Sixteen years after the UN brokered a ceasefire in Western Sahara the peace process has stalled and little has changed for the Sahrawi people who have been divided with those in the Moroccan controlled desert territory unable to have contact with those in the refugee camps in south west Algeria – that is until now.
‘Ever since I was a boy, my mother’s face has stuck with me,” said 45 year-old Mohamed who last month saw the woman who gave birth to him for the first time in over 30 years. “I recognized her right away.”
The homes of Mohamed and that of his mother are still divided by minefields and the ‘berm’, a garrisoned sand wall more than 2,000 km long. But since 2004, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has run regular flights between the camps and Western Sahara in order to temporarily reunite families.
Mohamed, his wife and two young daughters, had flown from Western Sahara and arrived at a cluster of refugee tents and mud-brick shacks in the desert sand in a white UN car as jubilant crowds of relatives and friends rushed to the vehicle.
After cheers and hugs the new arrivals were led to a tent where food and music awaited.
The Algerian-backed Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front, began fighting for Sahrawi independence in the early 1970s when Western Sahara was still a Spanish colony. The violence continued when Morocco troops moved down from the north in late 1975 and Spain withdrew a few months later.
There has been relative calm since 1991, however, when the UN brokered a ceasefire and set up the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), now the longest-serving peacekeeping mission in Africa. But its mandate to organize a referendum on the territory’s status, which was renewed for the 35th time in April, remains unfulfilled.
Morocco maintains its claims over the territory while the Polisario insists that it become an independent state. For the traditionally nomadic Sahrawis whose numbers are estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000, the choice is which side of the berm to call home.
On the one hand, the territory is the homeland from where most Sahrawis trace their origins. It also has benefits such as some modern infrastructure and greater economic opportunities. On the other hand the camps are a place where people struggle every day against malnutrition and the harsh desert conditions
Most Sahrawis have family members on both sides of the berm but after three decades in the camps most youth there have never actually seen the place they call home.
As Mohamed’s party gets into full swing with music and dancing some of the participants start asking when their turn would come.
The biggest obstacle to maintaining the programme, according a UNHCR report, is the “uncertainty surrounding the future of the Western Sahara”. Although UNHCR struggles to remain apolitical it is operating in a highly politicized environment where the Polisario accuses Morocco of trying to starve the refugees while the Moroccans describe the refugees as detainees the Polisario leadership’s use to further their selfish ambitions.
Even if UNHCR achieves its goal of having almost 3,000 people visit their families this year, the total number of beneficiaries since 2004 will have been less than a third of the nearly 20,000 Sahrawis who have applied to go.
And while in New York, leaders of the two sides are currently engaged in negotiations for the first time in years, their divergent positions – Morocco is offering autonomy within the confines of Moroccan borders while the Polisario demands a referendum on full independence – and the UN’s long-stated commitment to a mutually acceptable solution suggests that the family visits programme might remain important to Sahrawi’s for some time to come.