Regular readers, to whom I am eternally grateful, may recall that I wrote about a trip to the Sahara Marathon last February *. The various races were run through the refugee camps in south-west Algeria, which house around 200,000 Sahrawi people, who either chose to leave, or were expelled from Western Sahara, when the Moroccans took over the former Spanish Sahara, following the death of dictator, Francisco Franco in 1975.
A freedom movement, called the Polisario, representing the displaced Sahrawi people rose up against what they see as Moroccan occupation of their land. The Moroccans in the meantime constructed a sand-wall, known as a berm, which stretches an extraordinary distance, 2000 kilometres along the eastern edge of Western Sahara, separating it from south-west Algeria. But despite a cease-fire, UN resolutions and vain attempts to institute a referendum, there is political stasis.
Meanwhile the residents of the refugee camps have tried to build a civil society in the arid land. The marathon is both part of that movement towards normality, and an attempt to publicise the plight of the Sahrawi.
The races in February, from 5k (even your ageing scribe was tempted) to the marathon were run in temperatures of around 30C; and for the event’s 10th anniversary Jon Salvador from the Basque Country of Spain delivered a new course record of 2.42.40.
However, most of the Sahrawi fixed their attention on local hero, Salah Amaidan, who won the 5k after falling in the scramble at the start.
The reason I have left Amaidan’s story until now is that the film crew following him, directed by London-based Palestinian, Saeed Taji Farouky are still gathering material for their documentary entitled The Runner; but now need support for its completion. You can find a link to their website and a ‘teaser’ below**.
Amaidan’s story is as extraordinary as that of the Sahara Marathon, and that of his Sahrawi compatriots. Now 27, he was born and raised in the city of El Ayoun, close to the Atlantic coast of Western Sahara. This is in the part of Western Sahara administered by Morocco. When he demonstrated an early aptitude for running, Amaidan was co-opted into the Moroccan athletics system, and went north, to the national training centre in the capital Rabat. He enjoyed success there, winning titles and medals at both domestic and continental level and returning best times of 3:39 for 1500m, and 28:53 for 10000m.
Returning to El Ayoun he says he couldn’t help but “join the intifida,” the popular Sahrawi movement against the Moroccan occupation, which involves civil disobedience. The athletics authorities gave him an ultimatum: come back to live and train in Rabat with the national squad, or forget athletics. “It was a very difficult decision, and I was criticised by my friends, but I went back to Morocco,” he told me (in French) last February.
Official doubts about his loyalty to Morocco meant that his international races were restricted to Africa. But finally, in 2003, his pleas to be able to go and earn some money on the European road circuit were accepted and he joined a small team of runners who went to race on the south coast of France. There he carried out a plan he had been hatching for some time. “No one knew, not even my family”. The race was in Agde, where he made contact with some Rif, who are the original Berber people of North Africa. “I was race favourite, and I arranged with the Rif that they would give me a Sahrawi flag as I entered the finishing straight”.
Amaidan brandished the flag as he crossed the finish line, and of course, a furore ensured. Moroccan officials were furious, and he immediately sought political asylum. “I chose France since it is a country that respects human rights. I stayed for three months in a hostel in Agde, before going to live with friends in Paris for 18 months. Then I moved, and now live in Avignon. My form has really suffered this last year, because I’ve been travelling so much, to conferences across the world, highlighting the plight and suffering of the Saharawi”.
Sahara Marathon winner Salvador, from Bilbao in the Basque country, whose people also suffered much in the Franco era, had words that resonated with those of Amaidan: “There are many Basques here; around 85 of us. We really understand the suffering that the Sahrawi people are going through. Yes, the competition is important, but it’s also important to tell the problems that the people here are having. The two things go together”.
(Photos by Jo Metson Scott)
* click here to read Los Olvidados
** link to The Runner project website and ‘teaser’.