Strange place this Western Sahara. You can’t help wondering why anyone would want to fight over it, much less build a wall round it. OK, it’s not really a wall, more a sort of high ridge made by digging a deep ditch in the sand and piling the extracted sand along the edge of the ditch. This sand wall is often referred to as the ‘berm’ but I think I’d have to take issue with that. In geographical terms a berm is a narrow horizontal ridge that runs parallel to a beach foreshore made up of storm debris. So, it could be made of sand but it could also be seaweed, shells or even algae. In archaeological terms a berm is the flat bit between a ditch and the next ridge on an earthwork, say a British Iron Age fort perhaps. And yes, that could also be made of sand but, more pertinently, it was a defence measure constructed by man.
Now the sand wall I’m talking about wasn’t caused by storms at sea and it certainly won’t be a subject of archaeological interest for a wee while yet. The only way this sand wall can be called a berm is because it’s a defence measure and it was constructed by man. Unless of course, I’m way off beam and berm is in fact the Sahrawi word for ‘blimey, that’s one hell of a long ditch’. Which it is – for 2500 km it follows a route that’s too complicated to describe without a map but basically runs parallelish with the borders of Mauritania to the south and east then clips the Mauritanian border at its pointy intrusion in the north east and then swings north and ends somewhere in that place where Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Algeria all nearly meet up together. I said it was difficult to describe didn’t I? The areas to the east of the berm, roughly 20% of Western Sahara, are under the control of the Polisario.
These guys are Sahrawi guerrilla fighters who, as the indigenous people of the region, believe they have rightful claim to independence and self-rule in Western Sahara. The United Nations seems to agree too but well, you know how it is? Some wars are just more important and take up more time than others and there’s only so many hours in a day. So basically, over a six-year period between 1981 and 1987 the Moroccans built this bloody great sand and rock wall and pushed the Sahrawis towards the borders and in many cases over the borders and into grim refugee camps situated mainly in Algeria.
And of course, Morocco isn’t the only country that’s gone in for wall building as a means of ensuring the continued suppression of native peoples. Originally the Polisario guerrillas were fighting for independence from Spain but once Spain left the Western Sahara region in 1975, the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved in with their own claims. Eventually the Mauritanians withdrew and the Moroccans took over that bit too. And guess what they’ve done? They’ve built settlements in the ‘occupied’ territory. Sounds a teeny weeny bit familiar doesn’t it? The only time both sides seem to agree is when they both disagree with a UN proposal of which there have been about two in 30 years. The possibility of phosphate reserves in the disputed territory further complicates the issue and perhaps partly explains the grab for land policy of the Moroccan Government.
For the Sahrawis however, their reasoning is simple – they just want somewhere to live. I’d like to think that at some point in the future the need for a sand wall across Western Sahara will become as unnecessary as the hedge that crossed India (1). There is precious little in the way of factual information or the cartography of the hedge. Even less is known about the grief and suffering caused by the hedge. Because there is no physical evidence left there is no constant visual reminder or memorial even? If there is eventually a peaceful settlement between the Moroccans and the Sahrawis I think they should preserve a stretch of the sand wall just to remind everybody of how much suffering we can cause each other sometimes.
I’d have liked to have seen the sand wall but we didn’t. I shouldn’t imagine you’d be allowed within a million miles of it from the Moroccan side. I gather it’s quite effective though, as tanks can’t cope with it. It’s also mined to kingdom come. I wonder where they got them from? Sahrawi insurgents prefer to tackle it in the heat haze of the afternoon when blinded border guards blink into the bleached beyond. At night, half way up a vertiginous man-made sand and rock slope you’d stick out like a sore thumb through a pair of night-vision binoculars. Like the Sahrawi I’d opt for the daytime trip if I had to cross the sand wall.
And talking about archaeology, as we were, when I was trying to find out more about the berm, I found this really interesting website about some archaeological excavations that had taken place in the Northern Sector of Polisario controlled territory. This team appear to be from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and in order to get to the sites they’ve had to have support from the Polisario who’ve been pretty cool about it. They’ve found some interesting stuff out there including rock art, funerary monuments and stone circles. I wouldn’t mind seeing that as well but I’d be hard pushed to fit Algeria into my life right now.
So the website is, www.cru.uea.ac.uk/~118/wsahara.htm Their map shows the location of the berm as well as the archaeological sites. The website also has a good summary of the political history of the region and some good photos of the finds.
Strange too was Ech Toucan. At first we thought it was another army roadside sentry post. They were no hassle – when they did stop you they were efficient, polite and professional. None of the ‘you give me fucky fucky or you don’t get your passport back’ routine here. Personally I wouldn’t blame them if they did hold you up for fun. What an awful place for an army posting especially when you see some of the nice places in Morocco they could’ve been sent to instead. I thought at first that it was probably where they send the guys who’re doing their national service. But then I found out that a huge number of ‘conscripts’ opt to stay on in the army and sign up for squillions of years. If I was the Moroccan Minister of Defence, which I can’t be because there is no Moroccan Ministry of Defence, I’d sent the conscripts somewhere really cushy for 18 months, wait for them to sign up in their droves then pack them off to Western Sahara in their droves.
Incidentally, there is no Moroccan Ministry of Defence because the King is the boss of the Moroccan armed forces. This too is a defence measure, the principle being that if the King is the Minister for Defence then he’d have one less person in the military to mistrust. Yeh well, it’s worth a shot! The army road-side sentry post turned out to be another isolated café-restaurant and petrol station about 200km north from our sweet and sour sandwich stop and around 450km to our planned night stop at Tarfaya. No monolith but a very nice little Italianate terrace with three tables overlooking the garage forecourt and fronting a very large, spotless dining room with a prayer alcove off to one side. Long distance coaches to Dakhla stop here but when we swung in for a coffee break there was just us, a jeep load of soldiers and a huge ginger cat stuck on the roof. And of course, the two elderly guys behind the counter. We had the usual good-natured proposals of marriage then got down to the serious business of ordering two milky coffees in our large plastic mugs.
‘You wanna eat?’ asked Claire.
‘Nah.’ I replied.
Then we saw what the soldiers were having.
After a leisurely lunch on the terrace I popped across to the truck to get something and stood for a moment admiring the monstrous red and white painted communications tower on the hill behind the café. They appear at regular intervals for hundreds of kilometres along the side of the road. Heading north when you first come across them they’re defended to the hilt by armed soldiers and you try not to look as if you’re looking at them and their tower. The closer you get to the ‘Moroccan’ border the less strategic they become and by the time you’ve hit central Morocco nobody seems to care if people build their houses round them. Suddenly I became aware of a figure crossing the forecourt towards me.
(1) Moxham, R. (2001) ‘The Great Hedge of India’