A significant number of you are probably at this moment thinking: 'Western Sahara? Never heard of it. Do they really expect me to read a whole magazine about such an obscure place?' If ever there were a place bypassed by the normal news agenda Western Sahara is it. Most of its people have been living in refugee camps ever since Morocco invaded in 1975. Their liberation movement, Polisario, has had to fight a long war against forces armed by the West. The Saharawi people have been sold down the wadi by more than just news editors.
Even we at the NI had to think carefully before we decided to devote a whole issue to such an unnoticed country. So I rang experts on North Africa and the Middle East to check out what they thought of the idea. They agreed that Western Sahara deserves its independence and that justice is certainly on Polisario's side. But they dismissed it as 'a lost cause'. 'You might give it a short feature,' one of them said. 'But you would be crazy to devote a whole magazine to such a hopeless struggle.'
To be honest, this kind of assessment made me more determined than ever to go ahead with the issue: how dared they dismiss a just cause so blithely and accept the cynicism of international power politics so readily?
I checked this out with the rest of the editorial team and then with the NI Co-operative. They felt the same: even if we are tilting at windmills this is exactly the kind of topic that the New Internationalist should be taking on.
All of this happened a year ago we plan our issues well in advance, especially when they involve substantial travel. The irony is that once we'd agreed to take the issue on, Western Sahara's cause became altogether less 'hopeless', as you will read later on. This is yet another lesson that 'experts' are not necessarily to be trusted: all experts wear their own particular model of blinkers, each of them has their ideological bias or blind spot. But in a way the momentous developments in Western Sahara have reinforced the need for this issue of the NI, since even the most dedicated reader of the international news pages would have had great difficulty in finding a mention of them.
All the same, an issue that was originally conceived as something of a cry from the wilderness has taken on a much more positive, dynamic shape. The story of Western Sahara is actually an inspiring one: of a people continuing to fight for their rights against all odds, of a people who have made their refugee camps marvels of efficient, autonomous organization rather than harbours of despair. And the whole story takes place against the backdrop of the Sahara Desert, which commands the imagination more than almost any other natural feature on the planet.
I can't pretend that this was my easiest trip as a journalist you will find out why if you read on. But I can safely say that it was my most memorable.
for the New Internationalist Co-operative