Africa, the Outside Edge

Apr 1, 2008
Author: Kingsley Holgate

Blog 30

12 February

We gave them a bloody nose

Right to sight in the Sahara

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 Bachir.

“Every family has a martyr”, he says. “I lost four of my family in the war.” Ammi Bol-la, 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.”

The refugee camps

Children awaiting our arrival with footballs and writing materials

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 percent of the population of the refugee camps are women and children. That night we meet the 27th February women’s group, a title which commemorates the day the Saharawi Democratic Republic was founded in 1976. 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 organise education, health and hygiene.

Hundreds of old Landies, each with a story to tell, still live in the refugee camps

We sit cross-legged on hand woven carpets in a high walled, peak roofed tent. Dinner is couscous and camel. Outside there’s a sandstorm. The brave matrons share some of their stories with us. The long walk across the desert to Algeria, sharing whatever food and water they could find, making fires and raking the hot coals into small depressions in the sand so as to make a warm bed for the tiny babies. The stories of their flight and the hard life in the refugee camps are written in deep etched lines on their olive brown faces. Even though they have very little their hospitality is boundless and they pamper us, even giving us trinkets and desert robes to wear.

Longer than the Great Wall of China

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.”

18 February

Across the Meridian line

In the meantime we reach the Greenwich Line, what we consider our halfway mark

And so we turn the Landies around, the Algerian military police meet us outside the town of Tindouf, district by district groups of armed men and vehicles escort us back to Oran. Travelling East across the Greenwich Meridian we make our way along the coast to Algiers. The truth be told, we are dog tired and all the security makes us edgy. The good thing however is that despite the current terrorism threats the Algerian people are superbly friendly, especially when they hear that we are from Janub Afrigia - that’s sort of how you pronounce South Africa in Arabic – we’ll keep you posted.



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