The Conflict in Western Sahara – The Eternal Wait
For almost 50 years, the Sahrawi people have been waiting for a referendum that would give them the opportunity to decide for themselves over their future and their homeland, the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. When Spain pulled out of the territory in 1976, the odds for Western Saharan independence looked good, until Morocco laid claim to the land and occupied two thirds of the territory, which it still holds today.
No movement in the Western Sahara conflictSince 1975, the Sahrawis have been fighting for an independent country. The territory in question lies on the Atlantic coast of Northwest Africa and spans some 266,000 square kilometres. In 1992, the UN planned a referendum on independence, which has since been postponed time and again. The decades-long conflict between Morocco and the liberation movement Polisario Front continues unabated.Annexation and expulsionCalls for the independence of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara gained support, at the very latest, since the independence of Algeria in 1956. In 1963, the situation was addressed by the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations, and in 1967, Spain announced for the first time its intention to hold a referendum on independence, which, however, never took place. A summary by the International Court of Justice in 1975 granted the Sahrawi people, the indigenous population of Western Sahara, the right of self-determination and to an independent state. Yet, shortly after Spain's withdrawal, Morocco annexed a large part of the territories just south of its own borders. – View of the Laayoune refugee campAfrica's "last colony"The dream of independence has withered over the course of 15 years of bloody fighting between the Moroccan army and the Sahrawi Polisario Front. A truce was negotiated in 1991 and the UN stationed troops to monitor the situation. Talk of a referendum re-emerged and continues today, yet, in spite of preliminary negotiations, nothing has come of it. – Young Sahrawis at a military parade of the Polisario Front on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) at a military base in TifaritiA state for the desert peopleAsk a Sahrawi what is his greatest wish and he will answer, "an independent state for the Sahrawi people". In fact, this state was already proclaimed in 1976, as the invasion by the Moroccan army drove a large portion of the Sahrawian people into exile in Algeria. The result was 15 years of continuous resistance struggle. On 27 February, the Polisario Front, which represents the Sahrawi people both politically and militarily, proclaimed the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR. – Three young Sahrawi women near the Laayoune refugee camp on the border to MoroccoStatus QuoSADR has meanwhile been internationally recognized by 50 states. It is a member of the African Union, prompting Morocco to leave the organization. Nonetheless, it has no seat at the United Nations. The UN has made this dependent on the results of a referendum, which has still to take place, whereby the people of Western Sahara can decide on their future and that of the territory. The MINURSO peacekeeping mission with UN troops to ensure the ceasefire will terminate on 30 April 2013. – Three woman on their way home, LaayouneMorocco's wall of land minesSADR lays claim to the total area of the former colony of Western Sahara, yet only a third of the territory – including the refugee camps located in Algeria – are under its control. The remaining two thirds, including the lucrative phosphorous reserves and the coastal waters, which are rich in fish, are controlled by Morocco. The "occupied" and the "liberated" territories, as the Sahrawis refer to them, are separated by a 2500 km long wall of land mines running from north to south through the desert. Morocco has attempted to expand the cities on its side of the wall as attractively as possible in order to attract a greater number Moroccans from the North, thereby cementing its claims to the territory. – A young woman stares into the vastness of the Western SaharaNostalgia for namesThe exact number of Sahrawis living in the refugee camps located in the Algerian Western Sahara is unknown. It is estimated that some 180,000 people populate the camps. There are four large camps, each named after a city in the territory occupied by Morocco: Smara, Laayoune, Dakhla, and Ausserd. In addition, there is the smaller camp with the name 27 February (to recall the proclamation date of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) and the administrative centre in Rabouni, headquarters of the SADR government, which is formed by the Polisario Front. – Evening atmosphere in LaayouneRefugee statusThe Sahrawis are completely dependent on humanitarian aid. Their refugee status provides them with access to aid by the UN, the EU and a number of NGOs. Maintenance of the refugee camps is organized by the administrative centre in Rabouni and decisions are implemented by the district councils in the camps. – Three children playing in the Laayoune refugee campMaking life possibleDespite the lack of financial and material recourses, all of the camps have good infrastructures. There are schools, kindergartens, and administrative buildings. Near the camps around the city of Tindouf, there is even a market selling food, clothing, and other necessities. There is almost blanket mobile phone reception and, since recently, many of the camps enjoy Internet access. In addition, the SADR government operates its own radio and television station. – Distribution of gas canisters for cooking, Laayoune Coping with everyday lifeAs access to the Algerian electricity grid is – with rare exception – non-existent in the camps, refugees employ small solar power facilities, which are equipped with a single modulator and therefore can only provide electricity for two hours a day. Cooking is done mostly with gas. – Typical housing: three small buildings and an inner courtyard surrounded by a wall, LaayouneAn agonizing choiceThe biggest problem in the refugee camps is the lack of work and financial opportunities. The Sahrawis have a choice: Either they remain in the camps, where there is practically no prospect of escaping poverty and the hopeless social situation, or they can begin a new life abroad, thereby forsaking their people and abandoning their common dream of a country for the Sahrawis. – A Sahrawi girl at the Laayoune refugee campWeek-end relationshipsEveryday life in the refugee camps rotates primarily around women and children. Due to the lack of work in the camps, most men find a position with the administration in Rabouni or with the army. They can only visit their families on days off. In addition, many men live and work abroad. – A group of Sahrawi women in SmaraStrong womenWhen the refugee camps were set up in the 1970s, the war between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan army was in full gear. Almost all Sahrawi men were involved in the conflict, thereby leaving the women to organize family life as well as life in the camps. Sahrawi women continue to maintain their emancipated position to this day. Up to 90 percent of district council membership consists of women. They also often hold the few jobs available in the camps, for instance, as school teachers. – A meeting of women in a district of the Laayoune refugee campSolidarityAs women are particularly involved with the social and political structure of the camp, children are also required to help with household chores and taking care of their siblings. Mutual support is necessary in order to cope with daily life. – Two sisters play with their cousin on a desert hill near LaayouneValuable educationSahrawi children in the camps receive a good basic school education including high school. Teachers are mostly women, yet they are rarely paid for their efforts. The curriculum includes such subjects as standard Arabic, Spanish, and English, as well as the history of Western Sahara. – Classes at a school in LaayouneUprootedMany Sahrawis have the feeling that they share a common destiny, a view that is internalized from early childhood in the camps. – Two boys playing in DakhlaOverqualifiedAfter completing school, many of the young people leave the camps for Algeria or Spain in order to get a better education, training, or complete a university degree. They often return home to their families, yet are overqualified and cannot find a job in the camps. – The Sahrawi flag is raised in front of the school at the start of every day and lowered after classes, LaayouneCultural identityWith the loss of their homeland, the Sahrawis have even more so tightly embraced their cultural roots. They frequently stress the uniqueness of Sahrawi culture, for example, their Sahrawi Arab dialect (Hassania), women's garments (the so-called Mhelfa), and their music, which is influenced both by African and Spanish sounds. The Sahrawis are Muslim, yet do not follow any particularly dogmatic forms of Islam. – A young woman drums and sings during a wedding in LaayouneNomadic heritageSahrawi hospitality is an evident remnant of their Bedouin past – neighbours, friends, family and even strangers are always welcome, despite general poverty. Every visit offers an occasion to celebrate the particularly important Sahrawi tea ceremony. Strongly sweetened green tea is served several times a day. This takes a great deal of time, as each brew is steeped three times. The Sahrawis say, "The first glass is bitter like life, the second glass is sweet like love, and the third is mild like death." – Preparing tea in a dwelling in LaayouneFighting spiritThe opaqueness of the situation, the deadlock over any negotiations, the poverty, and the high rate of unemployment have fostered a mood of hopelessness and despair among the Sahrawis. Many would be prepared to fight against Morocco for their rights, even though they know that they and their camels would not stand a chance against Moroccan tanks. – Military parade by the Polisario Front on the anniversary of the founding of the SADR at a military base in TifaritiHope?It is remarkable how confident the people in the camps appear at first glance. Yet, if you scratch the surface, one quickly sees a lack of hope, feelings of resignation, and even rage. The conflict in Western Sahara appears to have been forgotten in the West. The Sahrawis, by contrast, face it daily and the thought of their people's fate is a constant companion. Young people suffer the most. They are torn between their desire for a "lost homeland", which they have never seen, their responsibility to their family, and a certain sense of reality, which tells them that their future cannot lie in this dry piece of desert. – Young Sahrawi girls near Laayoune
In an attempt to escape the Moroccan army, many Sahrawi fled over the border to Algeria, where they established refugee camps outside the city of Tindouf. They have since been waiting nearly forty years to return home. Laura Overmeyer visited the camps.
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