February 26

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Among the Saharawi

I feel like I am a long way from anywhere right now.

I am in Smara, the largest of the Saharawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. These camps have housed Saharawi people since the mid-1970s when thousands were expelled from their land in the Western Sahara by the Moroccan army. In 1981, the Moroccans built a wall seperating the refugees from their homeland. The wall is built of sand and rocks, monitored by Moroccan patrols and lined with landmines. But it is not enough to keep Saharawi from escaping what they call the occupied zone into the camps where I now sit.

The wall is what first attracted me to this place. In my few days here I´ve heard some chilling stories about men crossing the wall, and about the dangers the trip entails. These are a brave and proud people, and I have been embraced by their hospitality.

And I am not alone, not this week. Yesterday was the eighth running of the Sahara Marathon, an annual event meant to bring awareness to the Saharawi cause. There were 380 runners registered for the marathon, plus many more for the half marathon, 10km and 5 km runs. I am proud to say that I was the top Canadian in the 10 km race. That is to say I was the only Canadian. It was a remarkable experience running in the desert with Saharawis driving up and down the route ululating and shouting encouragement. When I reached the finish I was welcomed by hundreds of Sharawi women, each draped in vividly coloured fabric that covers everything but their eyes. As I crossed the line, the applause made me feel I´d actually won the race instead of being a mere ¨also ran¨.

More on the Saharawis, the camps, and the wall in upcoming posts.

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