Grant the right of return to the Sahrawi people

Grant the right of return to the Sahrawi people

Impressions of a trip to the Sahrawi refugee camp

by Dr phil Henriette Hanke Güttinger, historian and psychologist

In October, I met Jose Louis by chance when staying with friends in Asturias. With heart and soul he commits himself to the Amigos Sahrawi and frequently stays in the refugee camps. He reported that traditionally six to eight thousand children from these camps spend the hot summer months in Spanish families, from where they return fed and freshly dressed to their parents. The 2008-crisis had unfortunately led to a collapse. Not because solidarity had been lacking, but because of lack of funding.
A week later, on the plane from Algiers to Tindouf we came to talk to a young Sahrawi woman. She had been accepted as a seriously ill child by an Italian family, where she had spent her childhood and youth. At present she was working in Italy. She stayed, however, a Sahrawi and visited her family in the camps as often as she could.
This experience of solidarity with the Sahrawi people as it is expressed in many camps projects from various counties deeply impressed me, just as much as the work of the Swiss Support Committee for the Sahrawis SUKS. Solidarity is the support which is vital in difficult situations. Hence, the situation of the Sahrawis stays difficult. The international community bends to power-political interests and thus evades its obligation to perform the referendum on the future of the Western Sahara upon which it has itself agreed. This makes the solidarity of the civil societies all the more necessary. The cordiality and friendly bond which showed in the encounters between Elisabeth Bäschlin, President of the SUKS and the leaders of the camps show how much this solidarity is appreciated.
The seriousness, determination and perseverance with which the Sahrawis carry out their duties in the camps, is moving. After studying in Algeria, Cuba, Libya, Syria and Spain they have returned to the camps to make their knowledge available to their people and for the preparation of their return to Western Sahara.

The same is the case with the agronomist Taleb Brahim. He showed us one of the allotments at the beginning of the growing season where you can already see the first seed leaves of carrots, beets, zucchini or cucumbers. They are carefully watered from thin plastic tubes that emit droplets of water, and thus ensure a successful culture. Harvesting takes place from December to June. Thereafter the glowing summer heat paralyzes everything. By origin Nomads, the Sahrawis had no experience in the cultivation of food. Gardens were new ground to them, Taleb explained. But this way they would have the opportunity to learn from the very beginning how to grow plants biologically without having to make the same mistakes as the Europeans had made with chemicals and artificial fertilizers. Setting up a family garden means also that the family must be willing to provide for the garden by supplying some of the water assigned to them to the garden. At first the family has to put up a two-meter high wall, a border of self-manufactured modules as protection against goats and sandstorms.Many Sahrawis are born in the camps. All of them receive the same ration from the international organizations. In the early days of the refugee camps all were very active. By time, a dependency has set in associated with inactivity. This would have to change, Taleb emphasized. We need to show the children that the future lies in their hands. They would have to be educated in the mentality, “we have to find out how we can satisfy our needs on our own.” With great resolution and innner determination he says, “one day we shall return. There, we do not have anything and we have to create everything with our own hands. Agriculture and gardens are important at that.”In another garden the most rampant basil is blooming. In his hands Taleb holds proudly some humus which he has enriched with compost. It is soft and sandy. Here, too, the cultivation is organical. This results in a large number of microorganisms that provides for a good quality of the soil. Besides fig trees there are also Moringa trees. They grow rapidly and the leaves are edible and rich in vitamins, a welcome nutrition supplement.

Whereever we pay a visit, be it in a nursing school, the regional hospital, at schools or in the centre of drinking-water preparation plants, we meet impressive personalities. They have not given up. Their will of return to the homeland the preparation of which is unabated – despite adverse circumstances and the perfidity of the international community. Another example is the director of the regional hospital who studied pharmacy in Algeria. He shows us the sparse central pharmacy for the entire Wilaya1, 40,000 people. There is lack of medication, especially for children who often suffer from bronchitis, cough and ear problems. In the consultation room of the expert on endocrinology, who was able to study in Cuba and Spain and who has been operating for 25 years in the regional hospital, we learn that goiters are very common, because there is no iodine in the drinking water. Diabetis, is also quite incidental, especially type 2, as a result of unbalanced diets and lack of exercise. Just as much engaged is a paediatrician who studied in the Spanish colony of Sahara and later in Cuba and who is a specialist in France and Italy now. He actually works with the Ministry of Health, practises, however, regularly at all regional hospitals at the same time. He has a free day only on Friday. Proudly he shows us an ultra-sound machine. There are currently 50 beds at the hospital. He explains that pregnant women and children are given special care. Their weight is preventively reviewed between the age of 1 and 5. For school children up to 14 years there are regular health checks. In addition, there is one nurse responsible for one school. There is vaccination against Hepatitis B, Polio, Tetanus, Whooping cough, Diphtheria, Rubella and Measles, yet not against Meningitis and Rotavirus. Although the UNHCR and WFP (World Food Programme) provide additional food for toddlers and pregnant women, however, the shortage of food and its poor quality leave their impact on people’s health. With a balanced and sufficient diet many diseases wouldn’t even exist.

Later, we are sitting in a large circle with the poet Khadra Mint Laameiri. Unbroken, and with great expressive power and inner participation, she recites some poems. Our Sahrawi driver as well as the guide and attendants are deeply moved, there are tears in their eyes. Khadra is a great poet and highly appreciated by the Sahrawis, who love poetry. After the 1975-expulsion she began writing poetry. Her poetry with rhythms and rhymes are kept in strict Arabic meter and is not written down. She recites all by heart. It is living history: “You have come as colonizers to us, but others were here before you and you have no rights here.” In another poem she describes how she as an already somewhat elder woman, fought in the army, together with young soldiers. The Sahrawi soldiers had been very young and had fought like lions, without fear of death. In this poem she expresses the great pride of the young Sahrawis.Against all odds, this unbroken dignity, the Sahrawi identity and the desire to return to their home country are still there today, and among all generations. This is also inscribed in large Arabic lettering on a huge sand dune in the background of the nursing school: “Either return or death”. It is this right of return which must be finally granted to the Sahrawi people.     •

1    The refugee camps consist of four wilayas (provinces).

Source: Saharainfo No. 133, December 2014. Publisher: SUKS/Swiss Support Committee for the Sahrawis, PO Box 8205, 3001 Berne, <link>, <link http:>

The Western Sahara conflict

hhg. For a long time Western Sahara with its huge phosphate deposits and rich fishing grounds off the coastline was Spanish colonial territory. In 1960, in the wake of decolonization, the General Assembly of the UN agreed on resolution 1540, which awarded “all peoples the right to self-determination“. In 1966, the UN called on Spain to hold a referendum on the independence of Western Sahara. Furthermore, the International Court of Justice in The Hague determined the right of the Sahraoui people to their independence. However, in 1975 Spain concluded an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania. While Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania occupied the territory against the armed resistance of the Sahraouis. Part of the population remained in Western Sahara and part fled to the Algerian Sahara, where since then the Sahraouis have been living in refugee camps near Tindouf.
Until now the right of the Sahraoui people to self-determination has not been realized – a task to be resolved by the global community.

Being a Sahrawi family’s guest

hhg. Being the guests, we sleep in the nicest room of the house. Four small windows without glass, covered by lattice wire and wooden shutters. A pillar in the passage light violet on the top and bottom, an unusual color combination, but pleasant to the eyes. On the left and on the right of the pillar there is a curtain of tulle, during the day (in the daytime) gathered by a ribbon, letting the passage free. Three crossbeams bear the corrugated iron roof. Colored cushions leaning against the wall on which you can sit comfortably and sleep well at night, the floor covered with colored carpets. I woke up because a little child is crying for his mother. A look at the watch shows it is nearly seven o’clock. Outside it is not yet quite light.
Our host, her sister and the smaller children come from the adjoining sleeping-room and prepare breakfast for us. Soon we are sitting on the cushions in front of the small table, drinking coffee and eating baguette. Selem, the housewife, is sitting in front of her tray and is preparing tea, a ceremony that can take far more than an hour. The tea is brewed, after having been washed at first in the teapot, and then it is poured out down from far above into the glasses, until there is enough foam on it. Then the first round of tea is passed around and is drunk. After the third round, the glasses are rinsed off in a small bucket, are dried with a piece of cloth, the tray is rinsed off, too, and the whole is covered with a piece of cloth. The guests who are polite do not get up before the ceremony is finished. “The first tea is as bitter as life, the second as sweet as love, the third as peaceful as death,“ Selem says with a smile.
In the meantime, the two sisters who live in the neighbourhood have joined us dressed in their coloured melhfas and are sitting cross-legged (tailor fashion). There is also a six-month-old boy who is already bravely pulling himself up to be able to stand on his own feet. The baby is alert and is looking at the visitors in a friendly way. The three sisters are looking after him in a loving and quiet manner. It is only when one of the three sisters gives him the breast it is clear for us who is actually the mother. Irene, my travel companion, fortunately speaks Spanish very well and thus there are a lot of suggestions, of questions, answers and of chatting. Yes, yes, there was a lot of work to be done here with the little children and with cooking the meals. The somewhat older children are present, too, a bit shy, but all the same very interested. It is with a lot of patience that Selem educates her three-year-old Hama. She demonstrates – something which is lacking to many mothers in Europe today – a loving and at the same time firm directive. She loves him, but in a definite way she sets limits to him. As he wants to take a biscuit from the small table, she puts it aside in a very decisive manner – and Hama takes her very seriously.

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