Would you run in the Olympics for the country that occupied your birth country and refused to allow its independence? The subject of a forthcoming documentary on his contested homeland, the Western Sahara.
Photograph by Jo Metson Scott
Salah Ameidan’s presence is striking. His thin but sturdy physique was developed during years of training as a champion long-distance runner. His Sahrawi face, characterized by his golden skin tone and chiseled lines, formed under a desert sun in the stifling climate of state-sponsored occupation.
Like its vast, inhospitable terrain, the Western Sahara’s stories of struggle seem endless. Known as Africa’s last colony, the modern history of this “disputed territory” has been defined by an indigenous people’s fight for a country that has never been. Even before Spain officially relinquished the last remnants of its colonial hold in February 1976, the phosphate-rich land was being claimed by surrounding Mauritania and Morocco.
Three years before, a Sahrawi national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, was born. First it fought the Spanish, later the Mauritanians, and finally Morocco in a war that lasted sixteen years. By the time a ceasefire was agreed upon in September 1991, thousands were dead and many Sahrawis had settled in refugee camps located in neighboring Algeria, which had been excluded from the Madrid Accords granting Mauritania and Morocco administrative control over the territory in February 1976. The Polisario, assisted by the Algerians throughout the war, are still based in these camps, operating as the government-in-exile of their self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Seven years into the war for the Western Sahara, Ameidan was born in the Sahrawi capital city of Al Aaiún, still “administered” by Morocco. Three years earlier, his father lost his leg to a landmine while herding animals in nearby Smara. While he was not outwardly political in his early youth, Ameidan recounts that his running career began as resistance against the occupation forces. As a young boy he was chased by Moroccan police after stealing their caps, but never caught. He is lucky his speed was never tested by bullets.
Ameidan’s extraordinary running skills won him a trial run for youth when he was twelve and the attention of a scout from the Moroccan national team. After intense pressure imposed from high up on his father, the thirteen-year-old was sent over one thousand kilometers away to the Moroccan capital of Rabat to live and train. His teenage years were spent working hard to stay ahead of his competition while quietly resisting assimilation into a country ruled by people who marketed his talent as their own.
In 2003, at the age of twenty-one, Ameidan discovered a way to reconcile his previously opposing identities. While representing Morocco in a race in France, he displayed the Moroccan-outlawed Sahrawi flag in the last two hundred meters before winning first place. Now he lives in France as a professional athlete competing as an exiled activist longing to return to a home in a country that doesn’t exist. Ameidan argues that for the same reason he cannot imagine competing in the Olympics for any other country than the Western Sahara, he cannot bring himself to request formal citizenship.
According to the Moroccan argument, Ameidan’s cause is manufactured, a damaging after-effect of the arbitrary separation of the Western Sahara from its kingdom by Spanish (and French) colonialism. After the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of the Sahrawi right to self-determination in 1975 (prompted by Morocco), King Hassan II organized the “Green March” which saw hundreds of thousands of Moroccans entering the Western Sahara to “recover” the territory. The mass demonstration was publicized as a challenge to Spanish colonialism even though the Spanish were already leaving. But as noted by a recent academic study conducted by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy which explores the origin and evolution of the conflict, “the people who would become known as the Sahrawis were politically independent and competent before colonialism. Their right to their land is not only internally justified by Western Sahara nationalism, but also externally grounded in international law.” Indeed, as Ameidan emphasized throughout our interview, international law has been ruling in favor of the Sahrawi claim for self-determination since the nineteen sixties.
At the heart of the failed U.N.-sponsored negotiation process between the Polisario and Morocco has been the failure to implement a fair referendum which would allow the native Sahrawi population to vote on their future. For its part, Morocco has either tried to manipulate the voter population or has refused to recognize the results of a referendum if one did finally occur. Morocco’s defiance has no doubt been strengthened by the impunity it continues to enjoy due to French and U.S. support which assisted it throughout the war and which supports its position against U.N. resolutions. Morocco enjoys good relations with veto-holding countries like France and the U.S. who in turn receive Moroccan support for their “War on Terror.” Conscious of this important reality, Ameidan is undeterred. The fact that no country has officially agreed to recognize the Western Sahara as part of the Moroccan kingdom inspires hope in him.
Despite some significant similarities to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—during the war Morocco built one of the most heavily fortified “defensive barriers” in the world and continues to encourage Moroccan settlement in the area—the cause of the Sahrawi people is mostly unknown. Despite being branded as a “forgotten conflict,” the cause has nevertheless been picked up by celebrities like Javier Bardem and is ripe for increased media attention. Zunes and Mundy also point out that a new generation of Sahrawi nationalist activists continue to perpetuate the fight from within the camps, in the occupied territories, and in the West as Ameidan is doing.
I spoke to Ameidan while he was training in Basque country, rich with its own history of claims to independence, just as the Tunisian revolution was about to explode into its first stage of success. A local Palestinian, Tamer Birawi, served as translator, and no doubt noticed that while Ameidan was eager to speak about the Sahrawi National Liberation Movement, he was reluctant to talk much about himself. The director of the documentary crew that has been following Ameidan for more than a year, Saeed Taji Farouky, is also half-Palestinian (and Egyptian). Farouky is the founder of the independent
film-making company, Tourist with a Typewriter, and has been producing a documentary about Ameidan called The Runner. While assisting me with getting in touch with Ameidan, Farouky confided that Ameidan’s life has been a challenge to document, marked as it is by unpredictability and Ameidan’s own resistance to scheduling. But apparent in Farouky’s recounting of the film-making process is the art of attention to detail which will give the audience an intimate understanding of Ameidan’s life. Writes Farouky: “He falls asleep listening to Sahrawi radio, people from around the world calling in to share their thoughts on the latest news, events, rumors. This is his universe, and he can’t stand to be too far from it.”
—Jasmin Ramsey for Guernica
Guernica: What is your earliest memory of the occupation?
Salah Ameidan: The first memory I have of an experience that really made me conscious of the conditions of my people came after I had moved from my home in Al Aaiún to Rabat. The move was a consequence of my excellent results in long-distance running competitions in southern Morocco. I was thirteen years old when I won the best time in my category and when the Moroccans discovered this they proposed to my family that I move to the capital and represent Morocco in international competitions. I didn’t want to move because I wanted to stay in my homeland, but the authorities intervened and pressured my family in various ways and tried to convince my father that if I moved to Rabat and trained with the national Moroccan team it would greatly benefit me and my whole family. My father was pressured by authorities until he agreed.
It was in Rabat that my political consciousness began its awakening. I immediately noticed for example the difference in terms of visible military and police presence in daily life in Rabat versus Al Aaiún. Al Aaiún has a very large and intimidating military and police presence, but in Rabat there was hardly anything comparable. I also became conscious of the difference in daily life between Sahrawis and Moroccans. I noticed the different way my Moroccan teammates spoke, which was nothing like me. During those four years in Rabat I actually became aware of my identity as a Sahrawi which is something completely different from a Moroccan.
Sahrawis don’t kiss the hand of authority figures as Moroccans do, and so when we had to attend events I would be polite and offer a handshake which was really looked down on.
Guernica: What was life like in Al Aaiún?
Salah Ameidan: It’s a life under occupation. Every person is controlled, every aspect of life is controlled and people don’t have the liberty to do what they want. Instead they have to do what they can and most of what they can do is dictated by the occupiers.
Guernica: Do you still have a big family there?
Salah Ameidan: I have five sisters and three brothers, and then there are my parents. But this is only my immediate family; there are many other members. We have a large extended family that we are close to as well.
Guernica: Who do you feel closest to?
Salah Ameidan: My mother. She is the greatest driving force in my life and has always been there for me, in good times and in bad. She does everything she can to stay in contact with me so she can know that I am okay, regardless of what part of the world I’m in. She has not only accepted the decisions I have made in my life, but has supported me all the way. She is incredibly resilient. My family has been persecuted by the Moroccans and she has been forced to endure the resulting separation from us. My brother was imprisoned for a year and a half when he was only fifteen years old. His body is marked with the torture he had to endure. My cousins have been imprisoned. Four of my family members have been exiled out of the occupied Sahara including myself.
Guernica: How did your Moroccan team members and other Moroccans treat you?
Salah Ameidan: Normal Moroccans in Rabat treated me normally, and in some ways, more than just normally. I remember they used to call me Sahrawi and how that made me feel like they accepted that I was different than them—that they recognized my unique identity.
But officially I was not to be treated this way. The sports center where I was training was directed by a man who was very close to the Moroccan King and other officials there were also police. I remember that from the very beginning of my training I was told not to talk about politics and encouraged to wear the official clothing of the team. They were regularly investigating whether I had spoken to my teammates about the conflict between the Western Sahara and Morocco. The ironic thing is that this line of questioning and intense suspicion actually opened my eyes to the reality of the conflict much more than if they had just stayed quiet. They were always telling me not to talk about politics or the Western Sahara or what was going on in Al Aaiún or about protests. In the beginning I was not doing these things at all but they opened my eyes to the fact that politics exist even in the domain of sports which made me more curious about the situation all together.
Guernica: So they tried to assimilate you into Moroccan culture.
Salah Ameidan: Yes. The trainers who were connected to the Moroccan officials would speak to me in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. At first I couldn’t understand what they were saying because it’s different from the Sahrawi tongue. So I tried to speak in classical modern Arabic but they resisted this as well. They clearly wanted me to learn the Moroccan dialect so they could present me as a Moroccan runner. At events where there were ambassadors and representatives of other countries I was placed at the head of the line of my team members and presented as a Moroccan from the Sahara. I was identified by the media in newspapers as a Moroccan from the Sahara. They wanted me to accept Moroccan traditions. Sahrawis don’t kiss the hand of authority figures as Moroccans do, and so when we had to attend events I would be polite and offer a handshake which was really looked down on. I was hassled about my behavior many times. But I wouldn’t even kiss the hand of the Moroccan King if he was in front of me—why should I?
I was kept in a very small room with many others. They kept me for eighteen days. I was beaten all over my body every day and interrogated every day.
Guernica: Have you been referred to as a traitor for running for the Moroccans?
Salah Ameidan: I have never heard any Sahrawi call me a traitor; it would be very unusual for them to do so. This idea is much more in line with the Moroccan way of thinking. Moroccans want Sahrawis to abandon their fight for national liberation and integrate with Morocco. If a Sahrawi resists, then he is considered a traitor, a threat, whatever you want to call him in order to delegitamize him.
Guernica: Has anyone in your family been active with the Sahrawi official national liberation movement, the Polisario Front?
Salah Ameidan: No one in my family joined the Polisario because they were either born after the beginning of the armed struggle or because they were born inside the occupied territory where it’s actually very difficult to join the Polisario, who live outside this area. The Polisario operate out of the refugee camps in Algeria, in Tindouf, and Sahrawis living in Al Aaiún would find it very difficult to get to the Polisario because of the occupation forces’ stronghold on our lives.
Guernica: Do you consider the Polisario the Sahrawi people’s representatives?
Salah Ameidan: Yes, of course I do. They have been fighting for Sahrawi interests since their founding and now they are negotiating with the Moroccans for a solution to the conflict.
Guernica: Did you ever feel the desire to take up arms against your occupiers?
Salah Ameidan: Sahrawis are not inherently violent people; they don’t consider violence a preferred mode of resistance. Sahrawis are peaceful people. But if the conditions in which they live do not allow them to resist peacefully, they will turn to other methods. If Sahrawis do turn to armed resistance again, it will be because their living situation has become unbearable.
Guernica: But you did engage in political activities and were arrested once, right?
Salah Ameidan: Yes, I was arrested in October 1999, during what is known as the “Intifada of Al Aaiún.” I was in Al Aaiún because I had injured my leg and was recovering with my family. During this time a people’s revolt erupted which began as protests over socioeconomic living standards and quickly progressed into a mass political movement. On the sixth day of the protests I was arrested along with many others.
I participated in the protests because that is the natural thing to do when everyone is in the streets.
Guernica: Can you describe what happened during your detainment?
Salah Ameidan: The arrest began the way it normally does when Sahrawis are arrested by the Moroccan authorities, with loud, intimidating knocking at my home early in the morning, followed by a trip to the police building. I was kept in a very small room with many others. They kept me for eighteen days. I was beaten all over my body every day and interrogated every day. My interrogators showed me a video of the protest. They had identified me because I was wearing the pants of the Moroccan national running team and they wanted to know why. When I told them I was a member of the team they didn’t believe me and continued the process of asking me who I knew and if I was from the Polisario. I explained why I was in Al Aaiún and told them I had participated in the protests because that is the natural thing to do when everyone is out in the streets. In the end there were interventions from high up confirming my story. My sports director pressured the police to let me go. They gave me a choice between remaining in Al Aaiún and being charged through the court process which would land me in prison or returning to Rabat to continue to compete after which they would forget everything as long as I behaved and promised not to return to Al Aaiún. My family and I decided that Rabat was the only real option I had at the time.
Guernica: So in 1999, you narrowly escaped imprisonment by the Moroccans for participating in political protest. Then in 2003 just before winning a 10K race in France for the Moroccan team you waved the Sahrawi flag—illegal in Morocco—during the last two hundred meters. Why did you choose to do it then?
Salah Ameidan: I chose France because as long as it protects the Moroccan regime they are responsible for what is happening in the Sahara. I wanted to make a statement in front of the French and people all over the world as an individual about my personal reality and to express the collective Sahrawi reality, which is defined by a life fighting against occupation and repression.
Guernica: You were living under occupation in Al Aaiún and now in France you don’t have citizenship. You are there as a political refugee. Is there any place that you feel free?
Salah Ameidan: I don’t think I’ve ever felt real freedom before. I am living in a free country like France now but my mind is always consumed with thoughts about my homeland, my family, my people. There have been times when I have considered obtaining the security and assistance from a country to secure myself personally. But I am very conscious of the fact that if a country like France is unwilling to protect the Sahrawi people as a whole, then it won’t be able to protect me as an individual.
Guernica: When you are training what is your routine like?
Salah Ameidan: I run two times a day. In a week I do about one hundred and thirty kilometers. But my official training distance/mobility is fifteen hundred meters and three thousand meters with obstacles. I participate in popular marathons which happen on the road and across cities and whenever I can I display the Sahrawi flag or Sahrawi symbols to make a statement about the Sahrawi national independence movement.
International law has ruled that Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. It sides with the Sahrawi argument. This is the case regardless of what Morocco says.
Guernica: What do you feel when you’re running?
Salah Ameidan: Participating in the sport of running is the most peaceful way for me to relay the Sahrawi message, which is focused on the right to self-determination, to the world. I am no longer entirely consumed with winning or becoming a world champion. I run with more purpose than that.
Guernica: Do you feel free when you’re running?
Salah Ameidan: I love running. Before 2003, my aim was to become a champion. But after that point my mind has been consumed more and more with thoughts about my people and my homeland—what will happen to my mother and the rest of my family? They continue to be hassled and humiliated by the Moroccan occupation forces. Even when I’m training, my mind is not empty; it’s possessed with these issues.
Guernica: Do you dream of competing in the Olympics? What country would you run for?
Salah Ameidan: Yes, I do wish to participate in the Olympics games. But I don’t think that I would represent any other country than my own.
Guernica: Morocco says the Western Sahara has always been part of its kingdom and that it was separated from them by Spanish colonialism.
Salah Ameidan: Morocco makes a lot of incorrect statements not only with respect to the Sahara but also with regards to Mauritania and even Algeria and other neighbors. So the question shouldn’t be about what Morocco is saying or even what the Polisario are saying, but what international law says now, in this moment, about the conflict. According to international law, Sahrawis have a right to determine our own future. That’s where people should be looking when trying to understand the reality of the situation. They need to begin by inquiring into the international legal status of the Western Sahara. International law has ruled that Sahrawis have a right to self-determination and to taking their lives and their future into their own hands. It sides with the Sahrawi argument. This is the case regardless of what Morocco says.
Guernica: September 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the ceasefire between the Moroccans and the Polisario. The Polisario have been physically inactive since then, having ended armed resistance to focus on ongoing political campaigning and negotiations mediated by the U.N. In 2003 the U.N. put forward a peace plan which proposed a period of autonomy and a referendum in five years wherein the Sahrawis would get to vote on what they wanted for their future, or their “final status.” Morocco didn’t agree to much of the proposal, their loudest objection being in reference to the referendum. Do you think they ever will allow one?
Salah Ameidan: Eventually the international community will implement a solution which respects the right of the Sahrawis to decide our future. The right to self-determination is an essential right and if it is not respected there will be no solution to this conflict. As long as the involved parties and the international community are working to resolve this issue with this in mind, the Sahrawis and the Polisario will wait. But if the international community stops working on the solution and denies this right to us, no one can be sure that Sahrawis will not take up arms again.
Guernica: Okay, but the United States is the most powerful country in the world. It and other powerful countries like France have good relations with Morocco. How will Sahrawis convince the international community to uphold their rights when these countries are undermining U.N. security council resolutions?
Salah Ameidan: We are not asking the Americans or the French to be anything more than neutral. To this day no one has recognized the Western Sahara as part of Morocco at least publicly or officially. This is reason to be hopeful. But the final resolution is in the hands of the Sahrawi people. It always has been. International law needs to be respected and a solution should be implemented with the support of law-abiding countries. If it is not, the resolution of the problem will return to the Sahrawis.
We are not asking the Americans or French to be anything more than neutral.
Guernica: And how should the Sahrawi people resist?
Salah Ameidan: Sahrawis believe in international legality. Only when the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination is denied will they rely on themselves alone again.
Guernica: Do you want complete independence for Western Sahara?
Salah Ameidan: My country, the Western Sahara, is located between Morocco and Mauritania. It is occupied by Morocco; they are colonialists on our soil. Before this my country was colonized by the Spanish. We were in war with Spain when Morocco and Mauritania invaded in 1975; it’s against them that we have continued the war. A large part of our population escaped to Algeria after bombings by the Moroccans. They settled themselves around the city of Tindouf. In 1979, Mauritania recognized our republic, which we proclaimed in 1976 as “la République Arabe Sahraouie Démocratique.” Morocco then tried to occupy all of our country. And to protect their pillage of our natural resources, they began building a wall that measures more than two thousand kilometers. This wall cuts my country in half, and separates the Sahrawi people and their families. It is also surrounded by the largest mine field in the world.
In 1991, the Sahrawis, represented by our national liberation movement, the Polisario, and Morocco signed a ceasefire agreement under the U.N. which stipulated that there should be a referendum for Sahrawis to choose their identity as being either Sahrawi or Moroccan.
The U.N. also created the MINURSO [Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara]. Its mission consisted of overseeing the ceasefire and organizing the referendum. It has been twenty years that MINURSO has failed its main purpose. To this day, Morocco continues to impede this process in the U.N., and the territory is still in need of decolonization. The Sahrawi people want full independence and Morocco must respect international law and our legitimacy.
Guernica: You mentioned the wall. Like the Israelis who are maintaining the longest occupation in modern history, the Moroccans initially built this “defensive wall” to protect themselves against attacks by the Polisario. Do you identify with the Palestinian cause?
Salah Ameidan: The wall built by the Moroccans is very long. Two thousand kilometers, and guarded by 160,000 soldiers and millions of mines. But as proven by the Polisario during the years of armed conflict, it is not impossible for Sahrawis to bypass this wall. It’s not perfect. It is very dangerous for the civilians on both sides.
As you can imagine, the Palestinian question is relevant for the public opinion of all Arabs and Muslims. Like Palestinians, Sahrawis are full of dignity. They don’t accept injustice. They refuse to be enslaved. I feel that the solution to the question of Palestine also lies to some extent with the countries that border Palestine and sooner or later a change will come.
Consider that the relatively small population of Switzerland is both German and French, but that does not entitle Germany or France to intervene in the affairs of Switzerland.
Guernica: The Western Sahara has one of the smallest populations in the world. Do you think it’s realistic to become its own country in terms of what it will take to govern it and compete in the world economy?
Salah Ameidan: The independence and sovereignty of nations is not measured on the basis of surface area or population, language or religion, but that each independent state is an entity existing in and of itself and that it should have the same respect and security enjoyed by all independent states. The presence of large countries in terms of surface area and population cannot qualify for the derogation of the sovereignty of smaller countries. Consider that the relatively small population of Switzerland is both German and French, but that does not entitle Germany or France to intervene in the affairs of Switzerland.
The Western Sahara is rich in natural resources, which means we have enough internal wealth to live on, but our people also have an inherent wealth. The Sahrawi people are the greatest natural resource the land has to offer.
Guernica: The majority of what you are doing now seems to be for others. Do you ever get tired?
Salah Ameidan: Absolutely not, I never get tired. I haven’t given up anything close to as much as others have. I have refused on many occasions economically-beneficial offers which would have been good for me personally because what Sahrawis need most now is the recognition of their national independence. This is what I continue to fight for. I know that I am fighting for a just and noble cause. This keeps me going.
Guernica: Is that why you have allowed someone to make a film about you?
Salah Ameidan: I accepted the idea because the commentary will be useful for the national interest of Sahrawis. I want to talk about the Sahara and the history of our people.
Guernica: You are beginning to become a symbol of resistance for the Sahrawi cause. Is that what you want to be?
Salah Ameidan: I don’t think of myself as a symbol in the way that a symbol would signify honor. I have not done nearly as much as those who have died for the struggle. The Sahrawi people, those women and men who died during the years of armed resistance, are the symbols of our national independence movement. I never fought. They are the heroes.
Guernica: Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Salah Ameidan: Not enough is known about our struggle, and people need to be more informed; so it makes me hopeful when I see people like you covering our story. I want to thank you for this. I also want to add that it’s a pleasure to see what’s happening in Tunisia. Remember that a few weeks ago a small protest occurred in Al Aaiún. It was brutally repressed by the Moroccan authorities. But no matter how small it may seem, there is a connection between what happened in that camp in Al Aaiún and what’s happening now in Tunis and what will happen tomorrow in Egypt or Libya. This signals that there is a spread of ideas, that people are thirsty for better social and economic conditions, for freedom, respect, and a return to dignity.
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy.
More information about the film The Runner.
To contact Guernica or Salah Ameidan, please write here.