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The Saharawi people have for over 40 long years managed to establish a functioning society in the refugee camps in the Algerian desert, near Tindouf. They are ensuring the survival of their people and for the time when independence is won

Arriving in the Saharawi Refugee camps in the Algerian desert near Tindouf, the home of over 150, 000 or around a third of the Saharawi population indigenous to Western Sahara, one is immediately struck by the extreme heat, the lack of water, and the aridness of the landscape. It is a landscape where little grows without a great effort and where the refugee population has lived since 1975, when Morocco invaded their homeland, Western Sahara.

As the camps are in the middle of the desert, in the so-called ‘Devils Garden’, there is sand everywhere. The houses are built on sand, literally. You have to close the windows during a sand-storm, but when you open them again afterwards the sand spills onto the floor.

These might be refugee camps in the middle of the desert, but in the nearly forty years that the Saharawis have been forced to live here they have managed to build it into something resembling a functioning society.

“We created all of this in circumstances with no qualified politicians, with no experts. We had to start from zero,” as 98-year-old Mohammed Abba, a former freedom fighter who fought the French and the Spanish, tells me. “When we came to this arid land there was nothing. So we had to organize everything.”

The Saharawis try to live as ‘normal’ lives as possible. The inhabitants in the camps live mostly in homesteads with a couple of sand-brick houses – a kitchen, a toilet, and a bedroom, as well as a traditional tent for socializing. Vegetables can be bought, as can tins of mackerel. There are libraries, museums, garages, shops, phone salesmen, restaurants, sports shops, pizzeria and hairdressers for those who can afford them, all next to the tents, worn out wrecked cars that have been stripped of everything remotely useful and are now used by the children to play in, and pens with goats or camels. Many of the inhabitants have solar-powered electricity, and many have TV-sets, in front of which they discuss current affairs while watching Al Jazeera or CNN.

But before we get too carried away, a recent UN study reported that 7.6 percent of children in the camps are acutely malnourished, 16.7 percent are underweight, and 25.2 suffer from stunting. “And there is an increasing shortage of food, medicine, water, just about everything in the camps. This is a natural consequence of the economic crisis. Spain [the former colonizing power and a major donor">, for instance, has reduced is aid to the camps by 60%,” Saharawi Minister for Cooperation, Brahim Mojtar, tells me during our meeting in his ministry office outside the camps of Rabouni.

And especially the lack of medicine and medical staff could have disastrous effects for the population of the camps, the director of the Saharawi national hospital, Fadli Mokhtar, insists when I meet him in his office at the hospital.

“For us the most important health issue is the vaccination programme, even to the detriment of food supply and clothes because an epidemic amongst children can kill many. We have experienced such polio, dysentery and hepatitis B epidemics in 1976 and 1977. It was a catastrophe. But I don’t really want to talk about this as it is too painful to remember, and thanks to our prevention and vaccination programme we have not suffered from epidemics in recent years.”

That the Saharawis have managed to build a functioning society with e.g. schools, a high level of literacy, a press service, hospitals, and a functioning proto-democratic government system in these extreme conditions, is remarkable. “We have indeed created institutions in an extraordinary situation,” Saharawi Minister of Public Administration Khira Boulahi tells me, “probably because we tend to look for solutions and not problems.”

This is also impressive, because as with many other African countries, the colonizers left the colonized with little to show for the many decades of colonization. “When the Spanish left after 100 years of colonization, there was only one doctor in Western Sahara. Today we have more than 300 doctors, over 5000 with university degrees. This shows the achievement of the Saharawi government, even in these circumstances,” Saharawi Minister for Cooperation Brahim Mojtar points out.

Many stories of refugee camps speak only of desolation and hardship, and writing about the Saharawis in the Saharawi refugee camps, one could also easily and reasonably tell such a story. This could therefore have become yet another emotionally charged outsider account of the hopelessness of a poor and downtrodden people. Instead, I have deliberately chosen to also look at the success stories and on the future and solutions to the conflict through the accounts of the many people that I interviewed in the camps themselves.

Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony. The International Court of Justice rejected Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara in 1975. The illegality of Morocco’s invasion and colonization of Western Sahara, with the ensuing exodus to the Tindouf camps, has been maintained by over 100 UN resolutions, several of which specifically state that Morocco is to grant Western Sahara its independence. The Charter of the UN clearly states that those nations who are “responsible” for non-self-governing states such as Western Sahara, must “ensure … their just treatment, and their protection against abuses,” and “take due account of the political aspirations of the people.”

The so-called ‘Green March’ in late 1975, where over 300,000 Moroccan civilians marched into Western Sahara, having been urged by the Moroccan king to do so, was also clearly in breach of the 4th Geneva Convention. Hans Correll’s UN Opinion from 2002 concludes that the selling of Western Sahara’s resources is only legal if the Saharawis agree to this and benefit from it, something that the Saharawis and a European Parliament Legal Opinion from 2009 say they do not.

Additionally, the Saharawi government has been recognized by over 80 countries and is a member of the African Union. “Western Sahara is thus a clear case of decolonization, of human rights violations in the occupied territories, of plunder of our resources by Morocco,” as Brahim Mojtar tells me, outlining the statutes of international law as well as the view of most Saharawis.

The constitution of the Saharawi state has laid down guidelines for a future independent Saharawi state, including that it is to be a multi-party democracy with a market economy, that it will be a state based on the principles of human rights, and that it will work for cooperation with the other countries of the Maghreb region.

The highest office of the Saharawi republic is that of the President. He appoints the Prime Minister, who heads the council of ministers, and the judicial branch. The parliament, the 53-strong Saharawi National Council, primarily has a consultative role, although this is slowly changing. Local or provincial representatives are also elected. Parliament has flexed its muscles on several occasions e.g. though passing a motion of no confidence in the government in 1999, leading to its fall, and the Saharawi constitution grants all Saharawis freedom of speech and separates the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

“So if tomorrow we were liberated, we would have a working, functional democratic structure,” says Brahim Mojtar. And that is indeed the point of many of the structures that have been built in the camps. To ensure the survival of the people and their culture in the present setting of the camps, yes, but also to prepare for when independence has been won.

“One of the important things that [the UN-recognised representative and liberation movement of the Saharawi people"> Polisario [who also constitutes the Saharawi government"> has achieved is unity,” says governor of the camp of Smara, Adda Brahim. “Unity is a precaution against the enemy dividing the Saharawis, and unity is also important when we have our independence, although it should not be to the detriment of democracy and pluralism.”

And this is not the case, Saharawi Minister for Cooperation Brahim Mojtar insists. “There is opposition to the main line of Polisario, but always within the main goals of independence. Opposition is found everywhere.”

This opposition is due, amongst other things, to an independent online media and an expanding civil society. “Civil society can and should play an important role in balancing the power of the state, in controlling the state, so that we can be sure that the state cannot manipulate the people, because there will always be voices of the people to be heard,” the President of the newly formed Saharawi human rights commission CONASADH, Said Filaly, tells me.
CONASADH was formed to enforce the already existing pillars of civil society and fill the empty spaces, he says. “It can and should play a positive role both now and in a future Saharawi independent society.”

But Rome was not built in a day, and neither will an independent Western Sahara be. “We must remember that democracy needs time to mature, and that many countries in the West speak from the vantage point of hundreds of years of democracy,” as Adda Brahim reminds us.

The Saharawi democracy would nevertheless mature a lot better in a free and independent state rather than in refugee camps in the desert. “Our parliament does question the decisions of the government, but in fairness the government doesn’t have the economic means to improve things because Morocco and the European countries steal our resources,” says Saharawi MP Mahfoud Salama. “They want to sell us the notion of democracy, equality etc., all these good words, but on the other hand they steal our resources and do nothing to help us.”

Mahfoud Salama insists that the Saharawi culture is naturally liberal and proto-democratic. “The nature of the Saharawi Bedouin is to be free,” he tells me. “In our history people never made decisions for one another. We had democratic councils that would not enact anything without a majority, although Saharawis do have a tendency to follow the majority, follow the consensus, as this was the way of the old nomadic system.”

Having spoken to Mahfoud and many of his countrymen, and seen for myself the administrative and political structures the Saharawis have built in the refugee camps, my overall picture of the camps, and the people who are working hard, often with little or no pay, to ensure the running of them, is generally very positive.

My host in the camps, Abba, told me how the first Secretary General of both the Polisario and the Saharawi Republic, El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, argued that the Saharawi people were few in number, and that they therefore had to rely on quality instead of quality. He was killed in battle in 1976, but having myself met many active Saharawis from all walks and life during my week-long stay in the Saharawi refugee camps, I imagine that he would have been happy at the quality of his fellow Saharawis.

Because if this is what the Saharawis are capable of in the desert, with some help from the UN and foreign aid organisations, imagine what they could be capable of if they were able to use their many resources in occupied Western Sahara that are currently being blocked by an 2700 km heavily mined and fortified Moroccan wall or Berm that the Saharawis call the “wall of shame.”

People in the camps and the occupied territories are angry about this fact and with the conditions they have to live under, but they are perhaps angrier still with the lack of progress and change. Especially the younger student generation who were born around the time of the ceasefire between Polisario and Morocco in 1991, many of whom are becoming increasingly fed up with waiting for a UN-led peace process that many of them believe is going nowhere.

Abdeslam Omar Lahcen, President of human rights organization AFAPREDESA, says he understands the anger of the youths. “The international community, when they don’t react to the increased violations and violence from the Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara, is in effect telling us that we need a different approach to make changes,” he says. “Many young people equate this to violence.”

Saharawi MP Mahfoud Salama agrees. “People want to work, to contribute, to earn money, to do something for their future and that of the Saharawis. If these things can’t be guaranteed then some people will want to go back to war to fight to change these things,” he tells me.

According to many people I spoke to in the camps, however, a combination of a peaceful uprising in the occupied territories, active diplomacy, and much more pressure on Morocco from the international community is the preferred way for the Saharawis to achieve their independence. Not least the older generation, who have experienced the terrors of war.

Saharawi Minister for Cooperation, Brahim Mojtar, thus seemingly speaks for many of his countrymen when he tells me that “independence will come as a combination of several elements, and the most important is the resistance of the Saharawi people, in both the camps and the occupied territories, but also to convince the big players to act.”

The Saharawis feel that they are doing their part, and have done so for decades. All they ask of us is that we do ours – help them survive in the present conditions as well as to achieve the independence that is their only demand and which they have been promised for decades.

98-year-old former freedom fighter Adeih Alboukhari fought against several of Western Sahara’s invaders. He can often only remember fragments of stories about the struggle against Spanish colonizers or some otherwise long-forgotten battle against the French, the stories seemingly layered in his head randomly. But when it comes to the importance of independence he in quite clear. “All we ask for is to live in our own country,” he tells me with a fixing glare. “Go tell them this when you get home.”

Saharawi MP Mahfoud Salama agrees. He had himself walked hundreds of kilometres with his mother and sister through the desert from his home in Western Sahara to the camps in 1976 when he was seven-years-old, fleeing the bombardments of the advancing Moroccan troops. “I promise you that when we return to our land we will never ask for anything ever again,” he tells me, and I believe him.

“After all it takes a strong will to demand our rights peacefully and good-mannered,” says President of CONASADH, Said Filaly. “This patience is the signal of intent that the Saharawis have sent to the international community for decades. But the international community should act on this, both for our sake, but also because if the power of rights is not there, one has to enforce everything with power – might becomes right.”

“The UN was formed to end past injustices committed by Stalin and Hitler, amongst others. It shouldn’t accept present ones,” continues Said Filaly. “The Western Sahara conflict is a test of the credibility of the UN as well as of the willingness of the international community to stand up for human rights.”

And if the EU does not wish to act to help the Saharawis for more universal, altruistic reasons, such as ensuring the continuous legitimacy of international law, then it can do so out of self-preservation, to avoid terrorism, conflict and the subsequent prospect of even more refugees on our doorstep, Adda Brahim, the Governor of the refugee camp of Smara, argues.

“The world needs those who can help fight terrorism. Our message to the outside world is that the security and development of the whole of North Africa, and consequently that of the EU, depends to a large degree on the solution of the Western Sahara conflict. Our borders to the west with Morocco is full of drug dealers and smugglers, and at our borders with Mali there is the risk of terrorism and kidnapping,” says he says by way of exemplification.

But the struggle is by no means over, once independence has been achieved. Saharawi Minister of Public Administration Khira Boulahi has had to take her degree in engineering as far away as in Cuba but wants to be able to put it to good use in an independent Western Sahara. “This battle is one that can only be truly won after independence, as we need to be able to own our own economy to be able to run our own affairs. But nevertheless we have started now."

*Peter Kenworthy is a journalist who also holds a degree in International Development Studies. He has written extensively about the Western Sahara conflict. He visited the Saharawi refugee camps near Tindouf for a week in late-April, his second visit to the camps, and has also visited the liberated territories of Western Sahara. He has previously worked as an Information Officer for Africa Contact, for whom he still works as a volunteer activist, and for Amnesty International.

Read more here:

This article is part of a series of articles based on his visit to the camps and was published previously at

* The title of the article is a reference to the American comedy film “Groundhog Day”, where Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors finds himself in a time-loop in a small town that he initially dislikes, having to relive the same day again and again. He only progresses and escapes from his situation after having accepted the qualities of the place he is stuck in and by subsequently spending most of his time helping others and improving his own capabilities in a multitude of areas.



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