OPINION: The forgotten people of Africa, the Saharawi
As we celebrate Africa month and honour a continent that has nurtured us, we embrace the rich diversity, culture and heritage that we share as a people of Africa. It is our responsibility to know our continent and understand her people. Our calling is to strive to maintain a liberated, united and prosperous Africa. In my quest to achieve these objectives I have had the privilege of learning about a people, a land and a forgotten story of our very own continent.
Everyday life happens, we go about our daily routine, and then as if from nowhere a story finds you, you don't see it, you don't expect it, but it's there and it reshapes your perspective. A paradigm shift takes place and your view point is changed forever.
Six months ago I had no idea that a nation known as the Saharawi and a country called the Western Sahara even existed, no less than on our own continent, Africa. I had no idea that there were human atrocities happening in North West Africa that in South Africa we know nothing of, it is not spoken of, and knowledge of this is very difficult to acquire.
The Western Sahara; commonly referred to as the last frontier of Africa, has been under the illegal occupation of Morocco, in accordance to international law. In 1963 the Western Sahara was added to the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories and it was only in 1975 that the Western Sahara saw the departure of its coloniser Spain. The Spanish left and Madrid ceded control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries claimed sovereignty over the territory, triggering an armed conflict with the Polisario Front, the liberation movement which the UN considers the legitimate representation of the Saharawi people. This conflict marked the beginning of a refugee crisis that has become an ongoing and forgotten conflict. Africa can never, ever be free until those across our continent have their basic human rights, self determination and an opportunity to live freely.
Four decades have passed since the Saharawi refugee crisis began. Today these people are still living in exile, while their families are back home, in the occupied territory, those that stayed behind are subjected to inhumane conditions. Forty years on, how do a people keep hope alive? This is a subject that is tabled and included on the agenda of the UN Security Council each year as a result of the groundwork done by the African Union; yet generations later children are being born in a refugee camp, with no idea as to the world outside of the camps.
In 1975 the Saharawi were forced to flee their land and found refuge in south-west Algeria, with the expectation that one day they would return to their home. Traditionally a nomadic people, they have been forced to settle in an arid desert environment with no opportunity to be self-sufficient or productive. A camp set up in the midst of the desert, exposed to extreme heat that reaches 55°C, harsh sandstorms, constant drought and infrequent but hostile torrential rains.
These are a people that have been denied their home, their independence and their human rights. I know all of this now because I had the opportunity to visit, learn and engage with these forgotten people. I was invited by the Saharawi Women Organization to join them at a refugee camp just outside Tindouf in Algeria, in a camp called Smara.
There was much debate and discussion before my decision was made to embark on this journey. A journey that would take me to a far corner of the African continent and would see me live with refugees, in refugee conditions. For seven days I committed to living with the exiled Saharawi, an urban being in the desert, with no running water, no electricity, no arable land, no food, no basics. I would get to come home after my time in the camp, but the families there would not go home, and they would not have something different tomorrow, they live day to day. They survive only on the basket of dried goods that is air-dropped every month by the World Food Programme (WFP). These people do not get to go home: this is the only home that they now know.
When this story found me, I was faced by many questions. Where was this, place; what were the logistics involved; what were the security challenges; what were the health risks; and the ultimate question, "Could people on our continent be living without the right of self governance, and self determination?" I was challenged to step from the known into the unknown, so as to see, hear and know what truth lay behind this story. I was compelled to seek information and to create an awareness of the human rights issue of the #SaharawiPeople.
I stand in solidarity with a people who have fought for 40 years to be independent and have the right to self determination and decolonisation. I now ask the question, "Are the Saharawi a forgotten people of the world, or is it just easier to turn a blind eye to an illegal occupation?" The total population of the Saharawi is approximately one million people. The Western Sahara is a land rich in mineral resources, oil, gold, the world's largest deposits of phosphates and a rich fishing coastline to name but a few of the natural resources. These resources should be the right of the Saharawi people, this should be what they could have built their economy on, and yet they cannot go home and they live a meagre existence in a refugee camp.
It was 23h30, I had been travelling for 18 hours; the last flight had been by military plane into an army base two hours away from the refugee camps. No business class, no luggage conveyor, a cold, war-like structure. A seasoned traveller, this was somewhat different; I was used to gliding through snow white clouds and blue skies. The military aircraft ploughed through the sky, with much noise and movement, there was a feeling of displacement in the air, my journey was happening. On arrival at the camps the darkness was intriguing. It was as if a thick blanket concealed the story I would uncover in the days ahead. My eyes began to adjust. I could see these little tents peering through, dwellings scattered across a vastness of nothing, this was the desert. No markings or indication as to where we were, or where we were going.
Some of the tents and small structures had a gentle shine which I was told was the only light source which was emitted from a solar powered battery, candle light or a rechargeable lamp. The shadow of light carried an ambiance of hope and comfort. Bumedian, my new friend and expert desert driver, explained to me, "It is easier to drive at night as your bearings lie in the stars and constellations." I was mesmerised by the light of the moon and the soft glow that fell across the camp that allowed me a glimpse of what I would see when day arrived.
The warm embrace of Shabba and Miriam, two sisters from the family that I stayed with, was overwhelming and emotional. Language was a huge barrier, as no English is spoken by the majority of Saharawi people, who all speak a dialect of Arabic, and a small group also speak French. We made our way into the family tent, where we were asked to leave our shoes outside. Mutha, an English student and the protocol officer, stayed with me.
As day broke, the tender sound of the muazzin was heard across the camp, and the women of the family I stayed with started their first prayers for the day. Breakfast was a humble helping of dry bread, jam and milk coffee. There is no running water, long-life milk is all that is available, and it is considered a luxury for those who do have it. I quickly learnt that water is very scarce and used for washing before prayers and refreshing rinses at the hottest times of the day. The basic routine of bathing in the morning, washing your teeth and other 'daily rituals' were somewhat of a luxury. This family had no toiletry bag filled with the items we take for granted; toothpaste and toothbrushes were not available.
I stepped out of the family tent, and was struck by the bright light and the vast naked desert. As far as my eyes could see, in every direction, tiny dwellings and tents covered the landscape. I paused to get my bearings, as reality and shock started to become reality. Slowly the gentle laughter of children filled the crisp morning air and started to permeate the harsh reality that I could see around me. These children do not know anything other than this camp; they are playful, happy and content. The desert sand is their playground; nothing grows here, not a shrub, not a blade of grass and not a tree to be found; there is no vegetation of any kind. I quickly realised that there is no oasis in this desert.
A 'lilo' like plastic is placed alongside each tent which is filled with rationed water for each family; the water truck comes every few weeks. My family was insistent that I use as much water as I needed, but I humbly acknowledged that I would get to go home and I would leave these beautiful people here in the Sahara, still with no running water or electricity.
As I lay my head on the floor that night, I closed my eyes and I knew that tomorrow would never be the same, I would never be the same; I was a different person... I thought that poverty was what we had to fight, but this surpassed poverty, here there was nothing. I knew that I could not mistake the soft light, the amazing heavens, the smiles the children shared, their willingness to share love with me; but did not mean that all was well. These are people that, 40 years on, still have a packed bag in their tent, so that when they are called they will be ready to go home.
I ask that people support my call; support their call, to bring about international action, in order to bring about the change that the Saharawi people have been waiting for; they must be given their rights as a people.
A refugee camp is a place of loneliness and nothingness, yet one could easily be mistaken that the bright and colourful material worn by the women of the Western Sahara is what brings light and colour to this bare landscape. However, you would be sorely mistaken as the light in the camp comes from the power of the human spirit within these people. These people are proof that even under such harsh conditions, despite a lack of human rights and a call for action for them to return home, I could feel that #HopeLivesHere.
We need to stand against the existence of such a situation; we need to demand the right of self determination, self governance and human rights for all people. It saddens me to my very fibre that people must wait for a monthly food basket composed of nine dry commodities; that never changes, there is no variation, it always remains the same, and it is all that there is.
There is a will power, a strength of mind and a community built by the determination and strength of women who play the most crucial role in pushing this movement forward. The human spirit lives, it lives in these camps, in those tents and in the heart of all who pass through that place.
Catherine Constantinides is Lead SA executive, director of Miss Earth South Africa and an international climate activist and humanitarian. Constantinides is also an Archbishop Tutu African Oxford Fellow and serves as a social cohesion advocate for the Department of Arts and Culture. Follower her on Twitter: @ChangeAgentSA