In Kingsley Holgate’s latest expedition dispatch from Algeria he talks excitedly about the large number of old Landies the expedition came across whist in the Western Sahara. It’s a story best told from the scribbled pages of his journal.
Some weeks ago when we had journeyed up the coast of Western Sahara, a country wedged between Mauritania in the South and Morocco in the North, located exactly where the name says it should be – on the Western edge of the Sahara – it had been impossible for us to properly meet the legitimate citizens of the land, they are a proud people called the Saharawi’s.
Now thanks to the efforts of our Department of Foreign Affairs and an invitation from the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in exile in the South of Algeria, the three expedition Landies are loaded up with soccer balls, learning materials and spectacles for the poor sighted.
Adrenalin pumps as in a heavily armed convoy (there has been a recent upsurge of terrorism activity in Algeria and the authorities don’t want us killed) we head off at break neck speed in a 3000 km there and back dash – it’s not only an opportunity for us to fill in another puzzle of the outside edge of Africa but also an opportunity to improve and save lives through adventure.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for over one century. In the early 1970s the Saharawis began to resist Spanish colonialism and formed the Polisario liberation movement which in 1975 was on the verge of gaining independence from Spain.
Then, in secret negotiations, Spain signed a clandestine deal with Morocco and Mauritania, splitting Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, instead of granting independence to the Saharawis as promised. Morocco and Mauritania thought they would clobber the nomadic Saharawis and the whole thing would be over in a couple of weeks.
But they hadn’t banked on the tough fighting spirit of the Saharawi men in the small Polisario army who, in their old battered Landies knew the Western Sahara like the backs of their hands. The outcome was a terrible guerrilla war that lasted for over sixteen years.
Morocco dropped napalm and phosphorous bombs on tens of thousands of Saharawis, mostly women and children who fled across the border into Algeria where they were granted asylum and allowed to build refugee camps in an area of the desert considered uninhabitable.
It’s a place where temperatures reach a scorching 135 F in summer and plunge below freezing in winter. Sandstorms, called siroccos, rip through the refugee camps without warning. Flash floods wipe out entire tent neighbourhoods, destroying everything in their path. Here, in the southwest corner of Algeria, nearly 200,000 refugees are struggling to survive in this inhospitable part of the great Sahara Desert.
Our three battered South African registered Landies pull into the mud houses and tent camps. This is the most inhospitable part of the Sahara that we’ve ever seen but the people are full of pride and passion and are longing to get back their land.
Our interpreter’s name is Hamadi. “Every family has a martyr”, he says. “I lost four of my family in the war.” Ammi who has travelling with the convoy from Oran says: “I will rather die than live under the Moroccans.
When Morocco and Mauritania invaded us they thought we were just a bunch of desert nomads and that the war would be over in a couple of weeks but we fought them for over ten years and by the time of the UN brokered cease fire we’d given them a bloody nose.
Our advantage was that we knew the desert like the back of our hands. We were known as the nomads of the clouds, forever wandering with our livestock in search of water.” And of course we had “these”, says Ammi and Hamadi tapping the bonnet of my much travelled Land Rover TDi. “Our series 2 and 3 Land Rovers were our armed vehicles. We added extra fuel tanks, machine guns, RPG’s and even anti aircraft guns facing both ways.
We got to know these vehicles backwards and inside out and even took the fight as far as Nouakchott the capital of Mauritania with our iron camels of the desert. Even today it’s the old Landies that are the backbone of transport in the refugee camps, hauling water, supplies, people, livestock and food – we can’t do without them.”
A bone jarring, teeth loosening corrugated track takes us through the camp to a local school where we give out piles of learning materials and best of all for the kids, footballs that are stamped: 2010 World Cup, South Africa. At the hospital we distribute spectacles to the poor sighted.
Over 80% of the population of the refugee camps are women and children. That night we meet the 27th February women’s group. It’s the women that are the backbone of life in the camps, against unbelievable odds these women, many of whom have lost their husbands and sons in the war, have continued to build a nation and organize education, health and hygiene.
It’s a great travesty of justice – a nation in exile with the Moroccans now having built a sand berm longer than the Great Wall of China, armed with 5 million landmines and over 150 000 troops, so keeping the Saharawi’s out.
There’s a concert in our honour, dancers are draped in Saharawi flags, the audience stands and waves peace signs in the air – all they want is to have their country back and South Africa is supporting a UN initiative for a free and fair referendum. The president of this little country in exile, Mr Mohamed Abdelaziz, endorses the expedition Scroll of Peace and Goodwill with these words:
“I warmly welcome these great adventurers of our dear sister South Africa. We in the Saharawi Republic salute and commend this initiative that promotes peace on the continent and helps to eradicate disease… With your great journey you have united the sons of our continent, and shortened the distance – please continue this great effort.”
He walks with us to the car park. “Ah, Land Rovers”, he says. “They are the camels of the Western Sahara.”