State of fear
Chris Brazier journeys undercover into
Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.
My heart is in overdrive, an audible, thumping backdrop to the racing anxiety of my mind. The police are coming for me first thing in the morning.
As I lie there in the darkness, the bare box of my cheap hotel room, with its one small window high in the wall, seems like a prison cell. I am utterly alone. Here in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara there are no embassies to turn to for protection, no phone I can use to let people know about my situation.
Escape is impossible, despite my foreknowledge that they are coming for me. The road to Western Sahara runs hundreds of kilometres through arid desert and at least ten Moroccan police checkpoints.
Rationally I know it is a good sign that they are not coming for me till the morning. Surely if they were going to inflict anything like my worst imaginings they would have swooped on me at whatever hour of the night? But reason does not loom large in the darkest hours of the night and as dogs howl and yelp incessantly in the streets of this desert city I stare wide-eyed at my nightmares.
I curse my own irresponsibility. Why had I not thought through the dangers beforehand? Why had I so blithely assumed that if the Moroccan police or military found out I was a journalist rather than a tourist I would simply be thrown out of the country? Two alternative ways of treating me suddenly seem all too possible. They could lock me up as a spy – after all, any serious search of my papers will pretty soon reveal that I am on my way to visit the headquarters of Polisario, the Western Saharan liberation front with whom Morocco is still at war. And I have been taking pictures all day, including one or two of a military camp visible from the top of the hill.
Alternatively I might end up with drugs planted in my luggage so as to scupper my meeting with Polisario. There are already Western tourists locked up in Morocco on drugs charges and such is the official world’s horror of drugs that almost anyone accused of trafficking in them in a foreign place is automatically presumed guilty – I doubt that the British Foreign Office would be extremely energetic on my behalf.
And yet the most awful prospect of all is not that of a Moroccan prison, though I know full well from Amnesty International reports how brutal conditions in one of those can be. It is the idea that I might not see my family again for years, that I might not see my children grow up and that suddenly they might be deprived of their father. It is a long, long night.
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The trip had started well. I flew into Casablanca, Morocco’s economic (though not its political) capital. It was always my plan to start my investigation of Western Sahara by travelling through Morocco, the country which invaded it in 1975 and now sees it as a frontier province – not least because I thought I was more likely to get in as a tourist travelling overland than if I arrived in the occupied Sahara by plane.
Reaching the desert involved two different kinds of journey. The first was a comfortable one by train to Marrakech, in the course of which the Mediterranean landscape of northern Morocco started to give way to more marginal country. The second was much less enjoyable – a gruelling 12-hour journey in two communal taxis (buses to the far south are pretty occasional) broken only by four further hours in the full heat of the sun wondering if the second of these jalopies was ever going to scrape up enough passengers.
South of Marrakech are the Atlas Mountains, which march across the country in three separate ranges. The Atlas are topped with snow in winter but in high summer they had none of that softening, mitigating cloak. No, this was bleak country – the hills were rugged and often raw-red, as if they were bleeding after savage treatment. The settlements were sparse and the only visible agriculture was the odd olive grove; the only glimpse of water, a deep-blue shock, was a reservoir hit in the course of the descent to Taroudannt. This trip through the High Atlas is cracked up by some to be one of the great road journeys. On this evidence that’s pushing it a bit.
South of Agadir – increasingly a Western tourist destination – the road cut through the Anti-Atlas, the last of the three ranges. Almost all the other vehicles on the road were trucks supplying the garrisons of the south. The most spectacular sight was that of whole herds of camel grazing gently. On one particular stretch of plain there were literally hundreds grazing amid the desert scrub as naturally as cows do in an English meadow.
Hour succeeded hour of country populated less often by villages than by police checkpoints, each of which took an inordinate interest in my new European passport, which I soon had reason to curse: it has no section for ‘profession’ and thus prompted everyone looking at it to ask me directly what I do. ‘Company director’ had a lot more authority when it was officially stamped on my old British passport.
Still, they let me through, and whereas at the early checkpoints I was on tenterhooks, by the fourth or fifth I was becoming blasé. At the last one, past midnight and on the outskirts of the Western Saharan capital, L’ayoun, I was summoned for a more formal interview with a uniformed captain who also let me pass. I crawled into bed in the cheapest of hotels, guided there by a local youth who spoke some English. I was beyond caring about the niceties. I’d made it to Western Sahara.
¤ ¤ ¤
My first day in L’ayoun goes well too – at first. I wander around getting my bearings, all too conscious that it is going to be difficult to make meaningful contact with local Saharawis who will be courting trouble with the Moroccan authorities if they talk to me.
L’ayoun was the capital in the days when this was the Spanish Sahara, Spain’s one colonial foothold in Africa. But few traces of Spanish rule remain – when Morocco invaded, denying local people their right to self-determination, the colonial buildings were dismantled and a new, functional city sprang up in its place. It is as if the Moroccans wish to expunge all signs of difference – and a different colonizer is as much evidence of that as the Saharawis’ own traditions. Peculiarly, I witness this impulse made flesh: as I walk past the main post office, the old postbox on the side of the building is being repainted in Moroccan colours and the Spanish word Correos is in the process of being obliterated.
Morocco has invested a great deal of money in L’ayoun – in new buildings and infrastructure that it hopes will attract migrants from the north and persuade Saharawis that opting to be part of Morocco is in their best economic interests. There are many new apartment blocks and also a showpiece new city square, centred on intriguing sail-like structures which offer respite from the Saharan sun.
As I wander around I take eccentric routes across building sites and keep looking behind me, having been told that I will be watched by the secret police every step of the way. But I never detect anyone following – either they’re very good at concealing themselves or else they’re not as all-seeing as they claim . I reconnoitre the hotels where UN personnel stay but do not enter them, knowing that the Moroccans (outrageously) do not allow anyone, locals or visitors, to make contact with UN staff. I intend to try this later, but only at the end of my stay since it will alert the police to what I am doing.
Back in my hotel after lunch the youth who’d guided me the night before turns up and asks if I will come for a coffee so he can practise his English. I go along with him, thinking there can surely be no harm in this provided I avoid politics. Ahmed looks to be in his early twenties. I soon establish that he is a Saharawi rather than a Moroccan settler. I tell him that I would like to see the desert, which is hard to get a sense of within L’ayoun town. He suggests I take a bus to the port, some 15 kilometres away, and offers to go with me.
At this point I am in a quandary. If I am to have any more contact with this guy than a casual coffee I feel I need to let him know that I am a journalist and that it might be dangerous to be seen with me. Yet he might well be a ‘plant’, an informer for the Moroccan secret police, of whom I have been warned there are plenty. I decide that I have to take the risk of telling him. He does not seem fazed and still wants to accompany me.
The bus ride to the port is extraordinary: almost immediately you are in amongst Saharan sand dunes worthy of Beau Geste. They are fantastically beautiful: played on by a stiff sea breeze, they are constantly in motion, millions of particles of sand ever falling, falling. At one point the bus has to stop while a bulldozer clears the road of the latest invading dune.
The port is a scungy, dismal settlement that feels like it is at the end of the earth. I tell Ahmed to leave me and I wander through the chartered streets tormented by the swathes of grit in my eyes (contact lenses and the Sahara do not suit each other). The harbour itself, an important economic area for Morocco, is invisible. I play the naive tourist and wander up to its guarded gates saying I want to see the sea but am turned away brusquely by soldiers. After more disconsolate wandering I catch the bus back and take my leave of Ahmed.
That evening, as I head to my room after dinner, Ahmed reappears. He seems agitated. He says he has overheard the hotel owner on the phone being told that the security police will be coming for me early in the morning. Ahmed says he is worried about me. I tell him to look out for himself and have no further contact with me.
His warning is a mixed blessing: it would have been infinitely easier had I been arrested out of the blue the next day. It is only later that it occurs to me that this might have been an intentional warning designed to consign me to a night of fear. As it is, apart from my feverish anticipation of what might happen, I am propelled into desperate attempts to prepare for the next morning. I write up an innocuous, touristic version of the day’s events to go with my similarly bland account of my time in Morocco. I open the back of my camera to the light, worried that my photos will be taken as evidence of espionage. Then I sink back into the darkness, hoping I have done all I can.
It is the middle of the night before I realize that I have overlooked something vital. Back in Casablanca I met a Saharawi by chance who, over coffee, offered me the name and address of his cousin in L’ayoun. I hid the piece of paper somewhere deep in my luggage and now I can’t remember where it is. It takes me an hour of increasingly panic-stricken searching to find it. But even then I have a problem. I tear it into tiny pieces but cannot think how to dispose of them. I can’t chance putting them in a rubbish bin. The only alternatives seem to be to flush them down the toilet or to eat them. I am in no mood to appreciate the John le Carré quality of the second option and so investigate the first. But the toilet, of course, is little more than a hole in the ground and I am all too aware of the possibility that the paper will not disappear at the bidding of my bucket of water. The second bucket does the business without waking anyone, however, and I breathe again.
Dawn comes as a great relief. I can feel my spirits rising slightly as its fingers claw their way through the window and the wretched dogs cease their howling. I’ve made up my mind that if the police come for me en masse and bundle me away I will tell them I’m a journalist straight away and hope to minimize the risk of being charged with spying. But if they come in less threatening mode I will at least start off by continuing to try to bluff my way out of it.
When they come it is in the shape of a tall, balding man with glasses who introduces himself as the ‘Controller of Foreigners’ and is exaggeratedly courteous. He dismisses my cover story with polite impatience and takes me and my bag to the police station. There he homes in immediately on my camera – he takes my diary as proof that I am a journalist but shows no interest in deciphering the English in which it is written. But the photos are another thing; so often it is the case that photographic evidence is seen as infinitely more threatening than words, as if one has objective truth and the other is just opinion. He does not believe I have only taken one roll of film and examines the unused film suspiciously.
For about an hour of questioning by The Controller, with another official as a witness, I keep up my pretence that I am not a journalist. But eventually I conclude that I am never going to get out of there until I have told them who I am working for – and that if I take my refusal to admit what I am doing too far I might be courting more danger. He says as much at one point: ‘I’d be perfectly within my rights to come down on you like a ton of bricks. But provided you don’t play fast and loose with us again we’re going to let you go. You have, however, to give us something in return.’
So I do: I tell him the name of my magazine and that I have been sent to report on both sides of the Western Sahara dispute. I confirm that I will be meeting Polisario in Algeria. Having got what he wants, at this point he chooses to raise for the first time the possibility that they might treat me as a spy. My heart naturally starts racing again but he is only playing with me, as well as emphasizing how generous he is being in letting me go.
There is no plane leaving before the evening of the next day so I have no alternative but to wait until then. The Controller is free with his dire imprecations as to what will happen to me if I so much as try to get hold of another camera or talk to anyone from the UN. I tell him that I will change to another hotel immediately and then will not set foot outside it again until I have to report to him again and leave for the airport. And despite the absence of any food but breakfast in the hotel, this is what I do; three goons are posted down in the lobby just to make sure.
I still fear that they will discover my film has been sabotaged, that they will contact London and find New Internationalist is a magazine unlikely to be sympathetic to the Moroccan cause. When the phone goes in my hotel room I think it must be my summons to another round of questioning. Who else could it be?
It is Ahmed. I can barely believe it. He introduces himself by name (though I have used a pseudonym), says he found my new hotel via the old one. I tell him he is mad to phone me, that the police are bound to be listening in and that he should put the phone down. He ignores this and asks where he can meet me. I put the phone down myself.
My first reaction is that this is a crazy innocent who has put himself at grave risk out of concern for me – and my agitation is heightened by the idea that he might end up being tortured as a result of his contact with me. Later I realize how much more likely it is that he was a plant from the first. Any Saharawi knows far better than I do how dangerous it is to cross the local secret police and knows young people who have been detained and tortured for showing a Polisario flag or for a word out of turn. To ring up a foreign journalist and give your name when you can be sure the secret police are listening would be foolhardy beyond belief. I still can’t know for sure, though – and this kind of uncertainty about people and their motives is entirely characteristic of life in a police state. If he was on the level I hope the story I have told shows the Moroccans how innocent was his contact with me – though they are likely to have acted on the assumption of his ‘guilt’.
In my second interview with The Controller he makes a point of asking with a meaningful smile if anyone has been ‘bothering’ me. I know he is referring to the phone call but simply say ‘no’. He stresses how foolish I have been and says that they have nothing to hide, that if only I had gone through official channels they would of course have run out the red carpet for me.
He says he feels sure that I will prove to be a journalist of ‘integrity’ who will write only about the truth of what I have seen in L’ayoun, which is, he says, that people are happy and economically thriving. He is sure I will not be like all the other journalists who are ‘paid’ by Polisario to slander Morocco and its King. In the event that I do ‘slander’ Morocco I will of course have to accept the consequences. What the consequences will be, he does not say.
At the airport I am a marked man, pointed out and stared at by every official. It is with great relief that I feel the plane’s wheels lift off the ground and look down for the last time on L’ayoun. I feel very fortunate – but not entirely unscathed, as if my life can never be quite the same again. I think of the individuals locked up below suffering what I only feared. I will not return to L’ayoun unless and until it is the capital of a free and independent Western Sahara.
MAHJOUB ABDULLAH ABEID is pointing to the scars of cigarette burns that litter his legs. He escaped from the Occupied Territories on the night of 9 April by bribing a Moroccan soldier to show him the way through minefields and across the Wall to the area in Polisario control.
‘I had to go because every time something happened they put me in jail. The first time I was in prison for a year-and-a-half after we threw down pro-Polisario leaflets on what we thought was a visiting French delegation but was just a trick to flush out “subversives”.
‘I was tortured regularly. They used to hang me on a stick by my feet and hands then beat me. Other times they’d put me in a container of water a metre-and-a-half deep and hit my head until I went under. In 1995 I had three months in jail after I’d just walked past graffiti saying “Long live Polisario”. The cigarette burns on my legs date from that time. In 1996 I had another three months in jail.
‘There are some Saharawis who support the Moroccans – who want to make money and get privileges. But I would say that in a referendum the vast majority would vote for independence.
‘I join the Polisario army in a few days. Even if the war starts again and I die I will be a martyr – and that will be better than living under the Moroccans.’
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