Africa: at the end of the Earth

Article published on March 1, 2007
Article published on March 1, 2007
On February 27 the Saharauis celebrate independence day. International aid makes survival possible

As darkness falls over the southern Algerian desert, the air becomes breathable again. Groups of people gather and sound of laughter and chatter fill the night. Even in areas which aren’t traditionally too inviting, such as the local hospital in the village of Rabuni, good spirits and feelings of familiarity are abound. The hospital is a small building near the office camps of various non-governmental organisations such as ‘Eyes of the World' (Ojos del Mundo), 'Pentalux', 'Engineers without Borders' (Trabajadores Téchnicos sin Fronteras) and 'Doctors without Borders' (Ärtzte ohne Grenzen). 30 miles away lies the next ‘Wilaya’ or administrative area shared with three other settlement groups.

Endless conflict

Around 200, 000 refugees from the Western Sahara currently find themselves in Algerian exile. The creation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of Sahara (RASD) in 1976, through the freedom fighters of the Polisario movement, plunged the area into chaos. An ongoing conflict with neighbouring Morocco has never been resolved, since the north African state controls a large part of the Sahrawian region and refuses to recognise its legitimacy as an independent state.

Indeed, the conflict engulfing the Western Saharan region is one of the longest-running territorial conflicts in Africa. Despite signing a ceasefire through the arbitration of the UN in 1991, no lasting solution is on the horizon. As a consequence, thousands of refugees live in camps surrounding the Algerian town on Tindouf, which also shelters the headquarters of the Sahrawi government in exile.

Survival of the refugees is impossible without UN intervention. The UN Office of the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are the chief coordinators of the international aid effort. Independent private donors and donor organisations are also actively involved in the area. A leading example can be found in the work of the Spanish and Catalan organisation 'Holidays in Peace' (Vacances en Pau, Vacaciones en Paz), which enables hundreds of children to stay with host families in Spain each summer.

Algeria, along with countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, are reaching out to RASD and its exiled government. As Morocco continues to control a large part of the Western Sahara and assert its authority over the territory, the population remains wholly dependent on external aid.

Everyday life in exile

In Rabuni's one small hospital, various medical teams undertake surgery under precarious circumstances. The majority of materials and medical supplies are brought with the medical delegations as they arrive from Europe, financed by donations each organisation has raised for the area. For example, Spain’s Organisation for International Cooperation (ATSF) has funded a project for the improvement of the humanitarian effort with public sources of support. Other groups actively working with Sahrawi refugees receive a large portion of their funds from private donors, such as the Catalan-based NGO 'Eyes of the World' (Ulls del Món), who received over 60% of their financial funding from independent sources in 2006.

The hospital's internal courtyard is probably its most interesting characteristic. Pitch darkness is an unknown phenomenon in the desert, and thus the faded light allows the patients to meet with their families in the open air. Intriguingly for a place of illness, the atmosphere is as comfortable as if they were in their own homes and inviting relatives over for tea. When a visitor calls out 'Fatimutu Muhammed' to a patient, all others go in search of him: it is a trait for even those spending just a single night in this place of treatment to get to know everyone else instantly, such is the inclusive nature of the centre. Rooms are used as a place of rest during they day only; the quality of the cool desert night air is a commodity of untold richness not to be neglected.

Long wait for help

Despite the simple pleasure of the hospital courtyard, the current situation in the camps has undoubtedly reached a critical phase – in October 2006, food ran out. Through a call issued through the Red Crescent aid organisation, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI) donated €1.5 million to the region. This was followed by €1 million from the European Commission for Humanitarian Affairs (ECHO) and €240, 000 from the Finnish government.

The responsibility for administering aid donations lies in the hands of the World Food Programme, who also co-ordinate the delivery of food aid and have thus spread the need for emergency intervention. On a different strategic tract, the Red Crescent organisation has begun lobbying the UNHCR into pressuring the international community to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. In response, UNHCR and WFP representatives visited the refugee camps and consequently confirmed the conditions could classify the area as a state of emergency. Simultaneously, in Spain various associations around the Friends of the People of West Sahara collected donations to shore up the shortfall in aid until the wider international community could send a large volume of aid to the area.

Non-caritative solidarity means strengthening the tools of the assisted society to develop its capacity to be autonomous. But who will fund the material to go on with the projects, and pay the professionals? The problem in the West Sahara isn't international solidarity, which is still not enough. The problem is that, after 30 years of exile, the people still have to live off the rich land and abundant seas full of fish, that the kingdom of Morocco takes advantage of.

Read on for our West Sahara photogallery