Miriam of the Sahara
By Robert Asher
As the scorching desert sun beats down on the dry, dusty landscape, the intermittent beeping sound of a metal detector is heard as it carefully sweeps just above the ground. The operator cautiously progresses in 30cm intervals, marking the ground ‘safe’ with stones. Behind the minimal protection of a full face plastic visor, and a vest of body armor, the operator shields her eyes from the intense rays of the sun with a pair of stylish Italian sunglasses.
“My name is Miriam Zaid, I am 28 years old, and I’ve worked as a land-mine clearance operator for the past 6 years. To do this job you need to be serious, persistent, strong, and self confident. This self confidence will enable you to be successful.”
In one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, where temperatures regularly top 120°F, she fearlessly surveys a terrain of sand, granite, and volcanic rock 7-days a week. Miriam works to help clear one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, a 2,700km barrier that divides her peoples land, where a single misstep could bring imminent death or severe injury.
“Every time I go into the mine field I’m 100% confident. I’m always trying to improve myself and my ability as a de-miner. I’m extremely confident, I have no fear,” declares Miriam.
Like most of the Saharan people traditionally from this land, also known as Sahrawis, Miriam has lived her entire life in exile in Algeria. In 1975 Spain relinquished control of Western Sahara, a large coastal region where the worlds largest desert meets the Atlantic ocean, after nearly a century of colonization
Envisioning their time for self determination had arrived, the Sahrawi’s land was instead divided in two and ceded to the Moroccans in the North, and the Mauritanians in the South. Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, the Sahrawi’s engaged both nations in a battle for independence under the banner of the Polisario Front,.
In 1979 the Mauritanians withdrew from the Southern area they had occupied. Over the ensuing 12 years the Polisario and Moroccan forces fought bitterly. The superior armor and manpower of the Moroccans eventually resulted with their control over two thirds of the land.
“Western Sahara has been colonized by Spain, fought a war with Mauritania, and is now occupied by Morocco. We are not satisfied with our history. When war broke out with Mauritania my uncle was killed in battle, and my father was arrested and imprisoned. Personally I can’t forget this history, every time my family and I speak about our history we are all deeply emotionally affected.”
As the world rejoiced with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Moroccans were constructing their own wall, an extensive sand berm. This served to divide the coastal area of Western Sahara under their control, from the empty, desert region controlled by the Polisario.
In addition to thousands of Moroccan military personnel stationed along the berm, the entire length of this border is defended with millions of scattered land-mines.
“The berm prevents us from moving freely across our land, and the minefield serves to double these limitations. The location of the mines are unknown, they kill animals, people, and even the snake. The war was fought in the area that is now marked by the berm. This side of the berm was originally littered with mines, and was an extremely dangerous area. The area continues to be dangerous, but we are doing our best to clear the area and make the land safe once again”
Many Sahrawi’s, Miriam’s family included, traditionally survived by pastoral activities such as shepherding goats and camels. Once the land became uninhabitable due to the land-mines, most fled, eventually finding refuge in and around the Southwestern Algerian town of Tindouf.
“I was born in the Dahkla refugee camp in Southwestern Algeria in 1985. My parents lived through very difficult, hard times, so I always wished I could do something to improve their conditions and offer them the things that they were deprived of. Because my family is from the desert I always wished to give them what they couldn’t get in their life. This thinking made me forget myself, and focused my ambition to purely helping my family.
Like most Sahrawi children born in the camps near Tindouf, Miriam was sent to boarding school far from her family. Over the years the harsh desert conditions of the camp were unforgiving on Miriams mother. Upon graduating from high school Miriam decided to put her dreams of attending University on hold so that she could care for her ailing mother.
“My mom loves to listen to the radio and always follows news about the Sahrawi situation. One day she heard about a program to de-mine the areas controlled by the Polisario, and how they wanted to train women for the job.”
Excited by an opportunity to serve her people, and a chance to experience life in a homeland she’d never known, Miriam applied to work as a de-miner. Spurred on with the chance to clear large areas of deadly land-mines, and enable her people to return from the camps in Algeria, Miriam eagerly accepted work that most would be too afraid to even contemplate.
“This job is important because it’s good for the Sahrawi people. It’s the best feeling to know you’re helping your people, and to make your homeland safe. Because of the danger posed by the mines this job makes my people safer, therefor I give my best to serve my people.”
De-mining work is often undertaken by men, but Sahrawi culture has a long tradition of strong women and gender equality. The Polisario was one of the few Arab forces to see women fight alongside men in battle. When the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) began to plan and organize de-mining operations in the Polisario controlled region it was a natural decision to employ women.
“Its very important for women to work in this field because it’s generally considered a man’s job. We are the first woman’s only group, and in-addition the men are very supportive and encouraging. The men don’t see us as women, as less capable, they see us as equals. Because of the support we’ve gotten from the men I’ve never thought about quitting or giving-up.
When Miriam began working with AOAV in 2007 she was one of only two women originally hired. Today she is the team leader of a group of five women who work in rotation with a second team.
Currently Miriam and her team are based in a camp of 20 tents in an area known as Mijek. Approximately 20km from the berm, Miriam and her team have been working for the past nine months to clear a 72million square kilometer mine-field.
Progress is painstakingly slow, and the dusty desert conditions make it a brutal environment in which to work. George Willmer, the on-site Senior Technical Advisor for AOAV explains the land-mine detection and removal methods currently being applied at Mijek:
“We’re lucky to have the ‘Mine-Wolf’ which is essentially an armored bulldozer with chisels mounted on the front that rotate and till the ground. If one of the chisels makes contact with a mine it will detonate, and the armor of the Mine-Wolf will allow it to go largely unscathed. We use the Mine-Wolf to clear 2,500sq meter boxes, and then we bring in our de-mining personnel to manually search within the boxes.”
Work commences each day at 7am. Miriam and her teammates begin their day with prayer, then breakfast. They are then shuttled from the camp into the minefield where they meet with their supervisor to coordinate the days plan, and perform a personal safety check.
The women work by clearing lanes 25 meters long and 30cm wide using their handheld metal detectors. When a mine is located they mark its position, and immediately notify their supervisor. The detonator is then delicately removed from the mine. The following day they will return to destroy the mine.
“To demolish a mine we first determine how much TNT will be needed, usually 200-400grams, depending on the type of mine. We then place the TNT on a small device that cradles it above the mine. We lay wire from the location of the mine to a safe distance away where we connect one end of the wire to a detonator switch. Then the one who has been assigned the role of ‘demolitionist’ will return to the site of the mine and carefully connect the other end of the wire to the TNT. Once back at the safety location a countdown is commenced and the mine is detonated.”
Miriam and the ladies on her team have formed a unique bond, found only among groups undertaking such perilous work. In addition to living together for months on end in a 20×15 foot tent, each woman watches over the other while they work, ensuring they always follow the proper safety procedure.
“Once I begin something I will continue until the job is done. If I’ve never tried to do something before it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, I watch how others do it and I will try it and do my best. My dream is to see Western Sahara free and cleared of mines. I hope I will not be killed by a mine, and will survive to see my land safe for my people.”
Land-mines are the most indiscriminate weapons of war, and will strike regardless of ones national, political, or ethnic affiliation. Miriam, and all those who undertake this most supremely selfless work, have chosen to sacrifice their lives to eliminate these insidious weapons.