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Algeria: Mariem Courage and the desert marathon

29-01-2013 Feature

A dozen patients from the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre at Tindouf (south-west Algeria) took part in the Noukhaila desert marathon in December 2012. We followed Mariem as she prepared to face the Algerian desert.

Monday 3 December 2012. It's pretty chilly this morning, but this isn't going to stop Mariem. Despite her orthoses, Mariem climbs into the 4x4 with little difficulty and joins other patients from the ICRC rehabilitation centre. Today, the vehicle isn't going to the centre: it's taking her to the town of Rabouni, headquarters of the Polisario Front, some 20 km from Tindouf.

The atmosphere is electric in Rabouni this morning. Dozens of refugees of all ages from the camps at Laayoune, Smara, Ausserd and Dakhla arrive on buses that the authorities have chartered specially for the event. All are here to take part in the desert marathon that the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre and the Martyr Chreif Centre have organized to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Noukhaila, 7 km from Rabouni.

Mariem was barely a year old when the first symptoms of polio began to appear, after an epidemic hit Laayoune Sahrawi refugee camp in 1986.  Neither vaccines nor traditional medicines were able to stop the illness. At the age of five, Mariem was finding it difficult to walk. There were no crutches, so she used jerrycans instead.

It was at this point that she was offered treatment in Spain. She received suitable orthoses, which had to be replaced regularly as she grew. Little by little, she learned to walk unaided. But she spent 17 long years in Spain, far from her family in the camp.

Towards the end of the 2000s, Mariem's parents fell ill, and she came back to look after them. A friend told her about the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre. In 2011, the ICRC team fitted her with new orthoses. Mariem immediately noticed the difference – these devices were much lighter and more flexible than the ones she had been wearing "These new orthoses allow me to wear whatever shoes I like!" she explains enthusiastically. Since then, the centre has been following her progress, and she calls in regularly to have her orthoses adjusted or repaired.

This morning, Mariem is one of a dozen patients from the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre taking part in the desert marathon. The whistle blows, and the participants set off across the rocky desert. Mariem crosses the finish line breathless but happy, with another experience to look back on. She and her friends hurry off to join the festivities organized to mark the event.

The ICRC physical rehabilitation centre opened in 2007. It cares both for the victims of mines and other explosive ordnance, and for people with polio or cerebral palsy. In addition, the centre treats children with club foot, a congenital malformation of the feet.

Patients come from the Sahrawi refugee camps around the Algerian town of Tindouf, having been displaced by the conflict in Western Sahara. The centre runs a daily shuttle service from a meeting point in Rabouni, the administrative centre of the Polisario Front.


Photos

Mariem (second from the left) at the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre. 

Tindouf, Algeria.
Mariem (second from the left) at the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre.
© ICRC

Mariem (left) about to take part in the Noukhaila desert marathon. 

Noukhaila, Algeria.
Mariem (left) about to take part in the Noukhaila desert marathon.
© ICRC / v-p-dz-e-00121