Dakhla refugee camp, southwestern Algeria —
Tchlaz Bchere has visited Western Sahara, the land she calls her rightful home, only once. Born and raised in a refugee camp in the remote desert expanse of southwestern Algeria, the 30-year-old activist has always clung to the promise of an independent homeland, free from Moroccan control. Yet in the entwined contradictions of hope and despair that have shaped her life as a Sahrawi refugee, Bchere never wants to have children — to have them grow up like her, in a state of permanent displacement and consigned to a life of waiting in the harsh desert.
"My hope has no limits," she says. "But I don't want to raise a child in this situation."
Bchere is a refugee of Africa's last colony, the site of one of the world's longest-running conflicts and one of its most invisible.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, the former colonial power, signed an agreement handing over control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing the two countries to invade. The United States and France supported the forced annexation.
The Moroccan army carried out brutal attacks against civilians, including bombing, strafing and dropping napalm on those trying to escape the fighting. The violence prompted nearly half the Sahrawi population to flee on foot and cross into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.
For close to four decades, nearly half the native population of Western Sahara has lived as refugees in Algeria; the other half lives as a minority population under foreign rule. Two parallel societies, one living in exile, the other under occupation.
"The refugee camps are not ours, we are guests, and yet we feel more free here," Bchere says. Her only visit to occupied Western Sahara came in 2007 for five days as part of a United Nations family exchange program. "I cried when I got there. I don't know my homeland, I only know what my parents told me. But what I saw was that, for Sahrawis, everything there is affected by occupation, all aspects of life."
With Algeria's support, the anti-colonial movement that had fought to oust Spain, known as the Polisario Front, went to war with Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that included a promise of a referendum on self-determination and the return of the refugee population. Twenty-two years later, the referendum has yet to take place.
"The war didn't end in 1991. It is still ongoing — maybe not with weapons, but with other means," says Bchere. "But they cannot eradicate our rights."
Polisario established a government-in-exile in 1976 from its base near Tindouf known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With the support of Algeria and international aid, the refugees built four camps in the desert and named them after cities in the Western Sahara.
While most of the men left to fight the war against Morocco, Sahrawi women played a central role in building the basic structures to house schools, clinics and community centers. "In all fronts you will find women leading the process, whether in the refugee camps or in the occupied territories," says Fatma al-Mehdi, president of the National Union of Sahrawi Women. "As Sahrawi women we are working not only to liberate our country but also to have an equal society."
Dakhla, the most remote of the camps, lies some 100 miles from Tindouf, where the nearest airport is located, and lacks sanitation, running water and electricity. Residents live in traditional nomad tents and small mud-brick dwellings, their color blending in with the surrounding landscape of sand and rock. Several sparse clusters of trees are the only vegetation in the barren stretch of desert, courtesy of an underground water source that families pump from wells for domestic use.
The Dakhla refugee camp resembles its namesake, the city of Dakhla in occupied Western Sahara, in name only. While the camp is surrounded by parched desert, the latter is situated on a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic, with blue ocean waters on every side.
"It's the difference between heaven and hell," says Mohammed Louali Akik, the 59-year-old minister of the occupied territories and diaspora in SADR. He recalls the last time he was in Dakhla proper, as a 21-year-old, before he fled amid the growing violence in the mid-1970s. "The weather, the breeze, the water — there is no comparison. It is only the steadfastness of people that has kept them here for nearly forty years in the furious heat and extremely difficult circumstances."
One of the most inhospitable places on earth, temperatures in summertime often climb above 120F in the Dakhla camp, and there is little respite from the roasting sun. Shade is sanctuary, and people outdoors cluster closely together wherever it is offered.
During the daytime, the monochrome panorama of sandy brown is punctuated by vivid splashes of color as Sahrawi women walk through the campgrounds wrapped in traditional, brightly patterned melfas. Men wrap their heads in scarves, which they often use to shield their noses and mouths from sand-laden gusts of wind.
Electricity is scarce, with families using solar panels that charge car batteries to store power. At night, the camp plunges into an enveloping darkness that adults and children alike appear acclimated to, finding their way around with ease; the blackness giving bloom to a thick canopy of stars overhead.
While the Sahrawi camps are heavily dependent on international aid for survival — with a starch-heavy diet provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — they are different from other refugee camps in that they are entirely self-managed. Most affairs and camp life organization is run by the refugees themselves, with little outside interference.
The camps boast one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and many Sahrawi refugees are also fluent in Spanish, which is taught as a second language in schools, while thousands of Sahrawi children spend their summers with families in Spain as part of an exchange program.
"We built a state with full institutions while in exile," says Akik. "We are fighting poverty, illiteracy and ignorance."
Dakhla is also home to an extraordinary annual film festival known as FiSahara. It was founded by Sahrawi exiles and the Spanish filmmaking community to bring cinema to thousands of refugees in the desert and to hold workshops that help Sahrawis learn the art of filmmaking to tell their own stories.
"My country colonized Western Sahara and it neglected its responsibilities when it decolonized," says Maria Carrion, the executive director of FiSahara. "As a Spaniard, along with many other Spaniards, I feel responsible to let my government know that they finally need to take responsibility for what they did." Carrion says a big component of the film festival is also about raising international awareness. "Slowly the wall of silence is being pierced. I won’t say broken altogether yet. It’s a very slow process."
Hidi Wahid's hands still bear the physical scars of his interrogation by Moroccan security forces. In 2009, the 27-year-old Sahrawi activist was arrested in Smara, a city in occupied Western Sahara, while taking part in a pro-independence protest. He was taken to a police station, where he says he was stripped naked, threatened with rape and repeatedly beaten and burned with lit cigarettes that were stubbed out on his hands and arms.
After three days of questioning, he was thrown into an overcrowded cell with 120 other prisoners, where he spent the next seven months in incommunicado pretrial detention — his family not knowing if he was dead or alive—before being sentenced to three years in prison on a sweeping set of charges including incitement to violence and drug-related offenses. After his release in 2012, he remained undeterred, taking up work as an adviser to Freedom Sun, an organization advocating for human rights defenders in Western Sahara.
"In the occupied territories you can’t speak about anything, they oppress you," Wahid says during a visit to Dakhla, his first time to see the refugee camps in Algeria. "You don't feel the occupation here, you can say what you want, but they are living as refugees. My joy will be complete when we transfer it all to Western Sahara, when everyone can come to the homeland and we live, unoccupied, under our own flag."
Moroccan security forces continue to commit widespread human rights abuses in Western Sahara, yet there is little international media coverage due to tight restrictions by Moroccan authorities and the reluctance of news outlets to cover a story that is far removed from the international spotlight.
"We are in front of a forgotten conflict," says Luis De Vega, a 42-year-old Spanish journalist for ABC, a Madrid-based daily, who has closely covered the issue for a decade and visited occupied Western Sahara and the refugee camps a dozen times each. "Ninety-five percent of the time there are no journalists on the ground."
In April, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights released a report detailing cases of summary execution, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and torture in Western Sahara after conducting a visit to the region in August 2012.
"There is near-absolute impunity for human rights violations against the Sahrawi people, who live in a state of fear and oppression under the impassive watch of the UN peacekeeping mission," the report states.
The UN Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO) in 1991, with a mandate that included monitoring the cease-fire agreement and the administration of the referendum, but did not include a human rights mandate. MINURSO remains the only contemporary UN peacekeeping mission in the world that cannot monitor human rights.
"I've seen UN forces sit by and watch as the Moroccans beat and arrest us, and they do nothing," says Ahmed el-Mehdi, a 27-year-old activist who fled his home in al-Ayun, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, a decade ago. El-Mehdi says he was being closely monitored by Moroccan security forces and decided to go into self-imposed exile in the refugee camps after his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. "I left in order to expose the gross human rights violations that are happening there," he says.
Earlier this year, the United States — which has long supported Morocco’s position — took the unprecedented step of proposing a draft resolution to task the UN peacekeeping force with human rights monitoring, but the proposal was shot down after aggressive international lobbying by Rabat.
Meanwhile, UN special envoy Christopher Ross — whom Morocco tried unsuccessfully to have replaced last year, accusing him of bias — arrived in the region in October to intensify efforts to break the deadlock over the disputed territory. Bloody clashes erupted in al-Ayun between police and pro-independence protesters as Ross wrapped up his visit.
A variety of factors have contributed to the conflict’s intractability, including powerful economic and strategic interests for Morocco that include Western Sahara's rich natural resources: phosphates, rich fishing waters and the promise of offshore oil. Yet concepts pervasive within Moroccan nationalism that claim the territory as part of a “Greater Morocco” have also played a key part in sustaining it.
"Within Moroccan discourse, we see that it is an article of faith, a cornerstone of the nationalist canon, that Western Sahara is part of the 'real' (i.e. precolonial) territory," write Stepehn Zunes and Jacob Mundy in their book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.
Foreign powers, particularly France and the United States, have played a large role in bolstering the Moroccan occupation, whether through direct material support during the war or indirect support at the UN Security Council. Washington's ties to Morocco were further strengthened after the September 11 attacks and during the so-called "war on terror," in which the United States viewed the Moroccan regime as an important strategic ally.
"Polisario have the law and a UN resolution on their side, but in reality this amounts to nothing," De Vega says. "Most superpowers don't want a new country in the region, especially with the growth of Al Qaeda in the Sahel, so they actively organize against international law."
The setting sun casts a long shadow on dozens of brightly colored tents nestled on a sand dune overlooking the Dakhla refugee camp. Scores of families sit idly, listening to nationalist Sahrawi music blaring from a set of nearby loudspeakers while children scamper around their parents. At the foot of the hill, half a dozen men dressed in fatigues and holding batons stand together in a tight cluster.
The crowd slowly begins to approach the soldiers, carrying flags and posters bearing slogans for independence and pictures of Sahrawi martyrs and political prisoners. After a brief standoff, the men in fatigues suddenly charge. They run up the hill, batons held high while they tear down the tents, yet they are smiling, as are many in the crowd who yell and shriek in mock panic, turning the scene into one of playful chaos. The "soldiers" are eventually forced to retreat and the crowd march triumphantly past them chanting for a free Western Sahara.
The scene is an annual reenactment in the Dakhla refugee camp of the forcible breakup of a protest encampment set up in 2010 in occupied Western Sahara, several miles from al-Ayun, known as Gdeim Izik. The camp, which began with a group of Sahrawis setting up several tents in the area to protest poor economic and social conditions, grew to as many as 15,000 people calling for independence.
"For Sahrawis, the tent is a symbol of a nation," says Salah Ameidan, a 30-year-old Sahrawi long distance runner who took part in the Gdei Izik protest. "We went outside of the city to refuse life under occupation. I felt free there."
Moroccan security forces stormed the camp a month later, using tear gas and water cannons to force people out of tents, which were then set alight or bulldozed. Polisario reported eleven civilian deaths, while Moroccan authorities say ten police officers were killed. Scores were arrested. A military tribunal condemned twenty-three Sahrawis to sentences ranging from twenty years to life in prison. According to the RFK Center report, those identified as human rights defenders received the harshest sentences.
Gdeim Izik was the culmination of what the Polisario leadership have hailed as a new nonviolent protest movement in the fight for a Western Saharan nation, one that grew out of the failure of the formal UN-led negotiation process.
In the years following the 1991 cease-fire, the promised referendum was repeatedly postponed over fierce disagreements on who had the right to vote. Initially, Polisario wanted to use a 1974 Spanish census of Sahrawis in the territory, while Morocco, which had begun moving large numbers of its citizens into Western Sahara, wanted to include a much higher number, a move viewed by Polisario as an attempt by Rabat to stack the vote in its favor.
In 2003, the peace process all but broke down following the failure of the Baker Plan, spearheaded by then–UN Special Envoy James Baker. It proposed a limited four-year period of autonomy for Western Sahara followed by a referendum polling both native Western Saharans and Moroccan settlers on the choice of continued autonomy, integration or independence.
Even though Polisario, along with Algeria, made the unprecedented concession of agreeing to allow the majority Moroccan settlers to participate in the self-determination process, Morocco flatly rejected the proposal.
With the failure of the talks, occupied Western Sahara eventually erupted in 2005 in the most intense and massive pro-independence demonstrations to date. The protests, known as the "Uprising of Independence," were quickly repressed by Moroccan security forces but have continued in smaller, less-centralized acts of disobedience against the Moroccan administration.
"We are in the fourth stage of our struggle," says Mohammed Abdelaziz, the head of Polisario for the past thirty-seven years and the president of SADR. The 66-year-old former guerrilla leader delineates the first two stages involving armed conflict, first against Spain until 1976 and then against Mauritania and Morocco until 1991. He says the third stage of the postwar peace process broke down in 2003.
"We are now in the stage of peaceful resistance through an uprising, coupled with ongoing talks with the UN and Morocco," he says. "We are in a just struggle for liberation. Like previous struggles in Algeria, East Timor and elsewhere, the logic of history always ends with justice."
Yet there are growing fears of a return to arms.
"The possibility of picking up weapons again is always there," says Akik, the SADR minister. "There are youth who have lost hope in the negotiation process and they are putting pressure on Polisario. They want to fight."