The endless wait

Waiting to return home, the exiled Saharawi people keep refugeeing in the Algerian Sahara, where they survive thanks to international aids.

Life in the Saharawi refugee camps consists in waiting.  During the Moroccan occupation, which began with the Green March in 1975, many Saharawi had to exile from their land and look for asylum in the Algerian hamada, near Tindouf. Although it’s been 45 years, they have never stopped waiting; firstly they waited for the war to finish, later they wait for the UN to negotiate with both parts in order to solve the conflict and nowadays they are still waiting for the referendum that was promised before the  clash.

Over time, what began as an area with some jaimas (Saharawi tents) straightened in the middle of the Sahara of Algeria gave way to five villages with schools, hospitals, councils, supermarkets, shops, hairdressers, mechanics… These five refugee camps, known as wilayas, are called as big cities from Western Sahara, namely: El Aaiún, Auserd, Smara, Bojador y Dajla. Each wilaya is divided in minor administrative structures denominated dairas.

Dumaha, the mayoress from the daira of Tifariti, in the wilaya of Smara, tells us that although some refugees can afford to buy food and have the economic capacity to pay some services, most people survive thanks to international aid and the basic supplies guaranteed by the Algerian Government. Once a month, arrives a lorry loaded with food that is distributed equally among every family depending on the number of members of each one. Furthermore, another vehicle which frequents the refugee camps weekly is the tanker; whose water, extracted from supplying wells, fills the tanks of every daira, so the Saharawi people have access to it.

Apart from food and water, every couple has right to a butane gas cylinder every week. Every Wednesday morning, the women from Tifariti go dragging their empty gas cylinder to the spot where they can exchange it for a full one.  Instead, some people load several gas cylinders on a cart pulled by a donkey and distribute them among the different jaimas and adobe houses. Generally, the gas cylinders are used to make the fridge and the stove work. Nevertheless, in contrast with the most disadvantaged, who nowadays have electricity in their houses made of concrete, those refugees who only have a jaima and a set of tea use the butane to heat their small electric stove.   

The continuous poverty that characterizes the refugee camps isn’t just a consequence of the infertility of the Algerian hamada, but also of the limited quantity of jobs, most of which are held by people who got the chance to study abroad.

While many men enter in the army once they are overage, women’s employments use to be administrative jobs. Although Saharawi people are traditionally chauvinist, alike all Muslim societies, women gained the respect of the opposite genre when they alone built the refugee camps in the middle of nowhere, with scarce resources, in the height of the war and while taking care of the youngest. Saharawi women are proud of having built one of the best refugee camps all over the world and of being aware that their people would have never made it without them. Actually, mayoresses’ salaries are higher than some soldiers’ ones.

However, the commonest job is the teacher one. In spite of the scarce of means, the wilayas try to obtain the most of the education of the next generation. The Sahara curriculum is very similar to the Spanish one: six years of primary education followed by four years of secondary. Afterwards, they have two years of Muslim religion formation, when they deeply study the Quran, although it isn’t obligatory. Regarding professional training, the refugee camps have one single school which offers university degrees, the Simon Bolívar School, located in the wilaya of Smara. Since only the bests enter this school, exist other alternatives in Rabouni, the refugee camps’ administrative capital, and in Tindouf to course professional training and university degrees. Fortunately, taking in advantage that the refugee camps have educational programmes with Cuba and Spain, a lot of refugees try to study abroad; they must get a good level of Spanish, though.

 Although they have been living like this for the last 45 years and despite some of the youngest feel at home, most refugees long to get back to their land, to their true home. The fact of living thanks to the charity of the rest of the world isn’t a pleasant sensation. Moreover, in the refugee camps they cannot grow economically nor want to invest in their temporal houses because they have the hope of returning to the Western Sahara, where they will have to begin again, although this time in their home and for ever more. Therefore, when they are not studying nor working, they spend time, covered from the tropic sun, sleeping, playing domino or drinking tea.

The tea ceremony is an everyday, old and traditional Saharawi ritual. Every time they have tea, drink three glasses, prepared slightly differently.

The first one is bitter as life, the second one is sweet as love and the third one is soft as death.

However, the three glasses must be served with froth. So, while the tea is brewing, they move the infusion from one glass to another repeatedly until there is enough forth in every glass.

Most of the refugees have lost their trust towards the UN, but they still keep the hope that they will return to their land. What they don’t know is if they will get back thanks to a peaceful international agreement or through war.


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