Amid the bleak landscape of the Sahara desert, where the bulk of Western Sahara’s people continue to languish in refugee camps, signs of hope tend to emerge from the grassroots rather than from governments.
Spain held colonial power until 1976 and considerable cultural ties remain – Spanish is Western Sahara’s second language (after Hassania, an Arabic dialect). Around 10,000 Spanish families welcome a Saharawi child from the longstanding refugee settlements in the desert near Tindouf, Algeria, into their homes for several months every year. This is thought to be the largest solidarity movement between two peoples anywhere in the world.
In addition, every year since 2004, an international film festival (known as FiSahara) has been held in these camps. ‘Over 400 people now travel here from Spain every year and the event is very well established,’ explains filmmaker and founder Javier Corcuera. ‘The event ensures that the Saharawis do not feel alone because the Spanish people show unconditional support for their cause. There is no longer any correspondence at all between the Spanish Government and Spanish civil society on this issue.’
The International Court of Justice ruled as long ago as 1975 that Western Sahara should have the right to self-determination but Morocco invaded before the Spanish officially withdrew. A decade and a half of war ensued, with Saharawi movement Polisario conducting guerrilla campaigns against the occupying forces. The original UN Peace Plan between Morocco and the Saharawis was launched in 1991, and produced a ceasefire that has held to this day, but Morocco has stubbornly refused to accept any referendum with independence as an option. In recent years, moreover, the Western Sahara issue has slipped down – or completely off – the international agenda.
At the end of April 2009 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by another year – but failed to give it the teeth to safeguard human rights in the occupied territories. France, a consistent defender of Moroccan interests, vetoed the proposal, arguing that the situation in the occupied territories should be considered as having a ‘human dimension’ rather than being about ‘human rights’ – despite the abuses regularly documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. ‘It is very sad that this country, with its motto of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” is not able to offer us its support,’ comments Mahfud Ali Beiba, Head of the Saharawi Parliament.
The lack of movement at the international level makes cultural initiatives all the more vital. Refugees in the camps talk with enthusiasm about the recently proposed University at Tifariti (in the liberated zone, between the refugee settlements and the fortified wall Morocco has built around the occupied territories). There are now 10 Spanish universities involved, along with other universities in England, Algeria and Cuba. This project seeks to capitalize on the educational transformation that has seen the Saharawis jump from one of the lowest levels of literacy in Africa to over 90-per-cent literacy, as well as thousands of refugees attending schools and universities in Algeria and many hundreds more in Cuba.
‘This project is a symbol of hope for the Saharawis in the refugee camps, because it will form part of the planning for the new infrastructure in liberated territory,’ explains Bucharaya Buyen, Polisario’s representative in Spain. ‘The Saharawis as a people have invested heavily in education and consequently we have protected our society from extremism and terrorism. Westerners can walk through the refugee camps at any time without problems; you cannot say that about many other countries.’