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Tuesday, December 8, 1998 Published at 10:57 GMT

Hope in Western Sahara

Saharawi refugees see UN chief's visit as a sign of salvation

By Tim Judah in Tindouf

Everyone looked skywards - nervously. A sandstorm had blown up. Kofi Annan's visit had already been postponed once thanks to the crisis in Iraq - it would be a crushing blow if he was to be defeated by the elements now.

Then suddenly he was here. His white UN helicopter hovering nervously above the neat white landing circle drawn for him on the sand - in the bleakest place on earth.

Cannons boomed in welcome, the band struck up and the UN Secretary General stepped from his helicopter followed, like a medieval prince, by a standard bearer carrying the UN flag.

Faith in the Secretary-General

The Smara refugee camp, 1,500km south west of Algiers and close to the tiny Algerian frontier town of Tindouf, lies deep in the Sahara. Yet 150,000 Saharawi refugees, who fled the Moroccan invasion of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1975, survive here. They believe that Mr Annan's visit on 30 November signals the beginning of the end of their exile.

[ image: Mr Annan shakes hands with Polisario leader]
Mr Annan shakes hands with Polisario leader
On 11 December Mr Annan will submit a report to the Security Council and it is widely expected that he will criticise Morocco for dragging its heels on the issue. Mr Annan is also expected to make a private appeal to western countries to apply discreet but heavy pressure on Morocco's King Hassan in a bid not to let another chance to settle one of Africa's longest disputes slip through his fingers.

Morocco claims the Western Sahara belongs to it by virtue of historical right but says it too would like to see an end to the conflict via the ballot box.

The UN's peacekeeping mandate for Western Sahara runs out on 17 December. Such is the UN's frustration with the issue that it will then probably only be renewed for another eight weeks. After that, if Morocco is still deemed to be obstructing the UN's plans to hold a referendum in the territory and repatriate the refugees Mr Annan will have to consider ending its peacekeeping mission there - thus risking a return to war in an already unstable corner of Africa.

Songs of welcome

As Mr Annan made his stately progress from the helicopter landing point to the Smara camp thousands of Saharawi women, many with faces tinted blue from the indigo dye they use to protect their faces from the harsh Saharan sun ululated in unison. At the gates of the camp he was greeted with a song from Umm Deleila, the most famous Saharawi singer.

[ image: Umm Deleila: Queen of the Desert]
Umm Deleila: Queen of the Desert
Later, as Mr Annan presided in a great white tent over a gathering of tribal sheikhs Umm Daleila said: "We have given blood, the dearest thing that every human has - so we are sure that we will receive something in return."

Like tens of thousands of others Umm Deleila fled her native land in 1975. She was just a child then but believed, as did everyone else, that it would only be a matter of weeks before they returned home.

Today those Saharawis who remain under Moroccan occupation are said to tune their radios by night to snatch her voice from out of the clear cold desert night. One day soon, if Mr Annan has his way, then these people, like her fellow exiles, will be able to see her deep, kohl-lined eyes too.

Every since their flight the refugees have lived in four camps around Tindouf. The bleak sand and rock landscape where they have pitched their tents, resembles the surface of Mars.

A long and costly struggle

Until 1991 their guerrilla army, the Polisario Front, fought for independence, to make real their phantom and self-proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. During the Cold War it was associated with Cuba, Algeria and other revolutionary states - and so the west supported Morocco.

[ image:  ]
At the first Polisario was strikingly successful but eventually the Moroccans pushed them back and, in an extraordinary feat of military engineering, built a 2,000 km wall of earthwork embankments to keep the guerrillas out. But the war was expensive. Seven years ago Morocco and Polisario agreed to a peace plan and a referendum. Did the Saharawis want to be integrated into Morocco or to have an independent state of their own?

The process has unrolled fitfully ever since. The referendum was supposed to have taken place in 1992 but the date has been constantly postponed since then. Last year the vote was scheduled for 7 December. Now Mr Annan suggests holding the vote in December 1999.

At the heart of the matter lies the question of who will vote. The Saharawis say the Moroccans are trying to infiltrate tens of thousands of their own citizens on to the lists in order to tip the ballot their way. Privately UN officials agree. The Moroccans claim many of these people are Saharawis who live in Morocco.

New hiccoughs

During his visit to the Smara Camp, Kofi Annan had hoped that he could announce that everything was back on track again. But it wasn't. Mr Annan said the Moroccans had "raised some concerns" - coded diplomatic language meaning they had come up with more excuses to drag the process out again.

[ image: A forgotten people]
A forgotten people
Mr Annan has staked his personal prestige in these Saharan sands. And hopefully the world will begin to notice. The UN, said the suave Ghanaian, "could not impose a settlement" on the parties. Which is odd, since if the Moroccans were Serbs or Iraqis, things might look rather different. Mr Annan says the difference from other, more recent conflicts, is that the UN Security Council has never passed an "enforcement resolution". But, perhaps by mistake then, he later referred to the "reality of the world we live in".

The reality is there are 27 million Moroccans but barely a quarter of a million Saharawis. Their land is almost entirely desert, has little if any strategic importance and, despite phosphate deposits, has not much to recommend it.

The Moroccans have powerful friends in France, which has extensive economic interests in the kingdom. Spain dare not raise the question of its former colony lest the Moroccans open the question of Ceuta and Melilla, its two enclaves on Morocco's north coast. Spanish fishermen have also bought rights to fish the teeming seas off the Western Sahara.

'The wind is blowing our way'

As Mr Annan tried to hide his disappointment in Smara, fearing delays which add to his peacekeeping bill - $400m in Western Sahara to date - Polisario officials could barely disguise their glee.

In September, Mr Annan made pointed criticisms of Morocco and since last year his personal envoy to region has been James Baker, the former US Secretary of State. As far as the Saharawis are concerned their diplomatic coup has been to shrug off the old Marxist image and gradually outflank Morocco diplomatically.

Over the last year, the UN has weeded out tens of thousands of potential referendum voters sponsored by Morocco which observers believe makes a vote for independence virtually assured. King Hassan can certainly delay the vote, but with every passing year his room for diplomatic manoeuvre becomes more and more limited and his western friends impatient that the matter should be settled once and for all. They fear that any delay could result in the UN deciding to end its peacekeeping mission which would mean a return to war.

As the day drew to a close Mr Annan's helicopter took to the sky again, a man in traditional finery trotted off on his camel and Umm Deleila's special tent sagged as the pegs came up and she headed for home. Radhi Bachir, a top Polisario official adjusted the cuffs of his elegant check jacket as he took stock of the day. His glasses reflected the orange glow of the setting sun. "The wind," he said, enunciating his words with care, "is blowing our way".

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