Marathon runners from more than two dozen countries raced through the rock-strewn desert of Western Sahara on Monday to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the conflict-ridden territory's call for independence.
Mostly Spaniards and other Westerners, the competitors covered 42.1 kilometres of what organizers say is a safe circuit because it's next to refugee camps. The area is near Algeria and far from the front line of the Western Sahara's conflict.
About 450 racers from 26 countries took part. The course runs between two of the sprawling camps where many of the 160,000 ethnic Saharawi refugees live in mud houses and tents on the border with Algeria.
The number of racers has more than tripled since the annual event began in 2001, organizers said. Conditions are Spartan: The racers have no running water or electricity; they eat ethnic Saharawi food; they are housed in refugees' homes or tents because there is no hotel in Western Sahara.
The Sahara Marathon was part of celebrations for the anniversary of the Polisario Front's declaration of independence in 1976. Morocco holds two-thirds of the territory, while the United Nations strives to revive negotiations between Moroccans and the Polisario that have dragged on and off since a 1991 cease-fire.
While Western Sahara is one of the world's oldest conflict zones, competitors appeared unfazed about running through a no man's land held by Polisario troops and some 150,000 Moroccan soldiers guarding the 2,575-mile barrier of barbed wire, walls and five million land mines.
"People think Africa is stressful, but it's really fine," said Tracy Urquhart, a 37-year-old office assistant from Kitchener, Ont.
"This race is a really unique experience," she said, as Saharawi boy scouts sang national chants and nomads on camels waved the Polisario Front's flag amid the loud traditional "you-you" cries of refugee women.
Urquhart and her running partner, Alain Jacques, 27, a retail manager, said they'd heard of the marathon through the running circuit in Canada and had signed up on the Internet.
"We plan to do a marathon on each continent," Jacques said as they warmed up for the race in Laayoune, a refugee camp named after Western Sahara's capital, which is under Moroccan control.
Miguel Martin de Vega, a university professor in Castilla de la Mancha who had brought 75 students to spend a week in refugee schools, said taking part was "a way to show international solidarity with the Saharawis."
The marathon was less a competition than a symbol for many refugees.
"We appreciate that they're coming, but we'd like independence even more," said Um Barka Sidi, a refugee woman who cheered on the competitors as they ran across the rocky sand steppes.
"Our goal is for everybody to enjoy, and for outsiders to realize how Saharawis have to live," said Mohammed Sid Ahmed Bougleida, the national sports director for the Polisario, which co-organizes the race with partners in Spain and Italy.
High-profile runners such as 1995 world marathon champion Martin Fiz help promote the cause for Saharawi independence, he said.
The runners "learn a lot from the families they live with," Bougleida said. "And for the Saharawis it's an opening to the outside world," he added, noting that most refugees never leave their camps in the Sahara.
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