The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could war come back to Western Sahara? Some of Algeria’s Sahrawi refugees think so.

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Tumana Ahmed is tired of dreaming of a homeland she has never seen.

The 28-year-old was born in the desolate desert of western Algeria, in a refugee camp that was supposed to be temporary. Only there has been nothing temporary about her situation, or that of about 150,000 of her current neighbors.

Ahmed’s family and thousands of others fled their homeland of Western Sahara, a territory bordering Algeria that is about the size of New Zealand, after Morocco annexed the territory in 1975. Nearly 40 years later, the families still have not returned.

Morocco and Western Sahara engaged in armed conflict until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire. As part of the deal, Morocco was supposed to conduct a referendum for Sahrawis to decide whether they wanted to be part of an independent nation or remain under Moroccan rule. But that referendum still hasn’t happened. Many Sahrawis worry that without a return to armed conflict, the referendum may never happen.

“For me, I think there is only two solutions,” Ahmed said. “We go to the borders, fight, make war, which is not the best solution. And the other solution, which is self-determination, this is the best one. Just let us vote. Is Morocco afraid of something?”

Leaders of the Sahrawi resistance movement who govern the camps encourage Sahrawi youths to be patient.

“We’re still believing in peace, and we’re still believing that United Nations is able to do something,” said M’hamed  Khadad, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) coordinator for the Polisario Front, the resistance movement. “But they are in need really to push this thing hard because you cannot really control the feeling and the sentiment of people." He noted that 60 percent of the people in the camp are youths, many of them born after the cease-fire.

MINURSO workers in Western Sahara spend their time monitoring the cease-fire. There have been efforts from time to time to hold a referendum, but the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front cannot agree on who should be considered eligible to vote. And some Sahrawis want to remain under Moroccan rule.

“It’s problematic,” said Hajbouha Zoubir, a Sahrawi who works for the Moroccan Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs.

After Morocco invaded Western Sahara, the kingdom offered thousands of Moroccans tax breaks to move into the territory. It’s thought that Moroccans now outnumber Sahrawis by at least 2 to 1 in Western Sahara, which has a population of about 500,000. And Morocco argues that Algerians have populated the Polisario-run refugee camps. Representatives of the Polisario — which is backed by Algeria — deny this.

Morocco also claims that Western Sahara, which is rich in fisheries and phosphate mines, was part of Morocco long before the Spanish ruled the territory from 1884 until 1975 and that Morocco thus has a right to the land. In fact, Berber tribes mostly populated the region before Spanish rule, at one point forming the Almoravid dynasty, whose rule included both Morocco and Western Sahara. The International Court of Justice ruled that indigenous Sahrawis have sovereignty over Western Sahara – not Morocco.

“Mainly it’s become part of the national ideology in Morocco that Western Sahara is part of the territory,” said Jacob Mundy, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University. “It’s viewed as being historically part of Morocco, and today the nation obviously benefits from the occupation in terms of certain mineral wealth and other sorts of things." For the current Moroccan government, he said, "one of the pillars of its legitimacy is the continued control over Western Sahara and the hope for the eventual legal annexation in the international community’s eyes.”

Most nations, including the United States, do not recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. But France — a member of the U.N. Security Council — has defended Morocco.

“Conflicts like this where the big boys are involved — the big boys being the permanent five members of the Security Council — can be incredibly difficult to resolve,” Mundy said. “So while there is overwhelming international consensus that Western Sahara is owed some act of self-determination … there’s no will from the Security Council to really push this conflict in any direction that would otherwise upset what is a real, kind of delicate balance of interest.”

This reality is something that Ahmed has come to understand, which is why she says a return to war may be the only way she’ll ever see her family's homeland.

Learn more about the conflict between Western Sahara and Morocco by watching this video.

This story was made possible with support from the International Women's Media Foundation.