– I’ve heard there is a wall there – I said.
– What wall? – Husam replied. – It's all just propaganda. There is no wall.
I asked him about Western Sahara. Was it a part of Morocco, like the map shows, or a sovereign country occupied by Morocco? I got a fairly long answer that started with the sentence:
– You know, historically speaking, Western Sahara has always been our, Moroccan land...
Our land... Coming from the Balkans, I've developed a habit to stop listening after those words. They are usually followed by a lengthy, tedious tirade copy-pasted from official history books.
We were sitting on the balcony of his house in Marrakesh, where he occasionally hosts Couchsurfers because he feels lonely. Husam is a software developer, he speaks good English and he is thirtyish. Over the next few days, as we hitchhiked all across Morocco, we learned that no one had ever heard about any desert wall.
When we decided to go to the west of Africa, we weren't sure where exactly Morocco ends. It begins just below Spain, but where does it end? To the south of Morocco lies a large strip of land called Western Sahara.
The transition from Morocco to Western Sahara is barely noticeable. A few (Moroccan) flags and then frequent police checkpoints. Before entering any town, after leaving any town, in the middle of the desert:
The desert is a fascinating place. I felt antsy about the possibility of being surrounded by the monotonous sight of plain nothingness for days; but there were days when the scenery kept changing rapidly – from hour to hour. Golden dunes in the distance and then white sand, red in contrast with the aquamarine of the Atlantic, rocks, dry bushes, camels, rubbish.
On the fifth day, we reached the final point of Western Sahara. From there, we took a night ride to the border which doesn’t open until about 8 a.m. The Arabs that gave us a lift kicked us out at the end of a long queue, because there wasn’t enough space in their car for all of us to sleep. We were encountered by dark and eerie silence. There was no one outside. We were speaking in whispers, though we weren’t sure why. Where are we going to sleep? It was one o’clock in the morning. We could see silhouettes of cars and trucks, and a little bit to the front, we saw a light, possibly coming from a candle. There was some tea boiling on a campfire, and next to it, two skinny men were lying on their sides. Only their dark faces were brightly illuminated.
When we realized that we were going to spend the night at the border in the desert, Katarina insisted that we joined someone, so I asked if we could join the two of them. First they told us to go away, but when we politely insisted, they invited us for tea. For the first 15 minutes we sat in silence, just staring at each other. Both of them were unkempt and tired, as if they had been on the road for a long time. Mohamed, a skinny guy with a moustache, was wearing a blue dress with golden weaving, a traditional Sahrawi robe of Western Sahara's indigenous population. The other one, Anouar, offered us some tea. He poured the thick green tea with mint and a lot of sugar from one cup to another at least two dozen times, in order to create as much foam as possible. Tea without any foam, he explained, is like a girl without a dress. I didn't understand if that was a good thing or a bad one, but I didn't ask. Instead, I asked where they were heading.
– Why do you want to know? Who are you? – they asked in panic.
– We're just students. From Serbia.
– Students? Are you sure? Show us your passports!
Mohamed ran his fingertips down his moustache, looking at my passport, and then got up and went to the car. Are we in trouble? He came back, spread a map next to the little propane tank they were using for making tea, and started pointing:
– We started from here, from Spain. We are heading to Tindouf, in Algeria. We are going all the way down to Mauritania, and then up, over here – he said, pulling his fingertip along the map. – That's where our families are. The Moroccans banished them after we lost the war. They are living in a big, improvised city in the desert. While all that was going on, I was studying abroad...
– But the road you are taking... it's a huge detour. Why not go this way? – I pointed at the map, suggesting a more logical route.
– In fact – he said – it is one and a half thousand extra miles. Unfortunately, this area is off limits. That's where the wall is.
– What wall?
Anouar came closer and started whispering:
– The wall. All the way down across Western Sahara there is a huge wall surrounded with landmines. Almost three thousand kilometers. It splits the country lengthwise in two unequal parts: the one occupied by Morocco, and the free territory. All the Sahrawis who fought against the Moroccan government were ousted deep into the desert, on the other side of the wall. Families were separated. Some of us live here, others live here, and in between there is a wall that officially doesn’t exist.
We asked about the new, empty villages we saw along the road. There are two theories, he said. According to one, the villages were built for remaining Sahrawis, but they refused to move there. The other theory is that they were designated for future colonization by the Moroccans.
– How will all that end? – I asked.
– How do you think it will end? – Anouar replied. – It will be ours again, of course.