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The other side of the Moroccan Wall

Habib Mohaed, refugee camps in Tindouf, AlgeriaOctober 7, 2015

Little is known about the longest minefield on the planet beyond the people it’s meant to keep out. Meet a man who has lived on both sides of the wall. And chose to be a refugee.

Photo: People walking through sand wind
Sahrawi refugees walk to Smara's camp near in Tindouf, Algeria.Image: AFP/Getty Images/D. Faget

Above all else, Ahmedsalem wants the world to know about the wall. It's rarely in the news and little discussed outside of Africa. But it's the longest continuous minefield on the planet, a militarized zone that runs for 2,700 kilometers. More importantly for Ahmedsalem, it's a wall that divides his people, the Sahrawi.

When 34-year-old Ahmedsalem was growing up in the capital of Western Sahara - Laayoune - he says it felt like he was growing up under military occupation. As a Sahrawi, he was treated differently. He witnessed police brutality. Saw Moroccans let off easy for crimes against Sahrawis. When he protested the wall, he was beaten by police and held in jail.

Now, Ahmedsalem has the rare distinction of having lived on both sides of the wall after he willingly moved to the refugee camps on the border with Algeria. "I just couldn't stand witnessing more atrocities. And even if I could go back, I wouldn't. Unless it was with dignity in a free Western Sahara."

Western Sahara is a divided territory with a complex, war-torn history. Spain ended more than 90 years of colonial rule of Western Sahara in 1975 after decades of a violent Sahrawi independence movement. When the Spanish left, Morocco sent #link:http://theglobalobservatory.org/2015/05/western-sahara-morocco-united-nations/:350,000 settlers# and #link:http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/03/14-western-sahara-ahmed:20,000 troops# into the territory, kicking off a war that lasted for 16 years. Sahrawis fought under the flag of the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria and Libya, while Morocco had backing from France and the United States. Tens of thousands died and more than #link:http://time.com/3085464/theres-a-new-terror-threat-emerging-in-western-sahara-and-the-world-isnt-paying-attention/:100,000 were displaced#.

As Morocco settled the Atlantic side, they built a wall down the middle of the territory, to keep Sahrawis and the Polisario Front in the desert east. The wall was a series of sand berms fortified with thousands of Moroccan soldiers and millions of landmines, finished four years after a UN-sponsored #link:http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14115273:ceasefire in 1991#.

Photo: Aerial view of the border between Moroccan territories
The sand berms separating Moroccan territories and Mauritania.Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Hertzog

Still, the question of governance in the territory remains unresolved to this day. Morocco claims the area as a territory and oversees resource extraction on their side of the wall, such as phosphate mining and fishing. The government backed by the Polisario Front - the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) - oversees the Eastern part of Western Sahara. A 2015 #link:http://bit.ly/1FTrQq9:UN report# said the two parties remain at an impasse: "Forty years after the beginning of this conflict (...) there can be no justification for continuing to maintain the status quo and failing to engage constructively and imaginatively in the search for a solution."

Growing up divided

Ahmedsalem grew up in Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, with about 200,000 people. He studied to become an engineer assistant at the University of Iban Zuhar, in Agadir, a town in Southern Morocco. And he was later hired to work for a Moroccan metallurgical engineer in the military zone - closed to civilian access - of the wall. He said he was carefully scrutinized by Moroccan soldiers everywhere they went.

"It was shocking to think about why they guard that berm," Ahmedsalem says, "and what that wall stands against."

As a student back in 2003, Ahmedsalem protested against Sahrawi dissidents who had been jailed in Morocco. But the more he saw of "the wall of shame" and how Sahrawis were mistreated, the more his political activities grew.

Photo: A man
34-years-old Ahmedsalem, who deliberately chose to live as a refugee with his Sahrawi people.Image: Habib Mohaed

It's a tense state of affairs for Sahrawis in Morocco and Moroccan held areas of Western Sahara, especially for those seeking a political voice. In August of 2015, after a decade of legal struggles, Moroccan authorities finally allowed a Sahrawi rights group to actually register as an organization. Members of the group, including one man who is serving a life sentence, have been jailed in what Human Rights Watch calls "unfair trials".

Ahmedsalem has stories of his own that reflect the same realities. As he tells it, he was arrested by police and beaten after taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Marrakesh. One of his fellow demonstrators was thrown from a building by police and his injuries resulted in him being paralyzed. When Ahmedsalem went to visit him in the hospital, he was arrested and held for eight hours.

He says he knew the protests were dangerous, but that he does not regret them.

The Algerian Refugee Camps

Ahmedsalem decided he could no longer stay in Morocco or Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara. So he moved to Tindouf, a town that is mainly a massive, semi-permanent refugee camp in Southwest Algeria, near where Morocco and Western Sahara meet.

"I live like a refugee," he says, "like my people." According #link:http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c4d6.html:to UNHCR#, 165,000 Sahrawis are currently living in the Tindouf camps.

The 34-year old became an Arabic teacher at Almahfoud Alibaiba's school in the Boujdour refugee camps. Youth shape the majority of the Sahrawi population, particularly in the Camps near Tindouf. But they lack employment opportunities. There has been a sense of frustration amongst the young Sahrawis about about the employment situation leading to the consideration of taking back arms.

Photo: Aerial view of tents and houses.
One of the refugee camps in Tindouf.Image: Mahrez Ben Chenouf

He sees the solution from another angle and organizes protests as part of a youth group called Cries Against the Wall that peacefully protests every two months. Asked about taking up arms, he says he believes nonviolence is the best solution.

On the other side of the wall: The Eastern Side of Western Sahara

Like his fellow Sahrawi refugees in the camps, Ahmedsalem lives on humanitarian aid from the United Nations Refugee Agency. The alternative would be to move to the Eastern parts of Western Sahara. There, however, Sahrawis can't get refugee status and receive no humanitarian aid.

Alt: Map of the Western Sahara region
Following the end of Spain's colonial rule, the Western Sahara region was divided into the "Moroccan Southern territories", occupied by Morocco and the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic", regained by the Sahrawi liberation movement, Polisario Front.

In recent years, refugees started reinhabiting those eastern parts of Western Sahara controlled by SADR - Sahrawis call them liberated territories. It's mostly desert with acacia trees spread throughout its plains and stony hills. Much of the diet comes from camel milk and meat.

Amin Brahim is a 23 year-old who spent ten years in Spain before moving back to this part of Western Sahara in 2011. He joined his parents to take care of their 9 camels and 36 goats. It's not an easy life.

Amin has busy schedule: On a normal day, the young shepherd travels from Smara - one of the five camps named after the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara - to Amhairiz. With an old jeep, he crosses hundreds of kilometers, searching for water. The family waits while he finds green spots for his cattle to graze. When returning home, Amin has to bring wood for the fire as well. "It's an exhausting journey," he says.

Historically a nomadic culture, Sahrawis on the Eastern side must stay well away from the 15 kilometer mined buffer zone of the wall. There are at least 1,500 survivors of landmine explosions, but the number of people who have died is unknown due to lack of resources, according to the Sahrawi Landmine Victims Association.

"I have dared to go there only once," Amin says. "It was a nightmare."

When Ahmedsalem meets his fellow Sahrawi refugees, most have never been to the Western side, have never seen the ocean. 26-year-old Ali Omar works as a taxi driver between six camps linked with a recently paved road. He lives with his parents in the Camps of Smara.

When asked about the Western side of the wall, he says he went near the wall with his parents in 2006.

"I was with my father telling me about the sea and cities behind the barriers," he says. "I could not see them but I felt the warmth of my home country."