Former boomtowns wither as border dispute with Algeria continues

The closure costs North Africa up to US$9 billion per year in potential external trade by stalling a planned regional trading bloc, according to a 2008 report.

Bouziane Haja, a farmer from the Moroccan town of Figuig, stands in a palm grove at the border with Algeria. There are at least 616 farming families blocked from their Algerian palm groves.
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FIGUIG, MOROCCO // One day in autumn 1976, at the time of the date harvest, Algerian soldiers appeared in Bouziane Haja's palm groves and sent him packing over the border to his native Morocco. "They told me never to return unless I wanted to die," said Mr Haja, a farmer from the Moroccan border town of Figuig. "That was the last time I set foot on my family's land."

Since then, near-constant closure of the border has severed most of Figuig's farmers from ancestral palm groves in Algeria and has helped turn the former entrepôt into a dead-end: a decline emblematic of Moroccan-Algerian rivalry that frustrates economic growth and co-operation in North Africa. The oasis of Figuig was settled long ago by Amazighs, or Berbers, who have inhabited North Africa since before recorded history. By the Middle Ages it was a gateway to the Sahara for merchants and pilgrims.

Today, Figuig is an agglomeration of seven villages for seven Amazigh tribes. There are mountains around the valley with the dome of the sky fitted over it like a lid, and a sea of palms beating from rim to rim. France colonised North Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries but never clearly delineated the Moroccan-Algerian frontier, considered an internal division of French-held territory. By 1963, Morocco and Algeria were independent and jockeying for land. Fighting broke out for several weeks along the border as Algeria repelled incursions by Moroccan troops.

When the shooting stopped, most of Figuig's palm groves were under Algerian control, Mr Haja said. "But at least they let us come and go freely, and work our land." However in 1976, Algeria closed the border in response to Morocco's invasion the previous year of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony contested by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement. The border opened partly in 1988, Mr Haja said, but Algeria resealed it in 1994 after Morocco blamed Algerian machinations for the fatal shootings of two Spainards in Marrakech and slapped visa restrictions on Algerian nationals.

The closure costs North Africa up to US$9 billion (Dh33bn) per year in potential external trade by stalling a planned regional trading bloc, according to a 2008 report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a non-profit economic research centre in Washington. Morocco wants the border reopened, while Algeria says the Western Sahara conflict must be solved first. UN-led peace talks have so far failed to break the current impasse: the Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option; Morocco rules that out and proposes autonomy instead.

Meanwhile, Figuig has gone from a commercial gateway to a town of shuttered businesses; of bicycles and mopeds instead of cars; of men propped like statues in doorways. According to the Association for Equity towards Victims in Figuig, of which Mr Haja is a member, at least 616 farming families are blocked from their Algerian palm groves and the population has fallen from about 15,000 to 12,000 in the last decade.

"Today, most people here are living on money from relatives abroad," said Mohamed Fadli, 32, a mechanic stopping for a Coke at one of the town's few cafés. Across the road, children were pouring out of a school. "Very few of those kids will be here in 10 years," said Mr Fadli. "Getting out is something we have inside us." Figuig's isolation is compounded by a lack of government spending on development and infrastructure, said the mayor, Omar Abou. There is no hospital, railway or airport. The nearest big city, Oujda, is a seven-hour bus journey away.

"Even directives from the Ministry of Education sometimes arrive late, and I'm short on classroom supplies" said Hassan Ben Amara, a French teacher at one of Figuig's two high schools. "I work with just chalk and a blackboard." "Clearly, the ideal situation would be the border reopening," Mr Abou said. For now, "development must be part of a vision to link Figuig to other regions and invest in ways that could generate wealth."

Mr Abou sees potential for tourism and more diverse agriculture. But the closed border has left many in Figuig "thinking endlessly about the land they lost", he said. One recent evening, descending towards home from the town centre, Mr Haja stopped at the top of the path to take in the view. A stork was wheeling over the palms below and to the south-west the sun was blazing down behind the mountains.

"Look at that gap in the hills," Mr Haja said, pointing south. "That's where the road goes through to Algeria. That's where my palms are." @Email:jthorne@thenational.ae