/ 17 April 2007

War-torn Saharans reunited after 30-year wait

Divided for three decades by Africa’s longest territorial dispute, a Sahrawi family comes together in a drab courtyard and the women break into ecstatic singing, their bright robes shimmering in the Saharan sunlight.

Most are too young to remember the events of 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara and the indigenous Sahrawis took up arms in a guerrilla war of independence that split the barren territory and the families that inhabited it.

A United Nations exchange programme now allows some Sahrawis living in refugee camps deep in the desert to fly to the Moroccan zone for five-day family visits.

As the white UN vehicles drive away, the beating of goatskin drums heralds the start of a party that will last deep into the night. The older men sit apart on rugs in a sparse, cool room and sip mint tea.

”I am overjoyed to meet my family,” said Appa (41). ”But I was nine when we parted and I recognise none of their faces.”

Morocco says the families were split up by the Polisario independence movement, which it says kidnapped thousands of Sahrawis and spirited them away to camps set up across the border at Tindouf in Algeria.

Many Sahrawis deny that view of history. Fearing invasion, families able to leave the coast headed into the desert of their own free will to zones where they were best able to fight invading Moroccan troops, they say.

Some were unable to escape from Laayoune and other towns before the Moroccans arrived. Men who managed to get out joined the Polisario independence fighters and sent the women, children and old people to shelter in Tindouf.

A 16-year war ended in 1991 and hope grew that the territory would be reunited. The UN brokered a ceasefire and tried to organise a vote on self-determination, but it never happened.

No country recognises Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Morocco says independence is not possible because the Sahrawi people are scattered across four states: Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Morocco.

Dependence on foreign aid

”Morocco says the Sahrawis are imprisoned in Tindouf. So why does Morocco not bring them home and organise a referendum so they decide their own future?” said Sahrawi rights activist Tahar Tayeb.

Life on Tindouf’s barren plateau is unstintingly hard for a population dependent on foreign aid. Last year 50 000 of the refugees saw their homes washed away by floods and the World Food Programme made an urgent appeal for funds to help avoid malnutrition.

A few Sahrawis have been allowed to return home to towns like Laayoune where they say life is a little easier despite joblessness and poverty.

More than 3 000 have taken part in family visits since the UN programme began in 2004. Those yet to see their relatives put a brave face on it.

Sidi Mohammed Dedach (50) is a former Polisario fighter who spent a quarter of a century in Moroccan prisons. He lost three brothers in the war and his father died in Tindouf in 1987.

”We want only total, perfect independence, even if I must wait 50 years to see my family again,” said Dedach. – Reuters