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The nomadic women of a Sahara Desert refugee camp who stay strong despite the daily struggles of life

Mahfuda pauses and manages to fight back the tears - but there’s a look of sadness and defiance in her glistening eyes.

We have no choice but to keep waiting for the day when our country will be free and we can return home,” she tells me calmly, adding “we must never give up. I know a lot of people over in the cemetery here, they died waiting to return to Western Sahara – we can never give up because of those who died here before us under the desert sun.”

Its 40-years since the first Western Saharan nomads crossed the desert and arrived here in the remote province of Tindouf just over the border in neighbouring Algeria.

Some call this place ‘the desert of the desert’ since virtually nothing grows except cactus plants – and even they struggle.

Mahfuda (Mohamed Rahal) is now the Minister for Social Affairs in the partially recognized state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – one of four female ministers in their government.

She is one of the women who helped shape the refugee’s society in this sun-trapped patch of empty land and she remembers the fear her people felt when they first arrived here:

“How can you explain it? It was impossible at the start and people were afraid. They’d lost everything they owned and left families and loved ones behind but they thought it better to flee than live under Moroccan rule,” she tells me from her humble office in the Refugee camps.

It was 1975 and an all-out war between Moroccan state forces and the Polisario Front, a national liberation movement of the native Sahrawi people, had erupted.

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Sisters Jadija and Sara Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Sisters Jadija and Sara Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Woman preparing tea photographed at Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Woman preparing tea photographed at Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed on the 27th of February Celebrations day Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed on the 27th of February Celebrations day Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic children of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic children of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala  pictured in the family home with her grandmother, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala pictured in the family home with her grandmother, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala classmates pictured at school, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala classmates pictured at school, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Mi Mi Mahfud photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Mi Mi Mahfud photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Sara Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Sara Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Female TV news reporter photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Female TV news reporter photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Gynecologist, Nidal Baba  photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Gynecologist, Nidal Baba photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Mahfuda Salma Scientist at work in the labs of Medicus Mundi photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Mahfuda Salma Scientist at work in the labs of Medicus Mundi photographed at the central hospital Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed in traditional Sahrawi dress dress the 'mefhla' Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara.  
Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed in traditional Sahrawi dress dress the 'mefhla' Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed with her grandmother at home in Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed with her grandmother at home in Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Women in tradition dress, 27th of February celebrations, Smara Refugee camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Women in tradition dress, 27th of February celebrations, Smara Refugee camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid and Jira Mohamed Bachir of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos SAharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid and Jira Mohamed Bachir of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos SAharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala getting results pictured at school, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala getting results pictured at school, Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid of Asociaci?n de FAmiliares de PREsos y DEsaparecidos SAharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid of Asociaci?n de FAmiliares de PREsos y DEsaparecidos SAharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed with her grandmother at home in Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Tearah Salma photographed with her grandmother at home in Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala  pictured in the family home with her grandmother one of her sisters and mother , Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Waba Abdala pictured in the family home with her grandmother one of her sisters and mother , Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid and Jira Mohamed Bachir of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Abida Mohaned Buzeid and Jira Mohamed Bachir of Asociacion de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis, Rabouni Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

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Sisters Jadija and Sara Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Spanish colonizers had just left and Morocco wanted to take control of the ‘desert state’ but the native people wanted self-rule.

The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement, used their vast knowledge of the desert to take on the might of the Moroccan army and every available man did his bit.

But back in Tindouf it was the women who set about building a home and community in the most inhospitable of conditions while their fathers, husbands and sons fought under the burning Sahara sun.

Every day more and more Sahrawis arrived in the camps, some coming on camel, some, they say, crossed the desert by foot and some didn’t make it….

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The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The population in the Tindouf refugee camps continued to swell and the women set about structuring the tented city into four districts or ‘Wilayas’ - these were then divided into villages known as ‘Dairas’ to facilitate the distribution of food aid.

As war dragged on across the desert the women educated their children and established hospitals to cater for their fellow Sahrawis and soldiers returning from the front.

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Woman preparing tea photographed at Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. 
Picture: Clare Keogh

Woman preparing tea photographed at Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

Woman preparing tea photographed at Smara Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

In a terrain short of anything solid they became desert rocks.

They weathered as temperatures soared and when they discovered their sons or husbands had died while fighting they mourned quietly, prayed to their God and maintained their focus on the struggle for Independence ahead.

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The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

The nomadic women of the Sahara Picture: Clare Keogh

Tumana Ahmed, who works for a group which advises Sahrawis of the dangers of desert landmines, says without strong women the people who gathered here in the early years of the year could have perished with relatively miniscule rations of food and water.

“The women literally built the camps, the little homes, the schools, the facilities, meagre as they were. They did everything in and outside of the home. They put up the tents and made them habitable. They created a community when people felt they had none,” the 29-year old explains.

Some of the older women who first came to the camps refused to unpack their suitcases thinking that they’d need to be ready to return home once the war was won – that was four decades ago and most of that generation now lie in the desert cemetery.

In 1991 when the guns fell silent the United Nations promised that, with co-operation from Morocco, a referendum on self-determination would be granted to the native people of Western Sahara – the Sahrawi people in the camps celebrated, they felt they had achieved their goal and prepared to return home.

But that referendum has never materialized – the Sahrawis say Morocco, supported in the UN Security Council by their former colonizer France, have stalled the process and fear they will never allow a referendum to take place.

They, and independent human rights groups, claim Sahrawis - including women - still living in Western Sahara face imprisonment and harsh treatment from Moroccan state forces when they publicly call for freedom of fly the flag of the SADR. Few foreign journalists have been allowed into the remote territory to confirm or deny the claims.

And so the people in the Tindouf camps wait under the desert sun for something, anything, to happen to move this process forward. They feel forgotten about, left in the middle of nowhere, existing without really living.

The younger women in the Tindouf camps want to do more than just wait though.

“What are we waiting for? To die here in the heat of the desert?” asks Tumana.

At the office of ‘Afapredesa’- an NGO which highlights the cases of Sahrawis who, it’s claimed, were ‘disappeared’ by the Moroccan forces in Western Sahara - I meet two impressive young women.

Kheira Mohamed Bachir (26) tells me “I am proud to be a Saharawi woman, proud of who we are and what we stand for.”

A number of years ago Kheira took part in an educational programme in Norway which focused on peaceful conflict resolution. She tells me the others on her course were shocked when she told them of the power of the woman in Saharawi culture.

“They couldn’t believe it – especially women from Sub-Saharan African countries. They asked how can you women way out in the desert have such a strong voice in your society, they were amazed,” she says.

And 28-year-old Abida Mohamed Bvzeid, who studied genetics and bio-chemistry in Algiers, believes anything is possible for women in her society.

“You ask me if one day a woman will be president of our Republic and I tell you yes, why not, I would certainly vote for her. We are strong here and have equality with men,” she explains in her animated style.

She adds: “But you see this has always been the way in our nomadic culture. The woman is key to the family structure and to its survival and so have always been treated with respect amongst Saharawis.”

Though a Sunni Muslim society women can wear western style clothes if they so choose though most opt for colourful Islamic dress.

Shades of pink, orange, blue and purple dart between tents. On windy days all but the eyes are covered up with large sunglasses protecting the women from flying sand.

They are the doctors in the camp hospitals, the scientists in the small laboratory which makes basic drugs for the refugees, the teachers in the school and the ones who call the shots under the tented roofs.

And if it’s decided to return to war the likes of Tumana Ahmed said the Western Saharan women will not be found wanting:

“We will do what we must for a Free Western Sahara. If that means fighting and dying in the desert then so be it, I will do it without thinking twice. I would gladly give my life if it meant my country could be free.”

Supported by the Simon Cumbers Fund

Online Editors