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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 14:07 GMT

World: Africa

Background: The forgotten conflict

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

By Tim Judah in Tindouf, south-western Algeria

When one country invades another or a war starts we generally get to hear about it. Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo ... Western Sahara?

Over one thousand kilometres from Algiers, deep in the Algerian part of the Sahara near the town of Tindouf, 150,000 Saharawi refugees have had plenty of time to reflect on the iniquity of the world.

Their country, Western Sahara, was invaded by Morocco in 1975, has no major oil reserves, a tiny population and no global strategic significance whatsoever. Hence the forgotten conflict.

Important visitor

[ image: Mr Annan shakes hands with Polisario leader]
Mr Annan shakes hands with Polisario leader
On November 30 1998 Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, visited Smara, one of the Tindouf camps. He was there to meet the Saharawi's political leaders in a bid to break the political deadlock which has kept their people virtual prisoners in the desert for the last 23 years.

Behind the scenes the UN is urging western powers to apply private pressure on Morocco's King Hassan in a bid to break the deadlock over one of Africa's longest running conflicts.

The Camps

Video telling the story of the Saharawi struggle
When Mr Annan visited Smara he was given a hero's reception. Thousands of women, their faces tinted blue from the indigo dye they use to protect their skin from the sun and sand ululated joyfully.

Children waved placards demanding an end to the Moroccan occupation of their country while hundreds of soldiers from the Western Saharan Polisario Front gave the Secretary General a full military welcome.

[ image: A forgotten people]
A forgotten people
Not a blade of grass grows naturally here and ever since 1975 the Saharawi refugees have survived thanks to aid and the little that they have, with great difficulty, managed to cultivate.

They live in tents and mud huts but their camps are well run and clean. They have also poured what meagre resources they have into education meaning that this small refugee community in the middle of the desert has one of the best-educated populations in Africa.

A high proportion of students are sent to universities either in Algeria or abroad.

The War

In 1975, just before the Spanish left their former colony they agreed to hand it over to Morocco and Mauritania.

[ image:  ]
This was in defiance of a UN demand that the then 74,000 strong population give their own view in a referendum. From then until 1991 Polisario fought a war against both countries.

The Mauritanians were driven out by 1979 but the Moroccans proved a far more formidable foe. In 1981 they began building the Sahara's answer to the Great Wall of China.

The earthwork ramparts that they built snake for 2,000 kilometres across the desert.

Although successful in keeping the guerrillas at bay the war was still expensive and debilitating. In 1991 both sides agreed to implement a UN peace plan to be monitored by UN peacekeepers. They also agreed to hold a referendum on independence or integration into Morocco.

Human rights activists claim that since 1975 hundreds of pro-independence Saharawis have "disappeared" over the years. In their turn the Moroccans claim that Polisario have tortured and imprisoned dissenters.

The UN and the Peace Plan

Ever since 1991 both sides have raised problems but now diplomatic sources say that the Moroccans are causing ever more delays because their strategy of packing the voters rolls with their own citizens has failed.

The Moroccans have claimed that these people are Saharawis who live in Morocco. Without them though observers believe that Morocco would lose the vote and that Polisario would win a resounding victory in favour of independence.

In that case Morocco would be obliged to leave the land it has claimed by historical right.

If progress is not made within the first month or two of 1999 then Kofi Annan's plan to hold the much delayed referendum in December will collapse.

That is because of the huge amount of preparations that must go in to it, including the repatriation of the refugees. If that happens it will be delayed again.

In public Moroccan officials say that they do not want any more delays. On December 2 1998 Abdellatif Filali, the Moroccan Foreign Minister said: "On the eve of the third millennium, I hope that we are equally on the eve of settling this problem once and for all."

Surprisingly Polisario officials are not at all downhearted by their years in exile and the prospect of further delays. As Radhi Bachir, a senior Polisario official explained, they are delighted by the way things are going.

During the Cold War Polisario was associated with Cuba and Libya and so the west backed Morocco almost automatically.

Now the tiny guerrilla movement, which today has a mere 8.000 men under arms - compared to 120,000 Moroccans along the wall, has turned the diplomatic tables.

[ image: Hanging on to hope]
Hanging on to hope
Morocco is now seen as obstructing peace and keeping the UN locked in a costly peacekeeping operation. As Mr Bachir puts it: "The wind is blowing our way".

The Saharawis claim that one of the reasons that most of the world has never heard of them is because they have eschewed terrorism and kidnapping. The UN first called for a referendum on independence in 1965 - and the Saharawis are still waiting.

If Mr Annan Fails

If Mr Annan's mission fails then he has threatened to consider pulling his peacekeepers out of the territory.

The last seven years have cost the UN $400m and Mr Annan, and the Americans especially, are loathe to keep on paying with no result in prospect. If the UN pulls out then war will return to this already troubled region.

[ image: Umm Deleila: Queen of the Desert]
Umm Deleila: Queen of the Desert
During his visit to Smara Mr Annan was greeted by Umm Deleila, one of the most famous Saharawi singers.

Her songs of exile and lament are broadcast on Polisario radio and it is said that those Saharawis who live in the Moroccan occupied part of the country tune their radios by night to hear her.

She said: "We have given blood, the dearest thing that every human has - so we are sure that we will receive something in return."

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