Dakhla refugee camp emerges from the dust, a sprawling single-storey town built of the desert sand. Our Landcruiser is approaching at speed along a network of dirt tracks after a bone-shaking journey through the fierce heat of the Sahara.
Home to nearly 30,000 people, Dakhla is the most remote of four refugee camps housing around two-thirds of the native Saharawi population of Western Sahara forced to flee over the border to Algeria after the Moroccan invasion more than three decades ago. The camp is entirely dependent on outside supplies of food and water. Summer temperatures on the hammada desert plain regularly top 120 degrees (48°C) and with sandstorms and scarce vegetation, it is little wonder that the area is known locally as “The Devil’s Garden.”
The conflict in Western Sahara is one of the longest running and most forgotten in the world. Known as Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara was sold to Morocco and Mauritania by the Spainish when they withdrew in 1976. The Mauritanians pulled out soon after and the Moroccans annexed much of the remaining territory in defiance of a ruling from the International Court of Justice. A sixteen-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. Under the terms of a 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self determination was promised, but has been repeatedly blocked by Morocco. In the meantime an estimated 165,000 refugees continue to live in camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.
The Saharawi are a nomadic people with rich traditions and culture but the sedentary life of the camps has irrevocably disrupted their traditional way of life and frayed the fabric of their community. This has been exacerbated by the fact that, since the 1970’s, thousands of refugees have travelled to Cuba for schooling and university education. Known as the Cubarauis, those who studied on the Caribbean island assimilated themselves into Cuban society and many have found it difficult to adapt back to life in the camps. Mohamed Awah, a 32 year old unemployed economist, feels that having grown up with two cultures has riven his identity. “Sometimes I feel I no longer belong anywhere” he says. He regrets the fact that he spent thirteen of his formative years away from his family and has recently started to question the value of the Masters degree he received from Havana University. “Perhaps rather than learning to use a calculator it would have been better if I had been taught to use a gun.”
This sentiment reflects a rising militancy particularly among some young Saharawi’s who are losing faith in the diplomatic process. This militancy is embodied by 19-year old Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit whose leg was blown off below the knee by a landmine just three weeks before I met him. He had been taking part in a march to the 1550 mile-long fortified barrier known as “the wall” built by the Moroccans to stop the Saharawis from returning to their land. In a symbolic gesture, Ibrahim was attempting to get close enough to the wall throw to a pebble to the other side when he trod on the device. He has no regrets. “I would gladly lose my other leg if it would mean that my country could be free” he says with earnest.
Despite many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, progress towards a resolution has been tortuously slow. In June 2007, the Security Council requested the two parties to begin direct negotiations without preconditions. These began in June of the same year culminating in a fourth round of negotiations in April 2008. No progress whatsoever was made. Whilst Polisario have made it clear that they are willing to support a referendum to determine the future of the country Morocco continues to oppose any referendum that even raises the question of the status of her “Saharan provinces”. Indeed the intransigence of Morocco’s position was made clear by King Mohammed VI in 2007. “We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara” he said, “not a grain of its sand”.
The recent appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara has given renewed energy to resolve the conflict and in early August informal meetings took place between representatives of Morocco and Polisario in the Austrian town of Duernstein. Although the detail of what was agreed in these closed-door negotiations was not made public, Mr Ross’ statement at the end of the talks has given reason for cautious optimism. “The discussions took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness, and mutual respect” he said. “The parties reiterated their commitment to continue their negotiations as soon as possible, and (I) will fix the date and place of the next meeting in consultation with the parties.”
In the meantime the refugees can do nothing but wait. Although conditions in the camps are by no means wretched, with all basic needs taken care of by international aid agencies, there is an air of despondency that comes of waiting in exile whilst promises are broken and hopes repeatedly dashed. In the words of a Saharawi poem: “What have we done with the years, so distant and yet so close? Did they fall, squandered, between the oblivion of tradition and the thirst of the dunes?”
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, broadcaster and human rights campaigner. He was in the refugee camps in May to cover the FiSahara film festival for the Independent.