Western Sahara: living the war 2,000 kilometers from your home

On October 21, fifty Sahrawis cut off the Guerguerat pass, connection point and the main access road to Mauritania, in protest against the failure to hold the referendum on self-determination agreed between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front that was to be supervised by the UN after the signing of the ceasefire in 1991.

It is a key passage through which dozens of trucks with goods cross daily. The dispatch of troops to regain control of this area by Morocco was considered by the Polisario as a break with those agreements and a return to war.

Concerned about the restart of the conflict between the Polisario and Morocco, Sahrawis living in Spain talk about how they live these days from a distance.

“I arrived in 2011 with a program for Sahrawis who fight for human rights in the occupied zone. Shortly after, a Moroccan military court executed a search and arrest warrant, so I had to stay and live here “. Since then, Hassana Aalia, 32, has lived as a refugee in Hernani, in the Basque Country. As you walk through your host town, several neighbors greet you as you pass.

In November 2010, Aalia participated in Gdeim Izik, a camp that brought together thousands of Sahrawis outside El Aaiún, asking for work and social assistance. It was forcibly dismantled days later, leading to several deaths in a clash between protesters and Moroccan police. About twenty of his companions were imprisoned for sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment. “Since then I have not been able to see my family, who continue to live there. It’s hard and painful to watch the years go by. I have lost family members whom I have not been able to fire, ”Aalia says in pain.

“There is an information blockade by Morocco and foreign journalists are expelled. Now the situation is more complicated if possible. In recent days there have been demonstrations and the police have gone directly to the home of Sahrawis to arrest them. I know quite a few people who don’t sleep at home just in case. It’s hard not being there these days. It is complicated to manage. Since the war broke out, we barely slept waiting for news ”, laments Aalia.

Since the ceasefire was broken, he has not stopped receiving calls and shows of support. “We have been fighting peacefully for 29 years. My friends here tell me that we have endured many years waiting for the referendum, ”he says bitterly.

Separated by a 2,700-kilometer wall built by Morocco during the war, Western Sahara is divided into two zones: Morocco has control of 80% of the territory, while the other 20% is under the control of the Polisario.

“I came for the first time in 2003, with the Vacations in Peace program”. The speaker is Brahim Mahfud, who came as one of the thousands of Sahrawi children who come to Spain during the summer months to alleviate life in the hamada, as the desert area where 200,000 people live in camps is known. refugees close to the Algerian city of Tindouf for 45 years.

“I had very bad migraines that I had to treat in a hospital here and I stayed to live. I was living with my host family until 2013, to return to the camps. After a few months I decided to go back again. I have returned to the nomadic life of my ancestors, “he says, smiling. “Now I live in Tolosa, in the Basque Country and I work in a store.”

“In refugee camps young people have no future prospects. Many study abroad, even finish university, but when they return they cannot practice what they have studied. We can’t go on like this. We live in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet ”, he points out. In the hamada. temperatures can reach 50ºC in summer.

“These days many feelings are stirred, it is difficult to explain. My friends in the camps are experiencing a situation of euphoria right now and everyone is getting ready to go to the front. And while I say what am I doing here? Although it is difficult to understand, young people see the war with hope so that even if it is not us, the next generations will be the ones who can live in their land ”, explains Brahim.

“My friends here tell me that we are crazy going to war, that Morocco has more weapons, more soldiers. But we have a common goal. We have grown up with conflict, separated by the wall of shame. In every house there are war wounded or tortured … I do not ask you to understand ”.

Fatimetu Zenan has been living in the Basque Country since she was 5 years old. He lives with his family in Ikaztegieta, a small town in the interior of Guipuzcoa. “I was born in the refugee camps. I am from Western Sahara, although I have never been to my country ”. At 21, she is finishing her degree in Nursing. “As much as my life has been abroad, I have a very strong bond with my family in the camps. And where is your family, is your home. I will always return to my origins, together with my people ”, she affirms with conviction.

“This last week have been very intense days. Feelings of sadness, nostalgia, wanting to return, do something … Everything that is happening influences my day to day, in my studies. I am very distracted because my mind does not stop thinking about my family. A week ago when I was leaving the Hospital practices, my sister called me to let me know what had happened. It was hard for me to assimilate everything that had happened. Once I took a breath, I said to myself: What can be done? And I spoke with other Sahrawis to begin to give an answer. I am very hopeful that things will change, I am not going to allow all this to take a step back. We are going to give everything to recover what has been taken from us, ”she says emotionally, while holding back tears.

“Many of my friends here don’t know what to say. It is difficult for a person who has not lived under repression or in exile to understand the return to war. I can’t judge them, they haven’t lived like us and they don’t have that feeling. My friends support me in everything. No one is a supporter of war, least of all a people who have already gone through that, ”says Zenan.

“I know first-hand the situation in the camps, I was born there. But every time I go back, it’s a reality check. I always say to myself: Fati, don’t ever forget this. It’s angry to see that everything remains the same. It gets very hard. What peace is this in which we have been living for 45 years in refugee camps? “