Saharawi winter is harsh and the sand feels like hail when the wind blows, slapping the bodies of those who venture out. Nevertheless, every February for the past 13 years the Government of the Saharawi Arab Republic has organized the Sahara Marathon, a 21 km race that unwinds through the same places crossed by the population during the great exodus of 1975. Thousands of riders gather up for this event, a symbol of hope and pride. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, and protected by eight defensive walls beyond which the Algerian desert opens, the Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco because of its fishery and mineral wealth. Here, for over 35 years, 160,000 Sahrawi have lived in a tiny piece of land, a small reminiscence of their past homeland. Confined within five refugee camps, they wait for a referendum on independence that neither the negotiations nor NATO have made possible and which now seems to recede again. “For us, the war never ended”, say the girls in the hustle and bustle of the internet point, and the memory of the exodus is more alive than ever in their mothers who, wearing a uniform, went to the front to shoot enemies. One would not imagine them as soldiers, now so decked out in the colorful batik fabrics that wrap them up from top to toe. Yet, among the mothers of yesterday and the daughters and granddaughters that this time too were ready to run in the desert, there is a legacy that overcomes blood ties and unites them in a race that does not stop. In the direction of freedom.
Jadiyetu Lemrabet and his daughter Tag Mohamed Fadel, 69 and 38 years old respectively
For Tag, ten years in Cuba were enough to forget the habits and the customs of his people. But there she learnt a job, that of the midwife, through which she helps expectant mothers overcoming childbirth anxieties. “Here there are no doctors. And many pregnant women still die with their children. “To see the face of her mother and siblings again was a very strong emotion” she says. “I’ve dreamed about them for 10 years, and the night I came back we have not recognized each other. I was 23, I did not speak Assania (Saharawi Arabic dialect, Ed.) any more, I could no longer pray and I had never even worn the traditional clothing, the Melfa“. The new baby scent mixes with the carpet smell. Suddenly the silence is interrupted by the phone ringing: Tag answers it, glances at Jadiyetu, and starts preparing to welcome a new mom. But the more patient and more careful mother is her own, Jadiyetu. Cross-legged, she holds and rocks her two-month old niece in her arms and has a clear objective. “My daughter has already lost two children. Now this baby has to grow up here. She must grow strong”.
Dekala Mohamed and his daughter Maria Mulay, 35 and 18 years old respectively
In the spartan living room that also serves as a bedroom, Dekala and Mary are squatting in front of a hot teapot. On the floor lies a tray with a bottle of water and some biscuits. I look at Maria, 18, her high cheekbones chiseled like an ivory sculpture. His hands are white as milk. Her nails are neat and clean. “Do you understand what life is like in the camps?”. Her mother poses me the question with a resigned tone. Because now the times have changed: the young generations could continue the struggle of their people for independence thanks to the introduction of solar panels, Internet and television. “Every year – explains the girl – we did the race in the desert all the way to the wall, so that the world would not forget us. Now the only weapon we have is our voice”. Her mother, Dekala, looks at Mary’s hands for a moment. They should be leafing through University books, but they are ready to raise banners and flags of protest instead.
Fatma Mohamed Aloli and niece Fatimata Imahjub Salk, 60 and 20 years old respectively
In my grandmother Fatma’s tent the radio is always on. “We starved! – asserts the woman, hunched by nostalgia while her granddaughter Fatimata improvises a few dance steps and tries to get her involved -. During the exodus to Algeria the children were crying, and we would put stones to cook in the pans, waiting for them to fall asleep”. They cheated poverty that way, with inventiveness. “We kept our sandals together with pieces of cloth – says Fatma – We used the same rags we would sew together to build the tents where we slept all crammed”. It has been 35 years since Grandma Fatma ran away from the promised land, and she has no longer returned there. Her granddaughter Fatimata has never seen that land. Born and raised in refugee camps, she works for the radio. “This is how we manage to keep in touch nowadays” says the girl. “This way, families and friends separated by the wall can contact each other and talk as if they were on the phone”. They cheat poverty and isolation like that now.
Batul Bachri Brahim and daughter Najla Habibi Magfri, 48 and 24 years old respectively.
“If my daughter was to convert I would disown her” mother Batul explains with detached simplicity. In her scale of values her god is the top priority, therefore an unorthodox daughter would be a disgrace. For the entire duration of our visit Najla never lifts up her eyes from the ground. While she talks she observes the carpet, avoiding my gaze. “If we do not act religiously” says Batul “we cannot consider ourselves clean people. For this reason I want my daughters to sleep beside me, so that nothing bad happens to them. Males can stand up for themselves, but daughters can’t, they have to be under my care until they get married”. Najla distributes some incense, it’s crackling on the charcoal as she gets up and leaves me alone with her mother: “I have taught my children three things: first of all the cause pursued by our people, then the appropriate customs, morals and conduct, and finally how to cook. But religion comes first”. A gust of wind and Najla reappears. The sun is setting. “I would like to become an ambassador”, says the girl as if she was telling us about a dream. “She would be proud,” she adds, as she points at her mother with a slight movement of the head “and meanwhile I could let the world know the cause of our people”. And it is understood that this, for her, is talking about her religion.
Jadi Jatu Galaila and granddaughter Lala, 71 and 18 years old respectively
Lala likes to talk about sex and wants compare her attitude towards decency with mine. “Virginity is important for Sahrawi women” she smiles. “I have friends in Spain who do not think twice before going to bed with someone. I wonder how they do it”. Her plump cheeks flush as her grandmother appears. In the sun-heated tent, old Jadi explains the organization of the camps while Lala fiddles with her blond hair. Jadi does not understand Spanish, so her grandaughter takes the opportunity: “Here condoms and the pill are also available, but I’m not sure how many people actually use them. For my Spanish friends instead, this is a favourite conversation topic. When I told them that among the Sahrawi there are families who arrange their children’s marriage they have taken me for a fool.” A stack of bracelets slides back and forth Jadi’s arm as she poures a second glass of tea. Lala looks at them and sighs: “I believe that true freedom is not the absence of rules, but the force of the moral principles we were taught. I do not know how, but our grandmothers have rebuilt an entire society from scratch. And we want to keep that in mind”.
Aysha Nema and daughter Salka Hamdi, 49 and 29 years old respectively
“I never met my father” says Salka “but if he had not died I would not have been adopted by an Italian family, I would not have lived in Rome for almost twenty years now, and would not speak this language that – although not my mother tongue – is the language I think in and I write in as if it was my own”. The first time I met her I thought she was from Rome. I did not understand why she wore the Melfa and did not smoke in public. Then we became friends and we ended up exchanging unconfessed secrets while rinsing the dishes, sat on the kitchen floor. Salka has returned to discover a part of her that was left in the desert, of which she has said very little, often ashamed. Mom Aysha talks about when she was a child. Salka’s voice breaks as she translates her words from Arabic and her eyes fill with tears. “If the strength was not there one had to find it” says her mother looking at her. “We survived this way every day, imagining to breathe the scent of our land”. Perhaps this is one one of the reasons why Salka is here, with her big eyes now lost again in the dunes.