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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 07:24 GMT
Sahara refugees' long wait
Saharawi children
A generation has grown up as refugees
By Peter Biles in Laayoune refugee camp, Algeria

At first light, the only sound echoing across the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria is the fierce desert wind gusting against the canvas tents.

The horizon vanishes in a haze of sand.

The ubiquitous black, white, green and red flags of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) flutter from their masts.

The tents are maintained to give our people the sense that we are not going to be here forever

Brahim Moktar, Polisario spokesman

It is one of the harshest and most inhospitable environments on Earth, yet more than 150,000 people have had to live here for the past 25 years, while dreaming of independence for their homeland, the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Life in tents

Metou Mustafa is a symbol of the struggle.

Saharawi refugees
Refugees fear that the UN may abandon its support for a referendum on independence
She was born in the refugee camps 25 years ago and has known no other life.

"I have never seen my country. I listen to people describing it as a beautiful place full of rich customs, but I have been deprived of this," Metou says.

"Living here in the Algerian desert has become routine, but it is also very hard. What keeps us going day after day and year after year, is the hope of eventually returning to Western Sahara."

The refugees are almost entirely dependent upon aid for their survival.

Polisario leader Mafoud Ali Beiba
Polisario leaders are under pressure to return to war
Food is imported and the four huge camps near Tindouf do not even have adequate local water supplies.

Tankers ferry water continuously.

The mud-brick homes that have been built convey an air of permanence, but even after 25 years, some refugees still live in tents.

"The tents are maintained to give our people the sense that we are not going to be here forever," explains Brahim Moktar, a Polisario spokesman.

Visitors to the Saharawi refugee camps are overwhelmed by the conditions.

Polisario soldier
The 1991 ceasefire has not yet resulted in a referendum
In summer, temperatures are said to reach 50C. Among the participants in the Sahara Marathon, a special event to mark the 25th anniversary of the SADR, was the former Commonwealth Games champion, Ron Hill, who has completed marathons in 67 different countries.

"I cannot imagine what it is like to live here," he says.

"Just coming for four days is a thing in itself, and this was one of the toughest places in which I have ever run."

The forgotten conflict

On 27 February 1976 the Polisario Front set up the SADR, essentially a government-in-exile.

Polisario soldier making the victory sign
Victory sign conceals distant dream of independence
For the next 15 years, Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Morocco which occupies most of Western Sahara and lays claim to the territory.

A ceasefire in 1991 offered the promise of a political settlement.

However, a United Nations-sponsored referendum to decide whether Western Sahara should become independent or integrated into Morocco has never been held, nine years after it was planned.

UN delivery
The refugee community is dependent on outside aid
The process has become bogged down by continuing disagreement over who should be allowed to vote and an appeals process.

Polisario's supporters now fear that the UN and other key Western nations want to abandon the referendum and pursue "a third way", allowing the Saharawis a degree of autonomy in Western Sahara, but not full independence.

Back to war?

The mood in the refugee camps is one of impatience, frustration and anger at the years of diplomatic deadlock.

Saharawi refugee
People live for the hope of return
The Polisario Front says it is under pressure from its supporters to return to war.

"The resumption of the conflict could be at any time," says Meloud Said, Polisario's representative in Washington. "We have been taken for a ride for the last nine years, and if we go back to war, it is because we have already gone the extra mile for peace and there is nothing else we can do," he adds.

The resumption of the conflict could be at any time

Meloud Said, Polisario's representative in Washington
It is difficult to assess the seriousness of the Polisario Front's threats.

Some observers believe that, without the backing of its long-time sponsor, Algeria, the Polisario Front would be unlikely to abandon the ceasefire.

However, the SADR President, Mohamed Abdelaziz, who presided over a huge military parade at this week's 25th anniversary celebrations in the Laayoune refugee camp, warned that "peace is in jeopardy" and that his people should be ready to make "further sacrifices".

Tent city
Polisario say they keep people in tents to give them hope of return
The UN, which has a military observer mission (MINURSO) in Western Sahara, is worried.

In his latest report, the UN Secretary-general, Kofi Annan, says "a climate of increased mistrust and bitterness has set in between Morocco and the Polisario Front and this is undermining the ceasefire regime".

In spite of the traditional display of support for the Polisario Front at this week's celebrations, the Saharawis have little to celebrate.

In the present climate, their dreams of an independent Western Sahara appear to be as far away as ever.

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See also:

17 Jun 00 | Africa
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