Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Working with the Sahrawi. Interview with Alfonso Torres Istúriz, ATTsF member in the Sahara

“Share out what we have got, not what we do not need anymore”

It’s already March and New Year resolutions are already part of the past. Jingle bells and tinsel are so far away they are already buried in my memory. Belated email messages from friends that I hardly keep in touch with and who wish me happiness and good luck for 2006 land in my inbox. I delete them one by one, without much interest, wishing to start from scratch, but one catches my attention. It is from someone I think I know a little: an old mate, with whom I have hardly kept in contact during the past few years and who I supposed to be working at an aluminium sheet factory. Surprised, I discover that he actually does something very different: he works for an NGO based in the Moroccan desert where he helps out at Sahrawi refugee sites. He has spent his holidays in the city where we both come from, busy with the organisation and development of a charity event of which he sends me some information. I am just eaten with curiosity. Eager to learn some more, I turn to the PC and set out on an investigation journey through the door to the World provided by Internet.

Alfonso Torres Istúriz, together with other volunteers, works in a project called Base de transportes para la distribución de la ayuda humanitaria, or “Transport bases for the distribution of humanitarian help”. The Asociación de Trabajadores y Técnicos sin Fronteras (ATTsF: Association of Workers and Technicians without Frontiers), Alfonso's group, is not abstract – like some far off missionary group or charity that collects funds and then mysteriously disappears. It’s a real group of people making a difference. Making a difference in the part of the Sahara that was once a Spanish colony up to the end of the Franco dictatorship. Its birth as an NGO take us 30 years back in history, to the time of an event that the current Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, commemorated on the 6th of November last, the day of the so-called ‘Green March’. On that day Morocco remembered the capture of the Spanish territories in the Sahara by king Hassan II. But instead of going from an extended period of occupation to a long awaited independence, these territories have suffered three decades of oppression and discrimination at the hands of the Moroccan authorities. Only recently, on the eve of this celebrated march, two Spanish journalists were arrested along with 14 Sahrawi people in Aaiun because they held a demonstration in front of the address of a deceased fellow countryman, Hamdi Lembarki. According to statements delivered by the two arrested colleagues on the 6th of November in a small column for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the arrested Sahrawi persons remained in custody and were subjected to tough interrogation sessions and torture in the hands of the Moroccan police.

The subject is old news. The Frente Polisario [Polisario Front] appears from time to time on our screens amongst so many other newsflashes from that large continent of which we in the West are still so ignorant . Last September, without going further back, the subject topped the Spanish national newspapers headlines again, this time not only due to the lack of humanity and means that these people must endure, but also due to the worsening of the situation with the arrival of people from sub-Saharan countries and their desperate attempt to illegally enter the Spanish territories in Morocco. The thick fog of legal and political terminology around these events makes it difficult to truly understand and feel responsible for such matters which, unfortunately, are commonplace in newspapers and news broadcasts. Reality, though, can be expressed in a few simple words that can be understood by the layman, the one who reads the morning news whilst enjoying breakfast in a café.

This part of the Sahara currently hosts men, women and children whose only hope of survival is the humanitarian aid received from a handful of international NGOs. Even so, this is a proud people, every bit worthy of respect, who have lived 30 years in tents pitched in the middle of nowhere, and who have kept alight their fighting spirit and hope for freedom.

41-year old Alfonso Torres Istúriz, resident in Beriáin, a small town near Pamplona, Navarra, sends me his words from afar:

&ldquoWell, everything started in November 1999 after a personal tragedy,” he shares, with apparent calmness, &ldquothe death of my girlfriend in a car accident.” I am impressed by the spirit of this man who so bravely turned his pain into cure for the suffering of others.

&ldquoI had been collaborating with an NGO that deals mainly with health issues. In 2002 there was some disagreement with the management and in 2003 the technicians decided to become independent and so August 2003 saw the birth of ATTsF”.

ATTsF defines itself as &ldquoa very young non-profit-making organisation. It endeavours above all not to create new dependencies but to boost the development of autonomy. It tries to support and reinforce the ability of people in countries in the so-called Third World, so that they do not need to depend on foreign aid.”

ATTsF members are electricians, mechanics, metallic carpenters, IT-experts, teachers. They try to sow the seed of self-management in the centres they visit. They do not feed, but teach to look for food. The old saying of &ldquosowing the seeds of…” is well interpreted and carried out here. Alfonso's current project deals with the construction of a transport base. Transport is vital in the desert: it brings people closer to food and to water. Without water, life perishes and without the ability of reaching the water wells and distribute that water, little more is possible.

Alfonso arrived at the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, in 1999 and currently works, as he explains, &ldquocoordinating technical work and supporting personnel in charge of managing projects based on technical and financial reports”. He describes the Sahrawi people as hospitable, quiet and polite. He moves me when he tells one of the many stories lived during these years:

&ldquoI will always remember one day when we were repairing the windows of a building we called a 'hospital' and, at the same time a sirocco (desert wind with sand) got up, a lady at the 'maternity ward' went into labour, so I took a window whose glass panels were ready, placed it against the hole and held it tight all the while whilst a crying baby was being born and all my colleagues encouraged me to hold on for the duration of the delivery (almost an hour).”

Alfonso explains how getting used to life in the desert involves more than just leaving behind the home comforts: &ldquoThis work combines several idiosyncrasies. To begin with, there is the desert 'in your face', then there is the Muslim world and lastly there is the 30-year-old refugee camp. Up to my last project I used to dedicate only the 20 or 30 days leave I had from work,” he continues, &ldquobut I have learnt that the real adaptation issues start emerging after two months of continued stay”.

It is these small issues Alfonso is referring to that interest me the most: the daily grind, the conversation topics at the end of a work day, the long and deep silence of the desert night. From him I learn that the volunteers lodge at a place they call &ldquothe Protocol”, where they have &ldquosome kind of restaurant” and the privilege of using the phone a few hours a day.

&ldquoAbandon the cause?,” he goes on. &ldquoI wish that was as easy as taking a bus… I would have done it in many occasions. When you are volunteering you must have a clear idea of why you are doing what you are doing and what for. Sometimes I wonder what pushes me to continue and I do not have the answer because then feelings and pride mix up,” Alfonso comments, &ldquowith professionalism. There is no doubt that the Sahara has tested my limits on several occasions and I did not even know that I could withstand so much, I think that has made me a better person, and I have discovered the person inside of me.”

I try to ‘get up his nose’ a bit and I ask him aslightly intrusive question: When does it stop being a new adventure to become crude reality?

My deliberate tactlessness has the desired effect and the answers arrive at my PC screen, the wording gives a clue to the mild irritation of this man used to this people's daily struggle for survival and to the World's general lack of interest in them:

&ldquoI think that once you have been two or three times to the Sahara, once you start to understand the tragedy of the Sahrawi people abandoned by the international community when instead of just another black face it becomes a person who happens to be called Ahmed,” and I imagine Ahmed, friend of Alfonso, and all others he continues to mention. I cannot hear his voice but I guess the agitation in his voice, &ldquoor Embarka or Sidi or Iza or Fala or Hamudi or Minetu or Salek and they call you by your name and you know what makes them cry and what makes them laugh and you realise that they are doomed to live in this damned desert because no-one seems to care. That is when you notice the crude rrrrrreality.”

Reality is emphasized with six Rs, and I imagine the writer's finger on the keyboard, with anger, with desperation, at the end of a paragraph written without any commas or pauses, no stops or barriers against the outrage expressed in each and every name. I imagine the volunteer's lips tense, resigned but impassive and resolute in front of the stereotype of my expression, in front of the coarseness of my &ldquocrude reality”, so crude it becomes indigestible.

ATTsF have always worked in Tindouf, in several camp sites and nomadic areas and they do not tire of praising the people's hospitality. They are now into a project in Colombia to restore and extend a shelter for girls who have suffered sexual abuse and have drug problems. Alfonso says that there are several ways to help out, and when I ask him for suggestions hoping for perhaps an Internet address or a bank account number to pay money into, or even have Three Monkeys Online facilitate collaboration with them, he surprises me with the simplest and wisest of all answers:

&ldquoThere are doubtless several ways to lend a hand, but I always put one forward: teach our children to bring a little more solidarity into this World. I say our children because I am convinced that our generation and the preceding ones should be born again in order to achieve true solidarity… We must share out what we have got and not that which we do not need anymore. In each and every aspect of life.”

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