Our correspondent, Beccy Allen, explains why she just ran through a refugee camp in the Saharan Desert.
Not many holidays begin in a military airport, but this trip is different. As hundreds of us, from teenagers to 80 year olds, pile off the plane at Tindouf Airport in southwest Algeria, we begin a journey to understand the plight of the Saharawi refugees of Western Sahara, and a race to raise money for much-needed repairs and projects in their refugee camps.
Navigating Tindouf Airport is an exercise in patience, as the Algerian Air Force slowly pour over our passports. But this pales into insignificance compared to the wait endured by the Saharawi people, who have spent 40 years campaigning to return to their homeland in Western Sahara.
So far they have been unsuccessful and remain scattered between three lands: refugee camps here in Tindouf; a slither of land known as the ‘Liberated Territories’, just north of Mauritania; and the resource-rich ‘Occupied Territories’, which are currently under Moroccan military control.
There isn’t a country in the world that recognises Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, where human rights organisations say the Saharawis’ freedoms are limited and their Bedouin way of life threatened. Having witnessed life in the ‘Occupied Territories’ on a previous trip, I decided to visit Tindouf and take part in the Sahara Marathon to help raise money and awareness for the Saharawi cause.
"The silence is powerful"
Joining me in this mad race are 500 other participants from 32 countries. They don’t all have political agendas; in fact many come simply for the thrill of it, keen to take part in one of the world’s most extreme marathons. They know little about Western Sahara on arrival, but will leave understanding only too well the Saharawi plight.
Before the race we have a few days to settle into the slow rhythm of life in the camps. I’m lodging with a wonderful local family, who live in a small adobe dwelling and Bedouin tent in Smara, one of the wilayas (districts) within the camps. Each wilaya is named after a city in occupied Western Sahara (Smara, Dakhla, Awserd, Laayoune and Boujdour), a reminder of their continued aim to get back to their homeland.
The silence in the camps is powerful and punctuated only by the sound of children playing. There’s an obvious lack of wildlife: no trees through which the wind can rustle, barely a bird in the sky, a few slow moving cars and Land Cruisers. Free-roaming goats and the occasional cat or dog quietly scavenge for food.
Though silence prevails, the marathon creates a tangible sense of excitement in the camps. The race is, of course, grueling. There’s no escape from the sun, which beats down on me every step of the way, and the sand sucks in my dusty trainers as I labour onwards. The stillness of the arid land stretching out towards the horizon is somewhat overwhelming, but it gives meaning to the slogan adopted by the Sahara Marathon organisers: ‘I run best when I run free’.
Refugees line the path as the marathon (okay, I did a half marathon – I’m not that tough) runs through the camps. The message of the race is a simple one, described poetically by the Saharawi organisers: “You show your solidarity with us through every beat of your heart as you race. This is a marathon of resistance – I hope we all win”.
If my presence in this forgotten land brings just a little bit of hope to the Saharawi people, their encouragement inspires me to push to the finish line, which appears like a mirage in the dusty distance. Finally, exhilaratingly, it’s over. I burst into tears from the relief.
The rest of the week I recuperate in my hosts’ modest dwelling, which is undecorated and contains little furniture. We eat together on the floor, around a low table, sharing from one large plate, tucking into feasts of couscous, lentils, camel or fish stews and simple pasta dishes.
"There is a sense of hope"
Meals are cooked in a no-frills kitchen with just a three-ring hob on the floor. Water from a tank in the courtyard is used sparingly. Light in the evenings comes from the moon and a sky full of stars, and strip lights hooked up to car batteries.
The people here are warm, generous and proud. Children are playful and inquisitive, fascinated by my gadgets and the small items I brought as presents. The women are strong and independent and very much the matriarchs. Young girls giggle with us about clothes and beauty regimes, as we tease them about boys.
Life is simple, but community is at the heart of it. Friends and neighbours borrow from one another and help wherever they can. Everyone knows everyone and people call in for tea and a chat at all hours. Announcements come over tannoys from the office at the centre of each daira (neighbourhood).
The tea ritual is important to the Saharawi people and many hours are spent preparing sweet black and mint tea over a basket of hot coals, pouring from up high again and again to create a foam on the tea to keep the sand out. We sit cross legged in the tent discussing the situation in the camps, life in Occupied Western Sahara and ways in which the visitors and the residents can work together to make life a little easier.
In the face of adversity there is a sense of hope and a powerful energy among many of the Saharawi people, whose simple desire is to return to their homeland.
NEED TO KNOW
When to go
The 17th edition of the Sahara Marathon takes place on 28 February 2017. The FiSahara International Film Festival also takes place annually in Tindouf. It’s officially the world’s most remote film fest and, since it was founded in 2003, has been attended by the likes of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
Flights and accommodation
The organisers behind FiSahara and the Sahara Marathon arrange flights from Madrid to Tindouf, as well as accommodation and visas.
It costs €900 to enter the Sahara Marathon, which includes flights from Madrid, accommodation, meals and registration fee. Competitors can take part in 5km (3.1-mile), 10km (6.2-mile), 21km (13-mile) and 42km (26-mile) races. Meanwhile, the FiSahara Film Festival costs €700, which includes flights from Madrid, accommodation and meals.