excerpted from Imprisonment in the Land of the Setting Sun
For all of you souls gone under
For centuries, the Saharawi people were nomadic, living in the Western Sahara. In the mid-1970s a majority of them came together in exile in southern Algeria to form a militant group known as the Polisario, or Saharawi Liberation Front. With Algeria backing their cause, and the tactics of guerilla warfare guiding them, they relentlessly attacked surrounding Moroccan and Mauritanian posts and villages. Mauritania soon dropped all claims to the land. Since then, there has been a silent war between Morocco and the Polisario. Fighting began to simmer when the U.N. declared a cease-fire in 1991.
In a raspy voice Ahmed yelled, “Get dressed!” Within two minutes, I was ready. There were strange and distant noises outside. I don't know how I slept through it. The reverberation off the eastern hills sounded like trains, tanks, or large gear-grinding trucks moving closer. The resonance echoed through the walls. Ahmed pointed to the door of our barracks and said, “We need to get to the infirmary!” It was sunrise and the sky was just turning a magnificent hue of orange and red. People were yelling and running all about. In clumsy steps, Nurse Omar ran to the infirmary as well.
We all arrived uninjured and the nurses were preparing the facility for the worst. I stood half-way frozen in the doorway of the corridor. I tried to calm myself down and be courageous. Ahmed was busy unfolding cots and taking bandages out of storage boxes. Not knowing what to do, I finally moved towards him and stood there, petrified.
It felt as if my heart was going to beat out of my chest. There was a stale, dry taste in my mouth. The strong smell of blood left me in vertigo, a trance that felt like I was in another world. My body was in the present, but my spirit was nowhere. I was only in this world momentarily, viewing a mad rush from a distant pair of ghostly wandering eyes.
A captain entered with his driver. He told us he'd hurt his arm in a fall while running to the ambulance. I knew he'd broken it just by looking at it. Ahmed rushed over and we both helped him. It wasn't a terrible break, since no bones were exposed, but we both felt the need to come to his aid, leaving our other patients to be attended for a few minutes by the nurses. Ahmed soon joined them. The captain seemed to jolt me out of the fog that surrounded me. I plastered a cast and put his arm in a shoulder sling.
As I put it around his neck and shoulder I advised, “You should stay here and get some rest.” His eyes were vague.
He responded firmly, but still not quite looking at me, “I and my driver are leaving.” He squinted a bit from the pain of my sling adjustments. “It is advisable that you do the same.”
I asked surprisingly, “What do you mean, leaving?”
He looked over to his driver who stood by the door. “We are leaving Bouérate. There will soon be a retreat by the Commander. He has already prepared the route of withdrawal. I am not awaiting death until he admits that we have no chance. These men will die. You don't have to. Take your ambulances and drivers and leave this place. You can follow my driver.”
I looked over to our patients then back to the captain. With empathy, I uttered, “We have patients and we will not leave them.”
He prepared to leave the room and looked over to the patients, then pointed at them while the nurses kept working. “Then you will suffer their same fate! I'm leaving now! Layownkoom, may Allah help you. Good bye.” His driver followed him.
I raised my voice after him as he walked through the door, “you should rethink this, Captain. We re holding our own I think.” I wasn't really sure.
He came back through the door towards me. He stood within two feet, his cheeks were flushed. Bags beneath his eyes revealed the stressful shock that penetrated his core. “You, Doctor, haven't seen what is happening outside. They're massacring us out there.” In even more of a shaky voice, “They're blasting us to pieces killing everyone in their path. They will soon be to the interior. It is only a matter of time!” He left.
The other nurses looked up at me. I said nothing and joined them in their work. The injured came in much worse; either shrapnel or bullet wounds were embedded in the bodies. My comrades were now ghost-white, bleeding thick red blood.
Our beds soon filled. I thought about leaving just like the captain had. Blood left my limbs and my head felt light. I saw those struggling to breathe. I wanted to sit and recover. They were still alive. I praised Allah that we were hanging on, that the soldiers were able to draw living air into their exanimate beings.
At this moment, I felt the greatest limitations of my mind and hands. I couldn't perform miracles. I could only do what I had been trained and educated to do. Ahmed was looking at me. I tried regaining my composure. Through all the incoming shouts and screams of agony, I felt lower than mortal. My heart sank. Why couldn't I just raise my hand, touch the inflicted, and resurrect these half-dead bodies whose blood was flowing as if for some unceremonious sacrifice.
Three hours had passed since dawn. Pandemonium had finally broken through the infirmary doors. Only the ten patients, Nurse Omar, Ahmed, and I remained in the infirmary. The other nurses decided to make a run for the Commander's quarters. I didn't know if they'd make it.
The ensuing battle blended in the background of my mind. It was like a peculiar melody only the sounds of war produce. It doesn't resemble any symphony where your mind is taken away, where you feel cathartic, relaxed. It's a song filled with cries of terror. Blood was flooding into the diseased infirmary walls, and the aneurysm was about to explode. Flashes of our deaths shot through my head. I knew that our lives were about to end.
I could smell the stench of smoke that permeated throughout the clinic. It smelled of burnt rubber and thick grease. There was yelling and several rounds were fired outside.
Ahmed yelled, “Azeddine, get down and hide!” His face was diluted and full of terror. His nostrils flared, and he covered his head, bending low, and ran to the adjacent pharmaceutical storage room. There was nothing I could do. Dead in my tracks with the patients behind me, I didn't know which way to turn. Nurse Omar, who had stayed with us, decided to run inside the pharmaceutical room as well.
I tried to push some of the beds out into the corridor, but that was the only entrance and exit into the hall. I had nowhere to hide the patients. I didn't know what to do. How could I evade the incoming vigilantes? Polisario soldiers were yelling in their strange sounding Hassani tongue inside the corridor. I didn't have much time. I had to react, or die. I found a small wheeled cot that wasn't being used. It stood folded against the back wall. Had we seen it, we would've used it for another patient. I decided to try and get behind it for cover.
I hurried behind the cot. The smoke was getting thicker, so if I crouched, I'd be able to conceal myself pretty well. I'd not only be able to hide, but breathe a little easier too. I peered out at my patients. Two of them were looking at me. I jumped out from behind the cot and ran to them.
I didn't want to leave them there, injured in their beds. They were helpless carrions who foresaw their last remaining moments on Earth. I had no choice. I assured them, “It'll be OK!” I cried. “ALLAH be with you!”
I ran back to the cot and squatted behind it. I was pressed against the cloth and could see out into the room. From my angle, I could view all my patients. I was well hidden; with all the smoke, it was a screened hideout. I watched fearfully as three or four soldiers entered the room, turned, then left again.
The Polisario Guerrillas wore bright blue gondoras; resembling flowing gowns of tissue paper the color of the Mediterranean Sea. These desert nomads had worn these outfits for centuries. The gondora allowed for the easy concealment and drawing of weapons, be it sword, knife, or gun. Indigo turbans circled their heads, leaving ink stains down the vigilantes” sweaty faces that further masked their identity.
I sweated profusely as I put my head down to say a quick prayer. I declared, “Achahada — Achahada, Ana Mohammed al rasoullah” I witness that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. I looked up again and watched a Polisario soldier enter. He saw my patients lying there helplessly. His clothes and hair were matted with blood. He left the room and came back with the two soldiers who had entered before. They were carrying their guns; my patients were their empty shells.
One gave a sadistic chortle. “We tried killing all you fuckers earlier. You didn't die, so we came to finish the job.” The other two approached the patients. The bloodstained soldier was the first to strike. He put his gun up to the head of the first patient. The patient's eyes widened while his hands flew up into the air pleading for his life. By the time he had his hands halfway up; he was shot in the temple; in cold blood. Point-blank.
The other two Polisario soldiers joined in and shot each remaining patient the same way. The last patient in line kept screaming even after they had shot him. They put two more bullets into his skull.
I groaned deep in my throat. I wanted to scream. I covered my ears. My body shivered in shock and disbelief, but somehow I remained crouched down. True fear pierced me like jagged glass. I'd only have a few seconds until my discovery and imminent death. All I heard was the noise of guns and machinery outside. It felt like there was an earthquake going on. Our supplies and heavy medical tables fell over hitting the ground.
After crouching for what seemed like eternity, I started to lose feeling in my legs. I wanted to vomit out everything I'd just witnessed, but couldn't. Different Polisario soldiers entered the room to assess the number of victims. They wanted to be sure every last one of them was dead. I watched as every five to ten minutes they entered and exited. They did this for an hour and then proceeded to check the heartbeat of each jeefa, a corpse no longer containing its soul.
I felt death's dark soul. We roamed in his layer, dancing in the shadows. I twirled in and out of reality, gripping my head, peering out into the room of lost souls. I didn't know what would happen next. My murky soul merged with death's pitch-blackness. I felt the intimacy of our beings combine on an eternal path; our child, this atramentous moment.
The Red River
As time passed during the 1970s, the international community became passive to the conflict while Morocco and the Polisario Front continued their armed struggle. The next major event in the conflict occurred in 1979 when Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Polisario Front ... fighting in the territory between Polisario Front and Moroccan troops escalated in the following years. The first real signs of a possible resolution to the conflict did not occur until the late 1980s.
My arms were tied up behind my back and I was thrown into an oversized GMC truck that was obviously stolen from the Moroccan forces. I could see the remnants of a scraped red Moroccan flag on the driver's door. The truck housed some long wooden boxes. I suffered a great deal of exhaustion just trying to climb into the truck after that first freezing night in the hole. We headed out, and every time I'd start to fall asleep, another shifting of the crates or the intrepid clunking inside kept me awake. For twelve hours we continued.
I wondered where we were going and where Ahmed and Omar were. I thought about Royal Moroccan Military chasing the Polisario down and rescuing me. It was what all of us taken alive thought about — that we'd soon be rescued. The Moroccan troops would be planning the line of attack. They'd surprise the Polisario vigilantes and do to them what they had done to our men. Just like in Bouérate. With revenge boiling in their blood, we'd soon be free. It was all just a delusional fantasy.
We arrived that night into the far eastern section of the Saguia-el-hamra, which in Arabic means the Red River Path. This dried river bed marks the northernmost region of the Western Sahara. It spreads west from Layoune towards Tindouf, Algeria. Layoune is considered by many to be the Western Sahara's capital city, and lies just a few miles off the rocky green Atlantic coast. The desert and ocean meet here, and in an eternal battle, both attempt to take over the other. They do nothing to help each other.
The southern two-thirds of the Western Sahara is called the Rio de Oro, or River of Gold whose unclear northern border starts somewhere near Cape Bogador. Its central city is to the south, called Ad-Dakhla, which is actually an inlet for the Rio de Oro Bay — a name given due to the possibilities of early traders” desire for Western African gold dust. The entire Western Sahara (about the size of Colorado in the United States) was once called the Spanish Sahara, and when fighting began in 1975, as the Polisario Liberation Front gained backing, power, and political support from Algeria and Libya, Spain decided to pull out of the region as it was costing them more in money and human lives than they saw worthwhile. The title, Polisario, therefore is a Spanish-given acronym which has stuck, meaning Frente Popular para la Liberac&IACUTE;on de Saguia-el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Red River Path and the River of Gold.
Outside of the GMC truck, I noticed other Moroccans using shovels, picks, and even their hands to dig a gigantic hole in the side of the big thirsting bed. There was a rusted wheelbarrow that rhythmically squeaked as it was being pushed to a nearby dirt pile. The Polisario soldiers hugged and patted each other on the back. It must've been days or weeks since they'd seen each other last.
The labor being done was backbreaking. The laborers were the other captured Moroccans who now resembled the walking dead, excessively fatigued. Their young faces looked sere and dehydrated. A Polisario guard stood above them with some sort of homemade wire whip.
Someone climbed out of the hole carrying a shovel over his shoulder. He looked around and began to walk towards another guard who pointed him to another work area. It was Ahmed! I couldn't contain myself and bellowed out, “AHMED!” He looked at me for an instant, and then hurriedly jumped to the new work area.
The Polisario soldiers immediately stopped their conversing and looked directly over at me. Like a quarter horse, the biggest, stalwart fellow trotted over. He threw down his cigarette and stomped it out. He tilted his head, looked down at me, and then knocked me onto the ground, “Who the hell do you think you are? Who do you know?”
Sand flew in my face as I hit the ground. I wasn't listening to the soldier yelling. He kicked me in the thigh. I was so happy to see Ahmed alive, I began to scream and cry out his name. “AHMED!” Kick in the shoulder. “AHMED, ALLAH has saved YOU!” Kick in the groin. “AHMED, you're ALIVE!” Kick in the stomach. “Ahmed ... cough'. I moaned.
He screamed, “Are you stupid? Don't you know if you don't shut-up you're gonna get it even harder? Idiot!” I coughed-up blood. “AH ... cough.” It splattered onto the bottom of the guard's right pant leg and shoe.
Almost all the POWs were tortured during the interrogation that followed their capture. One of the torturers most frequently mentioned is Ahmed Moulay Chrif Filali, also known as Aït Chrif [Shreef][, the former Deputy-Director of the Polisario Front security services], who now lives in Morocco. [One Moroccan POW named] Lieutenant Abderahmane was captured in 1982. During his interrogation, he refused to give military information. He was set alight with kerosene by Ahmed Moulay Chrif Filali. When his torturers realized he was still alive, Adda Brahim Ould Hmim asked the guards who were present if one would volunteer to kill this Moroccan POW.
For two days, I lay somewhere in the dug out hole along the dry path of the Saguia-el-Hamra, I was given rice and water. The water was in a red plastic container that'd been used to store gasoline and left a hairy feeling inside my mouth.
The next day, I was taken into a small dark room by a young soldier. There were other militants sitting on metal chairs, the room was dimly lit, stark and impersonal. The one in the middle pulled out some papers and a pen. He told me he was going to ask me a few questions. He said, “The more honest you are, the better your life will be.” I wasn't going to argue.
He was the only one of the three to speak. “Please give us your last name, first name, number and rank.” He shifted himself.
I stared straight at him and stated, “Benmansour. Azeddine. Medical Aspirant.”
He restated, "What is your military number?”
“Medical staff are considered as officers and not given numbers in the Royal Moroccan Military.”
“So, are you a doctor?”
“Yes. Is that all you would like to know, Shreef?” using a title of utmost respect.
He became defensive and stated sternly, “You may think you have rights. You do NOT! You will answer any questions we wish!” His shirt collar seemed to become tighter around his neck. He was a precisionist in his attire and make up. His hair was neatly combed, cut squarely on the sides, short on the top. He was probably shaved three times a day. Even his eyebrows looked detailed. His hands looked manly, but manicured. His normal-looking, green military suit was wrinkle free and the sleeves were folded squarely to mid-forearm.
“I am a doctor. Well, I thought I was ... to save lives. I don't know now.” I thought that giving him a hard time could get me another beating or thrown back into the hole. So, I tried to remain somewhat calm. “I completed my studies in medicine last June, this year, 1979.”
“What were you doing in Bouérate?” as he came off his chair a little.
I paused, “I don't know.” It was the truth.
He cringed, although I was being honest. “What do you MEAN you don't know?!”
Feeding off his anger, I retorted, “It wasn't my choice to be there and I wasn't sure of my duties!”
As if it weren't obvious, “You were to be a doctor, right?!”
“Yes, of course I should've been a doctor. Even I know something about the ethics of war. I say this with respect to your rank, Shreef, but your men are tyrants.”
If he was to shoot me or kill me, this would've been the moment. I knew I'd crossed the line, but his men also had. I wanted him to know that even if I was a prisoner, I was still human and in no moral or humane way below him. Tears felt like they were going to come. Images of my dead patients covered in those bloody sheets flashed through my head.
He acted as if he were surprised. “I am terribly sorry you had to watch any of that. He continued, seemingly trying to justify what I had witnessed in the infirmary. “We were there for one cause, Doctor. It was one of many displays of our desire to be free from your King, Hassan II. You do not understand the pain it causes us to think about remaining under that monarchy. I, however, do not have to justify anything to you!”
I retorted, not really being overbold, “There are other ways. Why did you ... you can't justify ....”
“We are not here to discuss that with you!”
I didn't necessarily want to push too far. “You can just let me go, along with my comrades; home to our families. We'll tell you anything. We can give you nothing.”
Somehow the thunderous god-like expression on his face did something I didn't predict. It calmed. I didn't notice whole-hearted pity upon it, but he had somehow diffused what was going to explode.
“Your freedom will be forsaken for now.”
He asked me another question, in a tone of finality to end our session. “Are you familiar with any Royal Moroccan Military; its strategies or plans Mister Benmansour?”
I looked straight at him. I thought we had already been through this. I guess it was a formality. “No. I have never been trained in military anything. I cannot even tell you which way is North outside. When I was drafted, in Casablanca, they just handed me military clothing and took me to Bouérate ... the rest you know.”
He cut in. “Thank you for your time. You can leave.”
“Can I take a walk around? I'm cramped in that hole. I'd just like to walk around, a little. Can I get some clean water? The water tastes like gas. I don't know what you're trying to do to these innocent people ... to us. We may be prisoners ....” I somehow thought now was as good a time as any to ask for my needs, and also raise awareness in case the higher-ups weren't aware of what the guards were doing outside their walls.
He made himself sound like he might care. “Hmmm. I will definitely talk to my officers.” He raised his voice to the guardsman at the door, “Help Mister Benmansour out. Thank you .... Oh, Doctor, before you go, I thought you might like to see this.” He held up a newspaper. He gave an eerie smile highlighted in the dim light.
He motioned for me to walk over. I read the headline. It was dated early August, 1979, and was called Saharawi Libre. The headline read, “Victory! Mauritania has left the Sahara!”
He said, “You see. We are not insurgents. We have a vision. We are willing to do whatever it takes. We will win. This will be broadcast over our radios, connected to loud speakers across the camps. We will keep our planned path for liberation.”
“I never called you insurgents.” I stood humble in front of him. “Right now all any of us care about are our basic needs.” I pleaded, “We are all in this blasted desert! All of us at once! Do you know the dying thirst, the heat upon their skin ... these innocent men you've captured are undergoing extreme agony every second. They look like zombies! I don't know how long it'll be until I join them. You can write whatever you like in your newspaper. You can say and play whatever you like on your radio.”
by Thomas David Hollowell
... who is a teacher and translator, a former fellow of Al Akhawayn University, a member of Amnesty International, having lived in Costa Rica and Morocco. Freelance articles about running in Ifrane, and travel stories set in North Africa are pending publication. This is a literary nonfiction excerpt from Section I of Imprisonment in the Land of the Setting Sun, a book in progress.