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The Sahara's Forgotten War

The Sahara’s Forgotten War

In 1975 the country of Spain withdrew from a 91 year long occupation of the Arab state of Western Sahara. The armies of Morocco and Mauritania then invaded the country. The mainly Bedouin population was forced into exile within the Algerian desert. For decades the Saharawi people have existed as a people under occupation who’s cultural exist is under thread from an internationally supported government, which openly displays a violent prejudice towards the Saharawi and their right for a free democratic state.

After decades in exile an infrastructure has developed that leads the world as a model of humanitarian aid distribution, open government and healthcare. The Saharawi are considered as Refugee status by the United Nations and are therefore provided with basic humanitarian aid by the international community.  The camps operation is so effective that they are used a training ground for refugee management by a number of international NGOs.

80 Kilometres across the desert the war is in stalemate, although a ceasefire has been in place since 1991 troops on both side still man the sand wall boarder known as the Berm. The camps provide support for the soldiers and their families. Unable to return to their land the Saharawi have adapted to life in the desert and have created tented cities sharing the name of cities that remain under occupation.

80 Kilometres across the desert the war is in stalemate, although a ceasefire has been in place since 1991 troops on both side still man the sand wall boarder known as the Berm. The camps provide support for the soldiers and their families. Unable to return to their land the Saharawi have adapted to life in the desert and have created tented cities sharing the name of cities that remain under occupation. Travelling with a representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on behalf of the United Nations (UN) we interviewed and recorded the stores of Saharawi women who have spent the majority of their lives surviving in the the camps. We also spoke with officials and community leaders about the difficulties they face and how they strive to overcome them and adapt.

Smara was one of the first refugee camps to be established after the Moroccan invasion, following the exodus to the Algerian desert. It is currently home to over 40,000 people.

Looking west though window tinting whilst hitching a ride at dusk between the Saharawi refugee camps.

Aza has lived in the camps for over 40 years, she fled Western Sahara during the invasion under aerial bombardment from the Moroccan Air Force. She was forced to leave behind her mother and father, she was never to see them again.

 Swami’s family has lived in February 27 camps since 1982. The family home is well furnished and maintained. Despite a lack of basic essentials the refugees share all they have amongst others, including the occasional foreign visitor.

Families sleep together in mud huts under tin roofs weighed down with rocks. There is no running water and electricity comes from car batteries charged by solar panels. 

Saharawi Poet Sidi Brahim Salama Jalud. Poets are an important part of Saharawi culture, they teach and communicate the story of the Saharawi’s struggle and history through the generations.

Saharawi Poet Bashir Ali Abderahman. Due to their nomadic lifestyle poets and artists are vital in the preservation of Saharawi culture and its unique nature.

The Sahrawi Tea ceremony is unique and forms the structure for all official interactions within Saharawi culture. Travellers are welcomed in to the tent and first offered water and perfume. The tea is then prepared. It is said that the first cup tastes as bitter as life, the second as sweet as love and the third as soft as death.

Saharawi Children attend school daily. Each camp has a number of schools the teachers are usually unpaid Women. Classes are always full and the pupils always keen to learn, many go onto University in Algeria and Spain.

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Since 1975 following the exodus from Western Sahara the Government of Algeria has supplied relief aid and UNHCR has also been providing a protection and assistance program. WFP has supplied food aid since 1986, a range of donors and bilateral arrangements currently support the refugee population.

Grain is loaded on to trucks each day for distribution to the various camps.

In the Liberated Territories the rain turns sand roads in to quicksand trapping vehicles which must be dug out or towed.

Zorgan Laroussi makes afternoon tea. There is not much employment in the camps. Zorgan works as an English translator and looks after foreign visitors.

The POLISARIO are accomplished desert fighters. For this reason they often serve as mercenaries throughout Saharan Africa.

Landmine Action is a British charity working on behalf of the UN to clear Western Sahara of landmines and ERW (Explosive Remnants of War). They train and employ local Saharawi teams, both Men and Women, to do the extremely dangerous work of clearing the land for resettlement.

Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) include unexploded cluster munitions and landmines.

A number of Saharawi have left the camps in Algeria and returned to their land in Western Sahara. Conditions are difficult as there is no permanent infrastructure. However, these modern Bedouin are determined to live free in their own country.