Western Sahara family visits off to flying start
TINDOUF, Algeria, June 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's pilot project of family visits to and from Western Sahara has gotten off the ground, with more than 800 participants so far and another 18,000 on the waiting list.
Started in March, the family visits are continuing between refugees in windswept refugee camps in south-western Algeria, and towns in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. For many of the participants, it is the first time they are seeing their families in nearly 30 years.
El Ghalia and her sister Aghbana have lived in Smarra camp since they fled their homeland in the mid-70s. They were among the lucky ones who were selected to visit their parents in Western Sahara, joining a planeload of 25 refugees aged four to 71, all of whom were flying for the first time.
Two hours later, they were in Smarra town, where their father Mohamed Fathil was waiting anxiously. In an emotional reunion, the old man embraced not just has long-lost daughters, but also five grandchildren he had never met before.
Later the same day, the special UN-chartered Antonov 26 plane took off in the opposite direction, carrying 24 people from Smarra town in Western Sahara to Smarra camp in Algeria.
Among them were Abtila and Essalk Al Moukhtar, who became separated from their parents during the conflict in 1975. They no longer remembered what their parents looked like but they never lost their love. The siblings had been wondering and worrying about the well-being of their aging parents. They did not know what to expect in the distant refugee camps. Their reunion, replete with ululating women and banner waving, was an emotional one.
"We have missed our parents for almost 30 years and thanks to God, we saw them today and they are in good health and everything is alright," said 46-year-old Essalk Al Moukhtar.
They found their parents' situation tough, but not as inhospitable as they had imagined.
"We have been dreaming and hoping that we would see them again," said his 40-year-old sister, Abtila Al Moukhtar, tears welling in her eyes. "Thanks to God we have the opportunity and now we have come here and we are finally meeting them. I can hardly believe my own eyes; I am filled with so much joy."
Emotions run high during the five-day-long family visits. Everyone gets emotional as parents meet their children, brothers meet their sisters. Everybody has changed and decades of separation have left their marks.
The family visits involve constant UNHCR supervision from start to finish as the agency's staff select candidates and monitor the visits on both sides of the border to ensure that they proceed smoothly.
"UNHCR distributes forms in the camps for the refugees to register themselves," said Zerrin Ibrahim, a field officer in Tindouf, Algeria. "For those who are willing to see relatives in the Territory and vice versa, we do a verification, and after that we arrange for the visits."
The UN refugee agency recently informed governments that it would like to extend the family visit programme and boost other aspects of the confidence-building measures launched earlier this year in cooperation with the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). This, however, would require additional funds to charter a second aircraft, pay for fuel and other needs, and provide telephone equipment to give more refugees the chance to communicate using the call centres launched in January. If extended, UNHCR believes that more than 2,400 Saharans could participate in family visits by the end of this year.
The refugee agency would also boost the telephone call centre initiative that has so far seen more than 3,000 calls made, 60 percent of them by women refugees. If funds arrive, UNHCR wants to expand the call centres to Smarra and Awserd refugee camps and purchase microwave equipment to link up remote Dakhla refugee camp, a goal that could enable refugees to make 15,000 calls to their relatives in the territory before the end of 2004.
According to Algerian government estimates, the country's five camps host some 165,000 refugees who fled Western Sahara in 1975 during the conflict over the right to govern the Territory after Spain's withdrawal from the region.