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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Western Sahara: Only the strongest can survive here ...

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Western Sahara: Only the strongest can survive here ...
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
A roundup of world refugee stories

After more than two decades of desert warfare and uneasy peace, the people of Western Sahara look forward to a new beginning

The flat desert landscape goes on forever. Only an occasional stunted tree or rock outcrop breaks the monotony. Summer temperatures are among the hottest on earth and only the strongest can survive here.

Combatants fought over this territory for 16 bloody and gruelling years and an uneasy six-year peace followed. Now, another effort is underway to settle the future of the 100,000-square mile territory in the north-west corner of Africa known as Western Sahara.

Spanish colonialists seized the huge swathe of desert in the 19th Century when European powers launched The Scramble for Africa. Madrid withdrew in 1976 and Morocco and the homegrown Polisario Front guerrilla movement began a full-scale but inconclusive war for the territory which, though viciously inhospitable and sparsely populated, is rich in phosphates and lucrative fishing grounds off its long coastline.

The Moroccans occupied most of the desert in the hit-and-run warfare and built a massive defensive wall or berm to try to keep out the guerrillas. Polisario and its supporters retreated to Algeria and an estimated 165,000 refugees settled into a series of UNHCR camps near the Algerian desert town of Tindouf.

As many as 120,000 of theseTindouf refugees and an estimated 10,000 refugees in Mauritania and 5,000 from other areas will be registered by UNHCR in the next few months and then flown or driven back to Western Sahara to take part in a December referendum. At stake: total independence or integration with Morocco.

UNHCR is expanding its task force in the region for the new operation. The special UN force in the territory, known by its acronym MINURSO (The U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) has already begun the laborious task of identifying locals eligible to take part in the referendum. Nearer polling day, the U.N. will also establish a series of polling stations at strategic points throughout the territory.

The new agreement was brokered by the U.N. special envoy and former American Secretary of State, James Baker, after an original Settlement Plan collapsed in 1991 because of deep divisions over just who was eligible to vote.

Most of the Sahrawis are nomads, hardened to the ways of the desert and the harsh life under canvas in a refugee camp. "Because we are nomads, it is difficult to defeat us," one male refugee proudly tells a visitor. Another says, "I have fought for my independence since I was 10. I will vote for independence." Over traditional desert dates, tea, milk and biscuits a local chieftain says, "I want to go back to my land, but I will not go back unless one of our own people rules there."

In the tug-of-war for the loyalty of the indigenous population, Morocco insists the territory historically belongs to Rabat and in the last two decades has built schools, hospitals, electricity networks and a water desalination plant in and around the capital of Laayoune to try to stress its progressive and benevolent stewardship.

Western Sahara is the last disputed territory from Africa's colonial era and a successful referendum would ensure not only stability in the territory itself but would probably begin to heal the rifts between Morocco and the four other nations in the Arab Maghreb Union caused by the liberation struggle. There is still a long way to go, however, and many potential pitfalls en route. As James Baker said recently, "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)