Sunday, 15 April 2012

West Africa part 3 - The Land of Moors


No-man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania can only be described as a graveyard of electrical appliances. Everything from TVs, washing machines, toilets and cars lie segregated into rusting piles of garbage. How this technological wasteland developed in the middle of nowhere is beyond comprehension.

The border crossing ranks as one of the most land mine riddled in the world. This is in large part due to the territorial claim Mauritania once held towards Western Sahara. It was abandoned following a costly war with POLISARIO and a military coup d’etat in 1978. Despite the presence of landmines people seemed to be walking around freely. Some even left the safety of the path to watch comings and goings from sandy garbage hills in the desert. Our car had to struggle across a large area of rocks and craters. The drive was bumpy and time consuming. The Mauritanian side was packed with French overlanders in expensive new land-rovers.

Mauritania has been plagued by numerous cases of kidnapping and killings directed towards westerners. These type of attacks are carried out by the local arm of Al-Qaeda or opportunistic bandits. This makes the majority of the desert country off limits to travelers. We had hoped to visit the ancient caravan town of Chinguetti (seventh holiest city in Islam), but were dissuaded due to the security situation. Driving at night is also to be avoided.

The Sahel is the desert area stretching across Mauritania, Algeria, Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. The majority of the Sahel remains unsafe for travel as the threat of kidnapping is high. Borders are large and porous making conflicts prone to spilling over from one country to another. The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is one example. This conflict is connected to the destabilization caused by the return of Qadaffi’s mercenaries (of whom many were Tuareg) to Chad, Niger and Mali. The Sahel is also dangerous due to its extensive network of drug smuggling routes.

In Mauritania, one main road leads from Nouadhibou (second largest city) along the coast to the capital Nouakchott. The drive was incredible. Vast desert on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see. At times the Atlantic ocean would make an appearance in the distance. The vegetation shifted from patches of green to majestic sand dunes. Small encampments of shacks lay spaciously separated by old tires and decaying garbage. Mauritanians are still nomadic, so many either live in or seek refuge in the desert at regular intervals.

We stopped for lunch at some traditional Mauritanian tea houses (the domain of men). The small entrance led to a cool and colorful room full of pillows. The driver poured water as we washed our hands. He broke into laughter when I used the soap. This was a breach of etiquette as it was meant to be used after the meal.

We were served a large shared plate of rice and camel ears. Else played the vegetarian card, but I was too slow with my excuse and therefore had to eat. Our driver began describing the political situation facing his country, but also gave less than flattering critiques of USA and Israel. In the end he insisted on paying for the meal.

The tea ceremony – Attaya – is of crucial importance in Mauritanian culture. It consists of three seperate rounds of tea, but may last for many hours. It is a forum for maintaining social relationships and acquiring news and gossip. Women bear the brunt of manual labor whilst men lounge around in lazy tea ceremonies. This is of course a stereotype that is undergoing change like the traditional ways of life in Mauritania.

The drive onwards was characterized by a never ending collection of military and police check points. We had made countless copies of our passport information (in French and Arabic). The driver nodded approvingly each time as this made the process considerably shorter.

There were large herds of camels in the distance or crossing the road in front of us. They darted frantically in every direction as the car approached. Desert and pyramid domed houses of green could be seen along the road. The driver stopped to pray. Afterwards he pulled out a large bag of dates and let us eat to our hearts content.


We reached Nouakchott in the evening and realized that this city was beyond anything we could have imagined. Like a desert encampment that had sprouted in the middle of nowhere, become permanent and then been developed with some very random city planning. It’s an unbelievable collection of people and unusual construction. The pavements consist of sand entirely. We checked into the supposedly luxurious hotel Halima as my birthday drew near.

White Moors (those of Arab or Berber descent) constitute nearly 2/3 of the population. This is the dominant group in terms of economy and politics. Black Moors are the descendents of local slaves and make up another portion. They have assimilated the culture and language of the majority, but remain a persecuted and marginalized group. In the early 1990’s around 70,000 were expelled to Senegal and have not been allowed to return. The southern population is Fula. A people spanning across neighboring countries like Senegal and Mali.

Mauritania is a military dictatorship with a history of military coups. The last time they redressed the social order was when the president sought reproachment towards black moors in exile. This went against the aspirations of the ruling elite. A rigid caste-system ensures the survival of slavery in modern day Mauritania. Despite abolition (in 1980) and government denial it is estimated that more than 100,000 people of a 3,3 million population remain slaves. These are ethnically inferior workers that belong to individuals or families for the duration of their lives. For some it is a guarantee of sustenance and shelter, but also crushing poverty and hardship.

On our way to breakfast we bumped into a perfume salesman dressed in his traditional draa (a light blue robe). He was infinitely strange and prone to re-telling a story of a businessman from Paris that was gonna help him with some quality perfume that would drive the locals crazy and make him rich. The conversation grew stale after a while so he dialed up his English speaking friend. I inquired about finding Mauritanian hip hop music. He was also a businessman, but it didn’t seem like either of them had more pressing matters to attend to. We set out on a quest that lead us to the local film institute.

I spoke to the director of the institute in Arabic (In Mauritania and Western Sahara they speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniya) and handed him a list of artists I had compiled. He pointed to one of the names – Monza – the biggest rapper in the country and organizer of the annual Salam Aleykum hip-hop festival. He rang him up and gave me the phone. After a brief chat we were invited to visit his studio. This is also the place where the majority of Mauritanian rap music has been recorded.

To get there we had to find a taxi. We soon learned that taxis don’t exist in the traditional sense. Instead every vehicle could potentially double as a taxi. Therefore one hails down everything until something stops. Later, we tried to order a taxi to our (luxury) hotel. The reception lady broke into a sincere, but mocking laugh. She told us : « This is Mauritania, just go out into the street ». Our local guides were clearly experts and found one after a few heated discussions.

The car drove around a large maze of market stalls on an enormous field of sand, which was the central square. At the same time cars were speeding by in every direction. A kaleidoscope of color and people were congregating in the dust.

Monza is in his thirties and has been rapping for half his life. We were invited into the studio and he played music from his own career as well as other artists. The perfume salesman sat open-mouthed in concentrated awe. He had never heard traditional instruments in combination with this foreign sound. The perfume salesman’s associate was not impressed by the rapping as this was easy and something anyone could do. Mastering the traditional instruments in the background, however, was truly an accomplishment. Monza had no comment. He compiled a large collection of music and videos which was given to us as a gift.

Afterwards we headed to the « African market » to find more cds. The market is a vast maze of makeshift stalls covered in a thick layer of garbage. Plastic sheets or fabrics hang above the narrow passageways to protect from the scorching sun. Deep inside the market we encountered some local youths who were able to help us. They gave us a USB stick full of local rap music. The owner of the stall was a big fan of 2Pac and dreamt of going to the United States in the future. Our guides were retired after a small stand-off concerning the size of the payment. They shuffled off in different directions in search of more business opportunities.

We had arrived in Mauritania carrying all the cash we were expecting to use. Cash machines were not supposed to exist, but did to our surprise. This was a cause for celebration as most nights were spent eating at a Chinese restaurant with extremely overpriced Danish beer. One night we walked home in the pitch darkness and encountered a feminine DVD salesman. He eagerly presented his wares. As we got to the bottom of the pile he whispered «porno» and looked over his shoulder suspiciously. Needless to say his warning rang true. We left him and his stack of Nigerian porn films.

My Birthday

We began the day with breakfast in bed. Later in the afternoon we hitched a ride to the local fish market (on the outskirts of Nouakchott). Thousands of colorfully decorated pirogues (fishing boats) line the beach for as far as the eye can see. The fishermen return in the afternoon with their catch. It is then transported from the boats to the market by human chains. The market is located about a hundred meters from the shore. The atmosphere is extremely lively and colorful. Women in traditional dress work next to fishermen in brightly colored rain gear. We spent a few hours walking around and watching the frantic activity. The sheer scale of impressions is impossible to put into words. We were met with smiles and curiosity as the presence of tourists did not seem to be a common occurrence.

We got into the skeleton of a car – the absolute worst example encountered on the whole trip from Morocco to Ghana. The inside had been ravaged completely and a swarm of flies filled the interior. We jumped off at a small Lebanese tailoring shop. I picked up a Mauritanian flag as well as appraise for my Arabic speaking skills. As we left we were assailed by a deranged woman screaming Quranic passages. More annoying than uncomfortable, she followed us through the bustling market. People were shaking their heads in embarrassment and smiling comfortingly towards us. We left her shouting by the curb until our taxi became a silhouette.

Rosso and Diamma border crossings

After a few days we left Nouakchott heading southwards to Rosso – the busiest border crossing to Senegal. We were packed into the shared taxi like a box of sardines. I sat crouched like a hunchback as neck space was severely limited (and would be in the future also). We arrived after 4-5 hours and many unnecessary pit stops. Rosso lived up to its reputation as a notoriously hustle ridden town of nightmarish proportions. We managed to find overpriced transport to take us to the Diamma border crossing instead – along the road less traveled.

The drive took us through a large national park that stretches across the Mauritania/Senegal border. Huge swarms of birds followed the car playfully in a choreographed dance. Each time the swarm would disappeared into the tall grass only to be relieved by another strain. Warthogs ran across the road in what is the lush and green area of Mauritania. The south is the agricultural bread basket for the entire country. As we left the park we were order to pay an extortionately high amount, but resisted.

The border crossing was swift except for the sheer number of immigration officials hoping to check our passports in the slim hope of extracting bribes. At this point we had no cash whatsoever. When I explained this in Arabic we were let across without further ceremony. On the Senegalese side more of the same ensued. We found some more overpriced transport and left for St. Louis in complete darkness.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

West Africa part 2 - Occupied Western Sahara

This post was translated into English by Sofie Flakk Slinning. The Norwegian version is at the bottom of the page.


We woke to a view of the desert meeting the Atlantic Ocean. Just after, the sun rose and covered the landscape in its warm glow. We had travelled 15 hours by bus from Marrakesh and were about to reach Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara.

Thanks to Christopher's knowledge of Arabic we could decipher the message written on the mountain side as we were entering the city: "LAND OF THE KING". We drove past a massive military camp and over a river glittering under the morning sun, and on two occasions the bus was stopped by police before we could finally enter the city. The checkpoints were identical and only 50 metres apart. The identity of all passengers was checked. As the only westerners we caught the guards' attention and we had to account for our occupations and the reason for our visit. Travelling through the occupied territory we soon got used to this routine.

As we exited the bus we were met by a man offering to drive us to our hotel. Before we had even entered the car it was clear he had a lot to tell us. We should know that we had just arrived in The Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic. He himself was Saharawi and could not tell us enough times that this was not Morocco. He explained how the majority of the legal population lives in Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Algeria. I mentioned the name of the largest refugee camp and he was clearly happy and surprised that we had any knowledge of it.

Laayoune is a relatively young city, founded in 1940. The Southern part of the city is built by the Spanish. They were the colonial power of the area known as Spanish Sahara. Only in 1975 did the city's expansion really kick off after The Green March. This was the year when Spanish troops left the country and 350 000 Moroccans entered Western Sahara to mark their territory. Today, Laayoune is the "Moroccan" city with the largest public expenditure per capita. According to the Rafto Foundation (2007) Moroccan workers in Western Sahara pay no taxes, receive double pay compared to the rest of the country and the state make large investments to ensure welfare and employment. Thus, large amounts of Moroccans are coaxed into Western Sahara - a district policy not too unfamiliar to that concerning Norway's northern territories, but far less legitimate.

We spent a few days exploring Laayoune. The cityscape was characterised by the presence of military and police. Armoured vehicles full of soldiers patrolled the streets at all times. As foreigners, it was hard for us to tell who was Moroccan and who was Saharawi, but stereotypically, Saharawis have a slightly darker skin tone and many of the women wear a traditional, batik-patterned dresses. Since the majority of the Saharawis have been forced to flee and the occupation is constantly expanding, the Saharawis are in a marked minority.

Following the main road from our hotel we arrived at the Main Mosque. Close by lay a large gathering place circled by enormous eight-legged towers topped with floodlights. Also close by lay a crafts market; a dense row of small houses with domed roofs and ornate, colourful wrought iron gates.

We wandered on down a slope and arrived in the Old Town, which in the Spanish era would have constituted the whole city. Here were many more of the domed roofs. Apparently the majority of the dwellings are occupied by Moroccan soldiers as they moved in when the Spanish left. We explored the streets and were met by many curious looks and smiles.

Eventually we arrived at the periphery of the city where we could gaze out over the river, sand dunes and a football pitch teeming with activity. On our way back we were met by four little boys, keen to chat. One spoke English very well, and was wondering "how did you find this place?". He was clearly baffled by the fact that we were there on holiday. He himself did not particularly like Laayoune, having grown up in Mohammedina, a city close to Casablanca. His parents found work in Laayoune, and thus he also had to come here and start school.

Very few of the city's inhabitants are actually born in the city. The population growth is fuelled by state subsidised work places and the incentives mentioned above. Based on this insight - and the dominance of new, bland, boxy buildings - Laayoune occurred to us an artificial city. However, most people were friendly toward us and the city felt safe (unless you happen to be a Saharawi political activist, in which case you have a high risk of persecution, imprisonment and torture.)

Armoured with plentiful copies of all kinds of relevant information about our identities we started the journey to Smara, in the desert a few miles East.


Smara is a city close to Bukra, and it is here the country's phosphate mines are to be found. Rich natural resources provides motivation to continue the costly occupation of Western Sahara: The country boasts some of the world's richest reserves of phosphate and fish, and it is speculated that oil is to be found along the country's shores. According to the people's law trading of these resources is illegal, but it nevertheless occurs on a vast scale, and as such maintains the grounds for the occupation. When driving through areas surrounding Smara we witnessed the enormous infrastructure links where phosphate is transferred to the coast from which it is exported to all corners of the world. The Norwegian company Yara imported phosphate from Western Sahara until 2005, but ceased to do so apparently after pressure from the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara.

If people were surprised to see us in Laayoune, they most definitely were in Smara. Old and Young smiled and chuckled at us in the streets. One man did not seem surprised, however. We had arrived quite late on a Tuesday night. The next morning we wandered from Hotel Amine towards an old mosque on the outskirts of the town, and as we followed the path there we heard a voice from behind: "Christopher, Christopher! Rafoss, Rafoss!". We turned around to meet the gaze of a police man in civilian clothing. He could tell us exactly when we had entered the town and where we were staying. Smilingly he informed us that we could not walk here, that land mines were plentiful and we had to be careful, that in the city there were lots of cafes where we could sit and drink coffee, that would be much nicer! He was very curious as to whether we knew anyone in Smara and if we were visiting anyone in particular.

Other people were freely walking around the area, and there were obviously no land mines. There were, on the other hand, a bunch of military bases close by and we assumed it was these that he was not too keen on us visiting. We had a perfect view to these bases from our hotel room and made sure to take lots of pictures.

In Smara there was a high concentration of the quaint domed roofs and we enjoyed exploring the vernacular architecture. The city is dominated by some large, beautiful portals. The buildings are characterised by decay; the peeling paint makes for an interesting aesthetic. We spent a lot of time on the roof terrace of one particular cafe, an ideal spot for us eager undercover photographers. A self-appointed guide (who constantly managed to track us down) aside, we had a peaceful stay in Smara.

We returned to Laayoune to start the journey to Dhakla in the far south of the country.

A mesmerising drive

Misunderstanding the bus routes to Dhaka turned out to be a blessing. We tracked down the station for shared cabs, and ended up in a car which provided us with a particularly memorable trip through the desert. In the back seat were Christopher, I and the Moroccan soldier Moulay. In the front were the driver and an older Mauritanian gentleman with his daughter. The people in the front said little the entire time, but Moulay was eager to establish contact. Like us, he could speak a tiny bit of French. Helped by a dictionary and Christopher's Arabic we eagerly, if brokenly, communicated. The depth of conversation was limited, but Moulay was eager to explain things we saw along the way. He spoke of the deteriorating grazing opportunities for the camels and several times he emphasised how much greener Tan Tan was, were he was from. He would love for us to come visit and we also wanted to - in sh'Allah. In his bag he carried a large envelope which he eventually wanted to show us. It was an x-ray of his spine. He suffered from rheumatism and his trip to Dhakla was, as far as we could tell, related to his condition.

On a few occasions, the Mauritanian man spoke. We had stopped somewhere to drink tea and go to the toilet. Moulay treated us to tea and introduced us to the traditional Moroccan tea drinking ritual. Back in the car the Mauritanian man revealed his dissatisfaction that Christopher and I had failed to pay the correct toilet fee. He was clearly a principled man, because this issue was one he was not prepared to let us forget. The others in the car defended us as the sum in question was microscopic to the extent that it was incredible for him to have noticed in the first place. Moulay and the driver uttered nervous laughs, probably fearful that we had been insulted by the stern man. The daughter remained silent.

After many hours on the road we finally stopped for lunch in the city of Boujdour. The Mauritanians and Moulay disappeared whilst the driver led us on the hunt for an appropriate place for us to eat. His choice was a little stall where a hooded chef prepared fresh fish in a pan of simmering oil. Our fish cannot have been the first to be fried in this murky substance, but it turned out to be one of the best meals of our entire journey. The gallant driver treated us to mandarins and bananas for dessert and led us back to the car.

The hours flew by as we were driving through the desert, and the sun completed its entire path across the sky before we reached our destination. To us the landscape was so unfamiliar; it felt magical. We felt privileged that coincidence had brought us together with these fantastic travel companions, on this breathtakingly beautiful stretch.

We safely arrived in Dhakla and were dropped off at the station. Our friends drove on, waving out of the windows and the driver threw us a kiss.

In Dhakla, we were quick to seek out a bar we knew existed, as alcohol had been scarce in Morocco and Western Sahara. We had a few too many glasses of what turned out to be the most expensive whiskey. The next morning we woke to the gentle prayer from the minarets, slightly unsure of how we got home.


The first thing we noticed whilst driving into Dhakla were massive new settlements. We asked the bartender from the whiskey bar about this, and he told us they were new dwellings for the Moroccans coming in from the North, where he himself was from. He said that half the population of Dhakla are in the military, the rest connected to the fishing industry.

From Dhakla we were travelling on to Mauritania and as such we needed to exchange some money. This turned out to be difficult, as there appeared to be some Moroccan law which demanded documentation of the money's origins. We had not kept our ATM receipts and were now stuck with large amounts of seemingly worthless money. We created a bit of a scene in the bank, and were noticed by a friendly onlooker who offered to take us to the currency exchange black market. We put our trust in him, and followed. In addition to Arabic and French he spoke Spanish, a language which Christopher also masters, so we could easily communicate. We asked him why he spoke Spanish. Hassan, as he was called, had lived in Cuba for seven years during his military training. He was a Polisario Commander. All of this was told to us in a whisper and he made it clear to us that we should exchange the money first, talk politics later.

The black market turned out to be the reception of the hotel where we were staying. Hassan invited us back to the internet cafe he owned - there we could talk politics. As per our wish he bought us espressos, and as soon as we sat down in his cafe he started explaining the political conditions. He drew a map and explained the borders as they were before and after 1975 and earlier. He drew up the massive wall which divides Western Sahara and illustrated his map with land mines and soldiers (Western Sahara is divided by a wall built by the Moroccans, three times the length of the wall in Palestine. The area surrounding the wall is filled with land mines and prevents contact between those living in refugee camps and the remainder of the population. Many people and animals are killed by the mines each year.). Hassan explained that snipers operate along the wall and that they use methods similar to those of Israeli soldiers in Palestine. Hassan's brother lives in a Polisario-controlled area, having been separated from him during warfare. They could call each other but never discuss political issues, as phone lines were under strict surveillance, especially in and out of areas under Polisario control. He could hear clicking noises which revealed that their conversation was being surveilled when speaking to his brother. When he finished explaining, he tore the map into little pieces and threw it in the bin. Soon a few customers arrived and wondered what we were doing there. He uttered a Salaam Aleykum and elegantly changed the topic. The guests were told that the computers were infected with viruses and they instantly disappeared. This was actually the case and seemed to be a big annoyance for the owner.

In order to fly to Cuba, Hassan first had to travel to the Polisario-controlled area. As it is impossible to cross through Western Sahara because of the mines, snipers and three stretches of barbed wire atop the wall (he continuously illustrated his story and drew the barbed wire for us), he had to travel through the desert in Mauritania and Algeria to continue his journey. He spent a year in the Polisario-controlled area before he travelled to Cuba.

The conversation covered several other topics, one being international politics (Hassan and Christopher agreed that Obama did not deserve the Peace Prize and that the USA had to stop supporting Israel). Hassan also spoke of his love for the desert and of fishing. He explained that he had once caught a 150kg fish, which we assumed to be a bit of an overstatement. After befriending him on Facebook we saw a picture of the fish and our doubts were dispelled.

During the conversation we did have a few language barrier problems. Hassan suddenly decided to call his friend Hassan who spoke English. He soon appeared at the cafe and translated between us and the commander. Hassan no. 2 was from Marrakesh and worked for a Swedish fishing company in Dhakla. He had lived in the city for 18 years. Soon after he arrived he had to leave for bed, as he worked in the port and was expecting a Swedish boat at 2am the next morning.

Even if the phosphate industry is the most profitable, the fishing industry (according to the Support Committee for Western Sahara) is the most problematic. The foreign investment in the fishing industry gives work to tens of thousands of Moroccans in the area.

We parted with Hassan with a promise to meet for dinner later.

We went for a delicious lobster lunch, after which we continued to explore the city. In central Dhakla there is a "Mauritanian market" where Mauritanians and Senegalese come to sell their products (and lots of mobile phones). By coincidence we bumped into Hassan again here. We continued the conversation in the internet cafe and many other cafes. Christopher told Hassan that I was a member of a Norwegian organisation which promotes a free Western Sahara, which seemed to make him even more open toward us. He told us that he recorded videos and pictures which documented Moroccan authorities' abuse, which he sent to a site on the internet. He changed his email address and Facebook profile often to protect himself. He wanted to send us pictures and films that we could share in Norway.

Three month ago his nephew had been tortured and killed in a Moroccan prison. He had pictures which documented this. When we later found Hassan's profile on Facebook we found pictures of him, bruised and bloody. The context was not revealed, but we were sure that this was the result of the Moroccan police's treatment.

Hassan seemed worried about our onward travels in Africa; he told us that further south people have less money and there is a lot of crime.

We have several times come across this kind of scepticism, where people warn us of their neighbouring countries. For example, our bartender warned us that in Mauritania everybody's lazy.

Hassan repeated that he wanted all the best for us and gave us plenty of well-meaning advice for our onward journey: Stay away from the desert in Mauritania where Al Qaida and ex-Ghadaffi soldiers rule. Only travel on public transport, never in glossy vehicles which attract kidnappers. Always live in the centre of cities, be willing to pay a bit more for a better hotel (and preferably stay in a room high in the building). If we were to come into trouble, we should not hesitate to call and he would be right with us.

Armed with his advice we headed for Mauritania an early morning in late January.



Vi vaaknet til synet av oerkenen som moette Atlanterhavet. Like etter stod solen opp og omsvoepet landskapet med sitt varme lys. Vi hadde reist i 15 timer med buss fra Marrakesh og var snart i ferd med aa naa Laayoune – hovedstaden i Vest-Sahara.

Takket vaere Christopher sine arabiskkunnskaper tydet vi proklamasjonen paa fjellveggen ved byens innkjoering: «KONGENS LAND». Vi kjoerte videre forbi et massivt millitaeranlegg og over en elv som glitret i morgenlyset. Bussen ble stoppet av politimyndighetene ved to anledninger foer vi endelig kom inn i byen. Sjekkpunktene var identiske og kun 50 meter fra hverandre. Passasjerenes identitet ble undersoekt. Som de eneste vestlige var vaktene ekstra interesserte i oss og vi maatte redegjoere for vaart yrke og vaar hensikt ved besoeket. Denne rutinen ble vi fort vant til naar vi reiste rundt i det okkuperte landet.

I det vi traadde ut av bussen ble vi moett av en mann som ville kjoere oss til hotellet vaart. Knapt foer vi hadde rukket aa sette oss i bilen hadde han mye han ville fortelle. Vi maatte vite at vi hadde ankommet The Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic. Han var selv saharawi og kunne ikke poengtere nok ganger at dette ikke var marokko. Han forklarte hvordan stoerstedelen av den rettmessige befolningen bor i polisario-kontrollerte flykningeleire i Algerie. Jeg nevnte navnet paa den stoerste flykningeleiren der og han ble tydelig glad og overrasket over at vi hadde kjennskap til dette.

Laayoune er en realtivt ny by, grunnlagt i 1940. Den nedre delen av byen er bygget av spanjolene. De var koloniherrer i omraadet omtalt som Spansk Sahara. Det ble foerst stoerrelse paa byen etter at marokkanerne ankom med Den groenne marsjen i 1975. Det var dette aaret de spanske troppene trakk seg ut, og 350 000 marokkanere stroemmet inn i Vest-Sahara for aa markere territorium. I dag er Laayoune den byen i «Marokko» med stoerst offentlig pengebruk per innbygger. I foelge Raftostiftelsen (2007) betaler marokkanske arbeidere i Vest-Sahara null skatt, faar doble loenninger sammenlignet med landet for oevrig og staten gjoer store investeringer for aa sikre velferd og arbeidsplasser. Slik fristes av marokkanerne i hopetall til Vest-Sahara. En distriktspolitikk ikke fjern fra den Norge driver i vaare nordomraader, men langt mindre legitim.

Vi brukte noen dager paa aa utforske Laayoune. Bybildet var sterkt preget av tilstedevaerelsen av millitaer og politi. Pansrede kjoeretoey fulle av soldater patruljerte gatene til en hver tid. For oss utenforstaaende var det ikke aapenbart aa tyde hvem som var marokkaner og hver som var saharawi. Men saharawiene har rent stereotypisk en litt moerkere hudfarge og mange av kvinnene gaar i en tradisjonell, batikkmoenstret kjole. Ettersom flesteparten av saharawiene er drevet paa flukt og okkupasjonen stadig trappes opp, er saharawiene i kraftig mindretall.

Fulgte vi hovedveien fra hotellet vaart kom vi til hovedmoskeen. Ved den laa en stor forsamlingsplass med en sirkel av enorme, aattebeinede taarn med lyskastere festet paa toppen. Like ved laa ogsaa et haandverksmarked. En rekke av smaa hus tett i tett med halvkuleformede tak og dekorerte smijernsporter i sterke farger.

Vi vandret videre ned en helning om kom til den gamle delen av byen. Det var denne som utgjorde Laayoune i den spanske perioden. Her fantes mange hus med de karakteristiske halvkuleformede takene. I de gamle husene bor det visst hovedsaklig marokkanske soldater ettersom de flyttet inn da spanjolene trakk seg ut. Vi snoket rundt i gatene i den nedre delen av byen og ble moett av mange nyskjerrige blikk og smil.

Etterhvert moette vi byens ytterkant fra hvor man kunne skue ut over elva, sanddyner og en fotballbane med full aktivitet. Paa vei tilbake ble vi moett av fire smaa gutter som ville slaa av en samtale. Den ene snakket veldig bra engelsk og lurte: «How did you find this place?» Tydelig uforstaaende til at vi var her paa ferie. Selv var han ikke spesielt glad i Laayoune. Han var foedt og oppvikst i Mohammedina, en by naer Casablanca, men foreldrene jobbet her og derfor gikk han naa paa skole i Laayoune. Et faatall av innbyggerne i Laayoune er foedt i byen. Befolkningsveksten drives av statssubsidierte arbeidsplasser og insentivene beskrevet over. Basert paa denne innsikten – og paa dominansen av mange nye, pregloese, firkantede bygninger – fremstod Laayoune som en kunstig by. Men de fleste var veldig hyggelige mot oss og byen foeltes trygg. Med mindre man er en saharawisk politisk aktivist. Slik virksomhet medfoerer hoey risiko for etterfoelgelse, fengsling og turtur.

Rustet med flere titalls kopier av all mulig relevant informasjon om vaar identitet satte vi kursen mot Smara, noen mil oestover inn i oerkenen.


Smara ligger like ved Bukra. Det er her landets fosfatgruver finnes. Motivasjonen for aa opprettholde den kostbare okkupasjonen av Vest-Sahara ligger i de rike naturressurene landet har. Vest-Sahara har noen av verdens rikeste reserver av fosfat og fisk, og det spekuleres i om det finnes olje i haveomraadene utenfor kysten. Handel med disse ressursene er ulovlig i foelge folkeretten, men den foregaar i stor skala og opprettholder i saa maate okkupasjonen. Da vi kjoerte i omraadet rundt Smara saa vi det enorme transportbaandet som foerer fosfatet til kysten hvor det eksporteres videre til alle verdens hjoerner. Det norske selskapet Yara importe fosfat fra Vest-Sahara inntil 2005, men gav seg tilsynlatende etter press fra nen norske Stoettekommitteen for Vest-Sahara.

Om folk var overrsaket over aa se oss i Laayoune, var de det hvertfall i Smara. Store og smaa fniste og hilset paa oss i gatene. En mann var imidlertid ikke saa overrrasket over aa se oss. Vi hadde ankommet ganske sent tirsdags kveld. Neste morgen vandret vi ut av Hotel Amine med kurs mot en gammel moské i utkanten av byen. Da vi fulgte stien som skulle foere oss dit hoerte vi en stemme bak oss som ropte: «Christopher, Christopher! Rafoss, Rafoss!». Vi snudde oss og moette blikket til den sivilkledde politimannen som kom mot oss. Han kunne fortelle oss noeyaktig naar vi hadde ankommet byen og hvor vi bodde. Han hadde et konstant smil rundt munnen, men informerte oss om at her kunne vi ikke gaa. Her var det landminer og vi maatte passe paa. Inne i byen var det masse kafeer. Der kunne vi sette oss og drikke kaffe, mye hyggeligere! Han lurte veldig paa om vi kjente noen i Smara og om vi skulle besoeke noen.

Andre mennesker vandret fritt rundt i dette omraadet og fantes selvsagt ingen miner der. Det var for oevrig flere millitaerbaser like ved og det var nok disse som ikke hadde saa lyst paa gjester. Vi hadde for oevrig perfekt utsikt over basene fra hotellrommet vaart og knipset masse bilder.

I Smara var det hoey konsentrasjon av de soete halvkuleformede takene og vi koste oss med aa utforske den originale arkitekturen. Byen domineres av noen store, flotte portaler. Bygningene preges av et forfall med avflassende maling, som gir en estetisk effekt. Vi brukte mye tid paa takterrassen av en kafé. En ideell plassering for ivrige snikfotografer. Med unntak av en selvutnevnt guide som hele tiden klarte aa finne oss, hadde vi et fredelig opphold i Smara.

Vi vendte tilbake til Laayoune for aa komme oss videre til Dhakla, helt soer i landet.

En fortryllende kjoeretur

Det viste seg aa vaere et lykketreff at vi misforstod bussrutene til Dhakla. Alternativ nummer to var aa oppsoeke stasjonen for delte drosjer. Vi havnet i en bil som gav oss en serdeles minnesrik oerkengjennomfart. I baksetet satt Christopher, jeg og den marokkanske soldaten Moulay. Foran satt sjaafoeren og en eldre mauritansk herre med sin datter. De to foran sa lite eller ingenting hele turen, men Moulay var veldig kontaktsoekende. Han kunne i likhet med oss bittelitt fransk. Ved hjelp av ordbok og Christopher sin arabisk kommuniserte vi haltende i vei. Dybden i samtalene var begrenset, men han var veldig ivrig paa aa forklare oss ting vi saa langs veien. Han snakket om beiteforholdene til kamelene som var blitt daarligere i det siste. Han gjentok stadig hvor mye groennere det var i Tan Tan, hvor han kom fra. Han ville svaert gjerne at vi skulle besoeke han der og det ville vi – in sh’Allah. Han hadde en stor konvolutt i vesken sin som han etterhvert ville vise oss. Det var en stor roentgenutskrift av hele ryggen hans. Han hadde raumatsime og turen hans til Dhakla var knyttet til dette, men stort mer forstod vi ikke.

Den mauritanske mannen snakket ved noen faa anledninger. Vi hadde stoppet et sted for aa drikke te og gaa paa do. Moulay spanderte te paa oss og gav oss innfoering i den tradisjonell marokansk teseremoni. Tilbake i bilen uttrykte den mauritanske mannen sin misnoeye over at Christopher og jeg ikke hadde betalt den riktige avgiften for aa laane toalettet. Han var tydelig en mann av prinsipper for han holdt fast paa dette. De andre i bilen avfeide klagen da det handlet om en mikroskopisk sum (det var utrolig at han i det hele tatt hadde lagt merke til det). Moulay og sjaafoeren lo en litt naervoes latter, sikkert i frykt for at vi var blitt fornaermet av den morske mannen. Datteren forble taus.

Etter flere timer paa veien stoppet vi endelig for aa spise lunsj i byen Boujdour. Mauritanerne og Moulay forsvant i en retning, mens sjaafoeren tok oss med paa leting etter et passende spisested for oss. Valget falt paa et lite gatekjoekken hvor en hettekledd kokk tilbredte fersk fisk i en frityrgryte. Vaar fisk var neppe den foerste som ble kokt i den grumsete olja, men det viste seg aa bli et av de beste maaltidene paa hele reisen. Den galante sjaafoeren serverte oss mandariner og bananer til dessert og geleidet oss tilbake til bilen.

Timene floey mens vi kjoerte gjennom oerkenen. Solen tok hele sin bane over himmelen foer vi var fremme. Landskapet var saa fremmed for oss at det foeltes helt magisk. Vi foelte oss priviligerte over at tilfeldigheter hadde bragt oss sammen med dette fantastiske reisefoelget paa denne uendelig vakre strekningen.

Vel fremme i Dhakla ble vi satt av paa stasjonen. Vaare venner kjoerte videre – de vinket ut av vinduene og sjaafoeren kastet slengkyss.

Ved ankomst i Dhakla var vi raske med aa oppsoeke en bar vi visste eksisterte. Alkohol hadde vaert en mangelvare i Marokko og ellers i Vest-Sahara. Vi drakk litt for mange glass av hva som viste seg aa vaere den dyreste whiskeyen. Neste morgen vaaknet vi av minareens myke boennerop. Med et noe uklart minne av hvordan vi var kommet oss hjem.


Det foerste som moette oss da vi kjoerte inn i Dhakla var massive nye bosetninger. Vi spurte bartenderen fra whiskey-kvelden om dette og han sa det var boliger for marokkanere som kom nordfra. Han var selv fra nord. Han sa at halve befolkningen i Dhakla er millitaerfolk mens den andre halvparten tilknyttet fiskeindustrien.

Fra Dhakla skulle vi reise videre til Mauritania og vi oensket dermed aa veksle penger. Vi moette vanskeligheter i forhold til dette grunnet en marokkansk lovgivning som krever dokumentasjon paa pengers opphav ved omveksling. Vi hadde som vanlig takket nei til minibankkvittering og hadde naa store summer, av tilsynelatende verdiloese, penger. Vi lagde et lite spektakkel i banken, noe en vennlig tilskuer plukket opp. Denne tilbudte seg aa ta oss med til det svarte markedet for pengeveksling. Vi fulgte tillitsfulle med. I tillegg til arabisk og fransk snakket han spansk, et spraak Christopher ogsaa behersker. Dermed kunne vi lett komlunisere. Vi spurte hvorfor han snakket spansk. Hassan, som han het, hadde bodd paa Cuba i 7 aar i forbindelse med millitaer trening. Han var polisario-kommandoer. Alt dette ble sagt viskende og han gjorde det klart at vi maatte veksle penger foerst – snakke politikk etterpaa.

Det svarte markedet viste seg aa vaere i resepsjoenen paa hotellet hvor vi bodde. Hassan inviterte oss tilbake til internettkafeen han drev. Der kunne vi snakke om politikk. Men ikke foer. Han kjoepte espresso til oss etter vaart oenske. Saa snart vi var plassert i forretningen hans begynte han aa forklare oss om de politiske forholdene. Han tegnet et kart og demonstrerte hvordan grensene saa ut foer og etter 1975 og ogsaa tidligere. Han tegnet opp den massive muren som deler Vest-Sahara i to og illustrerte med miner og soldater (Vest-Sahara deles i to av en mur oppfoert av Marokko. Muren er tre ganger saa lang som muren i Palestina. Denne er tungt minelagt og sperrer kontakten mellom dem som lever i flykningeleirene og befolkningen i Vest-Shara. Aarlig blir mennesker og dyr drept av minene). Hassan sa at sniksyttere opererer langs muren og at de bruker samme teknikker som israelske soldater i Phalestine. Broren til Hassan bodde i polisarikontrollert omraade. De var blitt separert i forbindelse med krigfoering. De kunne ringes men aldri snakke om politiske spoersmaal. Telefonene var strengt avlyttet, og spesielt samtaler til og fra polisariokontrollerte omraader. Han kunne hoere klikkelydene som indikerte at samtalene ble avlyttet naar han snakket med broren sin. Etter at vi var ferdig med kartet rev han det opp i smaa biter og hev det. Snart kom det noen kunder til kafeen og de lurte paa hva vi gjorde der. Han sa noe om salam aleykum og skiftet elegant samtaletema. Gjestene fikk beskjed om at dataene var virusinfestert saa de dro straks. Dette var for saa vidt sant og syntes aa vaere en stor plage for eieren.

For aa fly til Cuba maatte Hassan foerst reise til det polisariokontrollerte omraadet. Det er umulig aa krysse gjennom Vest-Sahara paa grunn av minene, snikskytterne og tre rader med piggtraad oeverst paa muren (han fortsatte aa illustrere det han fortalte og tegnet piggtraaden for oss). Han maatte reise gjennom oerkenen i Mauritania og Algeri for aa komme videre. Han hadde tilbragt ett aar i polisariokontrollert omraade foer han reiste til Cuba.

Samtalene streifet for oevrig innom mange andre tema som internasjonal politikk (Hassan og Christopher var enige om at Obama ikke hadde fortjent fredsprisen og at USA maatte slutte aa stoette opp om Israel). Dessuten snakket han mye om hvor mye han elsket oerkenen og at han var glad i aa fiske. Han fortalte at han hadde fanget en 150 kilos fisk en gang, noe vi tok for aa vaere en god roeverhistorie. Men etter aa ha blitt venn med han paa facebook saa vi bilde av fisken og tvilen falt.

Vi moette noen spraakbarriaerer underveis. Braatt kom Hassan paa aa ringe vennen sin (ogsaa ved navn Hassan) som snakket engelsk. Han dukket raskt opp i butikken og oversatte mellom oss og kommandoeren. Hassan nr. 2 var fra Marrakesh og jobbet med et svensk fiskeselskap i Dhakla. Han hadde bodd her i 18 aar. Han var havnearbeider og skulle ta i mot en svensk baat i morgen tidlig kl. 02 og maatte gaa aa legge seg ikke lenge etter at han var kommet.

Selv om fosfatindustrien gir stoerst inntekt er fiskeriindustrien, i foelge Stoettekommitteen for Vest-Sahara, den mest problematiske. De utenlandske fiskeriinvesteringene gir flere titusener marokkanske bosettere arbeidsplasser i omraadet.

Vi skiltes fra Hassan med avtale om aa moetes til middag senere.

Vi inntok en deilig hummerlunsj for saa aa utforske byen videre. Sentralt i Dhakla finnes et ‘mauritansk marked’ hvor mauritanere og selegalesere og kommer for aa selge sine lokale produkter (samt masse mobiltelefoner). Ved en tilfeldighet moette vi Hassan igjen her. Vi fortsatte samtalene paa internettkafeen saa vel som andre kafeer. Christopher fortalte at jeg var del av en norsk organisasjon som oensket et fritt Vest-Sahara. Dette syntes aa gjoere Hassan enda mer aapen i forhold til oss. Han fortalte at han tok videoer og bilder som dokumenterte overgrep gjort av markokkanske myndigheter, og sendte dem til et nettsted. Han skiftet ofte epostadresser og facebook-profiler i forbindelse med dette arbeidet. Han ville gjerne sende oss bilder og filmer som vi kunne dele i Norge.

Han fortalte oss at for tre maaneder siden hadde nevoen hans blitt torturert og drept i marokkansk fengsel. Han hadde bilder av dette som han kunne vise oss. Da vi senere undersoekte profilen til Hassan paa facebook saa vi bilder av ham selv med ansiktet blodig og forslaatt. Konteksten var ikke oppgitt, men det var helt sikkert et resultat av marokkansk politibehandling.

Hassan virket bekymret for vaar videre reise i Afrika. Problemet lenger soer i Afrika er at mange har lite penger og kriminaliteten derfor er stor. Vi har for oevrig flere ganger erfart at folk har vaert skeptiske til innbyggerne i nabolandene sine. Bartenderen vaar hadde blant annet forberedt oss pa at i Mauritania var alle late.

Hassan gjentok at han kun oensket oss vel og gav oss mange velmenene raad for ferden videre: Hold dere unna oerkenen i Mauritania hvor Al Qaida og eks-Ghadaffi soldater raader. Reis kun kollektivt, aldri i glinsende kjoeretoey som frister kidnappere. Bo alltid i sentrum av en by og betal gjerne litt mer for et bedre hotel (og bo helst hoeyt oppe). Fikk vi noen problemer maatte vi bare ringe han og han ville ikke noele med aa komme kjoerende.

Rustet med disse gode raadene satte vi kursen mot Mauritania en tidlig morgen i slutten av januar.