Some 544km from Laayoune, on a long spit of land, Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros, capital of Spain’s Rio de Oro colony), is just 22km north of the Tropic of Cancer. Under Spanish rule, only the colonists and people working for them were allowed into town – the Saharawi nomads who lived in the desert were excluded. In 1975, the Spanish left and the Mauritanians moved in, to be replaced four years later by the Moroccans. Since then, Dakhla has grown somewhat, but it retains a lazy, sun-bleached atmosphere, with whitewashed, low-rise buildings and an easy-going feel. Europeans in camper vans head down in winter, drawn by the deserted beaches and year-round sunshine – even in January it’s hot, and this is the furthest south you can get by land without needing a visa. Dakhla has also been developing a small surfing scene, with windsurfing and kitesurfing increasingly popular pursuits at the northern end of the lagoon, and there are a couple of surfing supply shops in town.
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Simmering tensions in Dakhla
While Dakhla is generally quiet and peaceful, deep tensions underlie this apparent tranquillity, and occasionally they surface. The Saharawi neighbourhood of Oum Tounsi hit the news in February 2011 when it came under attack by Moroccan settlers during the now-abolished annual Dakhla festival. One factor behind the attacks was the resentment of settlers at the subsidies given to returnees from the Polisario camps in Algeria if they accept Moroccan citizenship, but the continued opposition of Saharawis to the Moroccan occupation remains the most serious issue. Further clashes between settlers and Saharawis erupted after a football match in September 2011, leaving eight dead. The Moroccan news agency Morocco World News, calling Oum Tounsi “a stronghold of smugglers”, blamed “ex-convicts” for the trouble, adding that unnamed foreigners had taken advantage of the violence to carry out “activities of subversion”. For all that, Dakhla is generally peaceful, but the periodic appearance of SADR flags in Saharawi neighbourhoods invariably leads to raids by Moroccan forces, and the tension between settlers and Saharawis does not look like going away any time soon.