Western Sahara: three generations in exile and struggle in refugee camps in Algeria

A child in Western Sahara refugees Smara camp.

Tags : Western Sahara, exile, refugee camps, Algeria, Morocco, liberation struggle, sand berm, mines,

Driven from their lands by Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara since 1975, over 170,000 refugees survive in camps in western Algeria. The youngest have never seen their homeland, but all hold onto the dream of one day living there. Report amidst the war between Rabat and the Polisario Front.

Rosa Moussaoui – Serge Orain

The dust fills the vast blue sky. A cinderblock house casts its shadow on the sand of the Smara camp. A dozen tires form a semicircle nearby. A tent emerges, then a man inside that tent: his name is Hassan, he is nearing 60. He wears a brown burnous and sits on a carpet, barefoot; on his left wrist, a bracelet glimmers slightly. Tea is served, blankets folded in a corner. Hassan speaks in Hassaniya, the Arabic of the Sahrawis: « We were eight children. With our parents, that makes ten. It was in 1975, when the Moroccans arrested my father. They said he was part of the Polisario. They suspected him of that. They kept him for seven days. » In Spain, then, Franco was dying; in Morocco, Hassan II refused to entertain any talk of independence for the former Spanish colony: the king had it in his head that Western Sahara would be « Moroccan for eternity. »

« 120 children disappeared in the exodus »

« My father then bought a few camels, and we set off on October 31, » Hassan continues. « It was night. Two of my siblings disappeared. » On November 6, the monarch launched the invasion of Western Sahara under the name « Green March. » His subjects and soldiers, by the thousands, penetrated into neighboring territory. « Thirty days later, we lost two more siblings, about 2 and 3 years old. A Moroccan truck took them. I was 11 at the time. We eventually arrived. Sahrawi fighters took care of us. They gave us dates. My father joined them, and we continued our journey. Then, in December, the Polisario set up tents. An Algerian truck arrived, filled with food. We then went to the refugee camps. »

« The hope of returning »

The Polisario Front estimates that 120 Sahrawi children went missing between 1972 and 1975 – meaning kidnapped by the occupier. In 1992, Hassan learned from a man that one of his abducted brothers might be in prison in Morocco. Then nothing. Three years later, a woman from Morocco let him know that she had seen three of his siblings. Her name was Fatma. Then, once again, nothing. « But I constantly think about the moment when I can see them again, » Hassan says. The latest information: a photograph of a certain El Ouali, which he keeps on his phone. The name of his youngest missing brother. He would live in Tindouf and be searching for his family. But Hassan has not yet had the opportunity to meet El Ouali.

Without land or livestock

Currently, there are over 170,000 refugees living in Algerian territory in these camps, entirely dependent on international humanitarian aid. Azza Bobih, the head of the Smara wilaya, refuses to be discouraged, however: « Three generations have succeeded each other in the camps. Half a century of exile, and we still hold the torch. » The official assesses the fragile balance of refugee society, which has had to deal with an influx of nomads fleeing Sahrawi liberated territories for the past three years. In these areas under the control of the Polisario Front, civilians are no longer spared from war.

In the house where relatives have offered her asylum, Aicha points her hand toward the sky and mimics the whistling of the machines that drove her from her land. A kitten approaches a glass placed on the carpeted floor. It sticks its head in, gently lapping up the water. The roof is made of metal, the walls are bare. The elderly woman, her fingers stained with henna, does not lift the cloth covering the lower part of her face to speak. « It was the night of October 21, 2021, » she begins. The fighting, halted since the ceasefire came into effect in 1991, resumed a year ago between the Polisario and the occupying army. Algeria supports, albeit weakly, Sahrawi forces; Israel arms Morocco – Turkey will soon do the same: the colonialist spirit of states.

The Moroccan monarchy thus purchased around a hundred Israeli drones following the normalization agreement signed between the two states and sponsored by Washington in December 2020. « A drone started bombing. We could see it; it wasn’t far. We hid under acacias, then gathered our belongings to leave the next day. At 11 o’clock, my son went to fetch water. Then a drone bombed again. » Aicha suddenly falls silent; tears interrupt her voice. A woman beside her lowers her eyes. Aicha continues: « My son died instantly. He was 30 years old. His name was Salah Mohamed Lamine. »

« The United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, » boasted Donald Trump on the occasion of said agreement. Aicha, however, knew nothing of the existence of drones. The body of the deceased was buried at night, then the family left the Sahara and its herd behind. « Our life changed completely. Before, we were on our land, we had our animals, everything was calm. Here, it’s very complicated. We still hope to return, to see our country again, but without the drones and Moroccan occupation. » One year after Aicha’s son was killed, Morocco concluded a new agreement with Israel to build two drone production factories under Israeli supervision.

A wall and 10 million mines

As they emerge from the house, a line forms in front of a Sahrawi Red Crescent truck; it distributes food from the World Food Programme: rice, cereals, oil cans. Leaning over his hood, a driver tries to restart a blue Land Rover from World War II. A group of children squabble over a dilapidated bicycle.

On the threshold of a khaima (tent), the man removes his shoes. He takes off his sand-whitened boots and his khaki cap. Colonel Habuha Breika is affable; he introduces himself in perfect Spanish, with a hint of Cuban accent. Trained in Havana and Algiers, this Sahrawi army officer had already served as an artilleryman before the ceasefire. He sits cross-legged, observes without a word, then speaks of the harshness of the front and the faith that unites the fighters, the martyrs buried in the desert, far from their own, and the new enemy arsenals, sophisticated, imported from France, the United States, China, Turkey, and above all, Israel. « We are the children of this land. We have our own tactics. We have always known how to adapt to new enemy practices, » he smiles.

Currently, over 100,000 Moroccan soldiers are deployed along the 2,700-kilometer separation wall, hidden behind 10 million antipersonnel and antitank mines. Facing them, a nimble, elusive guerrilla, hunted by drones, radars, and satellite images, cluster bombs, submunition weapons, and thermobaric missiles. In this unequal war, liberated territories under the control of the Polisario Front have been deserted by the nomads targeted.

Each border incident raises fears of wider conflagration. If the war resumed after thirty years of a limping status quo, it’s because, insists the military man, « the international community has failed to resolve the dispute. » The self-determination referendum provided for by UN resolutions has never taken place: Rabat contests the electoral body called to decide on the final status and defends, with the support of Paris, an « autonomy plan » aimed at perpetuating its colonial grip.

« War is not our will: it has been imposed on us. No conflict, nowhere in the world, and especially not conflicts that have lasted a long time, finds a solution through military means, » concedes the officer. « Military force means nothing without a political path. But, based on international legality and for our just cause, we are obliged to continue the war to conquer our freedom, our independence. After fifty years of struggle and exile, we have not lost our spirit of resistance. » 86 civilians have been killed by Moroccan drones since the resumption of hostilities.

« Disciples of the African Revolution »

Far from the camps, on the crest of a small dune stretching between the ravines, gusts burn the eyes, the throat. Down below, a gray bird, imperceptible, hops among the rocks; a lone woman bows in prayer; in the rhythm of a few verses, Yslem, his red hood pulled up, lips blue, body tense, puts into words the bitterness of refugee life. Himself a rapper, he lives in exile within the exile. Born into war and raised in the Aoussert camp before leaving for Spain as a teenager.

He now lives in Galicia, touring the Iberian Peninsula, all of Europe, and even Latin America for concerts and activist events. Yet his heart remains in Africa: « Before being Sahrawi, before being Muslim, before being of the world, I am African. 100%, I consider myself more African than Arab. For a very simple reason: those who first lent us a hand were Africans. Africa has always opened its doors to us, in all its countries. We are the last colony on the continent. As disciples of the African revolution, we too will eventually liberate ourselves. »

Yslem discovered rap by listening to Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan, brought back from their stays in Cuba by Sahrawi children. He finds in it the rhythms and music of Sahrawi oral poetry. So Yslem will write, in Castilian and Hassaniya, about the struggle of his people in refugee camps as well as in occupied territories – where Moroccan repression strangles even artistic expression.

His words become sharper as soon as he speaks of Spanish, European, and Arab complacencies and complicity, all of which reinforce the Moroccan monarchy in its policy of colonization and plundering of resources in the occupied territories. But while the musician laments that the Arab and Muslim world turns its back on them, he cannot avert his gaze from the ongoing carnage in Gaza. « A genocide is underway. The oppressors of the Palestinians are allied with our oppressors. Israel and Morocco have always had, economically and politically, a very good relationship. Israel arms Morocco against us. We stand with the Palestinian people: we suffer from a situation similar to theirs. »

The Sahrawi and the Vietnamese

The day after the Moroccan annexation, El Ouali Moustapha Sayed, the face of the Sahrawi people’s struggle for independence, met in Algiers with General Giap, hero of the anti-colonial revolution.

By Joseph Andras, writer

A day in January 1976. Three years have passed since the North American imperialist troops left the soil they should never have trod – seven million bombs dropped on Vietnam and an incalculable number of disappeared. War criminal Johnson died on his ranch in Texas; war criminal Nixon has two more decades ahead of him. Giap, for his part, is visiting Boumediene’s Algeria on this day. He is the great strategist, the architect of the victory of Dien Bien Phu: a hero is received. But Giap doesn’t just meet the Algerian president, in power since the 1965 coup; a photograph shows him with a young man. Dark jacket, turtleneck, goatee, black hair, he extends his right hand to the Vietnamese general with a smile.

This young man is El Ouali Moustapha Sayed. The child of a destitute nomadic family. The Secretary-General of the Polisario Front.

Inspired by socialism, the movement seeks the independence of Western Sahara with the unwavering support of independent Algeria. Born with a gun in hand against the Francoist occupier, the Polisario Front now fights the Mauritanian power and, more so, the Moroccan monarchy. Hassan II, the dictator, « friend of France » and Mossad steward, swears by the « Great Morocco »: the Sahara is his toy. So the king sends his little soldiers there. « Thus began the colonial war against the Sahrawi people, a war that now ends in the failure of this chauvinistic adventure, which will remain a stain on Morocco’s honor, » wrote Moroccan communist opposition figure Abraham Serfaty in 1989.

The meeting between the two men marks the solidarity of the resistors to the empire – to all empires. Giap specifies: « We have supported all struggles for independence and freedom. It is in this spirit that we support the struggle of the Sahrawi people for self-determination (…). » El Ouali Moustapha Sayed had also met Georges Habache, a figure of socialist Palestinian resistance. « We fight against reactionary Arab forces, » Habache will soon declare during his stay in Tindouf, Algeria, in the Sahrawi refugee camps. « We, within the Palestinian revolution, hold Hassan II as our enemy, just as he is yours! » Thus, the applause was fervent.

A few weeks after his meeting with Giap in Algiers, El Ouali Moustapha Sayed, in his capacity as the first president, proclaimed the birth of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Vietnam would officially recognize it in March 1979; Cuba in 1980; South Africa in 2004; France, never. But El Ouali fell in combat just four months after its proclamation. A bullet in the head fired by Mauritanian troops. He wasn’t even 30 years old.

Upon Giap’s death in 2013, the Sahrawi Republic would « always cherish the memory of this historic meeting between the late General Giap and the martyr El Ouali Moustapha Sayed, founder of the Polisario Front. »

L’Humanité, March28-April3, 2024

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