“I’m going to Dakhla,” I told my close friends and family. Without any further clarification, Dakhla could mean different things to different people. For Sahrawi refugees, those who fled the Western Sahara conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, Dakhla usually refers to the most remote of the four major refugee camps outside of Tindouf in southern Algeria.
For most others, Dakhla refers to the city in the non-self governing territory of the Western Sahara, currently under Moroccan control. As a journalist, however, my going to the Dakhla refugee camp aroused an existential fear among friends and family, who were largely informed by the Moroccan narrative on how dangerous the Polisario-controlled refugee camps were – especially for a Moroccan woman.
This dominant Moroccan narrative also informed my motives for visiting the Western Saharan refugee camps. Having monopolised a major portion of the discourse on the Western Saharan conflict since the 1970s, proponents of Morocco’s policy in the territory suggest the camps are a black hole of terrorism and anarchy – something many tried to convince me was true.
Such a narrative, however, has allowed many Moroccans to disregard the glaring fact that hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis live in these camps, displaced and separated from their families.
And while the terrible stories of Syrian and Palestinian refugees dominate headlines in Morocco – especially this week, as the Syrian election took place – the plight of Sahrawi refugees seems to have withdrawn into the dark corners of media coverage and international awareness. Even as Morocco’s media focuses on the refugee crisis in Syria, they have erased the refugee crisis of the Sahrawi on their doorstep.
It is for this reason, through the support of the Sahara International Film Festival, which facilitated my travels to the camps, that I was able to see firsthand what many know little to nothing about.
I was not without my own anxieties and misconceptions. Coming to the refugee camps as a Moroccan was significant, as the number of Moroccans who have visited the camps are few and far in between. The political tensions of the time of my visit last month were only beginning to die down as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had just been elected for his fourth mandate, and the renewal of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara failed – once again – to include human rights monitoring. Nevertheless, this visit was an opportunity for dispelling my own misconceptions, better understanding the plight of Sahrawis and doing what I can to raise awareness upon my return back home.
The Dakhla refugee camp, where I stayed during my visit, is one of four major refugee camps outside the southern Algerian city of Tindouf. Dakhla, like the other camps, is named after a major city Sahrawis were displaced from in 1975 following the invasion by Morocco and Mauritania.
The history of Western Sahara has been well-rehearsed, but is still barely known in the mainstream. Following Spain’s withdrawal from the territory in 1975, Spain reneged on its promise of a referendum for the Sahrawi people, which would have determined the fate of the territory. Instead, it split control over the territory with Morocco and Mauritania, both of which invaded, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
Since then, the conflict has bubbled away unresolved. With the Algerian government avidly supporting the Polisario Front (the armed Sahrawi rebel group), the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) administering the camps, and Morocco sitting at the table with the support of the United States and France, the political process has seen an ongoing deadlock.
Most homes in the Dakhla camp do not have electricity or running water. They instead rely upon solar-powered batteries that connect to a light source at night, and a water reservoir that is connected to an above-ground hose, which supplies the water used for cooking, washing, and bathing. Despite its distance from the other camps, the Dakhla camp is equipped with a medical centre, schools, SADR administrative buildings, a UNHCR office, and a number of locally-owned cafes and shops, among other services. Even with these services, however, the harsh living conditions of the desert take their toll on the refugee population of more than 100,000. According to Oxfam International, 62 per cent of children suffer from anaemia, 31.6 per cent of the Sahrawi refugee population is underweight, and 31.4 per cent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition. Moreover, even in the month of May and ahead of the summer, the scorching heat and sun drives people into their homes for at least three hours in the middle of the day, when activities in the camp come to a complete standstill until the beginning of sunset.
Being associated with the enemy country meant that I felt I was not representing myself but an entire population. Many Sahrawis expressed similar aspirations and messages: “Moroccans are our brothers and sisters. Our grievances are directed toward the Moroccan government, not the people.”
Others expressed their awareness of the fact that even some Moroccans find fault with the government, explaining how they saw footage of various February 20th Movement protests (calling for reform in Morocco) getting violently repressed on the SADR state media news.
A number of Sahrawis also expressed their own dissent toward the SADR government. The stark inequality between members of the SADR government and ordinary refugees is evident in their standard of living. While most households of the Dakhla camp do not have electricity or running water, the governor’s residence is fully equipped with plastered walls, ceiling spotlights, running water and an air-conditioning unit. Nepotism also plagues the high ranks of the government, where family members prop up one another.
Aziz, a Sahrawi refugee, former political detainee in Morocco and member of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (known by its Spanish acronym of ELPS) says, “I’m here to defend my rights and to fight for basic human dignity. And I hold the belief that the people are the true authority. They are the true power. Regimes without the support of the people are a source of hostile oppression. I am with the people and against the dictatorships of the world, wherever they are.”
While parties involved in the political process feed Sahrawi refugees the same political rhetoric of the past few decades, a number of refugees are growing disenchanted with what they see as a failed political process. It remains, however, the case that the Sahrawi refugees continue to be the ones who bear the brunt of the conflict’s ongoing irresolution.
“Look at how we live,” said Mohammed Hassan. “We have nothing left to lose anymore. We’re only waiting for the opportunity to become martyrs.” While the return to an armed conflict is unlikely to happen, in the midst of talks, press conferences and negotiations in the air-conditioned rooms of Rabat, New York and Washington DC, Sahrawis patiently await a solution. Hassan tells me: “We continue to live here like this as a reminder to ourselves to keep pushing in our struggle, that this is not our home, and one day, we will return.”
The general lack of knowledge on the plight of the Sahrawi refugees and the Western Saharan conflict has made it difficult for the voices of Sahrawis to reach beyond the circles that already know of their struggle. The Moroccan narrative, on the other hand, has completely eliminated the humanitarian aspects of the conflict from the discussion, effectively removing it from the awareness of Moroccans. Yet even though Sahrawi refugees share with Palestinian and Syrian refugees their displacement and yearning to return home, the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria attain greater permanence, even as they remain ignored.
Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer
On Twitter: @charquaouia
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