What else can we do?
The Sahrawi nomads of Western Sahara were left without a country when Spain handed their homeland over to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. Three decades later, more than 100,000 Sahrawi still live in refugee camps, and with their plight gaining little international attention, some wonder whether a return to war is the only way to win back their land
Photographs by ANDREW MCCONNELL
Brahim Mohamed Fadin, 17, near Smara, one of four refugee camps that house Sahrawi people in western Algeria. The Sahrawi are the indigenous inhabitants of Western Sahara, a disputed northwest African territory about the size of Britain. Descended from Bedouin Arabs who arrived in the area during the 13th century, they have a distinct culture and Arabic language, and traditionally live a nomadic life, rearing sheep, goats and cattle. Western Sahara was colonised by Spain at the end of the 19th century. In 1975, Franco ceded control over the land, but rather than return it to the Sahrawi, he divided it between Morocco and Mauritania, in exchange for fishing and mining rights. The result was a 15-year war. Under guerrilla pressure from the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, Mauritania dropped its claim, and Morocco took over all but about 20–25 per cent of the country, which the Polisario now controls and calls the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Today, the Sahrawi population remains divided between the Moroccan-occupied territory, the Polisario-controlled area and the refugee camps, which remain almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. ‘I don’t like to be in the refugee camps. I know that the Algerians receive us and help us for many years, but I want to be free in my own country,’ says Fadin
22 www.geog raphical.co.uk January 2011