One late spring, the celebrated author, former exile, and respected voice for the political left in Latin America, Eduardo Galeano, arrived in New York City to discuss the art of resisting empire. The conversation was to take place in mid-Manhattan, where Galeano was scheduled to share the stage with writer and activist Arundhati Roy. I found him an hour or two before, backstage, wearing a crisp white t-shirt that flattered his youthful tan. My presence was merely incidental, the result of a friend’s invitation to join her in interviewing the writer. Those were difficult times and my friends were keeping an eye on me, trying to make sure I didn’t spend too much time at home alone.
Nothing of what Galeano said during the interview stayed with me except his voice. But I do remember, with painful vividness, the few awkward moments we shared alone before people began to stream into the room. Galeano, gallant and gracious, filled the gap by explaining that he had just returned from a visit to the Sahara. The Saa-Ha-ra, as he pronounced it.
Every year the desert becomes the site of a film festival. It’s marvelous, he said, they throw up a screen in the middle of the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, camels roam around, and these people, forgotten by the world, watch films on rugs under the desert sky. Maybe it was his voice, but something in his description opened a window in my mind and I knew the Sahara, and the austere beauty of a place far, far away. The Saa-HA-ra. I told the writer that someday, I too, would visit the tent villages and watch movies with the forgotten people. Years later, I made good on my word.
The story of how Galeano led me to the Sahara is one I have retold countless times and it is factually true. But it isn’t true in spirit and that distinction is one I struggled with for years. To begin with, I had to acknowledge the selfish reasons behind my trip to the desert and the torment that I would later call the war of forgetting. In looking back, I came to understand that the Sahara, and El Salvador, which came before, and Mexico, which followed, were united by the legacy of my father’s death and my own battle with time and memory. The desert as a refuge for the forgotten seemed to offer the possibility of slipping outside of time. And time had turned against me, becoming a lifeline for grief and guilt, distorting my sense of the past by thrusting all thoughts back to the source of the grief, the instant of regret.
A war of forgetting endures after the bodies are buried, the peace accords are signed, and the soldiers remove their uniforms.
Neat divisions of time are largely obliterated in the war of forgetting. The past and present co-mingle, speak to, and inform each other. Anyone who has ever lived through war, with its echoes of regret, knows that a war of forgetting endures after the bodies are buried, the peace accords are signed, and the soldiers remove their uniforms. The war of forgetting is the undocumented legacy of war, often relegated to the psycho-analytic bins of trauma, nostalgia, and remorse. For the next seven years, the war of forgetting would dominate my travels and my attention, but after each experience, I hesitated to write about what I had seen until I could give shape and words to the absence, the missing.
When I return to my notes, I find that, during two hours of discussion between Arundhati Roy and Galeano, I managed to jot down only snippets of his words.
“They didn’t bring proof of a clean record.”
I look up the date of the event. It occurred a little over a year after my father’s death, but to my mind and in my telling, the two events were separated by mere weeks. How can it be that an entire year can vanish? Even now, when people ask, I say that my father died in 2006. The evidence of my own war.
We buried my father under a mesquite tree. His grave, like those of the generations of family who went before him, faces the setting sun. A record of the time would show that I was suffering from grief. It was a clean death, “we had done all we could” and “he had been sick.” That line of notation, though, lets regret slip from the true story. I had failed him.
My father’s death had struck me down, condemned me to relive one critical moment. Our entire life together was reduced to one quick decision. Did he forgive me? Did he know that, despite my carelessness, it was an accident, a mistake? I would never know, could never know. There was no one to ask. I was barely into my thirties, still young enough to believe that a crime can be forgiven, to believe in second chances and that the future lay ahead and the past behind. With my father’s death, that all changed. In the Sahara, I learned it all to be untrue.
I recorded only one other full thought from Galeano’s speech: “To imagine a possible world as it might be is to reimagine the past.”
Four years after Galeano’s talk, in 2009, I traveled to the Sahara. After I returned, the notebooks that contained the written record of my travels occupied the same corner of my bookshelf for three more years. They went neglected in part because I distrusted them, thought them in some way contaminated. The journalist in me had faithfully jotted down observations, quotes, sequences of events. That I trusted, the truth in fact. But the truth of the journey contained in my “reporter’s notes,” I feared, was inherently connected to my own motives: I had desperately wanted to be among them, the forgotten.
The Western Sahara, in the northwest region of the African continent, had been the territory of nomadic tribes who roamed the desert for a portion of eternity. Its story stretches across centuries, marked by eruptions of colonialism, occupation, and the fight for self-determination. Roughly equivalent in size to Great Britain, it became a Spanish colony in 1884 and eventually a province in 1934. When the Spanish began to withdraw in the 1970s, Morocco immediately initiated a campaign to seize Western Sahara and claim the mineral-rich region as a rightful part of its kingdom. The International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. Morocco responded by sending tens of thousands of Moroccan peasants into Western Sahara as settlers or peaceful occupiers.
As with most occupations and colonizations, war ensued. The tribes banded together, forged a guerrilla army named the Polisario Front, and expertly waged battle across their desert home. Women, children, and some men escaped to Algeria, where the women established a city of refugees: camps, schools, and hospitals. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire, which granted the Sahrawi people a self-determination vote. They were to decide between integration into the Moroccan kingdom or forming an independent nation. The vote was never held and the Western Sahara has become the longest-running UN mission and territorial dispute in Africa.
My visit to the camps happened eighteen years after the ceasefire, and I quickly realized that the news, the facts of the dispute over the Western Sahara, has little to do with the story of the desert anymore. Time has drained the facts of their weight and the war in the Sahara is now one of minds, a war of politics. The Polisario and the Moroccans both persistently engage in campaigns to win the war of perception. It is easy to render the entire “conflict” through the prism each side constructs.
I’m told that the Mercedes-Benz, the older models, are well suited for desert travel but the Land Rover is “el major coche en el desierto,” the best car in the desert. These details are contained in my notes, along with an aside that a Sahrawi artist named Madi renders camp life in painting, including portraits of Land Rovers.
From the beginning, my notes and I are at odds. I use them to keep an orderly timeline of each day’s events. This will be useful later, I think, when it comes time to document the trip.
In Notebook One I write, En route from Tindouf (where we landed) to the camp known as 27 de febrero (February 27). Most camps are named for a corresponding city in the Western Sahara, home.
27 de febrero was established in 1978 as a school for women. In the early years of the revolution, all men were on the front.
20 of mayo (May 20) began the armed struggle.
The woman sitting next to me is named Pilar Cabezuelo. She is a nurse, lives in Madrid, and is fifty-two years old. Pilar says she has hosted six Sahrawi children in her home. Sahrawi children often study in the schools of their former colonizer, Spain. “I feel obligated to collaborate [with the Sahrawi],” Pilar tells me. “The Spanish did not do well by them.”
Pilar gives me the impression that the Sahrawi families are close to her. Every year, she travels to the camps to perform physical exams for the women. We’re driving east and we’re lost. “Where is the haima [the tent] of the president?” Pilar asks the driver. Her “home” is near the president’s home. There is a president here and he lives in the camp. But each of the homes, Pilar tells me, is known by the name of the mother.
We arrive in front of a sandstone house and Pilar jumps out of the truck just as a young girl runs out. She is followed by an older woman in flowing robes, her mother. And then, everything shines. Lots of love and hugs. Later, when we come to another haima, in the camp of Dakhla, Malainin Lakhal, my minder and guide, turns to me and says, “This is your family.”
The ceasefire halted the fighting but both armies still stare at each other across the desert.
I’m staying with “my family,” in “homes” constructed for people who are essentially homeless, who live by emergency means. I’m offered a “family” when many of the Sahrawi families are barely intact after years of war. The ceasefire halted the fighting but both armies still stare at each other across the desert. Most men belong to the Polisario army and their constant vigilance means lengthy separations from “home.”
And then there are the families split between the Algerian camps and the Western Sahara. Every year select families are reunited for a few precious days when Sahrawis in the Western Sahara visit the camps. I begin to marvel at the hardships people will endure to remain connected. The refugees are waiting to go home. They have been waiting since 1991, every day goes back to that day.
“This is your family” rings in my mind. A family offered to a visitor who has neither a home nor a family. Both of my parents now rested under the mesquite tree facing the setting sun. My family. Do I assign significance to that detail, to all of these details, because it represents a significant part of their struggle or because it recalls mine?
The Sahrawi are nomadic people, tribal people, who banded together to forge a united identity to win back a home that is, by definition, not in one fixed place. The Sahrawi ask us to reimagine our ideas of home. They are asking me to, in the words of Galeano, imagine a possible world.
Later I turned back to two notes, in the daily notebook reserved for impressions and the one containing interview and facts. After an interview with the Polisario president, our driver stopped somewhere in the desert and left my guide Malainin and me to wait for another driver. We waited. The sun was going down and I said quietly and without thinking, What are we doing here in the middle of nowhere.
“We are not in the middle of nowhere,” yelled an indignant Malainin. “We are here because we choose to be here.”
At the top of my list of things “to document” in the Sahara was the Berm, an enormous wall fortified with land mines that divides the Sahrawi in Western Sahara from the Sahrawi in the camps. The United States government, which partially funded the construction of the Berm, had begun work on a border wall between the United States and Mexico, a few hours’ drive from my hometown. To build the border wall the US government had condemned hundreds of acres of land belonging to Mexican-American families with roots centuries deep, tracing back to when that region was ruled by the Spanish crown.
According to my notes we depart camp on 27 de febrero for Rabouni, where we load up on gas and water. 180 dinar, the currency there. We drive on a cleared road tracking the power lines that run from Tindouf. There are four of us traveling to the Berm: a Portuguese photographer, our guide Zorgan, the driver, and myself. Eventually the conversation dies out and I watch the landscape.
The sky begins to lose its luster and turn to a gray-infused blue. Occasionally, we pass car carcasses buried in the undulating waves of sand. Across a “barren and desolate” desert we encounter patches of green scrub, then Mohammad steers us off “the road” and we head toward the liberated zone, the desert region of the Western Sahara under Polisario rule. He’s following a trail made by tires that traveled the sand sometime earlier. The last detail I notice before I disappear are the acacia trees.
The desert sands dissolve around the tree to become part of the light. All I see are trees. They remind me of mesquites and my mind travels to my lost home in Texas.
Home, I came to learn after losing mine, is the larger story of a person, a story of generations. Without that story, that connection to the land, a people become marooned, cast adrift with no past or time beyond their own. This was the plight of Tejanos in Texas and of the Sahrawi in the desert, the plight they described to me in Spanish, the shared language of our ancestral colonizers.
No longer do I organize time chronologically. Keeping time reminds me of where I went wrong.
Sentimentality cannot explain what I see in the trees in the distance, it can’t explain the difference between people who own land and those of us who belong to the land.
No longer do I organize time chronologically. Keeping time reminds me of where I went wrong. Saturday afternoon: I call my father and promise to call back on Sunday. The conversation was difficult, we talked about my brother. Sunday: I prepare for bed and remember to call my father, but my boyfriend says, The last conversation upset you and it’s late. Call tomorrow first thing. I remember the moment vividly. Monday morning: I walk into the office, sit down at my desk, and lift the phone to call my father. My cellphone rings. It’s my brother and he’s crying. Time, in that moment, was like a record player needle on a scratched album, unable to advance. But I was just about to call, the phone was in my hand.
A few months later, I relocated to El Salvador on a fellowship. The tiny Central American country is generally known for an internal war that officially ended in 1992 with the signing of peace accords. That is when people stopped fighting. If the definition of war was expanded to include its legacy, college students would don shirts with the words “Save Salvador.” NGOs would flood the country with aid, and baby boomers would return to reminisce with former revolutionaries.
Everywhere I look I find glimpses of a quiet war, the one that stays in the heart, the war of forgetting. I see it one April afternoon when I listen to Vilma, a young reporter born in the refugee camps in Honduras during the war, talking with a girl whom she discovers also lived in the camps. The girl tells Vilma that she lost her name in the war. Soldiers burned down their village and the church that contained the birth records, which documented their existence. When she returned from the camps, the girl says, she was told to pick a new name, the old one no longer mattered.
I see it at night, when César, my friend and guide, leans against his car, pulls out a cigarette, and searches the sky for the lost souls from the war. He only smoked when he remembered.
In the Sahara, forgetting can occur at any moment.
I see it on late-night runs to the pupusa restaurants, where Creedence Clearwater Revival plays on the boom box and men and women in their twenties, the children of war, drop their conversations and began to sing along. Have you ever seen the rain.
I hear it in the anniversary remembrance of the massacre of Guazapa, a village near the capitol city of San Salvador. The bands play revolutionary music, poets recite odes to dead heroes, and everyone vanquishes forgetting. After the festival, when I hitch a ride with Mauricio Ortiz, twenty-six years old but just a little boy at the time of war. The CD inside his car stereo is a mix of gringo music from the years of war. Mauricio hands me the disc. The faded playlist includes songs from Men at Work, Toto, and Kansas. His two older brothers disappeared in the war while fighting with the guerrillas. The only grave he has is the music in his car.
In the Sahara, forgetting can occur at any moment. This is particularly unbearable for the young, who sense its power acutely and rebel. A few months before we arrived in the Sahara for the film festival, a teenager named Ibrahim Hussein lost a leg at the Berm. Hussein and other Sahrawi youth had been throwing rocks in the direction of the Berm when he stepped on a land mine. On the last day of the festival I find Hussein wearing a black turban and sitting in a wheelchair, his right leg from the knee down is gone. A mass of young men surround him on the patch of sand near the events, but he is the attraction. He is the hometown hero, a celebrity.
“My friends, they don’t want to wait. They want to move. We want liberation,” he tells me. “This is our cause and we are willing to do anything.”
I glance up just as a camel rider, perched on a saddle that resembles a wooden bench, races down a makeshift track in a show of “Sahrawi culture.” The war against forgetting is underway in that moment: a boy would rather die than surrender to forgetfulness, and the Sahrawi believe that by reminding the world of their existence they can avoid being obliterated in the desert. The camel rider breaks into a full gallop, seemingly prepared to go the distance, but he stops before hitting a wall.
On the afternoon that we visit the Berm, I think about all the people who are in my notes. I look out into the desert and we are all present, survivors of forgetting. The Sahrawi are not forgotten. I had come from the world that forgets.
Three years later, I arrive in Mexico City and witness mothers and fathers marching down the Paseo de Reforma, the wide boulevard in the city’s center, carrying photographs of their disappeared children. The authorities said their children were the unfortunate causalities of a “drug war,” which is largely defined as an armed conflict between drug-trafficking groups and the military. I have no way to write about these causalities of the “drug war.” I take notes that remain unused and useless because these parents and placards belong to the other war that I have not yet learned to name.
During the Mexican elections at the end of the year, the public clamors for an “end to the war.” The old PRI party—which ruled for decades and all but represents Mexico’s ties to its past, politically, socially, and culturally—reclaims the presidency.
In the months that follow, the signs of war begin to disappear. The detainees are no longer paraded, shamefaced and shackled, before the press. Photo ops of military operations become scarce. The death toll remains unchanged, thousands are found dead every month. People who know things begin to talk about the end of the war, or the waning signs of war. Still the mothers and fathers march and carry their photographs. And when I look closely I see they march not just for their children but for the sake of everyone who knows the war of forgetting. They wage their war against a world that insists that moving forward means they must not remember.
In the fall of 2012, six years after Galeano unintentionally lured me to the desert, I traveled to Montevideo, his hometown, at the invitation of a friend. I mentally prepared myself to tell the writer, who likely wouldn’t remember our conversation, much less care, that I had made it to the Sahara. I thought over the memories I would share from the film festival and the lessons about time and eternity I had learned in the desert. The lost and dead are kept alive by reimagining the past, I planned to say. Galeano, who believed we suffer from a brutal case of collective amnesia, would appreciate that I had learned how to remember.
For much of my time in Montevideo, Galeano was traveling and delivering lectures in Mexico City. Montevideo, I discovered, is a city built to remember. Tourists and romantics often call it a city locked in time, but it seemed more like a city in no rush to abandon itself and barrel into the unknown. One afternoon when I was in no rush, I found a bookstore and whiled away the hours with a young poet. We listened to boleros and read poems by Mario Benedetti. On that sunny afternoon I began to find comfort in the momentary rupture of time and the in-between space where we are all present—the dead, the missing, and the forgotten. I turned to the next poem and found the beginning of this story:
/ una cosecha de la nada y sin embargo el olvido está lleno de memoria
a harvest of nothingness and yet forgetting is filled with memory.
Special thanks to: Joaquín Chávez, Carolina Gonzalez, Oswaldo Zavala, Sarah Pollack, Roberto Emmanuele.