Monday, 30 April 2012

A Voiceless Lament from the Desert


When the United Nations were established in 1945, 750 million people, almost one third of the world population lived in territories dependent on colonial powers. Nowadays less than 2 million people live under this situation, nonetheless the process of decolonization must continue until this number vanishes. Saharawi people is one of the remaining ones living under the rule of  external occupation.

The region of Western Sahara was under Spanish control between 1884 and 1975, when the Spanish colonizers withdrawn, allowing what later became an illegal invasion by Moroccan troops.
The Polisario Front – Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro – was founded in 1973 as a national liberation movement that works for the independence of Sahara. After the Spanish pullout, Morocco and Mauritania demanded the territories, but the United Nations declared on the 16th of October 1975 that “the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.” Therefore, the indigenous people – the Saharawi – possessed the right of self-determination.
Few days later, ignoring the decision of the International Justice Court, Hassan II king of Morocco sent a group of 350.000 civilians, the “Green March”, to occupy the land, while the army invaded the Northeast part of the territory.

They imposed the Moroccan sovereignty and started a conflict still ongoing: the conflict of the Saharawi people fighting for their independence.

Clashes and fights developed between the Polisario and Moroccan forces. The latter struck defenseless Saharawis using napalm and white phosphorus bombs, so thousands of refugees fled their country and settled outside of the Algerian Province of Tindouf. On February 1976 the Polisario, helped by and based in Algeria, declared the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and formed a government in exile.
The war between Morocco and Polisario armies proceeded until 1991, when both agreed to a ceasefire after accepting a peace proposal drawn by the United Nations. This treaty specified a referendum under the United Nations auspicious for the Saharawis to decide whether they wanted to be an independent nation or to officially become part of Morocco.

Since then, the situation is stagnant. The ceasefire has generally held, but the transitional period has not begun, the referendum never took place and the parts remain unable to arrive at a consensus perpetuating a situation of misery and banishment.

Today Tindouf is home to six refugee camps: Ausserd, Dakhla, February 27th, Laayoune, Rabuni, and Smara, and place of residence for around 180.000 people – although census are complicated and inaccurate.
These camps are located in the hammada, the most inhospitable part of the Sahara desert, where the lack of water and the extreme temperatures hinder everyday life.
But despite the desolate situation and the harsh conditions of the land, the chaos is not present among the camps, but they are well-organized and almost seem normal cities: there is public transport, shops, restaurants, hospitals, schools, local radio, TV stations...

Each camp – wilaya in “hassaniya”, one of their official languages – is divided into five or six regions – dairas – and then split into neighborhoods in order to distribute vaccines, food and to organize the health and the educational systems.

When the exodus took place most of the people was illiterate, but nowadays Saharawi people conceive education as a powerful complement for their cause. Every daira has a school and all children receive primary education. In these schools the students first learn how to read, write and calculate, and later they can study a wide variety of things: nursing, childcare, teaching, languages, sewing, handicraft... Unfortunately, due to their scarce resources, the students who aim to have Higher Education have to go abroad, most of them choose Algeria, Libia or Cuba.
The camps also have cultural pursuits such as music, dance, sport activities and some publications.

This efficient coordination lets them to keep on working for their independence while showing to the world that they are ready for self-ruling their own statehood. But for some people the circumstances are becoming so normal that they are afraid of the International Community accepting the situation as it is now, forgetting about them and abandoning their case.

The role of Saharawi women has been essential in struggling with the hostile circumstances and implementing  an efficient order in their society.
Their nomad origins have a lot to do in the formation of a culture with both Arab and African characteristics where women enjoy rights and freedoms that many other societies would envy.
Historically, when men were grazing or fighting enemies, they were in charge of organizing all the aspects in every day life, from providing food to education, acquiring an important status in the society that they still keep. The same happened after the Moroccan invasion, when men went to fight on the Polisario Front women were the responsible for assembling, administering and supervising the camps, maintaining important positions until today.
The majority of the people working in the education system are women, as well as the organizers of the cultural activities, and their influence is also expanding to other fields such as the politics, one third of the Parliament members are women.

But in spite of this hopeful image, there are also many problems in the camps. Health risks caused by the hard conditions and the extreme weather, malnutrition and water shortage are the most frequent ones.
The constant situation of “neither war nor peace” is depleting people's courage and spreading frustration among Saharawi refugees.
Encouraged by the need of a bounded society to fight for auto-determination, Saharawi women are a good example of an Islamic society promoting gender equality and women empowerment. Saharawi society is holding out against their adversity since more than 35 years, evidence of their laudable strength, but this situation can't be conceivable indefinitely.
Hopefully one day the cry of the last colony in Africa won't be silenced anymore and the Arab word for desert, Sahara, will also bring connotations of freedom.

By Ana Isabel Martínez Molina.

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