It felt like the world was dying. After the lush green hills of North Morocco and the palmeraie of the south, now I was surrounded by nothing except for vast dunes of powdery dust.
|The desert of Laayoune, Nick Jubber|
I had boarded an overnight bus at Inezgane, one of Morocco’s chief transport hubs. Sitting around me were a group of teenage boys who were all returning from a camping trip. It had been organised by the Justice and Development Party – currently the largest party in the Moroccan parliament.
‘Oh yes, we are all Saharawis,’ one of them, Ibrahim, told me. No, he admitted, his parents hadn’t actually been born there, ‘but there is a lot of work to be done because Western Sahara is in need of development.’ One of his friends, Mehdi, was more forthright. ‘You need to understand something,’ he said. ‘Maybe you will meet people and they will say they are the only true Saharawis. But they want us to do all the work for them. My father and his father,’ he continued, wagging a finger at Ibrahim, ‘they are the people who are making this land something more.’ This issue – the settlers and their children versus the indigenous Saharawis – has become one of the core issues in Western Sahara, especially in regard to the proposed UN referendum to decide the fate of the region.
|Camels in Laayoune, Nick Jubber|
Blinking into the glare, as the sun floated over the roof of the bus, we looked across the rocky desert towards Laayoune. We passed a wind turbine, a dairy farm and a cement works. Farmsteads built from the abundant local stone skulked beside acacia groves. Most noticeable of all, though, was the checkpoint: a small pink kiosk where a soldier in grey sat behind his ledger and a tea tray buzzing with flies. Black and white mug-shots of ‘miscreants’ (many of them simply Saharawi activists against the occupation) were tacked to the wall above him. He asked me why I was visiting Laayoune and suggested I move on to Dakhla.
‘You can windsurf there,’ he explained.
Red flags with green five point stars – trumpeting Moroccan sovereignty – fought against the breeze and an archway hooped over us, patterned with seashells in the spandrels. Beyond the Oued Sakiya, military trucks loaded with artillery and Sûreté Nationale vans trundled around us, soldiers in olive-green uniforms picking their way between the early-morning strawberry cart pushers and women in brightly coloured milfhas or men in loose blue dira’a robes. I found myself a room in a downtown hotel above a café frequented by football enthusiasts. I was itching to explore – and to find out for myself what’s really going on in Laayoune.