This is an interesting book about a conflict that has been going for decades and yet rarely grabs the headlines. When Western Sahara won its independence from Spain in 1975, Morocco laid claim to the land and sent thousands of settlers. Since then, an organisation called the Polisario has been fighting against Moroccan occupation.
This book tells the story of Azeddine, a young doctor who, during a brief stint of compulsory military service, is captured by the Polisario and kept in a POW camp in the desert for more than twenty years. Thomas Hollowell does a great job of telling Azeddine’s story, making us feel the raw injustice of it. He tells us all about Azeddine’s family, his hopes and his plans. The military service was only supposed to be for a few months before he continued his career, and so you really feel the terrible injustice when the village he’s stationed in gets attacked and he is captured. At first you hope he’ll escape, and then the hopes become more distant, and then twenty years have passed and his life has gone by.
There’s plenty of good, lively description, and you really get a sense of life in the camp. Hollowell says the account is based on a true story, and he spent months interviewing the protagonist Azeddine. The account has been fictionalised, however, in order to bring it to life. Some scenes come from other books and articles. I’m glad that he says this up front and so it’s clear what’s what, but I can’t help feeling that it would have been better to stick to the facts (maybe that’s just the old journalist in me speaking). Azeddine really was imprisoned for over twenty years, and that’s a powerful story that doesn’t necessarily need spicing up with extra fictionalised episodes. Of course, real-life people are not always great interview subjects, and I can sympathise with that. Sometimes you just don’t get the material you want or suspect must be there – people don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, or talk in generalisations when you want them to be specific. Still, as powerful as this was as a fictional account, I feel it would have been more powerful if the author could have pushed for enough real-life details to tell it entirely as a true story and said in his foreword “All of this happened exactly as it’s written.” The fictionalisation thing always leaves me wondering exactly what’s real and what’s not.
The only other thing that didn’t work so well for me was the interspersing of Hollowell’s own narrative of his time in the Peace Corps. Particularly in the early chapters, I found myself wanting to skip over them and get back to Azeddine’s story, which is so compelling that you don’t want to be interrupted with details of the Peace Corps application process. Azeddine’s struggle is such a vivid, desperate, life and death struggle that Hollowell’s reminiscences inevitably seem petty by comparison. Perhaps this contrast was deliberate, but I would have preferred just to hear Azeddine’s story. I’m not saying Hollowell’s own story isn’t interesting or worth telling – it’s just that for me it didn’t stand up side by side with Azeddine’s. Nobody’s really could.
So overall I enjoyed the book, and learned a lot more about Western Sahara than I knew before. I was drawn into the characters and some of the descriptive passages were very good. The book was clearly well researched and the details really added to the story, giving a clear and vivid picture of the brutal life as a prisoner of war in the Sahara Desert. I rooted for Azeddine all the way through, and read quickly to the end, always a good sign. The reservations I had were not major, and I would recommend this.