to mark 35th anniversary of the Polisario Front. Photo by EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA.
By Margarita Windisch
[Read more on the Western Saharan people's struggle HERE.]
Spain colonised Western Sahara and its mostly nomadic people in 1884 claiming it as a protectorate of the Spanish Crown. Spanish rule over Western Sahara was codified in Berlin in 1885, where Africa was carved up among the European powers. The period of Spanish rule was marked by ongoing resistance, revolts and armed clashes with the indigenous population, with its liberation movements being brutally repressed by the Spanish authorities.
A 1966 UN resolution called for Saharawi people’s right to self-determination to be exercised via a referendum which never eventuated. The lack of political developments led to the formation of Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (the Polisario Front) in 1973. Polisario was conceived as a nationalist front with the aim of achieving independence, and encompassed all Saharawi political trends.
Polisario launched a guerrilla war against Spanish rule, fought
Apart from engaging in aerial bombardment, which included napalm and cluster bombs,
Ceasefire, referendum and international abandonment
A 1991 ceasefire, overseen by a UN peacekeeping mission, ended the armed conflict but the Saharawi people are still waiting for a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination that was supposed to take place in 1992. The frustration at the lack of progress and lack of support from the international community for a political solution to the conflict is palpable, especially among Saharawi youth. As SADR health minister Sid'Ahmed Tayeb told the Australian delegation to the October 2008 International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers (see http://links.org.au/node/750), “we are living between existence and non-existence”.
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The Saharawi people have been left to their own devices, due to the fact that
In more recent years
The European Union is currently in negotiations with
Theft of Saharawi natural resources
Many Western governments and companies, including
As a matter of fact, under the 1975 Madrid Accords,
In the game of ``Realpolitik’’ it is of no relevance to Western governments that Morocco has been condemned many times for its torture, disappearance and arrest of Saharawis in Morocco proper and in the occupied territories, as well as for its repression against its own population and trade union activists.
Approximately half the Saharawi people live in refugee camps, which have now existed for 33 years, in the Hamada desert near the Algerian military town of
Saharawi refugees have lived on emergency food and humanitarian aid for 33 years, which has resulted in high levels of malnutrition and anaemia. A 2007 UN-funded report found that more than 76% of pregnant women and 68% of children under the age of five suffered from anemia. The 2003 report, Forgotten People: The Saharawis of Western Sahara, by Refugees International states that nearly half of Saharawi kids suffer from anemia, many have stunted growth with 13 per cent are acutely malnourished (http://www.arso.org/01-e03-07.htm).
Due to the harsh terrain of the camp locations, combined with shrinking financial support from donor governments and organisations, supplementing the current food aid with necessary nutrition for a balanced diet is nearly impossible.
At the same time the situation in Saharawi camps is uniquely positive and a testimony to human capabilities in the face of adversity. The Saharawi government, together with foreign specialists, is trying to address these problems to the best of its ability. The SADR government and Polisario run the camps through social and political institutions, giving control, cohesiveness, dignity and hope to its people. The four camps are organised into districts (wilayas) named after towns in
Health and education are the top priority in the camps, achieving amazing results. There is a national hospital in the 27 February camp; Saharawis have not suffered a major health epidemic for more than 20 years. The literacy rate is over 90 per cent, a complete turnaround from 1975 when 95% of Saharawis could neither read nor write. At the same time, the director the national hospital told us during our visit, they still have not received the allocation of medications for 2008, which has dangerously depleting important stocks. There was no anti-diarrhea medication available at the time for children under five years of age.
Even though temperatures can reach a searing 58 degrees Celsius in summer and fall to minus 6 degrees C in winter, there is no mass exodus from the camps to migrate to
The Saharawi people in the camps, their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories and in the diaspora are desperately hoping for an end to the conflict so they can return to their beloved homeland. Our solidarity is crucial for their right to live as a nation and continue their existence as a distinct people with thousands of years of history.[This backgrounder was complied thanks to resources provided by ARSO (http://www.arso.org), the Australia Western Sahara Association (http://awsa.org.au) and Western Sahara Resource Watch (http://www.wsrw.org). Margarita Windisch was a member the three-person delegation of Australian trade unionists who attended the 6th Congress of the Western Sahara General Union of Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro Workers (UGTSARIO) and the International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, in October 2008, in El Aaiun, one of four Saharawi refugee camps in the Hamada desert in south-west Algeria. Windisch is also a leading member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]