North Africa’s Forgotten War

Welcome to the Western Sahara, one of the world’s most unfriendly places — even before the fighting started.

Photos: Julia Guest


On a burning stretch of dark, featureless sand, hundreds of miles from any major cities, and under temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit, two armies prepare for war.

On one side are over 100,000 heavily armed conscripts, drafted from coastal cities and temperate mountain valleys, waiting behind a huge, fortified wall. The wall runs for nearly 800 miles, surrounded by razor wire, mine fields, and forts.

On the other side are no more than 10,000 lightly armed, but highly mobile guerrillas, desert nomads who have fought their opponents to a standstill in a bloody 24-year war that threatens to break out in violence once again.

Welcome to the Western Sahara.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of this territory, an area slightly bigger than Great Britain, wedged on the Atlantic Coast of northwestern Africa. Yet off the coast of the Western Sahara lies possibly the world’s richest fishing grounds, as well as popular holiday resorts in the Canary Islands. Contained within its borders are significant untapped phosphate and oil reserves.

The area is also home to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts in which the U.N. is attempting to broker a solution. Unfortunately, this conflict is coming to a head. Last month, the U.N. considered pulling out of the Western Sahara but ultimately voted to extend its mission there.

Formally called the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the peacekeepers currently patrol an uneasy 8-year ceasefire between Morocco — which marched into the territory in 1975 under invitation from Spain, the departing colonial power — and the native Sahawari people and their national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, who claim the land is theirs.

Polisario camps
Driving through the camps
  women training as
Young women training as “police” in Polisario camps

Before the ceasefire, the war cost thousands of lives and disappearances and prompted Morocco’s King Hassan to construct the huge fortified wall around two-thirds of the desert.

The Sahawari are one of history’s forgotten peoples. A sprawling nomadic collection of tribes, formed from a mixture of Arabic, Berber, and black African cultures, their ancestors were Yemeni Arabs who originally traveled across north Africa in the 13th century. Sahawaris now live in refugee camps inside southwestern Algeria, or under harsh repression in Moroccan-controlled territory.

About 165,000 Sahawaris live in the Algerian camps (plus another 65,000 in the Moroccan “Occupied Territories”), which are run on a semi-autonomous basis by the Polisario — or, as they call themselves, the Sahawari Arab Democratic Republic. Set up during frequent bombing by Moroccan jets (which also attacked the refugee columns fleeing the Western Sahara), the camps are still here, 24 years later.

In this, one of the most inhospitable regions on earth, life would be difficult under anything but the most affluent circumstances. The Sahawari, of course, aren’t affluent. The refugees are kept alive by a huge and costly relief effort by the U.N. and various other agencies. Malnutrition, cholera, and access to water are constant problems. However, the Sahawari have created remarkable desert gardens, growing fresh fruit and vegetables, and have set up a free education and healthcare system, including schools, colleges, and hospitals. Several underground hospitals even operate on the front line, right under the Moroccans’ noses.

School
Sahawari school
  Doctor in Algeria
Doctor holding consultation inside a camp near Tindouf, southwestern Algeria.

Furthermore, literacy has been raised from one (yes, one) to 95 percent in this period, and many young Sahawaris go on to study at universities in countries such as Spain, France, Algeria, Libya, and Cuba. Since the Cold War ended, Polisario has distanced itself from the latter countries. And it is keen to point out that it now supports multi-party democracy and free-market economics (and that it has never supported, or taken part in, kidnapping or terrorism — which, ironically, is why you may never have heard of the movement).

Women occupy a unique position in this society. Traditionally keepers of the communal family tents and responsible for water collection, they were forced to take charge of many other parts of society when the men originally went to the front line. Dressed in their brightly colored “malaafas,” which cover most of their heads and bodies, they now have representation on national councils (albeit, all of one) and even serve in parts of the armed forces. In what is effectively a liberal Islamic regime (no mosques, for example), they are free to divorce and remarry. Many Sahawaris you meet, much like the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, will tell you that national liberation is more important than religion. Such attitudes stand in marked contrast to some of the more strict Islamic attitudes of neighboring countries. (Iran has apparently complained to Polisario in the past about the role of Sahawari women.)

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, an African himself, has now made it his personal mission to solve the Western Sahara question, visiting the region twice last year. Even President Clinton has lent his weight to the dispute — which has cost the U.N. $400 million thus far — writing to Republican Representative Joseph R. Pitts that “recent progress…lends hope that this crucial issue will soon be resolved.”

A U.N.-sponsored referendum on the area’s future — asking whether the Sahawaris wished to remain a part of Morocco or rule themselves — was first promised in 1991. Implementation was delayed by both sides and it took the intervention of former Secretary of State James Baker in 1997 to agree on a new timetable for the referendum.

This was supposed to take place in December 1998, but was postponed for another 12 months. Morocco and Polisario have spent months wrangling over exactly how many Sahawaris should be eligible to vote. Morocco has continually argued for extra voters to be added to the last available census figures, taken by the Spanish in 1974 (which said there were 74,000 Sahawaris in the territory). Polisario maintains that the Moroccans have simply been flooding the territory with impoverished Moroccans from further north, using economic incentives, in order to “spoil” the vote in its favor.

  Sahawari family
Sahawari family (woman in “malaafa”) watching me watching them in camps near Tindouf, southwestern Algeria

The U.N. finally finished sifting through 147,000 possible voters last September. Polisario had originally argued that only 85,000 of these were eligible. But two months later it compromised and allowed the possible addition of a further 65,000 voters.

“Now that we are saying ‘yes,’ the Moroccans have been left without any excuses,” said one Sahawari official. The Security Council’s intervention is being seen as a sign of international impatience with the standstill. However, the issue is also a matter of national pride in Morocco, with many observers pointing out that King Hassan originally invaded to draw attentions away from a weak government and numerous coup attempts.

It remains to be seen whether the U.N. will actually withdraw its presence, or whether some form of compromise will be found at the eleventh hour. However, the Sahawaris are clearly pushing for some form of resolution. As their most famous singer, Umm Deleila, said to Annan during his most recent visit, “We have given blood, the dearest thing that every human has. So we are sure that we will receive something in return.”

This is certainly not the last chapter in this tragic, yet forgotten, conflict.

Freelance Nick Ryan is based in the U.K. He traveled to the Western Sahara last summer.

Photo by AP/Wide World Photos