Memories of Western Sahara

This work seeks to record the oral history of more than five Saharawi women from the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, southern Algeria: Dajna, Aza, Asisa, Dmaha and Fatimatu. These women tell the stories of their ancestral homeland and of their displacement in 1975. I went to the Saharawi refugee camps in December 2010 and spoke with the women who shared the stories of their displacement and lives both in Western Sahara and in  exile. I have since been back to interview more women, who remember events similar to those faced by these women documented in this work. Through what I have written here, I have attempted to compile the history they shared collectively.

By Nina Nedrebo

I came across the plight of the Saharawis in 2008 when I interviewed a friend for an article I was writing in my journalism class as a student at Mount Holyoke College, knowing then only fragments of her history. She had been born in the refugee camps, and had learned of her collective struggle through her grandmother. Only then did I discover how much this history means to her and to the Saharawi people who have been voiceless to the international community. Since then I have wondered how it is that Morocco has violated international decrees by perpetrating crimes against the people whose land it was, and questioned how Saharawis survive the conditions and struggle of all these years. I have wondered how they cope collectively with the harrowing memories of their being expelled from their country, seeking all the while to understand too why Morocco imprisons and causes the disappearances of those Saharawis who voice their dignity and rights. In organizing a series of lectures on the conflict at Mount Holyoke, we learned that Morocco's trade of the phosphates and other natural resources which lie beneath Western Sahara provide funding for the occupation of the country.

The stories of the women, who as refugees left their homeland over three and a half decades ago, attest to the longstanding plight of Saharawis, from the invasion and their journey across the Algerian desert to the present-day life in the refugee camps and military control of their country. Since Saharawis have struggled for their voices to be heard, those in the refugee camps see it as vital to pass on their stories to children and grandchildren. They know that with the passing of time there is more need to keep safe the history they share. With a displacement that continues after four decades, the Saharawis' utterances and remembrances of their lost homeland are also their hope of its return.

If this history has an overt lesson and purpose that transcends the Saharawi history in particular, it is to stress global citizenship which crosses beyond the boundaries of national ideology. The voices of the plight of the many refugees who experience war are not frequently shared in media. Saharawis tell a story of their former lives in the Western Sahara that is emblematic of the plight of the many who have experienced displacement.

II. Context

The occupation

In 1975, the Spanish colonial government officially handed their protectorate of Western Sahara over to Morocco and Mauritania. In the double-invasion, Morocco and Mauritania entered the country of Western Sahara from the north and south. At this time, the Moroccan king Hassan II brought in over 350,000 Moroccan civilians in his "Green March." Over half the population of Saharawis saw themselves forced to flee. Their odyssey involved them in strafing and bombing as they moved eastward, followed by Moroccan airplanes. Saharawis walked at night to avoid being seen, and in the daytime they hid behind rocks and trees. As they made their way across the desert, they suffered dehydration and disorientation. When these refugees arrived at Tindouf, they then had to work to set up tents and schools and secure themselves for what would become decades of life in the Sahara desert. After the Western Sahara was occupied, Mauritania pulled out of the war and Morocco remained as its colonial power, building a wall at the border of Western Sahara and Algeria to keep out the refugees.

Life in the refugee camps

Many Saharawis, when they first resettled in the refugee camps, taught about their shared history to keep the knowledge of what they had left behind from dying. Now, several decades later, Saharawis are relying on humanitarian assistance, with few means for gainful employment. Today, heat in the refugee camps can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, and children are consequently sent to live with families in Spain when the weather during the summer is at its most intense. In milder seasons, children learn to keep themselves busy, by for example playing outside in the desert sands with camel bones or footballs wrapped together out of cloth. Days are spent resting inside tents to pass time, and as Saharawis wait, they make tea or camel meat, or watch the children as they play their games or engage in their delights. Of crucial importance to these refugees is their link with their ancestral homeland. Their only conscious connection with their former state and social order is the telling and retelling of stories to their children and grandchildren. The tradition of passing on their history keeps alive the memory of a country they hope one day to return to.

The status quo

Morocco has violated international law, the United Nations Charter, and several opinions of the International Court of Justice by removing the Saharawi people from their land, perpetrating human rights abuses, and extracting the resources of Western Sahara to trade with international companies. In Western Sahara, Saharawis are denied expression by Moroccan authorities, in particular when they speak to international journalists or human rights reporters. Saharawis face torture and imprisonment when they voice their need for rights, for example during demonstrations in the capital of El-Aayoun. The estimated number of refugees falls between 165,000-200,000 living in Tindouf. Western Sahara's diaspora remains separated from those they left behind in their country. The refugees and those Saharawis displaced in other areas are prevented from reentering to settle in their country by Moroccan authorities. Morocco insists Saharawis accept the Moroccan autonomy plan, under which they are granted Moroccan citizenship and assimilation.

Resolutions have been passed by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), allowing family visits between Western Sahara and the refugee camps. Yet, Saharawi refugees are unable to return to the country to see their families, and Saharawis within Western Sahara are also frequently not granted planned visits to Algeria for visits with relatives because they are prevented by police authorities.

Health conditions

As part of the aftermath of displacement, many Saharawis in the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, are living in conditions of deteriorating health and malnutrition. Saharawi refugees are entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid which enable them access to food and water, and meet other basic needs. Any reduction of the food and water supplied is a threat to their livelihood. Many are affected when international organizations lessen food and water supplies brought to the refugees. In 2008, food and water supplies were reduced to meet the nutritional needs of 125,000, which became the official number of Saharawi refugees as estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), contrasting the earlier policy when an estimated 165,000 were receiving assistance. In an interview with Yahia Buhobeini, president of Red Crescent which operates in the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, the reduction of aid was the result of Moroccan lobbying for a smaller statistic of official numbers of Saharawis. One Saharawi refugee explains this took the form of her family receiving one can of lentil beans less per day instead of two, as well as nearly half as many gallons of water per month. Endemic goitre has also been document among the Saharawi refugee community.

Saharawi memories carried in their hearts and minds shed light upon their plight and the police repression currently occurring in their homeland, but they also show a longing to be reunited with their lost world.

III. The stories

Moving according to the seasons

Aza, one woman refugee with a bright smile and a beaming hope, offers insight and an introduction into these ways of organization and tasks, and how they brought vivid color to nomadic life. First describing the Saharawi people collecting wood, which was often done in groups, she goes on to paint a palette of the work that was done either gathering water or moving from one place to another when it rained: "We put water in what we call glba, or storage bowls, and brought the water back to our tents. If it was a good season for rain, we moved, but we would not move far. We might have stayed two or three months in one place, and then we moved again, but not a long distance. Yet, if we were in a dry season, we could move very far." As a nomadic society, Saharawis relied on rain for longer periods of time, remaining in their homes until there was no longer rainfall. The desert frequently called the nomadic Saharawis further into its depths to once again establish their houses. A place was only found after first searching the stars of the sky for direction, and this they would once again call their new home. In working to ensure their sustenance, Saharawis would search repeatedly for verdant grounds. Continuing the journey through this painting of endless desert background, we meet a society coming together ever so quietly, and ever calmly.

Aza draws an image of the social organization of Saharawis, saying, "The Saharawi people were organized into tribes, and in each tribe they had a representative." She describes life in the nomadic world by speaking of the tribal organization. Saharawis were rewarded for their time searching for other places to live by then again resettling as groups which brought the formation of new structures. Moving from place to place allowed them to decide among themselves on issues of work and celebration through their representatives and common consent. Gathering first in one place and then another was as though miniature Saharawi cities emerged temporarily in one desert patch and then the next. Saharawi nomadic groups were as wells of water surfacing and being replicated by their each move and journey as a people. They could with these concordant movements begin defining their belonging to their tribal ancestry, which would soon become a more largely shared identity, collectively that of the Saharawi bedu, or Bedouins.

Saharawis moved around the desert according to their call and learned the constellations as nomadic peoples. They read the sky while they journeyed deeply into the desert to find new areas where they could rest and find peace for themselves and their animals. Saharawis took with them everything they had in these movements they made in groups, helping one another with sewing the tents and setting them up again. The tents became sanctuaries for them in the midst of desert sands and also, as many Saharawis recall, the rivers, valleys and mountains, that also were a part of their ancestral homeland. Like shrines, these tents provide the space for Saharawis to return to their past and marvel at the mysteries of the lands they once delighted in.

The tea ceremony

Saharawis were initially nomadic people, and have lived peacefully in areas of the Maghreb and the Sahara desert since as far back as they can remember. They were for as long as they can recall socially organized, though they followed the stars for their guidance. Protection of one another within the society was an important element that gave trust and a feeling of a shared destiny. Traditions they shared are passed down over the decades and from grandparents to younger adults and children. What is left resplendent of their former lives today gives a shadow to the world that once was. Living in refugee camps, they engage in the tea ceremony for discussion and gatherings whenever possible, revealing something of the past. In this tradition, Saharawis found a celebratory time for reflecting upon past events and preparing for future ones. Discussions during the ceremony allowed Sahawis to decide together what the day's activities would be. As such, it was crucial to daily customs that were held in common among each and every Saharawi person. The completion of tasks was expected of men and women, as well as of children. Saharawis learned from early on the ways of contributing socially in ways that gave recognition to and produced gratitude from elderly members of society.

Bedouin identity set Saharawis apart from the Spanish colonial government. Saharawi traditions such as tea allowed Saharawis to speak freely while they were under observation by colonial powers. They needed to ensure the continued expression of their Saharawi identity while their country was held as a Spanish protectorate. Moreover, the development of Saharawi identity did not come into being in the cities where Spain began importing flour and other food articles, creating a commercial setting for trade, but began in the landscapes and sandy desert, as Aza has mentioned, and as these displaced persons show in their memories of their homeland.

The tea ceremony formed a resonating part in transmitting cultural understanding and history among the Saharawi people. Dmaha laughs with a soft chuckle, covering her smile when it breaks through as she remembers her past. She talks of the tea ceremony, when "a lot of people gather together, and issues were discussed." It could be some tasks needed to be accomplished, so the tea ceremony would serve as a meeting place in deciding when and how to sew a tent. She adds to her rendering of the ceremony, "As women we discussed sewing tents, or we gathered together to name a new baby." One can imagine the joys in gathering around to discuss work that they did not need to feel one carried on one's back alone. Work was held in common and the society productively shared in it together. Meeting in groups of women to discuss work eased the burden and removed the yoke of work, and made one feel as though one shared in the tasks of society.

Dmaha's memories of the tea ceremony are also telling of the ways in which Saharawis organized themselves socially. Saharawis shared a love of their society and their cooperation within it. They were intrigued by the prospects of working together in groups. The tea ceremony exemplifies profound togetherness and unity of a society in need of salvaging their freedoms under the colonial government of Spain. During the ceremony, they could speak and convey information to one another. It allows them to speak openly of issues related to their collective identity, and patches together aspects of life. It made real the various needs of a more unified community in promoting the circulation of dialogue. Coming together in this joint dialogue gave possibility to Saharawis for organization and attachment to one another, and for coping collectively with the strains on their identity during the colonial time. It gave Saharawis a sense of existing in harmony with one another and not in obedience to a foreign government. They could discuss both their private and public lives without being accused of conspiring against the Spanish government.

As Dmaha has mentioned, the tea ceremony might involve addressing the women's tasks as she remembers them, such as issues of sewing tents or naming a baby, or it may serve as a forum for issues concerning more broadly the society. There could have been a marriage that required planning, which in the Saharawi refugee camps even today will spark widespread attention. News of a wedding, according to a young Saharawi woman, can very quickly reach a large part of the society through rumors.

With the tea ceremony comes the assurance that shared life is cherished due to the hope and guidance of another's presence. It is important that the Saharawis feel experiences are not needed to be kept to oneself. Plans to take care of one another can be met together. An image of identity that is shared among Saharawis is formed in these descriptions, not among the few but among them as a society. Rich with tradition and storytelling, Saharawi society therefore has a very special place for the ritual of serving tea. From their hearts they bring forth the many elements of their culture and find relief in the social expression of the challenging events of the day. It is a time when people can come together and talk very openly on themes related to the past. There may be news, local issues, and most especially, their history, that are ready to be unraveled and talked of.

Many elements would also go into making tea. Embarka, as she is speaking of the tea ceremony, leaves for a moment to collect her perfumes and brings them gently back to us to pass around the glass bottles and share the smells. The smells of the perfumes blend with the smoky wafts of her tea-making as she, with a deep sense of calm in her voice, says that what is needed for the tea is "charcoal, people, and time. In a traditional Saharawi custom, these are the three aspects of tea." Charcoal, people, and time, were foundational elements upon which Saharawis based their ceremony, in which often an elder man or woman prepared the tea where family and guests were assembled for its enjoyment and restorative properties. Zorgan, my translator, chimed in at some points to reaffirm and elaborate upon the stories of the refugees as a Saharawi refugee himself. He adds to Embarka's words that "After the modern saying, it's sweet, strong, and soft." He stresses that the old saying of charcoal, people, and time, is unlike the modern saying, and that the old saying is the original way of describing what constitutes the ceremony.

The tea taste alternates between sweet, strong, and soft and may reflect life stages particular to the Saharawi consciousness. The three elements of tea have become symbolic to Saharawis of the three elements they associate with life; sugary sweetness, like love, the bitter taste, like the bitterness of life, and the softness which emphasizes death and the passing away of someone, if not also the memory of that person's presence.

The three elements of tea can also, for Saharawis, reflect the three stages through which they organize their ancestral history, from the time when they lived nomadically to the time when the colonial government was present in El-Aayoun, and to the present time, when the society is dying. Time and again there is need to bring to life and share in the dialogue of history. The sharing of tea as a daily ritual is itself concrete expression of their past, and the traditions that are derived from it. Saharawis do not want to forget their history, and so daily let it live on through social gatherings, as a people whose land still is dear to them. They see the life in the refugee camps not as a settlement meant to last but an intermediary period from which they hope they will be released. Going back to that world they once knew, restating and reimagining how they remembered it them, brings back this world to them. The tea ceremony and the social gatherings among them provide a forum for bringing this world into being.

As Asisa, a woman with a multiplicity of stories to share, laughingly claps her hands together in telling comic situations that accompany many of the stories. She says, "Tea is considered everything. Saharawis can sit, relax, talk, transmit history, tradition, and changing events. It's the "key" to the idea of exchanging experiences. Concerns they discussed were normally current events, or whether they would like the men to travel a long distance to bring food. They crossed the frontiers to Mauritania, to Morocco, or to other places to do this, before the colonialism of Spain. Also, women who wanted to sew a tent or set up a tent, they were concerned about inviting neighbors or relatives to do this." Fatimatu, a woman with a deep look in her eyes, sometimes appearing struck by sadness as she refers to certain events in Saharawi history, further explains that "the ceremony of tea was a very important moment to transmit history, religion, to find a person who can teach children about history for Saharawi people. They talked about the rain, about places they could search for animals, and who was going to win traditional plays for youth. Games, marriage, social problems or issues were topics," she says.

With the forum of reflecting upon history comes also recollection of the time before when they too were under foreign rule. Yet, Saharawis do not see previous occupations as having any power over them. They remember that Saharawi culture is theirs only, shared among them without the need of interference from colonial power or might. Clearly Saharawis remember the many topics they shared as they discussed issues important to them during tea. They consider tea to be an expression of their indissolubility as a people, despite colonial efforts to bring them under dominion. There is an element of continuity in that for Saharawis, who believe their lands can never be taken away from them.

The period of Spanish colonialism

One hears little of the effects of the Spanish colonial presence within Western Sahara because most of the attention goes to explaining the human rights abuses occurring within Western Sahara today under Moroccan rule. However, for Saharawis living in the cities at the time when Western Sahara was a Spanish protectorate, it was probably a time also of oppression and with continuous attempts at silencing the people. The colonial ideology was perhaps deeply marked in the Spanish colonizers' imaginations, causing them to think they saw a need for Saharawis to be kept under restraint. It is interesting that the period of colonialism is referred to as "the period of secrets." As the growth of significance in sharing tea illustrates, as well as of sharing "secrets," Saharawis under the Spanish colonial period were affected by the foreign control of their country from far back. The Spanish government had claimed the country as a protectorate as far back as 1884, and so for a long time Saharawis were living under conditions of secrecy and restraint. Though nomadically they shared a history that would continue to reaffirm their collective identity, they faced struggle even before the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies invaded the country.

Aza explains that the tradition of tea had a secrecy embedded in it, especially during the time of the Spanish colonialism in the cities. When information was being shared that needed to be hidden from the Spanish colonial government, they spoke of these issues during the tea ceremony as a way of keeping them safe amongst themselves. Aza says, "In Saharawi society or for Saharawi people, tea indicates everything. It means hospitality, it means meeting, it means transmitting the history, it means social issues. There are many, many, many aspects to tea. Sometimes we liked to hide ourselves when there was a meeting. We made tea, because if we received someone from outside, this allowed us to keep information disclosed in the period of secrets, during this time of colonialism. If we had a meeting, and important things to say, and exchanged with other Saharawis, we wouldn't want others to know." The privacy of the tea ceremony allowed Saharawis to speak freely during the imposition of colonial authorities, which also says something about today's situation and the freedom they still feel in sharing tea even though they feel safe in the refugee camps.

Tea, Aza emphasizes, has become the key to sharing the history Saharawis claimed as theirs. "So we had tea around us, and when the enemy or colonial authority stepped through the door, they wouldn't regard it as different. For them it was just people making tea. We used to make tea for many purposes, talking and transmitting the fresh news, transmitting the history and the culture. Tea is everything, it is everything and it is the key for everything. So Saharawis, they feel comfortable when they have tea." As the tea ceremony shows, secrets were unlocked and shared during Saharawi gatherings of tea, and tea was a key to the endless treasures and verities Saharawis shared. Information that was shared claimed a place of sanctity as the Saharawis sought to retain their independence and shared consciousness as a people during a time of colonial government. The memories of Saharawis discussed during tea served as a way of rekindling hope.

Women in the society

Every Saharawi woman interviewed had something special to say of women's positions in the society, and to them the place of women in the refugee society was undoubtedly an important point of discussion. From the lives they lived in the household to the work they did in groups, taking into consideration also their trades and skills at handicraft, Saharawi women show the qualities they displayed within their communities in a time when they were nomadic bedu. At a time when they crossed long distances with all their articles and belongings, the Saharawi women took care tasks within the tent. The practice gave her authority. It may have also aided her in developing ideas of the community's needs and of the many aspects she could contribute to within it.

The society was earlier set in an order of organized family household units, which gave the woman a space where she could work and give expression to her abilities. The Saharawi woman emerges as an example of the responsibility for children and keeping alive shared education as it is passed down. Dajna, her upright posture emitting dignity, though with certain sadness in her eyes, brings up more aspects of the Saharawi society by emphasizing the woman's dignified position in nomadic times. She describes how the personal characteristics of the woman mattered, and says, "The place or seat of Saharawi women was respectable, and the respect comes from her personality. When she marries, a woman can choose to stay with her family or join the family-in-law. The original family buys gifts for the wedding, two or three camels to sit on, to honor her, make her a 'useful' person, not just a person seeking for people to help her. They like to show that their girls are very strong girls who don't have needs or are weak in the vision of others." As a person of the community the woman also reflects honor. Dajna emphasizes too that the beauty of a woman came from, and comes from, what she had inside, and that only the strength of her personality gave her the glow for which she was admired.

A wedding in the Saharawi culture has long been an event of great significance. It requires planning plenty of months in advance, and for this planning are included large segments of the family's relatives and friends. During the planning it is decided when the woman will move to her husband's family, what gifts she is to be given, as well as when and how the wedding will take place. The bride's family, and the women in particular, are to wear colorful garb full of ornaments and jewelry for the wedding to make them glow. The family will be at the matrimonial gathering in celebration of the bride and recognition of the husband, and emanate the dignity of those who stand behind and provide for the bride and husband. It is a ceremony of enormous value and great fun to the community. A bride's family's tent can literally be so filled with presents in the weeks and days leading up to the wedding that they need to give much of it away.

And no wonder the bride is so celebrated, for the woman is often a person of celebration in the Saharawi culture. Dajna talks of the three stages of history Saharawi women passed through. They were the nomadic, colonial and exile, and Dajna here notes the particular significance of the nomadic period for the formation of the Saharawi collective identity, setting a background for the woman's significance in the society: "the first stage is the nomadic period of time, where women played an important support role in the places they lived. People moved depending on the rain, and it was a difficult life, where they were relying on the animals for what they needed." Saharawis were attuned to the special needs of the people as they moved, and so within this context women were substantially present in meeting those needs within the home. Dajna also draws special attention to the role female nomads played in education: "Women were responsible for educating children. The men were away from the family searching for places good for the animals." With the role women played for educating children while the husbands were away searching for animals, they gave way to younger people of the knowledge for handling nomadic life, and also they equipped Saharawis with insight to tell history to younger Saharawis. It required the sense of continuity and belief in the integrity of the information she had received by the telling and retelling of her ancestors. One may imagine that this position she had in passing down the historical tradition moreover enabled Saharawis to cope with the obstacles of the Spanish colonial government.

Aza, also focusing on the individual and collective lives of the women, says, "the family relied on the ladies, and women share a heavy duty inside the Saharawi family, and in terms of setting up tents. There were many details and many stages. We needed bowls for sugar or flour or to store food. As thiza, we made this effort." In explaining the collective effort, Aza affirms the thiza as what made the making of tents and distribution of food articles possible. And Embarka says, "women worked inside the house, and so played an important role with the children. The nomadic life was different from that of the city. She had work inside the tent, collecting wood, looking after the animals." With these tasks she held related to the duties for the family, she was also given a distinct place for the transmission of traditions held among the people. As groups, Saharawi women would work together for the good of the community. For the safety of the community and for the distribution of resources such as food articles and for the making of tents, therefore, concerted efforts were needed.

Dmaha alludes to the division of work in mentioning that girls learned how to sew tents, and boys would learn how to prepare animals to travel distances. Girls collected wood, women sewed tents, brought milk together, and made butter, and men took care of animals. Dajna says that "the mother took responsibility at home if the father was away. Sons took the way of the father, and girls helped mother cut wood, doing the tea, or sewing the tent. This was special for women in the old day." Girls learned from an early age the work of contribution in a society, and handicraft work was special for her and the elderly female members of Saharawi society she learned from. Work, as Dajna mentions, for the girls revolved around the specific tasks of cutting wood, making tea, sewing tents or clothing. Meanwhile, boys were early on learning of the contributions to be made in searching for new places to live that were good for the animals, along with the father.

These divisions of tasks illuminate the various ways in which Saharawis could make themselves heard and show their work to other members of the society. They promoted creativity in society and served Saharawis in becoming a way of educating the young. As we see, tasks were mainly divided between men and women; boys could follow the father in learning his path as a Saharawi and girls could help the mother and so become educated in her mother's work and trade. Children's chores were often the same as those of the father and mother, and they learned early on how they would be contributing to the work in the society. But children had the additional freedom and ability to express themselves in making dolls and playing games. In the refugee camps children were often outside climbing on the UNHCR water tanks in torn-up and rugged clothes. However, Saharawis had toys for playing with, made out of traditional cloth and materials Saharawis use for making tents and other handicraft, giving a resemblance of Saharawis' past of resorting to nature for producing things inspiring happy delights. They were in addition to this very fond of staying alongside their grandmother as she made tea for the whole family. The refugees interviewed, all of them ladies, remember from when they were children that they would emulate the women's roles in the society through dolls. It is clear the children look up to the adults and grandparents as they grow and begin expressing themselves in their own activities.

Fatimatu strengthens this view of the work women did within the community, as she herself remembers how their chores done in groups or even anticipations of married life were refigured in children's play. She says "We liked to design small tents and put a bride in it, or children in it. They were really only toys, but they looked like they might have been brides, or very nice dolls. The ladies also designed tents, small ones, and compared them." Fatimatu smiles often as she describes the lively plays of children and perhaps fondly rekindles her own memories of a young age in the descriptions she makes. She adds her own personal memory of helping her mother and of the tasks they worked on together, stating, "I helped my mother in the kitchen, prepared food, sewed and did handicraft work such as making gloves, jumpers, handkerchiefs, pants, or jackets; made from wool. During the period of Spain the material came from the shops. I worked for a long time in handicrafts and still in many ways I am continuing this work." In the refugee camps there were many examples of carpets of lovely embroidery, of knitted purses and shoes crafted with great care. Such work as Fatimatu remembers learning from her mother likely hearkens to early Saharawi history, when they moved according to the demands of the weather and possibility, and sewed their tents and articles together when needed, or if rent.

Fatimatu says that Saharawi women didn't live lives that were wholly different from those of men. "As a woman, as a Saharawi woman, it's no different. This life [now] is basically the same as the past. We live in a nomadic society, therefore we are relying on nature, and we relied upon everything naturally. The position of the women is a very strong position inside the society, and it's no different from the role the man played inside the society. She works very hard inside the family, inside the society. She tried to educate the kids, and she tried also to do the difficult work of helping the men for issues or for their jobs. Also we're aware of the importance of women inside the family. It's a very important role in the family." Women took care of the younger children, yet with the help of their husband. On cooperation between the two depended the raising of children for their future lives as nomadic Saharawis, reminding once again of the coordination of tasks that existed between women, men, and children. Fatimatu in her descriptions allows a more deeply woven history of women and men relying on their hands and personal connection with the land to emerge, "relying on resources naturally," in which their searching for that greater calm of living in harmony with one's natural lands is at center.

Reconstructed battles

In speaking of how Saharawis transmit their shared history, says Embarka, "they like to focus on the battles. If there is a hero, for example a grand-grandfather trying not to allow colonialism or invasion to enter. There is an example of a battle against France, against a colonel named Girard." Embarka, as Fatimatu, and all the women interviewed, are in many ways weaving together seamlessly what has been torn apart by the colonialism and then invasion they so frequently call into question. By reemphasizing what is no different from and what has not changed from earlier times, they remember their homeland and the time that has passed between their early and present lives by dignified examples of resisting foreign rule. In so doing they bring together examples of early nomadic history and their bedu and Saharawi traditions in ways that work to illuminate the present.

Fatimatu recreates the world of social organization in which Saharawis respected and revered the blessings of their natural surroundings around them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ways in which women and men worked together for their younger ones. Embarka, on the other hand, supplies this framework with the examples of stories women would tell to the youth in her rendition of the story about the colonel from France, imitating the defensive battle in Western Sahara's colonial war. They both stress continuities with their past, especially their previous state and social order. Today, as in the past, cooperation of tasks among children, women, and men, for the welfare of future members of the Saharawi society is important. The invasion is expressed in different way in terms of a violation of freedom. In their modes of refiguring the social tasks and reimagining past wars Saharawis also hold dear their identity and confidence as a people. It is important in the interviews for Saharawis to point out that they do not agree with different forms of oppression.

Children's stories and games

Alongside the stories about not being defeated as a people, many of the fables also reflect that same hope of escaping difficulty. Asisa shares a story of two boys and two girls who were faced with successive "tests," where the wiser two children were the example to follow. There are "two boys and two girls, they are four children. Two are wiser than the others. The mother and father in the family moved from that place. They took most things and they moved and the children stayed behind. Someone left behind dates and trash. The two wise ones took the dates, and the two others took the trash. When they started to eat, the children who ate the trash, they felt sick, and the others, they didn't feel sick. As it became evening, the two wise children stayed in a place where they could have warmth under a tree, and the two others, they faced cold. The two clever children saw a bride or a fire, and they went towards that fire and saw that it was a lady in a spirit," says Asisa. "They started telling her that they were children and they were lost and suffering." Yet, continues Asisa, the spirit is not kind and attempts to take the childrens' lives. The children make an invocation to a stone in the sky to come down and help them, so they may escape the spirit. The stone comes down, and when the children climb onto it, it goes up into the sky. So, by the providential assistance of the carpet, they escape the threatening influence.

Dmaha explains another story in which it is necessary to ensure the protection of the young children. "There was a goat, and she had three babies, and she put them in a house or a cave, and during the day she went to eat grass and came back in the evening. But she gave the key to one of the babies, she handed it over to him. Nobody opened the door till she let them enter, you know, and others recognized that the mother and the baby opened the door with the key. But this is what happened: the wolf came near the cave, and several times he heard the voice of the goat saying to her children to open, and he tried to cheat and mimic her. One day, when she goes to the grass he came and he said the song or these words he had heard from the mother. On the first attempt he wasn't able to succeed, but he went to a place where he could make his voice very soft, and then he was able to enter. The wolf ate all the babies and he ran away. When the goat came back she felt sad and started crying that she could not find the babies. She went running away. She stepped on a scorpion and the scorpion complained to her, and she went to the lizard, and the lizard complained to her. Then somebody said to her 'your babies have been eaten by the wolf,' so she moved searching, till she found him and she starts fighting with him and finally she kills him." Dmaha, as demonstrated by her story, is cognizant of the felt threats of the Saharawi people, the invasions and the lurking ills that portend to take away the lives of the children.

While in Saharawi memories we find examples of danger, there are also imaginative accounts told to children that produce the feeling of protection and safety. From these accounts are found the example of the magnificent midnight sky. As Dajna mentions, one riddle told to children rendered the midnight sky as "a bowl full of dates." When the young ones looked at the sky, they saw this bowl of dates and they might count them together. Dajna says they would tell children, "The sky is like a 'bowl full of dates,'" and adds that, along with the riddle, comes "a key to solving it," that would help them in connecting the stars. A young Saharawi woman has spoken of how she and her brothers would count the many stars in the sky trying to see who would be the first to count them all. Dajna furthermore adds that "stories for children, and puzzles, prepare children for doing things in groups, such as making tents, and teaching religion." Not only did the stories and riddles have a delightful element that made good sense, but part of their joy derived from their lessons. Usefulness to daily life is abundantly manifest in the stories.

Several characters that emerge in the stories recur in different settings and by different people, showing that the oral tradition is very well knitted together. A character named Chartet, whose characteristics of liking to eat and his predisposition of often ending up in an "awkward" position or difficulty is an example of this. Once he ends up in his mother-in-law's house looking for food, and she has to chase him out when she wakes up, though he defends himself saying he was only looking for his camel. Like the stories shared by Asisa, Dmaha, and Dajna, this story of Chartet brings some laughter to children because it is told jokingly. Stories like these help Saharawis in passing time and keeping their young ones interested in what they have to say, as well as in the moral lessons they tend to weave into the stories, like tapestry.

Games that Saharawis played give evidence of the lightness they retained as a people while facing struggle. Embarka illustrates a game they played by showing how it worked with gestures: "Find stones and take four in your hand. Throw the biggest one, put the fourth in your hand without the one getting thrown away." The important point was to always avoid the stone in the air from dropping to the ground. Asisa talks about how children "played outside the tents, in natural ways." These memories of games and freedoms the children of the Western Sahara shared in remind us of the time when their lands were filled with peace. They are the underlying breath of a world that remains vivid in their memories and, as such, will never be taken away from them.

Spanish presence in Western Sahara

Women also recollect when Western Sahara was a protectorate of Spain with its colonial government. Many Saharawis were living in the cities along with the Spanish during colonial government. Dajna explains that, "When we lived nomadically, we moved a lot in Western Sahara, but when we entered the city we stayed in the city. There were a lot of camels, different types. We ate camel meat or milk, and couscous (mixture of flour with wheat). Food and flour were available in the area from Spain." Embarka says that "I did not live as a nomadic person, but I worked inside the house during the period of Spain. They had a market there inside the city, and food from marketplace was imported from Spain. Saharawis, therefore, could work in a commercial setting." Since Saharawis emphasize their shared history as a people, and not as much the foreign presence, these recollections of the past are still charged with delight and dignity of Saharawi traditions like the presence of camels, the making of camel meat and milk, and the possibility of gainful and productive life for Saharawis. Along with the retelling of stories and descriptions of games, as is evident in the language, the recollections are a testimony to the fortitude in them while nevertheless resisting a foreign power.

The nomadic landscape

Even though commercial enterprises existed in Western Sahara, changing the structure of the cities, what markedly defines the Saharawis' rich memories of the past are the natural glories of their ancestral homeland. The lingering presence of former glories and beatitudes of the lands are reiterated in the words of the of Saharawi refugees, and tell us a little of what they deeply in their hearts miss. As Fatimatu recollects, "We spent most of the time in the country, and after the rain season and we sought the best place for the animals, which was important for where to move." Her daily life was as such shaped by the natural verities around her, and she could marvel at them when she wished. Fatimatu was "most impressed by the nomadic time, the beauty of the land, the shape of the land, the mixed colour of green and grass, these beautiful things. And the fresh air." Fatimatu voices a profound past that is still so closely present within their hearts and memories, as refugees cut off from their lands.

Embarka shares her vision of the valley of Wad Segue in Western Sahara. She says, "I was most impressed by Wad Segue, the main, biggest landscape in Western Sahara. It was close to Laayoune, and was kind of like the branches of the tree. It was like a Saharawi map. I remember the valley. Sometimes when it rained and the water was left on the grass and trees, it colored them and made the landscape a beautiful color." It is a wonderful recollection of the Wad Segue, and the whole area of the valley as well as the color of the surroundings when it rained.

Aza remembers "the ocean, and the coast of the ocean." Aza lived just months in Western Sahara before the invasion happened. "Among the things that I still remember very well, thinking about when I went to Western Sahara to live for a long time, forever, is that I missed that land. I've lost that, and I was obliged immediately to go out from Western Sahara. I lived in Mauritania for a long time but when I had the opportunity to go to Laayoune, I wasn't able to stay forever in my land and to be there," she tells us. Aza's memories of the homeland are strong: "She remembers a place, very close to the frontier between Mauritania and Western Sahara. It was a long distance to the mountains, and when they came closer it remained, in sight, a long distance. From one mountain to the other you saw one of the mountains between. This she was impressed by. She loved the whole land, the entire homeland, saying, 'It's impossible to focus on just a part of it.'"

Aza still can reenvision the natural beauties of Western Sahara, and pictures a scene where she peers at mountains in the distance. She states the magnificence of these mountains, illustrating the close conscious connection she holds to her homeland. Saharawis evoke wonder at the images they articulate in detail even after their long displacement. It shows in some way that the sandy desert in which they have lived for several decades has not faded these memories, nor made them less vivid.

Asisa relates, with a note of sorrow in her voice, "I lived as a nomad at that time. I still remember the memories. It still prints a strong memory in our minds, in our hearts because we lived in natural ways. Everything that we lived on we could create from the trees, from the animals around us, so we lived in a natural way, and had milk and meat. We lived in those nice places, green places, and we were moving, and we were sharing with the other families and the other Saharawi people everything in Western Sahara. This is a very strong memory of Western Sahara. That memory is very deep, a very deep memory." She remembers the biggest valley of Western Sahara, mentioned earlier by Embarka, describing "Wad Segue, a deep valley. If you dig your hand into the ground a little, you will find water on the surface. There were acacia trees, and different trees there." As Asisa speaks of the water beneath the surface of the ground she drops her hand to the carpet to show how little effort it took to dig to reach the watery wells. She was, in addition, impressed with the trees surrounding the valley. These illustrations reiterate the harmony Saharawis had with their natural surroundings, living peacefully as nomadic people without overspending the resources around them. They were simply able to watch and marvel at the natural beauties in the mountains and the valleys - eternal verities cascading out of the beauty of their ancestral lands - which were given them as a society.

Dajna remembers Lgilta, "a beautiful region, surrounded by mountains and the earth is white. It has a lot of valleys, a lot of mountains. It was a beautiful landscape, a beautiful scene." Though initially not accustomed to the nomadic life, Dajna later married into a family that lived in nature. She recalls its loveliness when she lived in the embrace of her natural surroundings as a nomad: "the landscape, the fresh air, the waters; my original family were not used to being in the nomadic life, but I left my family to do this. I also left my original family when the invasion happened." Soon, however, a more somber look comes across her face. When she brings to mind the soldiers that entered from the north and south, she feels the presence of something utterly different, unlike the peace in that land she remembers from her childhood and youth. She had to leave that world of her family-in-law and of her past. "I left them in the mouth of the snake.""

The invasion

The invasion was an assault on the Saharawis' lives and identity. During the invasion, Moroccan soldiers came into houses, describes one woman, "clashing knives" and seeking the people listed on their papers. Soldiers from Morocco looked for opposition movement members in the Saharawi independence movement known as the Polisario, which had first been organized in 1973 in response to the Spanish rule. Saharawis had responded to the Moroccan soldiers by countering the invasion and attempting to shelter and leave unharmed the Saharawi people. Several of the Saharawi women interviewed had husbands involved in opposing Moroccan troops as rampant incursions into the lands were occurring. Many Saharawi women left them behind and then would not see them return again after the separation of refugees from Saharawis in the land. At the beginning of the invasion, Saharawis were rushed out by members of the Polisario out of the city, assisting one another as the attacks increased, and transported to Lgilta. In the desert, Saharawis received people injured or suffering and brought them in their vehicles to Tindouf where they were beginning to seek refuge. Injured Saharawis were given aid at the Tindouf hospital. Dmaha states with pain "the death and suffering," and "the blood" she remembers, as a result of the war.

Events pointing to the onset of the invasion were from early on indicative to Fatimatu and many of the Saharawi people. They felt the need to leave, for the terrors that were to follow would cause uncountable casualties. She speaks of how the Spanish drove back from the cities, evacuating the cities and their homes, after selling many of their goods to the Saharawi people. Fatimatu says, "Saharawis started wondering what would happen, and from that night when armed Moroccan civilians began entering the city, the Saharawi people started escaping." She points out that they escaped in groups or person by person from cities towards the east: "Because many people, they felt they would not be safe, under the sovereignty of Morocco or under this invasion because, you know, they had the idea something would happen. So we were scared and we escaped, those are the things that happened and make sense. Because we knew that the colonialism is the same, and that it is part of the same phase of history, but sometimes, one foreign rule is worse than the other, and that's why we were thinking the Spanish were more concerned about the human rights, the human issue, and the treatment of the Saharawis, than Morocco. So Morocco scared us, and we thought that it would be worse than the Spanish colonialism."

Aza remembers the invasion when soldiers went searching from house to house for Saharawis on their list. When Moroccans entered and did not find someone, she says, they broke glass, and stole the jewelry and other valuables they found. "One time, they had knives and clashed them together, took clothes from the tent and tore them apart, to scare the ladies in the tent," says Aza. Employing methods of fear and terrorizing the Saharawis to leave their homes, soldiers seemed unflinching in following orders for the invasion. Aza continues to unfold the events saying "they searched for identification cards," but that one young girl did not have one. To salvage the little girl, "another lady adopted her to say that she wasn't able to get an identification card when she was young." To the little girl, by the protection and help she received, the woman who acted as her mother proved her only comfort. Her helping the poor child survive the occurrences by bringing her without documents to safety in the refugee camps shows kindness and virtue undaunted in the midst of the great atrocity.

Pains were inflicted on the Saharawis at the wake of the events, and it is not easy for many of the women interviewed to discuss these realities they faced when the war erupted. The traumas are evident from the very beginning: "As a Saharawi people, they started being scared, they started not to sleep. If there were few in one house, they would move to another so they might sleep in larger groups," says Aza. A harrowing reality had fallen upon the Saharawis who were the victims of the war and its ramifications. Saharawis were unable to escape without escorts to help them leave and secure their survival across the desert. If they were alone, they needed to join groups for easing the route of escape out of the country. The girl who needed someone to bring her through to somewhere safe may have lost hers or come apart from her in the disarray and unpredictability of escaping the Western Sahara. Traumas inflicted on the Saharawi people caused them to sleep in larger groups so that they would feel safe from the overwhelming harm that had affected them as a people.

Accounts from Aza testify about the followings Saharawis suffered by Moroccan airplanes in the Sahara desert, as they moved towards somewhere they could seek refuge. Aza and those she fled with came to a place not too far from Lgilta, in the valley of Western Sahara. Saharawis still in possession of good health made much effort in providing the moral leadership that was needed, by organizing the refugees, bringing food, and staying with them. Moroccan airplanes would strafe the Saharawi people they saw, so when Saharawis heard the planes, they hastily continued in groups to Tifariti, another village where people received shelter. Aza and her group found in Tifariti the remains of bombing from airplanes, and left for Marhaba. Just after they left Marhaba, it too was bombed, as they learned shortly thereafter.

Embarka attests to the circumstances as she escaped the war-torn country. She remembers that night they were forced to leave of the city, and underlines that she did not leave voluntarily, but that she left out of obligation. She says: "I went back to Laayoune before the invasion, before 1975. They switched off the lights in Laayoune, so we went in the dark, during the night. I went with a group of people. Our history of demonstrating in my family against Spanish rule made it more urgent to leave. The lights were controlled by Spain or Morocco, but not by Saharawis, because the invading force wanted to avoid discovery of how the troops and vehicles entered the city." She and those she fled together with brought camels along with them to carry the wood. On these camels, however, as she remembers, she would suffer great discomfort.

Facing the desert

During the journey across the desert, Dajna says she was "scared because I was the wife of a Saharawi soldier. I was scared of facing interrogation or questioning before Moroccans." She and those she fled with decided to go by camel and run towards places of safety. She left her family, deciding to go alone and follow those she met along the way. There were two choices in front of her, she says: "to save myself, and to secure myself, or to be in prison and facing questioning by Moroccan authorities." As she was fleeing, Dajna witnessed childbirths under the shades of trees, but kept her attention towards striving to escape planes following them as well as soldiers who chased them. Eventually they reached to Zussl in Algeria, where they were transported on vehicles to the refugee camps in Tindouf. Dajna's telling of this story is filled with sorrow as she looks back on what occurred at the time of the invasion and how it collectively traumatized so many Saharawis. She witnessed atrocities that night and in the following days that are still difficult to put words to. She, like so many Saharawis, witnessed the mass exodus of a people.

Unlike the experiences Saharawis were so familiar with as nomadic bedu, this was not a flight to a better area but a mass displacement that affected the Saharawis as a whole. They were forced to flee from their homes when their country was invaded. Many lost friends and members of the family either in Western Sahara by the attacks of Moroccan troops, or by their strenuous and exhaustive journey across the desert. The Saharawis who fled would not be able to return back to Western Sahara.

Embarka, as she continues relating the history of her escape across the desert, becomes very shaken on occasion and must stop sometimes to cry. As Embarka is crying, the translator, Zorgan, says: "She said it's a difficult moment, it's a difficult time-it's difficult for somebody to forget this sad point in Saharawi history. It's more sadness, more... it's the start of suffering as a society entirely." Embarka then recalls circumstances following the war of her country, and articulates the pain associated with memories that resurface when describing what happened when she was forced to flee: "It's not easy to describe what happened in this, and we as the same generation are still in touch with these things. It's not easy for someone to forget, unfortunately, it affected Saharawis all over the Western Sahara and out of Western Sahara. It affected them directly and affected them indirectly. And this is the result of that invasion, this is the result on the ground. The statement that the Saharawis caused this casualty, that they caused these circumstances and that they caused this tragedy, it's not easy to describe." Tears replace words as she remembers this Saharawi plight.

Asisa talks of how the troops entered with vehicles and with guns. Though she and her family were not from the city, but from outside, from the countryside where they lived in a nomadic bedu, they as well had to flee. She and her family left without many of their belongings and were required to rest under trees when they were tired and exhausted from thirst. Asisa lost two of her sons along the way as a result of dehydration. They mainly walked at night and in the day hid from the planes. In her group they had a camel to transport their tent, and her family crossed the desert on it. They also carried their belongings on the camel. Asisa says that "We left a part of the society. We left family, we left relatives. We left everything. I consider myself and what I left, I left everything." She herself can no lost her sight because she was, at one time during this odyssey, overcome with dust in her eyes. This dust was the ashes of a bomb that Moroccan airplanes had dropped in front of her and those she was travelling with. She remembers in her heart these events and can still picture the land, even though she is no longer in possession of her sight.

For Fatimatu, as with all the women, it was a journey filled with hardships. She discusses the beating and crimes endured by the people she saw before leaving. Fatimatu moved during the night, and remembers one woman who joined the group had left behind a baby. The woman was crying and pleading to go back, but people in the group advised her not to because she would be in danger. Fatimatu came alone to the refugee camps without close family. She arrived with her children, and at the time she was with child. Recollecting the events that made her flee, she says, "They killed people, threw people in the sea, now what has followed is a separation of people, some still suffering under the policy of Morocco." Saharawis suspect that their kin, especially those who disappear in Western Sahara, are tortured, though because of severe restrictions on journalists to enter the country, persons suffering under Morocco's policy go unnumbered. "Every day and every moment," she adds.

In the desert, they walked a long distance, but there were too few vehicles to carry all the people fleeing across the vast lands. "Again, if I come back to that scene I will cry, so it's difficult, but if you like me to talk I will talk (crying)... one time when they attacked not the people that went with her as they fled, but other Saharawi people. One girl lost her arm and she can remember many such similar events. They had bombed the girl, you know, they bombed her. And some of the babies they lost their parents and stayed behind." Fatimatu's describes the events following her being cast out of the Western Sahara. It reflects the shared experiences in witnessing the cruelty, and her own and others' still vivid remembrances of the events evoke the widespread sorrows.

Embarka clearly remembers that she was not free to leave Western Sahara, and that it was not voluntary. "Circumstances obliged me to flee from El-Aayoune," she says. "That certain moment, that night, and that picture, or that memory, stays in my heart," says Embarka. Recollecting this, she also weeps while she conveys the continued silence internationally on the issue of Western Sahara. "It's impossible to talk about this because it's a tragic event. Why the people fled and what was then requested of them. They're thrown out of their country without reason and, where were they going for nowhere to a danger, so it's an obligation, it's not a choice to go out of their country."

Embarka can remember the scarcity of vehicles transporting people across to southwestern Algeria. There were not enough people or cars to take all the Saharawis that were made to flee. As she says, "Sometimes you find some people to transport you, sometimes you walk night and day, and go days walking in the middle of the desert. We didn't find someone to feed us or to give us drink. This invasion followed each single Saharawi from bombing them by weapons to chasing them everywhere. To Tifariti and to the frontier of Algeria." Embarka was overcome by the tremendous need for security, though as militarily the country was being taken over, she and her fellow Saharawis she travelled with were without the help and rights they needed there and then. There were no journalists to document the exodus, and no humanitarian intervention. To the outside world, these voices were without resonance. It was all continuing in silence.

Describing the circumstances that haunted Saharawis at the time, Embarka voices, "It's not easy for somebody to count the numbers of this tragedy or this suffering. Because there was nothing at all at that time, nobody to secure you, nobody to help you. All happened just by chance, in this searching for a safe place, and there was no guarantee at all for anything. It's a tragic time, a tragic stage of the history, but it's our history. Another thing that breaks my heart is people watching this situation all over the world, people watching what is here in Western Sahara during this long time and not questioning, and there is no way, nothing on the ground happening towards this issue concerning the Saharawi people." Embarka laments there are few efforts concerning the Western Sahara besides the MINURSO commission. She points out that even MINURSO has no mandate for monitoring the human rights in the region. While resettlement to the camps has been ongoing since 1975, there has been no sure promise of return for the refugees.

Saharawis, frightened, were forced to flee suddenly and with little forewarning after the ominous actions by the Spanish when they sold their goods while authorities shut off lights in the country's capital, El-Aayoun. Imprisonment was a possibility, so Saharawis fled as their country was ravaged by foreign troops. Saharawis witnessed the destruction of the city as soldiers and civilians plundered their houses, took people and threw them into the ocean, and threatened them into abandoning their homes and belongings. Their entire lives were left behind at the prospect of safety. Soldiers continued searching after Saharawis in their plight and bombarded the desert in which they were fleeing. The Saharawi people were followed by planes from which Moroccan forces shot at the refugees, while foreign soldiers in the cities sought to kill those they had listed as threats to their rule and dominion. Few Saharawis knew how they would bear the harsh conditions during their flight. They suffered thirst, exhaustion, disorientation, and deaths of other friends and family members, witnessing childbirths and casualties as they wandered with a burning desire of soon escaping danger to find safe refuge. Following the tyranny of the war, there was no sure sign of safety.



Brutal events ramified the Saharawi people as they bid farewell to their homeland of ancestral memory. Some lost their lives, while many came into a new reality in Tindouf, Algeria, where they would spend their initial days organizing in order to keep alive those who had fled and help the sick. As Fatimatu recounts, the establishment of the camps meant Saharawis worked under conditions where they lacked clothes, tents and food. Moving to Algeria, "we met a change in the weather, it was very cold. We started asking Algeria for donations, to hand over, to help and to donate tents or food. Algeria didn't hesitate, and they helped provide food and tents. People started organizing themselves for living in the tent, in groups, and we organized ourselves into separate families. Each family was in a tent and everything took place in the tent, like cooking, like sleeping. Then we started thinking of strategic way to have another addition of tents, as a way to have class and teach children. Priorities were first the food, then a small room in front of the tent as a kitchen to cook, after that a hospital was built, a dispensary, and finally the schools." From the immediate need of securing food provisions and tents for the Saharawis, then came the possibility to serve the wounded and sick. For those who had survived the desert odyssey, but were wounded and weakened, hospitals came into being. And finally, for the wellbeing of the community and hope of Saharawi children, came the schools. This was evidence that the Saharawi community survived.

Asisa likewise remembers this time of coming to the refugee camps well. She tells of the history of the Saharawis following their reaching Tindouf: "When they arrived at the border of Algeria, they started organizing themselves. Many children were sick, they needed hospitals, and thanks God, she said, that we saved Senia [her granddaughter] and the others, and that they were protected. We started thinking about a small room, next to the tent, for a kitchen. We received tents and started creating a life to live. I worked as a nurse. I could not read or write, but worked as a volunteer in medicine. I gave paracetamol, and remember telling people to take them every eight hours per day, or twelve hours per day, through a male doctor who could figure out the prescriptions. I am happy I played this important role in the establishment of the camps." Here Asisa recounts the tents and the small kitchens that were built next to them emergence of medical care for the Saharawi refugees. Changes they have seen since the exile, says Asisa, are that "we are more open, and there is more liberty for women, but we are still connected with the past. She remembers still the nature when Saharawi people travelled from place to place and were living in nature. We miss playing the entire role, because we missed the land, we miss the sovereignty, we wish to live in a land, to have those resources." Asisa, also, does not leave out the fact that they "have strong hope... we have a big desire more than any time."

Dmaha relates her own memories of coming to Algeria and "setting up tents, houses, and schools. We received donations from Algeria, we received tents for protection from the wind. We began dividing ourselves into groups, and into families. Women were teachers and nurses, and distributed food." Consolidating all of their strengths they already had as nomadic peoples, they were able to bring about a structure of camps that helped them to resettle. Dmaha continues, "We learned from this suffering, we learned from this exile, we learned how to organize ourselves, we can improve the role of women inside these places." What they learned brought about changes also relating to the social organization in the camps. There would be "representatives in each camp, to take food to distribute." This was a part of the humanitarian effort to resettle lives. Priorities they regarded in the wake of resettling the community, as Dmaha remembers them, were health, schools, tents, food, and social organization.

The refugee camps have, however, also undergone changes and have caused some slow irrigations of life for Saharawis. Though some Saharawis live as nomadic peoples, those in the refugee camps no longer live this way but are sedentary and stay in their tents, receiving aid from organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent as well as from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Fatimatu points out the changes that have happened since their displacement and exile. To Fatimatu, this also brings joy. She "considered this a strong work, a strong effort, that children could go to schools and that patients could go to hospitals. It's a really a significant work here in exile." She says. ""It is a big change in the life. It's a very, very, huge change in the life of Saharawi women. Because, here, we learned a lot. We had a good opportunity and all the doors opened in front of us as women. Women suffered here but she learned a lot from this suffering. She is the teacher, she is the mother, she is the nurse, she is the doctor, she is all these things together. These are very positive things for women and gives her occasion to be very strong, to be more liberated, and to be looking forward to a clear and bright future." They know their identity as a people the young is shaped by what is learned and written, and also, she states, that labor is necessary to help the Saharawis. As women, she notes, they feel they have something to look forward to with the contributions they are making to the community.

Dmaha confirms this Fatimatu's statement on the meaning Saharawis have found in contributing to the education and in their cooperation for their community. She says, "There has been a big change in the life of Saharawis, it's a tremendous change. Especially as women, compared with the past, there have been changes. We have started developing ourselves, we have started raising our voice, and we have started contributing in an array of areas. We learned a lot, we now have a model of collective society, and of women who can translate, who can speak, who can take part outside in public life. They are contributing in many fields. We changed a lot. It's a huge change in the Saharawi women's life, in how we think of ourselves. We are thinking as a country, we are thinking as a state, we are thinking as a government, and not that society of ancient times." And Dmaha continues to say, "We withstood this whole period of time, and struggle to have our land, to be a normal society, and are no longer thinking that the house is the best place for the women. Women are now everywhere." The prospect of continued contributions of women within Saharawi society leads to a feeling of progress for the Saharawis.

Education among the Saharawi

Fatimatu also points to changes that have been occurring for the education Saharawis pass on to their youth. She emphasizes education as being more focused on lessons, giving attention to the moral growth of the person than before: "She said that we are not just educated now to prepare ourselves or prepare our skills in the materialistic sense, but morally, in the culture, in the background of learning." Whereas before young children learned basic skills such as sewing and searching for verdant and rainy areas to live, the Saharawis are now concerned with the future of the community. No longer seeking land or for a place to live, they look inwardly for the peace within. In such a way they have confidence in their knowledge of what happened in the past, and that they deserve justice. In addition, they are keenly aware of their dignity and rights. They learn of the past through revisiting their culture by means of stories, poetry, and fables. Paying attention to the person's interior has played an important part in the emerging need for coping with the past, made more urgent by the traumas inflicted on Saharawis as a people.

Transmitting their history to younger Saharawis is a matter of importance, and, Fatimatu observes, there is growing need. She says, "everybody can contribute, any issue that relates to the religion, especially 'the old guys.' The people need to listen carefully to them, those at the age of 17, 18, 20, 25, that is, the younger generation needs to listen very carefully. It's the history, culture, tradition, of both women and men." So many Saharawis agree that sharing their past is their hope of rekindling what they inherited in all its complexity. Dajna emphasizes the Saharawi people's oral tradition as being important to save. "We have a very strong oral tradition," she says, "but we need to write down history, we need to start thinking about that. They lost many, and anything that isn't written we will lose."  Fatimatu and Dajna show here the sense they hold of the vitality of Saharawi culture, and the imperative of keeping it alive. There is a sense shared by the women that there is tremendous fortitude in the Saharawi people. Aza relates her sense of delight at the work done to prepare Saharawis for citizenship, and she says "we know we live in a special situation, in exile, and our children missed many things they have in their country, but it's okay." Aza, like the other women, is confident they will one day go back to Western Sahara.

Victory is soon

For the culture of the Saharawi people in which they all share there are manifold expressions. There are poems, poems describing the land, songs, singing of the land, and these may come to fore in the ceremony of tea. The mother can tell simple poems, and she can pass on simple sayings. These sayings are crucial to teaching the geographical names of the land. As Aza explains, it is common that the father or mother teaches " the rules of the poems, rules of the songs, and the rules of the things to learn." She talks of two poems she once learned, one describing the series of mountains, "its beauty, its marvels," and another one is an expression of love: "Someone loves a girl," and in the words of the poetry are expressed the feelings of his heart and the intensity of his longing. Aza continues to say that, "for someone to receive this or be in touch with this, it needs, you know, a setting, that is, it's time, it's place. Because maybe this suffering, the history makes people, you know, it's hard for people to be in touch with the past, with what they know. She has a feeling, or she has something that relates to the past because it reminds her of the past, because, maybe it's different from these circumstances." Aza speaks here of the strong connection Saharawis have with their lands, and likens that relationship to the strength of romantic love for a person. She describes that, in coping with the suffering brought on them, it helps them to reimagine their past when they lived freely. In the Saharawi women's descriptions of the past, those freedoms and joys they once shared in come to life. Their ancestral home is still deeply embedded in their consciousness as a people, and so is the hope that they will return.

As Fatimatu closes the interview, her final comments center on the lingering presence of a country she cannot forget as it stays imprinted in her heart and memory: "It's not easy to cope with the circumstances, or to mention it in the brief moment of time we have, but those circumstances we have considered go very deep, the feeling when somebody misses his or her land and others are playing with his or her resources, stealing his or her resources and when there is no kind of protection of the human rights, and no meaning given to the dignity for him or for her as a normal person. For instance, look at Aminatou Haidar, she's a Saharawi activist in the occupied territory, she carried this flag on her way back to Western Sahara, they arrested her and they tried to oblige her not to come back. They evacuated her and she was moved to Spain, they refused for her to come back again to her country. And it's not only Aminatou Haidar, but a lot of Saharawis." Fatimatu's last words shared are: "I consider it a principle of Saharawis to go back in dignity and liberated. From the child, to the woman, and to the adults. And we have strong hope, very strong hope, soon we will have that. As a Saharawi, as Aminatou Haidar, as anybody together, we have one body, one moral, whoever is here, or in the occupied territory, or inside Morocco, everywhere we have very strong hope. We have a slogan that the victory is soon, that the victory is soon."


By acknowledging the plight of Saharawis, one may begin to unearth the implications of the displacement. The memories tell us of the world which they reimagine and refigure; which is dear to them as a recollection of what once was. Silence in media has covered up what to Saharawis is basic reality - their home, Western Sahara - at the cost of many lives. Rituals such as the Saharawi tea ceremony give a key to what was important to the Saharawis as a society, when unity among them presided. Saharawis describe the tea ceremony as something that brought people together and allowed them to speak openly and tell of their experiences. As a ritual and a symbol of the three elements required to make tea - people, charcoal and time - the tea ceremony reminds them of elements of their homeland which made their surroundings vivid. Saharawi women recreate these experiences through talking of the many valleys and rivers that beautified the lands of their country, children playing outside, girls making dolls or helping their mother sew the tent, and boys helping their father out as he went out to seek other places to live. In listening to Saharawis present their stories as rightful spokespersons of their country one sees the dignified lives they lived in a world before they were without citizenship. In meeting this history of so many lives, we encounter the sphere of these refugees in the apprehension not only of the traumatic displacement of so many, but of tragedy.

Since the devastating violations of rights of Saharawis they have undergone a transformation of society to focus on their dignity as well as their interior and past lives. The devastations they have suffered are enormous. Naturally and seamlessly the Saharawis' personal stories shed light on the truth of the past and on the invasion, as their stories unfold, illuminating the experiences they share as a people. Saharawis believe that they one day will return to see their ancestral homeland, to marvel once again at the beautiful mountains and valleys they once were surrounded by. Their expressions of their home remind us the fragility of living away from the nomadic existence that once was daily life. The Saharawis who live in the desert lands are still hoping, after 40 years, that their stories will be heard and that their history will be remembered. This hope, along with the recognition of their dignity, may secure the future of children who wait in the desert while their elders speak of what they have survived.


Zorgan Laroussi has all along been my translator and has worked day in and day out during my time in the camps to find women with stories they wanted to share with me. I would also like to thank Matthew Aslett for the beautiful pictures he took of the women I interviewed in the refugee camps. Frederick McGinness, my friend and former adviser from Mount Holyoke College, has ceaselessly helped me to follow my dreams and complete this project.

Photo: By Western Sahara - Gerraren museoa - Museum of War - Museo de la guerraUploaded by ecemaml, CC BY-SA 2.0, 

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