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12 March 2001

Safe only from Lenny Henry

From their exile in the desert, the Sahraouis are set to fight Morocco, reports Mark Thomas

By Mark Thomas

Considering that most of the Western Sahara’s inhabitants live deep in the Algerian desert in refugee camps, you have to admire their application to the International Olympic Committee to take part in the next Olympic Games. Frankly, the committee is more likely to select Manchester to host the games than to let the Sahraouis field a team. But should they succeed and win any medals, it is a fairly safe bet that as the Sahraouis collect their trophies, the Moroccans will occupy the podium, napalm the spectators and then whinge about being unfairly treated when asked to leave. Because that is what Morocco did to the Sahraouis’ homeland in 1975-76.

The Sahraouis’ refugee camps are remarkable for many reasons. They have been home to a nation of about 180,000 for 25 years; and they have managed to get by without a single visit from Lenny Henry, Angus Deayton or any other of the hand-wringing red-nose wearers.

A refugee camp is by its very nature a temporary place, not one where you expect to find schools, hospitals and a democratic system of electing local officials, yet just such people greeted me on my arrival at El Ayoun, one of the four camps.

I had come to witness the celebrations of a nation that is without a home. On 27 February 1976, the Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic was founded and, in the middle of the desert, two and a half decades later, the Sahraoui refugees were throwing a 25th party for a country that many of them have never seen.

I walked round the camp and was invited by Mahar into her home. She is 50, but life has left her looking 75; her one-roomed house is about 6ft by 15ft and, like all Sahraoui families, she has a tent as well as her sand brick home. Standing in the room that her family of six will spend the summer months in, it was hard to see how they cope in such cramped conditions. She was 25 and pregnant with twins when she and her husband fled Western Sahara. “We had no car, we had no animals or cart. I gave birth to my children in the desert, running away from the Moroccans,” she said. “Two days later an Algerian car came by and drove us here.”

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“What happened to your children?”

“They died. We were unprotected in the desert. They couldn’t survive.”

I must have looked shocked. She waved her hand dismissively: “Everyone has stories like this.”

And they had. Wandering around El Ayoun talking to people was like being in the movie of an Amnesty International report. For ten years, the UN has moni-tored a ceasefire between Polisario, the Sahraouis’ liberation movement, and Morocco.

It should have been a simple affair; the international community recognised Western Sahara’s right to independence and all parties agreed to a referendum to determine the country’s future. But a decade later the referendum has still not materialised, thanks to Morocco’s stalling tactics, and the UN (whose operations there cost more than £1m a day) has ended up with more egg on its face than a fly in an omelette.

The Sahraouis want their homeland and are ready to return to war with Morocco to reclaim it. When the Polisario army paraded its troops and weaponry, thousands of Sahraouis lined a strip of desert waving plastic flags and cheering. “I would rather throw myself on the bodies of my dead children,” said one woman, “than live without freedom.”

The equipment on parade was old, mainly stolen from the Moroccans. Many of the vehicles worked on cannibalised spares and some of the guns had no working parts. If war comes they will be taking on a well-equipped, modern Moroccan army that outnumbers them by at least ten to one. The sight of this “scrap-heap challenge” army was strangely moving.

“You can’t possibly hope to win a military victory,” I said to two schoolteachers.

“What is our choice?” one replied. “We either die fighting or we die out here in the desert.”

Against this background, the Foreign Office has just approved licences for Royal Ordinance to refurbish 30 105mm howitzer guns for Morocco. The guns are on the front line of the occupied territory and have a range of at least 17km. The rearming of an aggressor nation (Morocco) in an occupied country (Western Sahara) might seem like just another wreath on the grave of a British foreign policy with an “ethical dimension”, but to the family I was staying with, the guns were all too real. “Why does Robin Cook want to sell guns to my enemies? Why does he want to help my enemies kill me?” asked Nati, as he sat making tea in the tent that evening.

It is hard to tell when the war will come but, unless the UN can perform a miracle, eventually come it will. It is difficult to see how much longer Polisario can keep the lid on the pressure from the camps to resume hostilities. It is unity and determination that have got the Sahraouis this far. Having been forgotten, betrayed and abandoned by the international community, it is all they have left.

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