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Welcome to the Occupation: Touchdown in Laayoune

The UN carriers were the first things I noticed when I arrived at the airport in Laayoune. For decades MINURSO has operated from its headquarters here. Though personnel numbers have dropped in recent years, the UN presence remains heavy. They currently observe the ceasefire between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, but the head count for the referendum of self determination proposed in 1991 has been halted.

I tried to be cordial, but as cops and soldiers gathered around my passport after disembarking the situation became less and less cool. Things were going ok when the first cop questioned me. The second was good too. They just kept asking the same questions for about an hour.I stuck to my story about visiting Laayoune to check out the nearby sand dunes, and do some surfing. I gave the officers a cheesy grin that I hoped would convince them I’m a complete idiot. Combined with my smattering of incomprehensible French, it seemed to work. Then, a Moroccan official spotted the Algerian visa stamped in my passport. Pursed lips ensued. Worried looks were exchanged. Back-up was called in. Someone offered to put the kettle on.

After a quick cup of tea, they meticulously combed through my possessions. They couldn’t figure out the straps on my backpack. The cops fought valiantly, but eventually I had no choice but to intervene. I helped him out with the straps, then with the search. He seemed relieved. So was I.

When asked about my nationality, I made a joke about kangaroos, and hopped on the spot. The soldier grinned. The cop waved me on. Moral of the story: act like a moron, and the search ends.

The police beat me to the hotel. They watched as I checked in, then left. Or, so I thought.

It’s one of the worst places I’ve ever stayed. This is the kind of place where people die.

Of scabies.

Something is living in the walls. It scratches at the plaster at night. I think the organic mass in the squat toilet is alive too.

Outside, people are friendly. Everyone seems just a little surprised to see me. Pleasantly surprised. While walking though town I attracted offer after offer of hospitality. Within minutes of leaving my hotel I was having a second breakfast with some businessmen on the street. Then ten minutes down the road I was literally dragged into a coffee shop by a family wanting to find out what the hell I was doing there. Free cappuccino.

Things to see: riot police. Everywhere. Dozens of soldiers on every street corner. A police HQ that looks like a shopping mall. A neat church in the old Spanish part of town that looks like something out of Star Wars. And sand. Lots of sand.

An edited entry from my diary reflecting on my arrival in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara in 2012.DSC_0037 (3)

1 Comment on Welcome to the Occupation: Touchdown in Laayoune

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