The Sahara Marathon has taken place among the refugee camps of Tindouf, in Algeria, a sporting event that has given visibility to the story of the Sahrawi, a desert ghost people expelled from their land.
The Sahara Marathon, now in its 17th edition, took place on 28 February among the refugee camps of Tindouf, in Algeria. More than 450 runners from 25 countries took part. The Sahrawi people have lived in these camps for more than 40 years. These desert folk were expelled from their own land, Western Sahara, by the Moroccan forces and wait to see their state recognised: the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The camps are essentially cities but depend totally on international humanitarian aid for the provision of their food, water and medicine.
The SADR is in fact the only African country that has not yet been freed from the rule of European colonisation, despite Spain having left the land long ago, in 1967. And the Sahrawi’s request remains the same - that a free and democratic referendum take place, in agreement with Morocco and the United Nations. A popular referendum that could solve the issue once and for all, and conclude the African decolonisation process.
For the occasion, I had the privilege of hearing the tales of Khandoud Hamdi, northern Italy’s representative for the Polisario Front – the military front of the Sahrawi people – who told me that the marathon is a unique moment during the year capable of bringing visibility to the Sahrawi cause which is otherwise forgotten by the international community. For one week, men and women from all over the world, professors and politicians, Muslims and Christians, live, eat, pray and sleep in tents together with the refugee families.
Sport as a way to raise awareness
“Sport has always been a tool with which to bring populations together, but it is also a way to bring our message, our fight, our struggle to the international community”, Hamdi told me. So, the marathon as an example of peace and coexistence between populations. But the athletes too are struck by the sporting and human experience that has the Hamada du Draa desert as its backdrop, a place often said to look like an alien environment on Earth.
“A very hard but incredible experience! The wind, the dunes, the infernal heat, all made bearable by the kids from the refugee camps who follow you between the tents and take your hand”, commented Enea Roveda, CEO of LifeGate, in a post he published on Instagram after participating in the latest edition of the marathon.
The battle of the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi is a demonstration of just how populations can be forgotten and left to their own devices, with no land to call their own. Particularly when the interests at play are not significant enough to cause outrage in the Western world. Another risk is that they are left in the hands of governments that are little inclined to respect human rights. What I have learned though, is that there are still people who, despite all the violations and oppression suffered, still think that the goals can be achieved without the use of weapons, by simply displaying democracy and opening themselves up to others.