Wandering Through Western Sahara
Western Sahara is the largest disputed and non-governing territory in the world. Formerly a Spanish colony and the last European colony in mainland Africa, it is called the “Southern Provinces” by the Moroccan government, who exercise de facto control over four fifths of it and consider it to be part of The Kingdom. The rest is under the control of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR, who occupy the eastern most region of the territory.
Western Sahara is considered a very volatile place and yet it feels no different than Morocco when you enter into it. We managed to score a ride from Tan Tan, Morocco all the way to Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara. We expected to be greeted by a large military checkpoints upon crossing the “border”, however, we were surprised when we passed through without any indication that we had entered into a new territory. And maybe that was the point. It became more and more obvious as we continued through Western Sahara that Morocco had gone to great lengths to ensure people didn’t feel like they were anywhere besides south Morocco.
We finally did confront the military spectacle we were anticipating when we reached Laayoune. We arrived at nighttime, so there weren’t many cars, but ours was pulled over, perhaps unsurprisingly, and we were told to hand over our passports to the officers. Our driver got out of the car to talk to the police, who were concerned about why we were riding with strangers. They asked us all about where we were coming from, headed to, with whom we were staying and whether he was Moroccan, and what we did for a living. These last two questions came up a lot for reasons we soon discovered, but more on that later.
We told the officers we were staying with a friend and they insisted we give them his phone number so they could call and verify his identity (and probably his occupation as well). The ordeal stretched on for ages, and we were grateful to our ride for being so patient. This certainly would have been a much easier process for them had we not been in the car. After about a half hour, the officers seemed content with our story and we were free to continue. Our ride explained that they would drop us off at a place where we would meet our Couchsurfing host. Apparently, it had all been coordinated at the insistence of the checkpoint officers.
We drove into the city and were dropped off at the meeting spot. We told our ride that we would be fine and that they didn’t have to wait with us. They had done enough for us as it was and we didn’t want to delay them any further. Perhaps it was because the checkpoint officers had insisted or perhaps it was because they, too, were concerned for our safety but they did wait, even after we had gathered our things and walked across the street.
We waited by a building and we noticed an armed guard at the front. We had already seen many armed personnel in the few minutes we had been in the city but we did not think anything of it until men came rushing out and told us we were not allowed to wait there. They ushered us farther down the road and told us we were standing in front of a military base, which was not allowed. Are they really that threatened by two foreign, obvious tourists? Apparently so.
We met our host who brought us to his incredible home, complete with all of the luxuries we had gotten used to living without: a hot shower, Wi-Fi, a full kitchen complete with an oven! He was not from Western Sahara but had moved there for work and was eager to finish his contract so he could move. He told us that having a social life, even in Laayoune, was difficult because of how conservative the culture was. It was something we also began to notice.
No matter how much Morocco considers the region to be theirs, Western Sahara is vastly different than its northern occupier. Around 35% of its “citizens” are Sahrawi, people of the desert. They were historically nomadic and their lands stretched through Morocco, Algieria, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. They were able to move freely in between these borders until the mid-twentieth century, at which point hard borders were instituted by governments seeking to consolidate their control over the region. The governments of these countries discouraged nomadic life and because of this and climate changes, many have now had to abandon the old ways and adopt new, sedentary lifestyles.
These changes aggravated an already burgeoning discontent between the traditionally nomadic people and the governments attempting to impose their control over the area. By this time, decolonization was in full swing and Morocco and Mauritania gained independence in 1956 and 1960, respectively. Even though they were no longer officially in control, the former colonizers maintained influence in the region for a while. Spain’s eventual withdrawal from the region was due to numerous factors including: pressures from the General Assembly to decolonize, Franco’s impending death and the Green March, in which 20,000 Moroccan troops escorted 350,000 unarmed Moroccan civilians into Western Sahara to seize control of it. The Green March convinced Spain that Morocco was prepared to go to war over the territory of Western Sahara and in turn caused tens of thousands of Sahrawi to flee Moroccan controlled cities, setting up improvised refugee camps in the desert. When Spain signed the Madrid Accords in 1975, they ceded administrative control of Western Sahara to Mauritania and Morocco, however, the indigenous Sahrawi’s, who were going to be most affected by the new agreement, were not even invited to the talks.
Soon, open war broke out between Mauritania, Morocco, and group Sahrawi insurgents called the Polisario Front. In 1979, after 4 years of war and their own military coup, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and surrendered all their claims of Western Sahara to the SADR. However, within a matter of weeks, Morocco annexed all the territory that Mauritania had surrendered to the Polisario. They then built a massive sand wall stretching the length of the country, effectively penning the Sahrawi’s into the eastern most part of the territory.
Finally, in 1991, after almost 16 years of war, the UN brokered a ceasefire with the understanding that referendum on independence would soon take place. However, despite multiple attempts to organize one, no vote on independence has ever taken place because the two sides cannot agree on who should be allowed to vote. During negotiations, the Sahrawi’s insisted that only those living in Western Sahara in 1974 and their descendants should be allowed to vote, but Morocco insisted upon the inclusion of all of the Moroccan settlers, who now make up two thirds of the population. Since neither side can agree on who should be allowed to vote, no referendum has taken place and the territory remains disputed.
Because of this history, Western Sahara felt much more like a strange amalgamation between Morocco and Mauritania. The culture was very conservative: women were far more covered, alcohol widely unavailable, mosques everywhere. In addition, Morocco is so concerned with occupying Western Sahara, it incentivizes its citizens to move there by offering them job opportunities and tax deductions (which is why the settler population is so large). Therefore, many people in Western Sahara have a more disposable income than their counterparts in Morocco. Men seem to use a great deal of this extra cash watching football matches at local cafes.
We went to one cafe across the street from where we were staying to catch a game. Gabe, as he usually does, went barefoot and we ordered a coffee and sat down to enjoy the match. Within 10 minutes we were approached by a man who sat down and asked us where we were from and where we were staying. We were not in the mood to interact with people trying to sell us things, as is often the case when people begin talking with us like that, so we answered quickly indicating we were just trying to enjoy our coffee alone. He revealed he was a police officer and asked to see our passports. They were at our friend’s house, we explained and by this point another plain-clothes officer had arrived. Again, they asked what we did for work, who we were staying with, whether he was Moroccan and asked for his phone number. We reluctantly gave it to them and they called him. Unsatisfied with the information they had gathered, they demanded we go to the house and retrieve the passports so Gabe went and the officers insisted on following him. Fifteen minutes later Gabe returned, wearing sandals, and said that they had become suspicious of us because he hadn’t been wearing shoes. We would have to fly more under the radar.
We knew that tensions were high in Western Sahara and we knew that Morocco was very concerned with not letting much information about their subjection of the Sahrawis become too public. Therefore, we learned more and more that they were very concerned about journalists in the area.
The following day, we decided to explore more of the city. We usually do not have a route in mind and prefer to wander around seeing where we end up. We walked up and down streets and passed by a large military enclosure with soldiers standing guard outside barbed wire-lined walls. A bit intense for being in the middle of the city, we thought, although we couldn’t really get a good look at the building. Finally, we came to the edge of the city and decided to turn around, choosing to take a different route than we had come. This proved to be a mistake as we found ourselves outside of the military occupied building we had seen before. This time we could see the sign indicating it was the MINURSO building.
MINURSO is an organization run by the UN who’s primary objective is to monitor the ceasefire in Western Sahara and organize a free and fair vote on independence. However, there have been numerous controversies surrounding MINURSO. For one, it is the only UN peacekeeping mission that does not monitor human rights, despite multiple reports of abuses against the Sahrawi population. Individuals working for MINURSO have also vandalized archeological sites of great cultural significance to the Sahrawi by spray painting their names over 6,000-year-old paintings and engravings.
Many journalists attempting to report on the reality of the situation in Western Sahara, are interested in this organization and in uncovering the truth as to what really goes on within it. Our Couchsurfing host said he once hosted a girl who wanted to write a story on it and that she was caught loitering outside the MINURSO building and it caused very big problems for him.
As we passed by the building we immediately attracted the attention of the officers we had seen standing guard earlier and they yelled at us to stop. They were not pleased by our presence and were highly suspicious because they had already seen us pass by not more than a half hour before. They demanded we show them our passports…again and they wanted to know the details about where we were staying…again. They asked us about what we did for a living and it suddenly clicked that all this time, they wanted to make sure we were not journalists and this time, they were not convinced.
One officer got directly in between Gabe and me and was rapid-fire asking him questions, shoving his face in Gabe’s, attempting to rattle his nerves. We knew we had done nothing wrong and even though we were also very interested in the situation in Western Sahara and knew about the significance of the MINURSO building, we also knew how risky it was to go and film there (we had even left the camera at home because of the problems we had had the night before), so we weren’t about to try. We had simply wandered into the wrong place and we tried to convey this to the skeptical officers.
They asked for the number of our friend once again and I was petrified they would call and once again disturb this poor guy who was just doing us a favor by letting us stay with him! We kept talking in circles, repeating our story to distract the officers from calling and eventually, they let us go with a warning to not return. I was never concerned that they would fuck with us but I was glad we hadn’t had the camera and was extra relieved they had decided not to call our friend.
After this encounter we suddenly understood why we had been repeatedly asked the same questions. They wanted to know our profession to make sure we weren’t journalists. They wanted to know if our host was Moroccan to make sure we weren’t interacting with Sahrawis. I realized then how careful we were going to have to be when getting footage around the area. The men who had shooed us away from the military building our first night in town weren’t concerned that we would do something sketchy but that maybe we were attempting to uncover something sketchy. The thing about secrecy, which for some reasons authoritative governments do not understand, is that the more you keep hidden, the more people want to find out why. However, getting to talk with people from Western Sahara, not Moroccan emigrants, proved harder than we thought.
We stayed in Laayoune longer than we anticipated so when we left, we were ready to get moving. We walked for ages to get out of the city and finally got picked up by two guys going 50 km or so. We were attempting to get to Dakhla that day, which was almost 600 km, so any ride was worthwhile. Of course, we got stopped at another checkpoint leaving the city and for the seemingly bazillionth time, we handed our passports over to officers. They looked at them for ages and then one of the men recognized Gabe from our first checkpoint encounter entering Laayoune. He already knew our backstory, which helped speed up the process.
Our next ride was from a french couple and their two-year old girl. They were traveling in their luxurious RV and we shared a nice afternoon with them, though we got selected by every checkpoint. Gabe and I had read online about fiches and had found a template and printed out a shitload in Agadir, however, at almost every checkpoint, the fiches we had were not sufficient and we needed to use our passports. The french couple had printed out copies of their passports on shared pages with their visa numbers written on each one, which worked much better (when we arrived in Dakhla later, we did the same).
In all the couple took us 500km but they decided to stop a short of Dakhla to sleep by the ocean for a night. We had less than 30 minutes of daylight left, 130km to go to get to Dakhla, and we were in one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. Needless to say, we were a little worried about getting a ride the rest of the way that night (even if a car came by, there was no guarantee they would stop), and with no trees for 1000 miles in every direction, we had no hope of throwing up the hammock.
One car stopped for us, but was only going 80km, which would have left us 50km shy of our destination. If we accepted the ride, it would have been pitch black when we got to the town he was going and at that point we would have next to no chance of getting another ride the rest of the way and would likely still not find a place to put up the hammock. If we denied the ride, we risked getting caught in the dark but could hold out for another person to take us all the way and if nobody came by, at least we knew the french couple were staying there so we could put up a makeshift camp by them.
Gabe has more hitchhiking experience and he said that we should decline and stay here. Although there were less potential rides, the infrequency of cars and the dwindling daylight made it more likely that people would stop for us. Besides, we would not be in any real better situation by getting only 80 km. I was skeptical because we had been using the policy of accepting every ride until that point and I was also just eager to get off the road in general and certainly wasn’t keen on sleeping on it.
However, it turned out to be the right call because 5 minutes later, a truck going all the way to Dakhla pulled up and graciously offered us a place in the already cramped cab. The driver, as it turns out, was a merry, bombastic nutter who laughed infectiously when he let go of the wheel and leaned across all the seats to get into a photo with us. The truck swerved into the other lane and he would occasionally fuck with us by doing so on purpose, enjoying everyone’s reaction. In his defense, you could see for miles on these flat, straight roads so there was little danger of hitting anyone and he knew his.
We survived the ride and arrived at Dakhla at 9 pm. It’s quite a big city so we were worried they would drop us off far from our Couchsurfing host and we would have to walk ages to meet him. But our luck held out once again and we discovered that our host was less than a kilometer away! We grabbed our bags, thanked the driver and the other passengers and set off on a thankfully short walk to meet our Couchsurfing host Mouhssine.
As Dakhla is the last big city before the Mauritanian border, we primarily used our time there to get our ducks in a row. We had heard that you need to pay the Mauritanian border police in euros so we withdrew money some dirham and exchanged them. Annoyingly, there was a hefty fee for withdrawing money from both my bank and the Moroccan one. To top it off, the bank also took a sizable cut for transferring dirham into euros. In all it cost us 30$ (3 days budget) just to get the money we were going to have to hand over to enter Mauritania. (Side note, it is definitely worth doing this however, because if you wait until the border, they will charge you an insane conversion rate!)
We stayed in Dakhla only a few days. There was more we could have explored but after two months between Morocco and Western Sahara, we were ready to get to the next country. Hitchhiking out of Dakhla was surprisingly easy. We left at the crack of dawn because we knew we would have to walk a few kilometers to get to a place to hitch from. Sure enough, the first car we attempted to flag down stopped for us and took us to the edge of the city, past the main checkpoint, a perfect place to get a ride!
The day was still very young, which was good because we knew that the border process would take a while and we did not want to get caught having to spend the night there if we arrived after it closed. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before another ride stopped for us. Two men in a bread delivery truck were making the rounds and piled us in with them. They only had space for three in the cab so I sat up front with them and Gabe squeezed into the back with all of the bread. The driver had obviously been up for a while and he kept sniffing some mysterious black powder he kept in a plastic drug bag. When I asked him what it was, he pointed at his head and then the sky and said it helped him stay awake. Better than falling asleep at the wheel, I guess.
The bread guys wanted us to stay on with them longer but they were making a sizable detour so we got out and started hitching again. Not long after, a van pulled up, which we had seen earlier in the day when we stopped to take a picture of a road sign and they had done the same. We had exchanged pleasantries and they had apologized that their van only had two seats so they could not take us. Well, now when they saw us again, they had a change of heart. “We don’t have a place for you to sit because we have a couch in the back of our van. But if you don’t mind sitting on that, we can take you to the border.” It was the most comfortable ride we’d ever had.
It didn’t take us too long to reach the border and both men had been through many times, as they were based in Senegal. We hung with them through the exit process but as they had a vehicle, it was going to take them much longer to leave than us. We thanked them and said our goodbyes and made our way to the craziest border crossing we have ever experienced.
Western Sahara was not the insane, lawless place we anticipated. Being a disputed territory we expected the region to feel much more volatile; however, we often found ourselves referencing it as Morocco (much to our own dismay). The Moroccan government wants it to feel that way and they have been successful. Their settlements have made the area safer for tourists and has increased the standard of living for residents but I doubt it has pacified those who are still disenfranchised by the system. But there is also very little those people can do to change it. Armed insurgency seems unlikely to be successful as the Moroccan government has taken many steps to control the areas most likely to be targeted. We felt extremely safe hitchhiking around the territory, which was surprising to us as we had anticipated having to be much more alert and vigilant during our time there. In the end, unfortunately for those who dedicate their lives to making it otherwise, Western Sahara does just feel like southern Morocco with more police.