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A story of waiting

Western Sahara
Saharawi boy

Carrying a gun to symbolize the independence war of 1975-91, a Saharawi boy takes part in an annual parade at a refugee camp in Algeria. He is part of a generation that has never seen its homeland. © Dominik Sipiński

When refugees from Western Sahara mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation of their country by Morocco this November, many of them will discuss attacking the 2,700-kilometre wall that separates them from their home.

Patience has been a key value for the Saharawi, but it has its limits. Younger members of the estimated 120,000 refugees living in five camps in western Algeria have never seen their country.

‘We were born here; we live here. But we do not want to die here in the desert, because this is not Western Sahara,’ says Ilbu, a young Saharawi refugee whose dream is to become a photojournalist.

Theoretically speaking, the Moroccan-Saharawi ceasefire signed under the auspices of the UN in 1991 paved the way to independence. The international community decided there should be a referendum among the Saharawi, a standard way of solving post-colonial statehood debates. The goal of MINURSO, a UN peacekeeping mission, was to facilitate the vote as early as 1992.

Since then, Morocco has blocked the process, unwilling to cede control over Western Sahara. The UN has been too weak to force progress and the powerless Saharawi have been left grinding their teeth in anger. The referendum is no more likely today than it was in the 1970s, when the UN first suggested it.

‘We do not ask for much. We do not ask for money or help; just a ballot paper in which we can determine the independence of our country,’ says Bouhabini Yahia, president of the Saharawi Red Crescent.

Yahia, a committed humanitarian, does not want to admit openly what most refugees acknowledge: appeals such as his fall on deaf ears, and have done so for 40 years.

The misery began in 1975. Spain, a colonizer of the territory, was in a shambles. Its dictator, General Franco, was dying, and so was his regime. Western Sahara, a colony the size of the UK, but inhabited by fewer than 100,000 people, was an unwanted burden. Unwilling to engage in a complicated process of self-determination, the Spanish regime secretly partitioned Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.

Both countries sent in their armies. Morocco also brought in over 300,000 civilians, in the so-called Green March. The Saharawi nomads, relatively well-off but few in number and poorly armed, had no chance of resisting the invasion.

The Moroccan air force forced the Saharawi out to Algeria by bombing them with napalm and white phosphorus. The nomads settled in refugee camps and launched a partisan war. They enjoyed some success, forcing Mauritania to withdraw and sign peace accords, but Morocco was too strong for them.

A situation sealed

In the 1980s, Morocco built a wall across the desert protected by landmines to ward off Saharawi raids. Major powers turned a blind eye. None of them recognized the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which had been proclaimed by the leftist and secular Polisario Front in 1976. Only the African Union (AU) backed the Saharawi and expelled Morocco. (To this day, Morocco is the sole African country not part of the AU.)

The 1991 ceasefire effectively sealed this situation: Morocco controls some three-quarters of Western Sahara, including all of its territorial waters, which are rich in fish and, possibly, oil. The SADR, now a quasi-state with ministries, elections and a football team, controls the remaining part, referred to as the Liberated Territories.

‘We achieved more international recognition during the war with Morocco than during the years of peace. The international community thinks that if nobody is dying here, then there is no crisis’

‘This is a very unusual group of refugees – they came here for political reasons, not seeking opportunities. There are no opportunities here,’ stresses Yahia. ‘From the very beginning, they had a political project: to build a functioning state in exile, easy to transpose to the independent Western Sahara.’

For the Saharawi who remained in occupied Western Sahara rights are scarce. Moroccan police brutally suppress any pro-independence movements. Foreign journalists are banned from the territory which Morocco refers to as the ‘Southern Province’.

‘We have a saying here: “In the Sahara, everything is late”. Our lives have been a story of waiting – for a referendum, for independence, for a return to our country,’ says Bene, a 27-year-old Saharawi living in the largest camp – Smara.

Like many refugees, he benefited from the support of Algeria, and studied there. After graduation, he returned to the camps. Now, although a qualified IT specialist, he owns a small shop in Smara selling anything from traditional garments to cleaning supplies.

‘I am not happy with my business. It brings me relatively good money, but I want to use my education. In our situation, education is pointless,’ he says resignedly.

But despite his pessimism, Bene still thinks that a peaceful path to independence is possible, if the Saharawi authorities can promise more economic benefits to the US and the European Union. Many of his fellow refugees, however, have lost hope.

A proud people: national flags and symbols feature prominently in this small shop in the Smara refugee camp in the Algerian desert.

Dominik Sipiński

‘People see that the UN does not work; they see that only force works. We have a reason to fight, and as Muslims we believe that if we die for our country, we go to heaven,’ says Ilbu.

The official line of Polisario, the only party in the SADR, is one of a peaceful resolution. Every year, there is hope that the UN will strengthen MINURSO’s mandate, at the very least giving it the right to monitor the human rights situation in the occupied territory. It is the only UN peacekeeping mission without such a right.

The mission’s mandate is renewed annually, but because of French support for Morocco, any changes are blocked. Last year, SADR’s prime minister, Abdelkader Taleb Omar, admitted that if this continues, he will explore other means of action.

Western Sahara’s frustrated youth have been saying the same thing for a while now, and their threats are less veiled. MINURSO is worried and its concerns are passed on to the UN Secretary General in the mission’s annual reports. Speaking off the record, MINURSO field representatives in Tindouf, an Algerian city near the camps, admit that, if violence erupts, they can do very little to stop it.

‘The youth have seen that we achieved much more international recognition during the 24 years of war with Morocco than during the years of peace. The international community thinks that if nobody is dying here, then there is no crisis, and they do not do anything,’ explains Zain Sidahmed, former head of UJSARIO, Polisario’s youth wing.

Most younger refugees admit that they stand no chance against the US-trained Moroccan army. ‘We have a weaker army. But in two, three, maybe five years, things will explode,’ says Ilbu. ‘The authorities want to stop us, but the youth want to go to war.’

Dominik Sipiński is a freelance journalist reporting on conflicts, global politics and social issues.

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