Sahrawis exiled in the Algerian desert work together day after day to build a better life for themselves

Sahrawis exiled in the Algerian desert work together day after day to build a better life for themselves

Fifty-nine-year-old Fatimetu, a Sahrawi, and 46-year-old Idenia, from Cuba, both teach at the nursing school in the wilaya of Smara, in the Tindouf refugee camp, pictured here in April 2022. They teach gynaecology, obstetrics and midwifery. The school has trained 198 midwives since it was founded.

(Sara Saidi)

Tindouf, April 2022. It is dark when the passengers pour out of the plane under the moonlight. The joy is palpable and the summer camp atmosphere is not lost on the buses leading to the refugee camp. Through the open windows of the vehicle, the desert sand soon rushes in and lashes Tesh Sidi’s face. The 27-year-old Sahrawi hides her mixed feelings of joy and apprehension with laughter.

Ten years have gone by since she last went back to the place where she was born. Ten years since she last saw her mother, who stayed in the refugee camp. And she is not the only one in this position. For most of the Sahrawis present, the Covid-19 health crisis and the closure of Algeria’s borders have made travel to the refugee camps impossible. Behind the minibus, the suitcases move in rhythm with the state of the road. They are carrying the products needed by their relatives, in large quantities... Because here, in south-west Algeria, in what the Sahrawis call the Hamada, the desert within the desert, a place with extreme temperatures, it is a matter of survival.

The Sahrawis have been refugees in the province of Tindouf, Algeria, for 47 years. Their exodus began with the conflict between the Polisario Front (Sahrawi independence fighters), Morocco and Mauritania in 1976. Today, Western Sahara is one of the 17 territories classified by the United Nations as non-self-governing. According to the UN, Western Sahara is in the process of decolonisation. Morocco, however, considers this territory of more than 250,000 km² as its “southern provinces” and the Polisario Front continues to denounce the Moroccan occupation. The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front therefore continues despite a ceasefire signed in 1991 – broken in November 2020 – and the UN’s unfulfilled promise to organise a referendum on self-determination through Minurso.

Today, there are around 200,000 refugees living in the camps of Tindouf, without losing hope of one day returning to their land. And in this place where time seems to stand still, a change is gradually taking place. After more than four decades of fighting for the freedom of their people, the Sahrawis are now tending to put individual wellbeing and the fundamental rights of the population before the collective struggle: “What is important is not the land but the survival of the people,” says a source close to the Polisario Front.

“First you have to survive, then you have to educate the children. The solution lies in social progress and education... until one day the geopolitical landscape changes,” he says.

The network of camps is under the administration of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – recognised since its proclamation in 1976 by some 80 countries worldwide (although some have since withdrawn their recognition) – and resembles a state within a state.

According to a report by the Observatory of Refugee Camps, “Algeria has officially disengaged from the management of the refugee camps, which is now in the hands of the Polisario Front. In so doing, the Algerian authorities have relinquished the prerogatives granted to them over the entire area covered by the camps, including administrative, judicial, police, military and political powers, as well as the protection of human rights. These powers are now exercised by the SADR administrative authorities.” The refugee camps therefore have a structure and organisation of their own, divided into constituencies and neighbourhoods, and headed by a governor and local elected officials.

Medication ‘made in Tindouf’

Tindouf has hairdressing salons, grocery shops, an abundance of garages, bakeries, etc., along with a multitude of projects run by Sahrawis and financed by international aid and/or Western organisations. Although waste management and water distribution remain a major challenge for the SADR, the main roads are paved and most neighbourhoods have electricity, day and night, making the refugees’ living conditions more dignified. The earthen dwellings are gradually being replaced by more robust concrete homes that are better able to withstand the extreme weather conditions.

Every camp also has its own dispensary, hospital, schools and special facilities for children with disabilities, all of which rest on the unity and solidarity of the population.

The “national” hospital In Rabouni, where the SADR administration is headquartered, is impressive. It has 70 beds, completely free care, doctors often trained abroad who come back to help their community and “health professionals who come from different countries to perform certain surgeries”, says Mohammed Fadel, the hospital director, in perfect Spanish.

Most of the hospital’s nurses are trained at the camp’s nursing college. Created in 1992, with the support of the French association Enfants Réfugiés du Monde (ERM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the school has trained 850 nurses since its foundation. Some of those who studied there have gone abroad, others have stayed to care for or to train other refugees. Proud of the work done by his teams, Mohammed Fadel nevertheless regrets the dependence on international aid.

“The main difficulty is the management and cost of a health policy that relies on international cooperation. Everything is done through projects and funding, which reduces our room for manoeuvre,” explains the hospital director.

In front of the hospital pharmacy, Mulay Mesaud has managed to grow a few shrubs, a miracle, given the ambient heat. This 50-year-old man who works as a chemist at the national hospital in Rabouni is used to miracles. For the past 20 years, he and his team of 12 Sahrawi colleagues have been producing around 50 different types of medication, treating between 30,000 and 70,000 patients each year. Ibuprofen, hydroalcoholic gel, folic acid, amoxicillin, paracetamol.... The budget is limited to €50,000 and production depends on the arrival of raw materials, but the laboratory, set up in 1998, now covers the needs of five per cent of the population. “Nobody knew that medicines could actually be made in a desert and in a refugee camp. It’s a miracle,” exclaims Mulay Mesaud. “The aim is to end our dependence on external aid, so that the day we become independent, we will only have to buy our own raw materials to cover the needs of our people,” says Mulay Mesaud, for whom the hope of liberation is never far away.

In Tindouf, there are many everyday heroes trying to make themselves useful to society and to help it progress: “We are all volunteers here, working to cover the needs of our people,” says Mulay Mesaud. He is one of the so-called ‘Cubarawis’, Sahrawis who went to study in Cuba and then returned to the refugee camps with their degrees: “I left when I was 15 and I came back after I’d turned 25. It’s part of Sahrawi culture: if we leave our family, our country, it is to come back with a degree or diploma,” he explains.

Thirty-year-old Feku Hamdan studied in Algeria before returning to the refugee camps. “Even if I’d been able, I wouldn’t have stayed to work in Algeria, because I have to help my people. Our ultimate goal is to have our own country. We Sahrawis all see our future in our people,” he says. Today, Feku Hamdan supervises the Holidays in Peace (Vacaciones en paz) programme, which was launched in 1979 to enable Sahrawi children to be hosted, during the summer, by Spanish families and education centres in France and Italy, through associations promoting friendship with the Sahrawi people.

For the refugee children, these stays are an opportunity to escape the extreme temperatures of summer, to mix with European people and learn a new language. At the same time, they become ambassadors of the Sahrawi cause among the families who take them in. It is a bid for a better future.

The diaspora’s vital role

A few kilometres from the hospital in Rabouni, closer to the border that leads to the so-called ‘free’ Sahara, controlled by the Polisario Front, there is, even more surprisingly, a fish farming project, which was launched by Triangle Génération Humanitaire in 2019: “This is the first fish farm in a refugee camp,” says Teslem Sidi, one of the three biologists on the team. A few palm trees overlook the buildings and the 40x20m ponds housing fish from the Nile: “And 100 per cent of the employees here are Sahrawis, to promote occupational integration,” she explains.

Last year, from September to November, the fish farm produced 1.3 tonnes of fish and supplied all the hospitals in the camps. The long-term goal is to be self-sufficient and to cover the needs of the entire population, but the reduction in international funding over recent years is making it difficult to meet this target.

The fall in international aid is one of the major challenges facing the SADR, as it affects the Sahrawi refugees and shifts the burden of financial aid onto the diaspora. Some refugee families are, in fact, a little less dependent on international aid thanks to the money they receive from their relatives in Europe. “I can’t be an artist or a dancer because I need a job that allows me to support myself and my family,” says Tesh Sidi. As well as financially supporting her family, two years ago, the young woman, an IT engineer with a major Spanish bank, also began raising awareness among Spain’s civil society, on social media, about the situation in the camps, international law and Spain’s responsibility as an administering power.

She returned to the camps after a ten-year absence to see her people again and to learn from their struggles, to enable her to talk about them with greater authority. Because the diaspora has a dual role: it also carries the voice of the people outside the camps and, by integrating into Western society and politics, raises the hope that the tide will one day turn in favour of the Sahrawi people.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin