Free Xero



by Xero, January 2005

The wind roars outside my window, causing almost white-out conditions from swirling dust and sand. If I open the shutters, the dust and sand blow into my room and if I close them it is pitch dark because there is no electricity between 1pm and 7pm. Finally, I compromise by taping some fabric over the open window. It lets in enough light for me to write this but there is still grit everywhere -- including my mouth, nose, lungs and eyes.

I'm in Smarra, one of four refugee camps of the nomadic Saharawi people. They are trapped here by the last colonial occupation in Africa. Their land, the Western Sahara, has been illegally occupied by Morocco for the last thirty years. Smarra camp is 50 km east of their traditional lands and 30 km south of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara.

More than 100,000 refugees live in camps of small adobe buildings and large canvas tents. Their traditional "vehicle," the camel, has been almost completely replaced by battered 4x4s which ply one of the most desolate and forbidding landscapes imaginable. This is the "hamada" -- a vast stony waste stretching from horizon to horizon broken only by small ridges, shallow ravines and an occasional stunted tree.

Clouds of dust constantly sweep across the desert at this time of year. When the wind drops somewhat, it reveals a shimmering landscape of silver, lavender, light blues and pale yellows. The delicacy of the colours belies the brutal reality of a place that can be a furnace of 40c at midday and drop to zero by midnight.

The camps were established in 1975 by Saharawi refugees, mainly women and children, who fled the brutality of the Moroccan military occupation. The UN supplies the refugees' basic needs of food water and shelter. Assistance from the governments of Algeria and Cuba as well as donations from citizens of Spain and Italy have been crucial in providing medical, dental and educational support as well as lifting the refugees' morale.

Since the 1992 ceasefire between Morocco and the POLISARIO, the Saharawi national liberation movement, negotiations have stalled over the issue of who is eligible to vote in the promised referendum on independence.

So the refugees wait in the camps. I see the women walking around in their bright gauzy wraps and the men in their ubiquitous black "cheeches" -- long scarves tied around their heads and across their faces, leaving only a narrow slit for their eyes. They provide protection from the sun, sand and wind -- and have become a symbol of Saharawi resistance to the occupation.

SaharawiPoster Please download the poster, print it out, put it up in your neighbourhood, and pass it on to a friend.

For more information about the Western Sahara visit

For the lastest news about the Western Sahara visit