At the Galway Film Fleadh, which takes place annually in July, a film called The Runner caught my eye. The short blurb promised the story of a long distance runner that competed under the flag of a country that did not exist. That country is Western Sahara and that runner is Salah Hmatou Ameidan.
The screening served as the film’s premier- with Salah and director Saeed Taji Farouky present. After the screening the two took questions; Saeed, a Palestinian, who has picked up a bit of his current London home in his accent and style and Salah, who carries the gauntness of a soldier balanced by his athleticism. The next day we met to talk about the film and the situation in Western Sahara.
I talk through Saeed, who translates for Salah and myself, though the subtle differences between Salah’s Sahrawri Hassaniya Arabic and Saeed’s Eastern Levantine Arabic sometimes make things difficult. They met in London and as Salah tells me their origins in struggle brought them together, though he uses sport and Saeed uses his camera to fight oppression. Saeed first visited Western Sahara with Salah to film the 30th anniversary of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared on the 27th of February, 1976. Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony, the territory originally colonised by Spain was handed over to Morocco and Mauritania who made historical claims to the lands.
The territory was partitioned despite a will for independence among the people there. This movement for independence was consolidated by the Polisario Front, the Western Sahrawi national liberation movement- who had mustered civil support and military capabilities while occupied by Spain. Fighting began, with the Polisario’s guerilla tactics proving effective against the better armed and equipped Mauritanian and Moroccan armies. A combination of military success and a timely coup lead to Mauritania relinquishing its claims. On the Eastern front fighting slowed into a ceasefire along the ‘Moroccan Wall’. This wall grew incrementally until two thirds of Western Sahara came under Moroccan control with the last third forming the liberated zone of the Sahrawi Republic. Throughout the fighting, flows of Western Sahrawi’s had fled to refugees camps in Algeria as Morocco moved settlers onto the lands to strengthen its control.
The liberated zone is inhabited by Polisario fighters and members of MINURSO, the UN mission established in the region since 1991. Growing up in Western Sahara Salah’s prowess as an athlete allowed him to steal hats from policemen without being caught and later to compete internationally under the Moroccan flag. At the end of a race in France, Salah choose to no longer run under the flag of his oppressor. In the last few metres he raised the Western Sahrawi flag over his head, a flag for a country that did not exist, a flag that Morocco had made made illegal. Due to the persecution he would have face if he returned to Morocco, he sought asylum in France.
Since then, Salah has raced under the Western Sahrawi flag when possible- this has resulted in harassment and intimidation for his family and friends living under the occupation. But his initial flying of the flag has not gone unanswered as Sahrawi’s living outside of their occupied homeland have established sport and football associations under the Sahrawi flag. Salah’s running is a physical act of resistance. It is also personally constructive, in that his energy and ambition for his country can be channelled through his own achievements in sport. And for his people seeing the Sahrawi flag raised at international sporting events provides a vision of the country that is in waiting, though the finish line is sometimes obstructed the Sahrawi people continue on course.
One such obstruction has been the referendum on independence that the UN was originally sanctioned to facilitate. The question of who can vote in a sparsely populated country where the traditional nomadic living patterns of some and the displacement of many others through the fighting and Morocco’s growing settlements has made the question of who can vote, delay the question of independence.
Though the war has come to a stalemate Salah’s momentum continues to grow. Reflecting on the film Salah tells me how he does not like to see himself in film, he is a modest man despite the very public role he has taken on. Salah’s running is beginning to move into the background as he focuses more on politics, informing me with some zeal that the United Nations Mission in the region will be taking on a human rights mandate in addition to monitoring the ceasefire.
When asked to characterise the values of the emerging state of Western Sahara, Salah tells me proudly that it will ensure religious freedom as well as free thought and expression. That the strong role Sahrawi women took on in organising life in the refugee camps while the men were at war has permeated through to their parliament, of which 44% is made up of women. Organising manifestations and protests in such a large and sparsely populated area is difficult as the film shows. Actions are normally organised in denser urban areas which can be isolated by roadblocks and then dealt with by the Moroccan security operation which Saaed tells me has 6 personnel at hand for each Sahrawi.
The film itself is a solid piece of work, Salah’s struggle to live off race prizes in cramped French apartments and visits to Western Sahara for manifestations and for a marathon where Salah is joined, for as long as they can keep up, by cheering children as he runs through the desert. It is a powerful character study which draws you quickly and passionately into the western Sahrawi struggle. In the words of Saaed it’s about “an athlete living under colonialism, at the end of the day it is the story of an athlete”, and that athlete’s ability to draw you into this cause is certain as Salah tells me: “anyone can play politics, but not everyone can play sports”.
People can write to films@touristwithatypewriter if they would like to buy The Runner on DVD.
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