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Thursday 14 November 2019

Some refused to unpack, thinking they'd go home once the war was won. That was four decades ago

Though the guns have fallen silent in the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis still wait to return home. Many have died waiting, writes Graham Clifford

Graham Clifford

Mahfuda pauses and manages to fight back the tears. "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."

It's 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 the struggling cactus plants.

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

Womens Story Western Sahara GRAHAM Clifford Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh
Womens Story Western Sahara GRAHAM Clifford Jadija Salic photographed at Auserd Refugee Camp, Sahara. Picture: Clare Keogh

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

"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 camp.

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.

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

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.

The women in the Tindouf refugee camps 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.

In a terrain short of anything solid they endured 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.

Tumana Ahmed, who works for a group which advises Sahrawis of the dangers of desert landmines, says that without strong women the people who gathered here in the early years of the year could have perished. .

"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.

Tearah Salma
Tearah Salma

Tearah Salma, says: "I am 14 years old and I have never seen Western Sahara but have heard all the stories about it. We want to go home to the country of our parents, it's where we belong. Until we cross the desert to our homes I think there will always be a great sadness in our people here."

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 materialised - the Sahrawis say Morocco, supported in the UN Security Council by its former coloniser, France, has stalled the process and they fear they that a referendum will never take place.

And so the people wait under the desert sun for something to move this process forward. They feel forgotten about. 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.

Although it is a Sunni Muslim society, women can wear western style clothes if they so choose. However, 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, Tumana Ahmed says: "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."

Supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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