Lost in the Sahara

 

When I was a teacher in Marrakech, Morocco in 1968, there was a pupil, MW, whose results were not brilliant but who was always pleasant, whose company we enjoyed from time to time outside of school. He was quiet, good-humoured and respectful, rather plump as if he led a good life, though in fact his family were quite poor.

 

After our stay in the USA, we returned to Morocco, and Geneviève taught in the military academy in Meknès and was surprised to find the young man there training to be an officer. Although he was really the sort that would never have harmed a fly, there he was in a smart uniform ready to go to war. Why? Because he had found no other way of providing for his family, farmers in the south, where drought brought hardship more and more often. Even if he should be killed, they would be assured of some income.

 

MW visited us often. Beneath the uniform, we recognized the same cheerful disposition we remembered. In return, we spent a delightful day or two with his family in a tiny village in the distant Souss.

 

We remained in touch after our return to France, and when our friend was sent here for more training, he escaped from the rigours of military discipline to relax with us at home. While in the Alps, he was trained to build an igloo, and was then sent to serve in the Sahara, where the king sent his subjects to conquer the dunes he though were his by right.

The war went on. A brother wrote to say our friend had been captured. For a while, they heard his voice on the radio when the Polisario used the prisoners to broadcast propaganda. Then, silence. No more news. A disaster for the family to lose the eldest son.

 

What injustice; a young man, upright, generous and honest, who could have done a lot of good, dying so that a king could double the size of his kingdom, a conquest that the people paid for dearly.

 

Time went by. The world changed. Electronics replaced mechanics. We discovered internet. From time to time, I submitted the name of people I had known to Google, but with little result. One day, I typed the name of W's village, and up came the website created by some young men who were cycling round the world and who happened to stop by in the Souss. The most memorable part of their visit was meeting a middle-aged man that had just been released from captivity by the Saharan rebels, weak and skinny, but full of plans for the future. It could only be our old friend, still  alive after 26 years as a prisoner of war. Half of his life was gone for ever.

 

As this came up on my screen, I could hardly believe my eyes, which were still wet as a wrote a letter to send to the village in the hope that the postman would know where to deliver it. I had no idea whether MW would live there or if any other members of the family were still there. Then one evening, the phone rang, and our friendship resumed where we had left it.

It was great to hear his voice, but not enough. After a few e-mail exchanges, we made a booking for Agadir.

When we arrived, we phoned, but no reply. Next morning, still no reply. Not wanting to sit around, we took a taxi to Tiznit, a little town we used to like, and enjoyed looking around the old markets that had hardly changed, and were quite astonished by the huge new town that had grown up outside the walls.

Back at the hotel, we found a note to say our friend had come to meet us about 30 minutes after we left, and finally had to leave just before we got back. All the family had been waiting with a big meal some 100 km away.

 

On the second day, we took a taxi past the argan trees that grow only in this area and through the orange groves that provide a livelihood, to Taroudant, where we had to change taxis in a chaos of old cars leaking oil all over  the ground outside the city walls, and then on to what we remembered as an outpost on the road to the Tizi n Test col over the mountains. It was now a shapeless, colourless town that had grown as it absorbed the thousands of jobless from the surrounding countryside. As I was asking the driver if by chance he knew our friend, a man appeared, grabbed our suitcase and led the way to the flat where we were expected.

A warm bearhug from MW, a shy smile from his wife (who, of course, did not know us at all) and there we were,  prisoners ourselves for the rest of the week, and delighted to be there!

 

MW's hair was grey, his skin like tanned leather, but his eyes still had a sparkle and his smile was as warm as ever. He had got back both his plumpness and his energy. He showed us the few photos he had (all his personal belongings had disappeared in the desert, clothes, souvenirs, photos) and told us of the overwhelming welcome-home he had had – crowds of people most of whom he hardly knew, if at all, when we would have preferred a quiet time with his family.

 

We talked of old times, of course, but most of all he told us of the work of the Red Cross and France Solidarité, thanks to whom, from 1992, he had been able to get in touch with home once more and receive news and parcels – when his gaolers allowed them through.

He had been in the hands of Algerians, rather than Saharans, who had trundled the prisoners to and fro between the desert and Algiers, bound and blindfold  (don't tell me about Arab unity or Muslim brotherhood; there can be just as much hate there as among Chrisitans and Europeans). In spite of the ill treatment, hunger, forced labour, torture he had had to go through, MW talked most of the companionship of his fellow prisoners, the selfless service of the Red Cross visitors, the vegetables and flowers he had grown, the classes he had taught, the help he had received, the activities they had had to invent to pass the time – knitting pullovers with threads taken from old blankets, for example. Not once was there a trace of hatred or bitterness in his voice.  How enthusiastically he told us about his plans, of the land he had inherited from his father who had died in his absence, and which he had already begun to plant, of the house he had begun to build; of the prisoners' struggle to get their rights recognized; of the children he hoped to raise, but of which there was no sign so far.

 

His pretty wife who had taken time off from her job at the town hall, looked after us, made us comfortable and served us all sorts of delicious dishes. Although we were the first Europeans she had met, she was soon completely at ease with us, and we were happy to see the affection they felt for each other.

 

A few outings, but much of the time we spent indoors, as it rained each day – much to our hosts' delight. Not only is rainfull very irregular in this region, making the difference between a small harvest or none at all, it was also the third time only that MW had seen rain in 27 long years.

 

Twenty-six years lost and gone for ever !

When I think of all that I have done in that time – raised 2 children, 2 goats, 5 sheep and several ducks; lost father, mother, cousins and friends; moved house 7 times, worked in 8 different towns; helped to found three Scottish dance clubs, and set up an annual dance holiday; crossed the Channel at least 50 times and visited 12 other countries; exchanged smiles and laughs with a thousand people and quarreled with a few, too. Nothing to be proud of, just like anyone else.

 

Would MW still have time to live a life?

He certainly intends to!

 

MW is not alone in this situation. There must have been 600 Moroccan prisoners somewhere in the Western Sahara, mere pawns, suffering for the obsessions of unscrupulous leaders who will never give them any thanks. 600 ruined lives. their only hope of revenge being to speak out and reveal the lies of the official government line. They had been sent to quel a rebellion; in fact they were fighting a few Saharan men hoping for autonomy, and very many Algerians, Cubans, Lybians, each pursuing some obscure political aim. Not to speak of the profiteers selling arms to either side.

 

                                                                December 2005

 

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True story:

 

Prisoner in the Sahara

Histoire vraie:

 

Prisonnier du Sahara

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28 – 12 - 05