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The Irish Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

Desert exiles

Forgotten people  A wedding ceremony may give the appearance of normality for the Saharawi people but they continue to campaign for a return to their homeland in Western Sahara after being driven from there more than 30 years ago, writes Mary Russell .
AHMED IS GETTING married and I'm invited to the party. I fish about in my rucksack for something respectable to wear and find a cleanish T-shirt. The black trousers will have to do. Anyway it'll be dark, so no one will notice.

The jeep bumps across a rutted track, bounces between a couple of tents and then stops: we can't find the wedding. So Omar sets off and is soon back with Ahmed who will take us to where the bride is. Except she isn't and we have to try another tent. And another. And then there she is: Aysha, resplendent in a blue and silver gown, bright eyes black with kohl, surrounded by her girlfriends also dressed in lovely billowing gowns of yellow, pink and green.

We sit on carpets spread out on the ground and I present my small gifts: earrings for the bride, cigarettes for the bridegroom. Aysha ignores Ahmed, which seems strange but it's not if you're a Saharawi for its all part of the tradition that says the groom must kidnap his beautiful bride.

Oh what bliss - to be captured by a desert man in a long white djellabiya and black turban wrapped around his head, so that only his smouldering dark eyes are showing. Except that this is the 21st century, so the Saharawi just pretend to do the business. Which is why, for seven days, Aysha moves from tent to house to tent apparently fleeing her would-be kidnapper. And a good job she's Saharawi and not a Bedouin woman, for the latter had to have two fingers broken to demonstrate how hard they fought to defend their honour.
On the way home, we drop off Omar and I watch as he disappears into the starlit night. Down the track somewhere is his home, though he hasn't been there much over the past seven years and, in any case, this inhospitable bit of Algerian desert isn't really home. That lies across the sand many miles away in Western Sahara, known as Spanish Sahara until 1975, when Morocco and Mauritania invaded it, Franco's death the trigger, phosphates the attraction.

Driven from their homes, the Saharawi, both nomads and settled, were bombed until they reached the relative safety of Algeria on the other side of the desert, though it was a long time before the world cottoned on to what had happened and finally sent some aid.
"What the UN and the EU send is not a gift," says Brahim Mokthar, of Polisario, the Saharawi's representative body, "it is our right. Each country which signed up to the 1967 UNHCR refugee protocol has a moral obligation to give humanitarian assistance to those in need." Nevertheless, it was 11 long years before the UN did anything to help and a further seven years before the EU rowed in.

Omar is 23 now but has been at school and then university in Algeria for the past seven years studying English literature, which is why he's able to quote Yeats, Beckett and Shakespeare. As well as English, he speaks Arabic, French and some Spanish.

When I first came here to the desert camps, 22 years ago, his father was away fighting to win his land back from Morocco. "I was only one then," he says, and asks what things were like in those distant days and so I tell him. Everyone lived in black, low-slung tents. The only transport was the Land Rovers that powered across the flat hard sand of the desert known as the Hamada. There was a fearsome shortage of water and it was the women who ran the four big tent cities while their menfolk were at war. But there was a sense of hope. They had right on their side and, as a society in revolution in which everyone worked for the common good, there was no need for money. We don't need money just our freedom, they said. What support there was came from Algeria and the Soviet Union.

"And now?" Omar asks.

"Now, you have bottled water, cellphones and tarmac roads." All of which spells the one word no one wants hear: permanence. Those with money - for yes, that is now a treasured commodity - have built their own houses with bricks made from sun-baked sand. Some even have solar panels. There are makeshift shops selling DVDs and phone cards. There is even a bureau de change. The journey from idealism to pragmatism, born of economic necessity, has been swift. Now it's China, not Russia, which supplies them, education and medical support coming from Cuba

However, this is still the Sahara desert and though there are 80,000 Saharawi who continue to live under Moroccan occupation back in Western Sahara - with many young Saharawi there enduring detention and imprisonment - there are twice that number of exiles living here without an adequate supply of either water or nutritious food.

At first, water was trucked down from the Algerian port of Oran, 1,600kms away. Now, it's pumped up from the desert floor, desalinated and driven to neighbourhoods where the women wait with their jerry cans. UNESCO decrees that people need 20-50 litres a day. Do they get it?

"No," says Bouhobini Yahia, president of La Media Luna Roja Saharawi, an NGO similar to the Red Cross. "How can we when we are short of trucks and anyway each one only holds 20,000 litres for 4,500 people? That's four litres per person."

The delivery of food is another matter, wielded as a political weapon in a place already vulnerable to upheaval. "The UNHCR did a count," Bouhobini tells me, "and said there were 168,000 people living in the four camps. Then the World Food Programme (WFP) said there were only 90,000 people." The received idea is that the donor countries put pressure on the executive of the WFP to lower the figure. Which donors? I ask and Bouhobini shrugs: "Certainly not the WFP people working here."

The hard fact is that the US administration promotes Morocco as a buffer zone against a possible incursion from the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood. For its part Algeria, though massively supportive of the Saharawi, has its own agenda, happy to put pressure on Morocco and thus prevent any further land gains by that country.

In the meantime, though, another generation of Saharawi is growing up in a place not of their choosing. Saleh Bachir is 27. At nine, he was sent with 500 other children to be educated in Cuba and didn't see his mother for 15 years. Now he is head of one of the camp hospitals and thinks not of those lost years but of the fact that he can help his people.
One night, I go to a party run by a group of Cuban doctors who salsa as only Cubans can. Everyone seems to have a sense of goodwill and affection for their shared aims. Oxfam is here, auditing a programme which, annually, provides extra fresh fruit during Ramadan. There's a Spanish hydrologist dancing with a Russian woman who's managing the Save the Children project. The Britannics, as they're called, are here as volunteers, teaching English to a group of Saharawi trade unionists.

Later that night, I'm reminded of the shortcomings of so-called progress. From the fridge, I take my toothbrush and find the bristles inhabited by a few busy cockroaches. Last time, there were no fridges and my toothbrush - fringed twigs from the toothbrush tree only found out in the Hamada - could be replaced every few days. For nothing.

Next morning, I meet up with an arts group called Sandblast which promotes Saharawi music and art. They are planning to bring Nana Rachid to a festival in London. Nana, beautiful and serene, is both a mother and a poet and writes in classical Arabic. She has a degree in psychiatry from Oban University. When I visit her in her brand new home, we sprawl on huge cushions drinking the famous sweet Saharawi tea.

Nana introduces me to a group of musicians that I want to record. Embarak plays guitar and Lahsen the tabal or drum. They play a yearning number, sung in Spanish, about light of freedom and then they move to a traditional desert song so complex that it's hard to believe it's being played on the same guitar. The beat and rhythm are as different as if they are speaking another language, which they are - their own language.

Since last I was here, the war has ended. Some prisoners have come home. Babies are being born and couples are marrying. But still they sing the song of the exile, for the soul of the Saharawi has a voice that has refused to be silenced.

The History 

  • Western Sahara lies south of Morocco, in line with the Canaries.
  • In 1975, by agreement with Spain, Western Sahara is taken over by Morocco and Mauritania, though Mauritania later withdraws.
  • Morocco has built an exclusion wall 1,800kms long to defend the phosphate mines.
  • In 1990, the war between Morocco and Polisario ends with a UN-brokered ceasefire.
    At the time, the UN promised to hold a referendum, but this has never taken place.
  • The majority of Saharawi live near Tindouf in southern Algeria.
    The Saharawi are an Arab people and follow Islam.

2008 The Irish Times

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