It’s hard in Laayoune to ignore the military presence. Every corner produces another military kiosk, and every time you cross the road you have to watch out for another artillery-loaded truck roaring round the corner. Wandering under schoolyard murals of the Moroccan army or portraits of King Mohammed, you can feel the weight of a city living under the heavy cloak of oppression. But in many ways, it’s the most innocuous details that are most telling: the empty teahouses, the lack of young men loitering about, the uncracked roads, the huge public squares with their squat palm trees and bougainvillea, gaudily sprayed about like an uninvited guest’s faltering attempt at charm. And occasionally, more specific signs of the political situation seep through – from the heavily gated compounds of the rich Moroccans who’ve made their fortunes off Western Sahara’s resources to the pink Lux minivans, their back windows taped with signs for the UNHCR “Saharawi Family Visits Programme” – underlining the population displacement caused by the Moroccan invasion of 1975.
On a hot street of orangey-pink hardware stores and tailors’ workshops, where the bench outside the local eatery was full of men in workmen’s overalls and the air pulsed to the beat of jackhammering, I met a group of Saharawi activists.
‘You chose the right day,’ said one of them, called Ahmed. ‘There’s a demonstration this afternoon.’ He looked at his friends, before adding with a dark grin: ‘but it would be the same if we met you tomorrow. Most days, there’s a demonstration.’
This one took place on Avenue Smara, one of the longest roads in the city. Wearing a white djellaba, Ahmed sat beside me in the back of a car. Beside him was Salaam, a young woman in a midnight blue milfha, who carefully folded a pair of gloves over her hands and tightened her head covering so she wouldn’t be easy to identify. ‘Wrap your turban tighter,’ she told me – I’d been given a black one to hide my face and told to keep my giveaway white hands under the window.
A dozen dark blue police trucks lined the road. Helmeted officers stood outside them, holding plastic shields and gripping their batons in their fists. The white vans of the auxiliary forces were parked in the side alleys. As we drove down the road, you could see the crowd gathering – jaws were stiffening, lips were being bitten, brows were being creased. Secret policemen swarmed between them – ‘You see the men on the motorbikes,’ said Ahmed, ‘that’s them – watch out. If they find out about you they’re gonna give you hell.’
News about Sandblast & Western Sahara