Since 1975 thousands of Sahrawi refugees have lived in the extreme south west of Algeria, a desert region where the temperature sometimes reaches 60 degrees. Still waiting for a solution to their forced exile, they are almost completely dependant on international humanitarian aid.
Camp Smara, in the Farsia region, is one of the largest of four Sahrawi refugee camps. Poorly protected by tents and the permanent housing surrounding it, the central market place is constantly battered by a strong wind that lifts the sand. A heavy blanket of grey clouds cloaks the sky and keeps the temperature at a level below the normal average for an afternoon like today, in October. Surprisingly a few drops of rain begin to fall on Farsia, but this only lasts for a few minutes.
Karkaza is rarely fazed by the elements. The little girl, barely five years old, has come with her relatives to receive several kilograms of flour distributed by the World Food Programme with the financial support of ECHO.
Dressed in colourful clothes, the women play an active role in this operation. One by one the sacks are hoisted onto carts and then dispatched to their home. The same women will soon come back to Farsia market square. And as usual, they will be informed by loud-speaker when it is time to come and help with the distribution of lentils and oil.
As the sun sets on the camp, Karkaza returns home - a large rectangular tent and two small buildings made of dried earth. Unrepentant winds have covered the structures in a fine veil of sand. Her mother, Salka Ghalla, stays inside to feed her five month old baby. Salka says she first came here when she was one year old. “Since then I got married and I now have five children”.
The majority of Sahrawi refugees came to this forgotten corner of the Algerian desert in 1975 and 1976. There was fierce fighting along the western Saharan coast, and since then much of this area is under Moroccan control. “It was November. Our families had travelled almost 400 kilometres, with donkeys to carry food and water », recalls Salka’s husband, Cheikh Moubarak Al-Said, as he made the tea.
Nothing grows properly here. Water is convoyed all the way to camp Smara by tankers chartered by humanitarian organisations. The nearest wells are about twenty kilometres away. “Even if the water is clean enough to drink, it still tastes very salty. We use this water mostly for domestic chores”, explains Salka. Soon, thanks to ECHO assistance, water pipes will be connected to the camp.
On the pebbly slope meandering its way between the hamlets of tents, you can see small round enclosures, patched up with recycled steel and wire. They shelter a few rare livestock. “We own a lamb and a goat”, Salka tells us, smiling. “We keep the milk for our children. Later, when the animals are much bigger, we will sell them on the market.”
Meat is expensive in the camps, and can therefore yield significant profits. This is especially important for those, like Salka and Cheikh Moubarak, who do not receive a salary. “Camel meat is the cheapest, so we eat it once or twice a month. Today, we had pasta for lunch. This evening, it will be rice and milk for everyone.”
For the Sahrawi refugees, humanitarian aid is vital. “Every month, we receive lentils, rice, oil, sugar and powdered milk”. It is true that aid cannot cover every need, and it is particularly difficult to obtain fresh products, although vegetables, fruit and eggs do occasionally supplement basic foodstuffs. According to Salka this assistance is “considerable”. “Without it, we would not survive very long”.
After almost 30 years of exile, the Sahrawi refugees have organised themselves. A surprising network of community clinics and hospitals has been set up in the camps. Like Karkaza, all the children of school-going age go to school and illiteracy is declining rapidly. In Smara, 65% of the 42,000 residents are under 15 years of age. The women have an essential role in camp life, especially their involvement in the distribution of food.
“We would like to be able to return to our own lands, to see our homeland again”, says Salka, turning her gaze toward the west. “To become landowners, like those who live in Europe and in the developed countries”.
Meanwhile, Karkaza, Salka and the others prepare to celebrate Ramadan, a month of fasting and meditation for Muslims. On the menu of Iftar – the meal that breaks the fast – barley soup and some dates will provide some respite from the daily rigours of camp life.
ECHO Regional Information Officer - Amman