a republic based on democracy and international standards.

  3. Moreover, the major decisions and policies were taken by the people in different occasions, like the women congress I attended and which decided on the foreign policy to adopt and to implement in the political structure of the polisario, and this is only one example of how decision making is not exclusive to the political elite, but rather is a collaborative effort made by everyone, and open to critics and redressements as attets the national assemblies where the people judge their leaders in an open discussion.
    For the camps, I visited 4 of them, and they all gave the same impression and the people were uphelding the same vision of the conflict wherever I went and to whomever I talked to.
    The other 2 camps are major ones, Dakhla and Layoun camps, which I honestly didn't visit, but out of 6, 4 is quite a significant number, yet the doubts you expressed are well founded.
    Indeed all the founders of the Polisario front were Sahrawi scholars who studied in Moroccan universities, and they used their education as a way to organize the Saharawi resistance and institutionalize the nomad Saharwi society so it can be part of the modern international community and auto rule itself through qualified political and social organs.
    But anyway, yet having study in Morocco, this doesn't ultimately make from their cause a false one, since they couldn't afford high level education in the Sahara, so they had to move into a more developed area were educational institutions were available. It's the same with all the liberation movements around the world, the palestinian founding elements and the revolutionary fronts all studied in institutions not based in their countries since they didn't have a proper country with proper institutions, and this in no way signed their allegiance to a certain system or administration just because they studied there.
    Well, I'll just tell a sentence they advance in the camp wherever I try to claim the Moroccan aspect of the sahara:
    'If the Sahara was Moroccan, why would Morocco have agreed to pertition it with Mauritania as part of the Madrid accords?'
    This a valid points since a country whose pepole belive that the Sahara is Moroccan wouldn't have allowed such concession, unless the Sahara is Moroccan just for its ressources and economic benefits for Morocco (Fisheries, Phosphat and maybe oil reserves).
    Furthermore, as we claim the Sahara, is't it logical that the Sahara's faith should be determined by the Sahrawi native population, not Moroccans moved there for obvious reasons by the authorities.
    And if the Sahara was Moroccan and people agreed on that, why are we the nly one's caliming that while even the UN doesn't recognize the Sahara as Moroccan and while we have more than 100.000 men (military) in the Western Sahara to watch out from any uprising (which are quite frequent according to what I've been told and saw from the videos they showed me).
    I can talk with you more and show you the clippings I filmed and the interviews I made (which I'll publish later), but the only way to really draw your own convictions is to visit the camps and see by yourself, because a picture is worth thousands of words.
    Anyway, We will definitely talk about this face to face, as it is quite hard to put on all what I've been through into words!
    Thanks again for raising these questions and I hope I answered if not all at least some of your questions.

  4. Hi BROTHER,
    I am so happy that you are back,and I can't wait to see you, not because what you wrote Non,just because you are coming from my were in 27 this is my camp. if I knew that sure I would ask you to stay in my house...what a pity !
    All the best

  5. Hey Mohamed,

    I saw the link to your blog posted on Hamdi's facebook wall. I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading about your experience and that I think its awesome that you decided to visit and come up with your own conclusions about life in the camps! I visited for the first time earlier this year and walked away feeling exactly the same :)

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog! Rhian

  6. it's the story of time, any powerful nation will take chance to expand territories, same thing apply for morrocco in sahara, india or pakistan in kachemir, israel in palestine, war in kosovo or rwanda or maybe tribal conflicts in lybia........and its something normal to use propaganda ideologie and cheating, to achieve goals or to drag maximum number of people to your point of view but at the end, its the most powerful who win, property of land come only by force , morrocco as we know it today would never had existed whitout omeyyade "conquest" but since that time, borders have never been really marked, and were unstable during the different dynasties, so even now, what will do the difference is not legal property but lethal force, thats unfair but there is no way to deal differently unless given up , Polisario is probably not like medias try to represent it, but it has no legal property on the land if they don't fight for it and thats what they're doing, so great let the best take it exactly like what's happening in palestine, or afghanistan- taliban, but what we should take in considération is that if "time" give some impression of legal property, the sahara was the property of Al-mwhidin dynastie eight hundered years ago and in fact even algeria was their property, but under Saadiyin, morrocco and algeria were separated but none of theme explicitly ruled the sahara even though it was their sahara to all of theme : algeria, morrocco and sahrawi nomades because they all could freely reach it but they didn't show interest in it beacause it was empty of any interest, they all implicitly considered it like their territory but didn't bother mark it, so after europeen colonisation, under the joy of indepedance, they all tried to gather what they consider as their territory that's what started the conflict and the governements know very well that any story about historic property isn't really true or at least can't legalise control of the region and what really count is the military power
    the second thing not to forget is that there are extern forces that uses intelligent strategies other than direct war to take benefits from muslim separation and those kinds of conflicts, and to expand it in time they give equal military power to both of the country's, equal backup and equal hope to take control

    influence map of maghrebe before frensh occupaton:


  7. '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.
    I was suddenly freed to leave with no questions or further administrative procedures.

    i guess they knew you were from RCNUWC, and if it's the case, and if they had something to hide i don't think they would have let you see it if you see what i mean, but i don't know if they really have something to hide i just explore possibilities because the treatment clearly changed from the state "marroqui shiting something in tindouf" and RCNUWC member who will talk about what he will see in europe