The quiet dawn was torn up when the first rounds were fired on the Spanish stronghold. The Spaniards, mostly conscripts or servicemen were astonished at first, then horrified when they discovered that a direct hit blown up their radio station. Farewell their hopes to get reinforcements or even ammo and food. They were no professional soldiers, and those stationed in the desert loath everyday their bad luck. Standing by them were some Tropas Nomadas. These are locals the Spaniards rely on as their guides, their escort and occasionally their workforce to police some troublesome tribe. The most experienced officers knew how to use the ancestral rivalry between the tribes, but couldn’t be sure of their entire submission. The Sahrawis took the bribe, accepted the honours, nonetheless they had nothing but contempt -save for some extraordinary occurrences- for the Nassranis. The Tropas felt even more let down, and some of them have already defected with their rifles and their priceless experience to serve the MLA by the time Ayour’s task force reached their target. the MLA’s spirit was quite high, as they had assurance many other auxiliaries wanted to take up arms with them and drive the Spaniards out. All the night long, Ayour and his new men started a stealth reconnaissance of the surroundings for the scheduled assault at dawn.
When they got back to their camp, He found the men already feasting on a camel they slaughtered for the occasion. The battle will turn them into one outfit, he hoped. Only in the battle does the comradeship become true, he experienced it with the Rif veterans, for they came from all over Morocco and ended up fighting together. “Tomorrow is another day, let us now get some rest”.
First mortar rounds. Explosions. bullets zigzagging all over the place. He felt breathless. An understatement of his state right then. He couldn’t feel his legs though he was surprised he had such strength to run so fast. The assault on the tiny Spanish outpost east of Sidi Ifni begun, first thing in the morning. After a brief mortar shelling, he led his party across 600 meters or so to get to the outpost. To his right, he saw two men fall, deadly shot. He had a ridiculous thought about it, because it looked as though they fell stupidly, like they couldn’t get up on their legs, and suddenly, the crumbled like a pile of cards, or an amateur building with shaky foundations. He found it even strange to have such thoughts at a time where the mind is like muted out, and were the basic thinking is devoted to the one aim that matters: to get back to the other end of the ground. A couple of seconds later, he saw three other guys fall, shot dead too. He guessed there was a machine gun nest somewhere on his right, so he nervously got a grenade out of his haversack, took the pin out but maintained its safety till he saw three tracing bullets flaring out of a dark smoky cloud a hundred meters far or so. He hated using grenades because he felt it was not a proper weapon. He was fond of his rifle, he didn’t mind using mortar when the occasion arises, but he hated using grenades. Not ‘man enough’ was his main reason. Besides, it does not kill as sure as a bullet or a bayonet blow does, and the result can be very ugly. He released the safety, threw his grenade as far as his arm could and dove to the ground, waiting for the explosion. A small earthquake followed, silencing the nest. And just as the warring noise came all of the sudden, a deadly silence took over, stressing the dramatic effect of smoke and dust. When it all settled down, he was relieved to see that the assault succeded, the outpost was overrun.
It was brief; no more than 15 minutes long. The survivors fled to the city while the MLA started checking the outpost. Nothing much of a loot, Ayour noted. Some rifles to equip the Reguibats, some grenades for training maybe. The prize was the machine gun he spotted earlier on. Luckily, the piece of equipment was not badly damaged by the shrapnels, but it was too heavy to be carried out. He decided to hand it to the Reguibat boss as a war trophy, a gesture that enhanced even more the MLA reputation.
After the loot, came the mourning. The dead were buried, the wounded were however a handicap. Right from the beginning, Ayour knew strategic supplies, especially medicine, were scarce among the MLA. They had to capture some from the enemy, or make use of every resource they can get, which is virtually impossible in the desert. The party was in a chance because the local nursery had a small stockpile of morphine, which was used to alleviate the wounded suffering. The decision was made to get them back to the departure point and recover. The campaign was just starting, and the battle group could not be slowed unnecessarily. In any case, corpses were pulled back from the battlefield and buried hurriedly. Stealth and secrecy were the watchwords.
Meanwhile, a large French Air force Languedoc just landed on the small Las Palmas airport. La Ferté, with a top-ranking civil servant from the Ministère d’outre-Mer et des Colonies and the commander of AOF (Afrique Occidentale Française), were to meet their opposite numbers in Spain to discuss the now serious situation in Spanish territory. Down the airport were the Commader of Spanish West Africa, his chief of staff, and the Airforce commander. No civilians, just the military. La Ferté thought they were old-fashioned. They were all wearing immaculate uniforms, shining knee-high boots, horse-riding breeches and collar-buttoned blouses decorated with impressive arrays of medals and awards. The contrast was stricking between the French three-stars general, dressed casually in his Saharienne, his baggy trousers closer to the Seroual than any Spanish regulation would allow for, and his Khaki béret, his Spanish counterpart on the other hand, was dressed in a uniform that did not change much since the Great War. No wonder they keep losing to the MLA mob was La Ferte sarcastic comment. The meeting seemed unreal, though La Ferté noted the Spanish willigness to turn the blind eye if the French were to chase the MLA on their side of the Sahara. In return, the French agreed to share their intelligence with the Spanish. They didn’t have to blow up much secrecy: It was a fact French military advisors in Morocco were quite influential, and many high-ranking Moroccan officials were on their payroll. There was even a rumour the Palace would be quite satisfied if the MLA was destroyed. The web of a nasty conspiracy were woven against the MLA.
The small party moved back from the hill to the pre-arranged meeting point at dusk. All of them felt powerless before the ineffable strength the desert was in its void. The men, all of robust constitution and of a military might they knew too well to be deadly, were helpless when the sandstorm strikes, when the rain pours from the heavy clouds, when the sand bits clog their weapons. In a place were Mankind had better leave modern technology for domestic rusticity for the sake of their own survival, it was always amusing to hear the men curse and swear whenever their weapons or hardware was ineffective because of the sand.
The MLA had indeed bigger fishes, or if we may, lizards, to fry. The difficult and hostile ground, combined with a random weather, were of infinite hardships compared with the despicable lack of knowledge of the surroundings. To the soldiers and commanders alike, the desert lying before their eyes was equally hostile and endless. When the MLA commander met the political representative, L’Fqih, he was quite blunt in his report: “Chouf a si Mohamed, we are in for an adventure here. I don’t mean to sound too cautious; You know, I am cautious. It is foolish to presume that my 2000 or so guys could cross a desert as large as the Rio De Oro, move in and engage the Spaniards. Mayemkench.” He was nervously waving old-looking yellow sheets. “If you want Ait Idder, Youssoufi and me to do the job, you are going to give us the assurance of local support. Talk to the tribes, tell them who’s side they are on. We need their spare camels, guides for our columns, their knowledge of the ground for food, shelter and water and intelligence on the enemy’s positions” As he was going on his requirement, Benhamou was growing febrile, waving his hands and rolling his eyes for a dramatized effect, he thought would impress L’Fqih and emphasis his case. “Maykoun Ghir Li Bgha L’Colonel” L’Fquih replied with a half-smile. “You know you can rely on me for these matters. I’ll put in a word to the national broadcast to send in some sympathetic messages, you know what I mean, get the propaganda going, urging the tribes to help our guys, etc. I am also pleased to tell you Agadir’s governor is entertaining this week a delegation of Chioukh that you should meet and press on joining our cause. I am sure they would weight on and provide you with what you need.”
Back at Saint-Louis, Capitaine La Ferté was studying meticulously the maps hanging on the tall white wall of the AOF garrisons’ chief headquarters. He looked concerned while contemplating the neat arrangement of arrows, charts and comments. His job as intelligence officer was to report and record all the Fellouzes activities, as well as some Moroccan mobs coming from the North. He knows from his colleagues at Rabat and Meknes that many well-equipped irregulars are moving Southward. He also knows the Spaniards are too weak to offer any credible resistance, and sooner or later, the MLA and the FLN would join hands, and then, he thought, “nous serons vraiment dans la merde“. The Méharistes and the Légionnaires were too far stretched across the line Tindouf/Port-Etienne to police the borders effectively. La Ferté is a young veteran,and an unfortunate mishap with training jump left him unfit to keep up with his alma mater regiment. However, during his recovery, he read and learnt so much of North Africa that he soon became invaluable to the intelligence staff. He managed to change his boss’ mind about the threat the MLA could represent, and urged him successfully to watch carefully their moves for the time being. There was no need for over-aggressiveness, La Ferté knew too well the Suez expedition damaged deeply France’s stand in the Arab world. “c’est deja assez chaud comme cela” smiling to his pun.
Ayour thought the tent would at least bring a bit of relief from the uncompronising sun. He was so wrong for the heat was unbearable at first, plus the blunt transition from blinding daylight to the dark hole he felt like sucked into. There, three austere faces looked indifferently at him, then carried on drinking their tea, the flavour of which, both sweet and acrid filled the tent. “Better drinking their tea than this stinking mud I’ve been sipping for the whole week ” he thought. He aknowledged their presence by a neutral “salamou 3alaykoum“, to which their replied in an equally detached tone. Because his column was moving hard accross the desert, he didn’t bring a Saharan tent with him. He was rather proud of the US-surplus he got when they start moving, a drap-green, WWII-old tent that must have been used by some G.I in Italy or some god-forsaken place in Europe. Now it is the property of an MLA soldier, miles and miles in a desert no one can really control but the native tribes, and there he was, trying to convince the three odd-looking people to join his venture and muster some support for his outfit. The analogy went even further; His cloak was an old khaki, the same one he retained from the wild years in the Rif. He looked like a tramp before the three majestuous blue/white-and-gold gandouras. Ayour tried it once, but looked like a fool. They, on the other hand, were at ease, as if they were sinking gracously and perfectly conmfortable in it. That caused them to much less presperation, a thing that always amazed the sweat-sunk, even hyperhidrosis Ayour. “Would you please offer food and shelter for me and my companions ? We have been travelling from a long distance, and we are quite foreigner in this place. Allah y barek fikoum“.
Note: This novel is a fiction. Some elements are made up and added to historical and accurate bits in order to get a drama effect.
Noon is still far away, but the heat was already unbearable. Sweat was running down like tear-drops. He felt he was sinking in his broad cloak. His hand was sweating even more, for the semi-automatic rifle he was holding was slowly turning into a hot stick. It grew painful, but right now, he had other things to worry about. It is the beginning of the year, his fellow troopers are about to cross the desert, and his task as a recon leader is crucial, for he needs to find causeways and avoid to draw attention. Speed, stealth and secrecy are the key.
Today is a hot day, and the five men-strong party he was leading had to cross an open field by midday. open field is a bit of an understatement: over there, everything within dozens of miles is an open field, occasionally bounded by some deep ridge or some misty wadi. He briefly looked back at the high mountains he left behind, were he came from, where he left his family for the unknown.
His immediate plans were more down to earth: To his left, an old rift was wide and deep enough to provide a cover for the column following him. He reckoned it would take him half a day to get there, so he pressed hard on his camel to quicken the pace. The ground was a bit rocky, it abated his impatience a bit to get to his aim. He unloaded his gear, dropped his burnuous and carefully fold it in his haversack, adjusted his turban then verified his rifle. The walk was going to be tough.
Ayour was not at his first major expedition. A couple of years ago, he fought in the Rif against the French and the Spanish garrisons there. It was not the first time he had to lead a reconnaissance party, nor was it the first time to fire off live rounds at people. In facts, the poor peasant from the anti-atlas he was before 1952, has little in common with the tall soldier he is now. Even though he retained the same old wretched djellaba, his stature was leaner albeit more muscular. As a member of the Moroccan Liberation army, he learnt self-reliance, days-long fasting and considerable endurance.
His fellow soldiers were, too, mountaineers that enrolled in the MLA. The illiterate Ayour joined with a somewhat simplistic opinion of the political map: he had to fight for those he felt were supporting justice against the local Caid. He knew little but what his commander tells him of the broad issues. He was not very bright, but had a deep sense of duty that allowed him to move fast among the rank and file; The poor shepherd was now in charge of a recon squad, and as such, he was the vital eye the MLA staff needed for their moves. The early days of January 1957 were quite different from the previous years. The joyful and leafy rif mountains were no longer, and the more the MLA moved south, the higher the temperature was and the drier the surroundings were.
The desert, with its tortured rocky ground and its snake-shaped paths was laying before him when he got his party on the top of the ridge. He could see the whole valley and beyond. His fellows were equal to him in his mixed sense of relief and confusion: relief because the column causeway was secured, and confused, because he felt it was going to be a different kind of war. A war of mobility far beyond human physical strength. A war not for villages or cities, but for oasis, tribes and ridges. A war that is going to be fought too in the cosy palaces between well educated and well behaved people.
The sunset was near. To the untrained eye, the void it presume the desert is slowly reveals itself to be full of life. Some desert rats awkwardly showed their tiny heads out of their invisible lairs for some food or water. The birds that remained silent and absent during the day started to cruise the skies, and the little swallows, sensing the heat was abating, start getting out of their nests, describing gracious geometrical shapes on the beautifully clear purple-and-blue sky
Ayour reported back by radioing to his boss. The quiet night gradually was disturbed by the discordant of a thousand camels, loaded with ammunitions, supplies, food and rations for the thousand MLA soldiers. From a stage shaped like an altar, Ayour saw a stormy column of dust by the North-East. This lot, his lot, was out to inflict havoc and damage to the weak Spanish garrisons disseminated along the coast. His boss confirmed that commando-style operations were enough to disrupted already crippled Spanish communications, and hopefully, put them in a situation such that hey would agree to a truce, or even an agreement on partial or total withdrawl. The whole of the Rio De Oro would therefore comes back to the fatherland. Perhaps even the faraway shores of Senegal rivers would come back to Morocco. The distant news that were broadcasted on the national radio confirmed his feelings: the colonialists were pulling back, in Egypt, in Vietnam, France had lots to do in Algeria, and the Spaniards are willing to let off a bit of steam on their Saharan outposts.
– “Radio command, tell them the way is clear all West of us. There is no rush, no enemy recon flight spotted” Ayour asked. The radio, a youthful worker from Casablanca that joined the MLA in order to escape the Istiqlal political police.
– “8ya li mat3aed ya Chef. Were do you think they would takes next? ” replied gleefully the radio
– “I don’t know a weldi. Only l’Fqih knows what to do. In any case, we will have to bring the M’hamid l’Ghizlan somehow to follow us. For the time being, we have bigger fishes to fry, ok ?”