Sahrawi refugees build their nation in exile

When my Skype connection with Sahrawi journalist Malainin Lakhal was faltering, I thought surely it must be on his end. After all, I was using an internet cafe in Uganda’s largest city, and he was calling from a refugee camp in the middle of the Algerian desert. My assumptions, however, were quickly dispelled, as I realized my problems weren’t limited to Skype and — more importantly — one should never underestimate Sahrawi ingenuity.

“The Sahrawi [refugees in Algeria] started using internet and building websites in many cases before the Algerians themselves,” Lakhal explained. When Algeria finally invested in 4G infrastructure, the displaced Sahrawis pulled contributions together and paid for installation in the settlements.

This seems to be the trend of the Tindouf camps: Sahrawis identify needs and work together to provide them.

“This 200,000-person camp is run by the refugees themselves,” Lakhal continued. “Any international organizations that come in do so as partners — not as leaders.”

From a camp of the exiled to a permanent settlement

Only Palestinian camps surpass the Sahrawi refugee settlement in age. Western Sahara was supposed to see an end to Spanish colonial rule in 1975, but an immediate invasion by Moroccan forces pushed the masses of Sahrawis into exile. To this day, the Moroccan monarchy claims Western Sahara as its own territory — sometimes kidnapping political dissidents and holding and trying them in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Last month, for instance, 20 Sahrawi activists were handed 30-year sentences.

Meanwhile, Spain has been supportive of the Moroccan occupation. On June 20, International Day of Refugees, Madrid’s largest newspaper El País published a list of the world’s 10 largest refugee camps, suspiciously omitting Tindouf, which — according to Algeria’s estimates — should place it as number three.

The media blackout of Western Sahara in mainstream news sources affords Spain distance from its colonial past, but some residents of Madrid — thanks to an international program called Holiday in Peace — are welcoming Sahrawi children in an effort to change the situation. In addition to giving the children a break from the desert heat, which can hit 120 degrees in the summer months, the program is strengthening relationships across borders, encouraging remittances and raising awareness of Spain’s compliance with the Moroccan occupation.

These children are not the first to advocate for their people, but simply the next generation of those born into a half-century of exile. Lakhal was among the many abductees who struggled for self-determination following the Moroccan invasion.

“I was born in the occupied zone and was active organizing student groups,” he said. “On January 4, 1992, I was kidnapped by Moroccan police, imprisoned with other young people and subjected to all kinds of torture. This experience made my conviction even stronger.”

Lakhal eventually escaped through a three-day desert journey and joined the Sahrawi Press Service, which was established in the camps in 1999 with the help of Spanish and Swiss allies. He then founded the Sahrawi Journalist and Writers Union, where he worked internationally for eight years.

“Many human rights organizations and groups in the camps are not legally registered because Morocco does not permit them to register, but they find ways of doing their work.”

The camps became a kind of autonomous zone, known to Sahrawis as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or RASD. Most Tindouf residents 20 years old or less know no other home. Five wilayas, or districts, are named after towns of Western Sahara: Laayoune, Awserd, Smara, Dakhla and Cape Bojador — some of which lie within an hour drive of the actual city of Tindouf, whose population is dwarfed by that of the Sahrawi camps.

With the majority of the Sahrawi population now members of the diaspora, there was a pressing need to develop institutions that provide social services. But the Sahrawis didn’t want to wait for outside help.

Health, education and gender justice

“Our health system is good if we compare it with those of many countries in the world,” said Larosi Abdalahe, who helped organize demonstrations in the early 2000s, following the kidnapping and sentencing of his friend by occupying Moroccan forces. “We practice a preventive approach to health which follows women from the fourth month of pregnancy until two years after the baby is born.”

Despite the irregular access to electricity and insufficient supply of medical equipment, Minister of Health Sid’Ahmed Tayeb managed to build a geographically dispersed health care infrastructure, with clinics in each sub-district. He began with only seven nurses and medical students, but now supplements emergency care with preventative care, facilitating community education programs throughout the camps.

Health is approached holistically, rather than compartmentalized as an abstract part of life. To support better nutrition of refugees, one hundred acres of land is being cultivated under the watch of Sahwari irrigation technicians. This also reduces dependency on food aid in a hostile desert environment with scorching summers and freezing winters. Traditional healers also have their place in the health care system, although modern medicine professionals often don’t appreciate them.

While three central camp hospitals — largely built and operated by women — also train refugees in medical skills, the education system covers much more than health.

Without many books or materials, Sahrawi refugees organized functioning schools from the nursery to secondary levels, supplemented by vocational programs and classes for adults. According to Oxfam, the literacy rate — once lingering around 5 percent under Spanish rule prior to the Moroccan invasion — has reached about 90 percent in Tindouf.

In addition to building cognitive abilities and other traditional classroom skills, Sahrawi teachers empower their students with politically critical education at a young age. They also incorporate traditional stories, poems and games to bring the Sahrawi identity to life for children born into exile. Sports are enjoyed collectively by all genders, despite the tendency to separate male and female sports in the Arab world.

At the same time, however, gender equality is not simply measured by the extent to which girls and boys play together. Men step up and hold one another accountable as well.

“It is shameful for a man to hit a woman,” Abdalahe explained. “He will become a registered mark in our society. All other men will give him the finger [when they see him].”

In a video interview with The Guardian, filmmaker Hayetna Mohamed Deidi said Sahrawi women can be found “in the parliament, the ministries and the embassies. This is what sets Sahrawi women apart, especially in Arab countries.”

Self-determination through media

Despite their somewhat autonomous society as displaced people, the Sahrawis face another challenge: tilting the global media in their favor.

It is no mistake that few outside of Western Sahara have heard of RASD or Tindouf. According to Lakhal, the United States, Morocco, France and Saudi Arabia have invested in maintaining Morocco’s image of purity, perhaps to keep Sahrawi hands off the abundance of phosphates, oil and fish in the occupied territory.

“Western Sahara is not that sexy,” Lakhal said. “The Sahrawis do not use terrorism to impose our rights. The mainstream media only goes after blood.”

Those promoting the RASD struggle for self-determination have tapped into another source of international exposure: the arts.

“In the media and in the camps themselves, we use the arts and film marathons to share our issues with audiences that are typically disinterested in politics,” Lakhal said.

Representing a people numbering less than a million, Sahrawi musicians like Aziza Brahim have broken into the international scene. Many such artists mix harsh melodies and non-formulaic songwriting, sometimes using both modern and traditional instruments unique to their corner of Africa.

While some Sahrawi artisans simply perform their trades to make a living, others understand their niche in the RASD struggle differently.

“I do believe that expressing oneself through creative ways is a contribution to how we can be powerful but not necessarily violent,” Sahrawi craftsman Mohamed Sulaiman explained in an interview with Danish network Afrika Kontakt. “People tend to forget about what art can do, but it is our role as artists to remind people to bring it to the surface … Art is not just for pleasure … It can solve problems, it can heal, it can connect.”

Sahrawi refugees — women, children, artists, journalists, health professionals — are all contributing what they can for the self-determination of Western Sahara. Often forgotten by the world, and stranded in the desert, they have nevertheless found impressive ways to survive.

“The Sahrawis have built systems they can share with the world,” Lakhal said, “but we cannot do so without national autonomy.”

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