A Half Marathon in the Sahara Desert

*note: I wrote this article in March 2016 for worldtravelguide.net – read the edited article here*

Not many holidays begin by landing in a military airport. But then again, this trip was going to be something quite different. As hundreds of us, from teenagers to 80 year olds boarded the flight in Madrid headed for Tindouf in the South West corner of Algeria, we began a journey to understand the plight of the refugees of Western Sahara, and a race to raise money for much-needed repairs and projects there. Tindouf airport offered an exercise in waiting as the Algerian Air Force checked our passports. But that pales into insignificance compared to the waiting of the Saharawis who have spent 40 years divided between three lands: Refugee Camps in Algeria; a small strip of their own in the Liberated Territories just north of Mauritania; and the resource-rich Occupied Territories under Moroccan military control where the Saharawis’ freedoms are limited and their Bedouin way of life is threatened. The Occupied Territories fill with Moroccan settlers at an ever increasing pace and the persecution and intimidation of Saharawis is rife.

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Three days into the trip and I’m running a half marathon through the Sahara Desert. The sun is strong, the ground is uneven and my trainers sink into the sand as I push onwards. The silence of the arid land stretching out towards the horizon is somewhat overwhelming but also gives meaning to the slogan adopted by the Sahara Marathon organisers: ‘I run best when I run free’. Refugees line the path as the race course makes its way through the individual camps and into the desert that runs between them. The message of the race is a simple one, described poetically by the Saharawi organisers: “You show your solidarity with us through every beat of your heart as you race. This is a marathon of resistance – I hope we all win”.

I made my way here because several years ago I found out about a cause that very few people seem to know anything about. Mention the occupied country of Western Sahara and the 40 year struggle for independence and the right for its refugees to return home and you get a lot of blank faces. The Sahara Marathon offers a way to come to the Refugee Camps and raise money for the refugees at the same time. The race brings together over 500 participants from 32 countries in an act of solidarity and endurance. Competitors take part in either 5km, 10km, 21km or 42km races and some walk if they are unable to run. Many come in search of a challenge as part of the series of extreme marathons that take place across the globe, knowing little about Western Sahara and the occupation, but understanding so much when they leave.

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For the week small groups of us each stayed with a family in Smara, one of the wilayas (districts) of the Camps. Each wilaya is named after a city in the Occupied Territories of Western Sahara (Smara, Dakhla, Awserd, Laayoune, Boujdour and the administrative camp of Rabouni), a reminder of their continued aim to get back to their homeland. Each household has a small adobe dwelling and an accompanying bedouin tent. The houses are simple and mainly undecorated with little furniture. We eat together on the floor, around a low table, sharing from one large plate. We had feasts of couscous, lentils, camel or fish stews and simple pasta dishes. Meals are cooked in a no-frills kitchen with just a three ring hob on the floor. Water from a tank in the courtyard is used sparingly. Light in the evenings comes from the moon and a skyfull of stars, and strip lights hooked up to car batteries, every now and then with the aid of a solar panel.

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The relative silence of the camps is powerful. There’s an obvious lack of wildlife: no trees through which the wind can rustle; barely a bird in the sky. A few slow moving cars and Land Cruisers. You come across free roaming goats and the occasional cat or dog but they are quiet and on the hunt for food. Workmen in the street are few and far between, fixing the occasional electricity line.

The people are warm, generous and proud. Children are playful and inquisitive, fascinated by our gadgets and small items brought as presents. The women are strong and independent and very much the matriarchs. Young girls giggle with us about boys and clothes and beauty regimes. Friends and neighbours borrow from one another and help wherever they can. Everyone knows everyone and people call in for tea and a chat at all hours. Announcements come over the tannoy from the office at the centre of each daira (neighbourhood). Life is simple but community is at its heart.

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The tea ritual is important to the Saharawis so hours are spent preparing sweet black and mint tea over a basket of hot coals, pouring from up high again and again to create a foam on the tea to keep the sand out. We sit cross legged in the tent discussing the situation in the Camps, life in Occupied Western Sahara and ways in which the visitors and the residents can work together to make life a little easier. In the face of adversity there is a continued sense of hope and a powerful energy among some young people as they embark on projects of awareness raising with the outside world.

P.S. Find out how you can join Sandblast in February to run the race.

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