Research student’s Saharan nightmare

A student has spoken of her terrifying ordeal after being detained by police in Western Sahara.

Joanna Allan, of Stobhill, had travelled to the disputed territory on a research trip with a friend when the nightmare began.

The pair were nearing the end of a 16-hour bus journey from Marrakesh in Morocco to El Aaiun when the vehicle was pulled over at a police check-point and they were ordered to get out.

“We were only in Western Sahara for about an hour after we crossed the border,” said Ms Allan. “We are both blonde and white so we stood out on the bus. There are several police check-points along the way and we had crossed through about ten of them, this was the last one before our destination.

“The police told us to get off the bus and asked the driver to get our bags off.

“They wanted my phone and my bag, but I didn’t give them to them and they didn’t take them by force.

“There was a little hut with an office and they took us in there and asked us questions about what we were doing there and who we were going to stay with.

“I know a bit of French and Arabic and there was one who spoke some English so I could understand what was going on, but I was very surprised when the bus left.

“They then said they were going to send us 600km away to Agadir in Morocco. They told us to get into a car. They didn’t push us or anything, but as I was arguing there were about 10 men surrounding us so it was quite intimidating.”

Eventually the girls got into the car, but their ordeal was not over.

“I was angry because I know people who have been told to get off the bus and asked questions, but I’ve never heard of anyone being stopped and sent 600km away before,” said Ms Allan.

“It wasn’t until later that I felt frightened.

“We were taken to a big car park in Agadir and I could see two vans with blacked-out windows. I had a fear that we would be bundled into the back of one of those, but they just told us to get out of the car and left us there.”

However, Ms Allan said the vehicles followed the pair to a hostel and they were kept under close surveillance for the rest of their stay.

“There was a small group of police outside our room and in the room next door. I went to the loo one night and when I opened the door there was a man standing there. It was just ridiculous. I don’t know what they thought we were going to do,” she said.

The Western Sahara has been a disputed territory since war with Morocco in 1975. There has been a UN monitored ceasefire since 1991 and the UK regards sovereignty as undetermined.

Ms Allan, 29, who is a Board Member of Western Sahara Resource Watch, was going to the area with a Norwegian colleague to further her PhD studies into the role of women in resistance, and investigate how energy companies are consulting the Saharawi people about oil exploration.

She said: “It is hard for foreign journalists to get into the area to report on what’s going on, as you can see from me being expelled from the territory.

“I think the problem was that a few days after we were expelled, there was a UN vote on whether to introduce human rights monitoring so people were very sensitive about who was going in at that time.”

Ms Allan said the Saharawi friend she had been planning to stay with had his house searched twice in the week after the incident and she was closely watched when talking to students in Marrakesh, Agadir and Rabat.

“We went to the consulate and the woman was sympathetic, but she said they couldn’t do anything unless they abused our human rights or mistreated us. I argued that it was mistreatment to be put in a car and taken 600km away, but she said it wasn’t a human rights violation as Morocco has the right to manage its borders. My view is that the UK doesn’t recognise the Moroccan occupation.

“All I wanted was for the consulate to make a complaint to the Moroccan authorities.”

Ms Allan says she hopes to return to the area alone later this year.

“I’m worried about wasting more money and causing problems for the Saharawis who are helping me, but I still feel strongly about this and I want to go back,” she said.

The Foreign Office warns that independent travellers may be turned back from Western Sahara. It also warns of the threat of terrorism, kidnapping, poor road safety and unexploded mines.

A spokesman said: “Organised groups are sometimes permitted, but independent travellers should be aware that they can be turned back at the border. All we can do is refer people to the travel advice on our website and point out that we can’t interfere with another country’s immigration system, as they can’t interfere in ours.”