The war over Western Sahara might be the world’s least-known long-term conflict. For more than four decades, an ethnic Sahrawi state-in-exile has been struggling, without success, for international recognition while waging a daily battle for survival in a featureless desert subject to subzero winters and summers so hot and still that cigarette smoke seems to congeal. Its capital, Raibouni, looks like something children made and then discarded: half-melted sand structures and brightly colored shipping containers, their metal blooming with rust, baking in the sun. The desert, relentless, encroaches, dusting every surface, crevice, and corner with sand.
The Sahrawis, a mix of Arab Muslim and indigenous Saharan Berber tribes who over centuries developed their own distinctive forms of language, dress, and matriarchal leadership, seek a return to the territory they claim as their national homeland 300 miles to the west—an arid stretch of Atlantic coastline, slightly larger than Oregon, just south of the Moroccan border. They were forced from their villages after a failed battle for liberation that began in 1973, when a group of students, soldiers, and nomadic herders, seeking independence from Spain, formed a guerrilla movement called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, better known as Polisario. The Spanish relinquished control of the territory three years into the conflict, but Moroccan troops quickly advanced to seize it. Polisario waged a guerrilla war until, in 1991, it signed a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement with Morocco that called for an independence referendum the following year. That referendum never took place, mainly because of stonewalling and obfuscation by the Moroccans, who had already walled off most of the territory and enjoyed de facto control. In 2007, Morocco presented a plan for Sahrawi autonomy rather than independence, marooning the refugee camps in an unending state of uncertainty—permanently impermanent, officially unofficial. Today, the United Nations, in the neutral language of political stalemate, classifies the contested territory as “non-self-governing.”
When I mention this hidden republic to regional experts and journalists who, like me, cover North Africa and the Sahel, few seem to know much about it. For one thing, as an unofficial state, Western Sahara doesn’t really exist. For another, being tiny and well behaved, it is easy to ignore. Its population of roughly 300,000 is divided among six refugee camps in Algeria, a buffer between Algeria and Morocco known as “the free zone,” and the resource-rich, Moroccan-controlled territory. Few Sahrawis choose to migrate or resort to terrorism (for the past decade, migration and terrorism have tended to monopolize Western engagement with North Africa and the Sahel). This is in no small part related to their faith in the future of the state they have built in the isolated camps, where refugees, in the face of tremendous adversity, have abolished the caste system, made talk of tribal and ethnic distinctions taboo, and created a grassroots government that is not only democratic and egalitarian but also run primarily by women.
Sahrawis came to invest women with communal authority because, historically, men were away for long periods of raiding, herding, and trading. During the years of war (1975–1991), this authority became more explicitly political, with women running the administration of the camps while the men were off fighting. Today, Auserd, one of the largest of the state-in-exile’s sprawling refugee camps, is governed by a woman named Mariam Hamada.
I met Mariam on my first visit to the camps in the spring of 2013. I was 30 years old and drifting from crisis to crisis in a Sahel rapidly coming apart. In Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, coups rattled capitals as Islamist insurgencies gathered strength. Herders and farmers fought over land. Ethnic and tribal militias, supported by states and jihadis, went on sprees of sexual violence and killing. And all the while, international and regional interventions seeking to stop the violence seemed only to make things worse.
Polisario’s domain had all the same features: a vast Saharan space with porous borders; historically antagonistic tribes and ethnic groups recently displaced by conflict; a political regime synonymous with broken promises; poverty, helplessness, and despair. Or so I thought. It came as a shock to discover that these camps, which Morocco liked to describe as terrorist breeding grounds, were part of a thriving constitutional democracy, with committees composed mainly of women fanatical in their dedication to education and health care. They believed that these two things could overcome most obstacles. A young boy, according to an apocryphal story his former teacher earnestly told me, had been lost in the war and raised by ostriches. When a search party saw a pair of small human footprints alongside ostrich tracks, they set out to capture him. One man climbed a great shade tree under which the ostriches were known to roost and waited for them with a thorny stick. When the boy and the ostriches arrived and went to sleep, the man tangled the boy’s hair around the stick so that he couldn’t flee with the frightened birds. I asked what became of the boy. “They did a process of reeducation on him, and he eventually married and had sons,” the teacher said. “I know one of them—he is a soldier at Bir Lehlou.”
Not that things in the camps are easy. There are better-paid jobs in Spain and under Moroccan rule in the disputed territory. Refugees tend to have higher-than-average levels of education and training by North African standards, and they enjoy more opportunities to travel to Europe and abroad. Some refugees study medicine in Cuba and return to the camps to practice. Others spend summers tending bar in Ibiza. But what holds things together is the shared belief that after decades of waiting, the Sahrawi cause will prevail. The refugees already see themselves as independent—the world just needs to catch up and give them back their land. It is Mariam’s job to sustain such belief. “Our destiny is to produce something out of nothing,” she said. “What we lack in budget we must make up for with will.”
On a crisp, clear morning in December 2017, I shadowed her in Auserd. Tall and cool tempered, Mariam has smooth, pale skin and speaks Arabic in a clipped alto. She greets each morning with the same routine. After a quick tea on the velvety banquette in the tent where she sleeps, she dresses in layers, winding a bright, nine-foot veil around her body and black hair and topping it with a camouflage military jacket. Palming a mirror, she powders her face and rims her eyes with kohl. She then climbs into a white Toyota Land Cruiser and begins to make her rounds.
Her first stop that day was an elementary school, a neatly swept mudbrick compound encircling a courtyard, where Mariam embraced the principal and began peppering her with questions. “Were the chairs you ordered delivered? How many children are absent today? How many teachers? What kinds of illnesses are you seeing?” The school, one of seven in the camp, had so many students that it had to operate in two shifts, morning and afternoon. Mariam listened carefully while a male assistant, carrying her bag, jotted down neat rows of figures and commitments. She repeated her interrogations at two more schools. In a kindergarten room with pictures of camels and parrots on its walls, she addressed a few dozen five-year-olds. “Who can recite for me the fatiha? ” she said, referring to the opening of the Koran. She overlooked the boys’ hands that shot up and urged the little girls to volunteer. Outside, toddlers raced tricycles around a thin patch of grass.
Mariam continued on to the police station, a few dim rooms with file cabinets and a flickering bulb, where a tall, turbaned police chief shuffled nervously under her gaze. A few goats and sheep had been stolen. He did not have any leads. At a health clinic half a mile from the police station, two midwives were reviewing a patient’s chart. The pharmacy’s stocks were running low, its shelves half empty. Chest problems, like asthma and dehydration, related to dust in the air and carefully rationed water supplies, were on the rise. Striding into a tightly packed town hall meeting, Mariam received a rock star’s welcome from a hundred women who were preparing for a visit by an EU delegation. A sea of beaming faces shouted support as she advanced to a podium. “The Europeans are coming all this way because they believe in the justice of our cause,” she said. “We must welcome them well!” The bag man took photographs.
Her last stop was a school that she’d helped create the year before to instruct young Sahrawis in American English. Dozens of women holding crisp instruction manuals were studying office vocabulary. “Balance sheet. Human resources. Touch base. Thinking outside the box!” Mariam looked satisfied. She then drove to the governor’s office, a concrete compound with a necklace of thorny flower bushes that twisted up from the dust in neat rows, where her official day of fielding complaints and requests would begin at 10:30 A.M.
After nine hours at her desk, as was her custom, she drove up a low rocky hill and looked over her camp. Tens of thousands of tents, called khaimas, dotted a grid of sandy alleyways lined with music stores, mosques, mechanic shops, and schools. Her eyes pored over the settlement, appraising it, searching for fissures and weaknesses to correct. The Sahara, unbuilt and majestic, radiated in all directions. It is the Sahrawis’ destiny. It is their sentence.
When Moroccan soldiers seized her village in the winter of 1975, Mariam was nine years old. Her father, a fighter, dug a pit, hid his weapons, and disappeared. Mariam’s mother buried her jewelry in the sand and led her six children across the Sahara on foot, carrying her one-month-old daughter on her back. She and her fellow refugees covered their children’s bodies in sun-warmed sand at night to shield them from the cold. By the time they reached the hills, 10 days later, where guerrilla fighters supplied them with dates and water, three of Mariam’s friends had frozen or starved to death.
In the early 1980s, as Moroccan airstrikes drew closer to the border and the men were busy with offensive actions, Polisario established a force of elite teenage girls and women to defend the camps. Mariam, then just 16, and her comrades spent their days firing Kalashnikov rifles, digging trenches, and strategizing. She glowed as she recalled it: “We were young, very motivated and pushy girls. We didn’t care about death and dying.” Many years later, in 2004, as peace dragged on with no sign of referendum or return, Mariam petitioned President Mohamed Abdelaziz to be allowed to join the armed forces. (The president and the heads of parliament, the diplomatic corps, and the military are all men, with women’s leadership roles mainly confined to the camps.) Gently, he turned her down, saying the camps’ administration needed her. The well-trained guerrilla fighter was then 38 and serving as the minister of culture.
Public service and family duties had led her away from the battlefield. Instead, she had swiftly climbed the ranks from teacher to minister to governor, all the while caring for a father who had lost a lung in combat, marrying twice, and raising three children. Her two sons, both revolutionaries, were studying medicine in Latin America, determined to return to the camps and join the army. I thought she looked a bit embarrassed when she told me that her daughter was a hairdresser in Spain.
In 2015, Mariam went back to the president and again asked for a military position, this time carrying with her a blueprint to restructure the army, integrate women, and restart offensive operations. He turned her down again. If she had her way, Mariam would be a general in charge of an army of liberation. But as it was, her work as Auserd’s governor meant cultivating order, keeping peace, and convincing the refugees they would soon return home—in spite of her belief that diplomacy no longer held any promise. “I know why Polisario respects the ceasefire, objectively, but I am convinced that resuming war is the only option,” she told me. “We played fair, and now we’re a victim of our own success. We’ll only get our rights back when we go back to war. … Our grandfathers felt sick when they went too long without smelling gunpowder.”
In the 1980s, during the war, Morocco built a heavily militarized sand berm around the part of the free zone that it controlled, which, after the 1991 ceasefire, the United Nations designated as a line of demarcation. It stood unviolated until August 2016, when Morocco sent gendarmes to supervise the paving of an illegal road stretching south of the berm. Polisario deployed its fighters to a position just south of the road and instructed them to prevent the construction from proceeding. The standoff lasted for months.
Six months later, I drove west in a Polisario military convoy, leaving the Tindouf camps for the free zone. Bounded by the Moroccan berm to the west and the Algerian border to the east, the land was mostly flat and dry; only for a few weeks each year do the rains tear open veins across the territory, making it impossible to cross. No sea, no agriculture, no roads, no cell networks, no Internet. Sahrawis liked to come here for the rainy season, leaving the confined feeling of the camps to enjoy the cool, fresh air and feed their herds. “Here we have green pastures and the purest camel milk to live on,” the director of a school in Tifariti, a free-zone settlement, told me. He was in his 40s, his neatly tucked button-down shirt somewhat out of place amid the rusting trucks and bombed-out buildings clearly visible from the school courtyard.
Tifariti was one of a few Polisario-controlled towns that lay just 50 miles south of the berm. The “nomad municipality” of Bir Tighisit, a way station for truckers to refuel and resupply, was humming with activity. There were bakers and butchers and mechanics and stores with spare parts. Shipping containers had been fashioned into convenience stores that sold cartons of American Legend cigarettes and two-liter bottles of fresh camel milk.
The military had been on high alert since the road-building standoff. I visited a tank unit and spoke with its leathery 61-year-old commander, Abdelhay Moy, in his camo-colored tent. Two of his sons, both in their early 20s, were soldiers. “Morocco does whatever it wants, and the UN does nothing to stop it,” he said. “As soldiers, we’re fed up. Our children threaten us every day. They say, ‘Go back to war, or we’ll go shoot the Moroccans.’ Even after 41 years, it seems the conflict is still at its beginning. As fighters, our patience is over.”
I left the free zone for the camps in a convoy of ’80s-era Land Cruisers. The drivers were retired soldiers, largely deaf from gunfire. Only one was younger, and he drove impetuously, his zigzags kicking up dust clouds that blanketed our turbans and sunglasses. Riding next to me was an elder, Bachir, a small, excitable retired schoolteacher with a paunch and a mustache. “All the monotheistic religions were conceived in the desert!” he shouted above the roaring engines.
We drove for 12 hours that day. Late flash floods had turned the sand to sludge, and the impudent younger driver kept leading the convoy into mud pits. The whole convoy would stop, and dozens of passengers would flock to the lame vehicle, gathering rocks and palm fronds to stabilize the path, groaning and pushing until it tore free. By the time the sun sank below the horizon, we’d had no food and were running low on fuel and water. The drive back to the camps felt endless, but late that night we arrived. Once there, I spoke with three young men in skinny jeans, their eyes glued to their smartphones, who echoed the tank commander’s words. “Either we get our land back or we go to war,” one of them said. “We cannot keep waiting for a political solution.”
Over the next year, hope of just such a thing glimmered again and then flickered out. In August 2017, the United Nations had appointed former German president Horst Köhler as the secretary-general’s new envoy for Western Sahara. Five years had passed since the last round of negotiations fell apart when Morocco declared the previous UN envoy, American diplomat Christopher Ross, persona non grata in its “southern provinces.” Ross’s cardinal sin had been his alleged attempt to introduce human rights monitoring into the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission amid mounting evidence that Moroccan security forces were abusing peaceful Sahrawi protesters—especially women. In December 2018 and March 2019, Köhler convened two rounds of talks in Switzerland to relaunch the search for a political solution, before abruptly resigning in May 2019, citing health concerns. Polisario alleged that Morocco’s ally France had used its influence in the UN Security Council to sabotage Köhler’s efforts, prompting him to resign. I suspect he had underestimated how intractable the dossier was, and once he saw for himself, he bailed. New talks are unlikely to happen for some time, but Polisario officials still insist that the long game is working. “The Berlin Wall fell when no one expected it,” Mohamed Khedad, Polisario’s UN representative, told me. “Objectively, the worm is in the fruit.” Maybe so, but increasing numbers of Sahrawi, especially among the youth, are hungry for action, even if that means war.
From 2013 to 2018, I made six trips to the Western Saharan exiled state. Each time, I left inspired by the boldness and endurance of the Sahrawis’ idealism. They were so devoted to their vision of a free future that they were willing to tough it out in camps for decades, against overwhelming odds, to continue their collective struggle. Over time, though, I have begun to wonder: What if independence never comes? How many generations of stateless refugees will this dream world require? To what extent do the camps owe their success to their location, nestled safely inside Algeria’s borders, and to the refugees’ being united by opposition to a common external enemy, Morocco? If Sahrawis do achieve independence, could their system survive, given all the new stresses that would be placed on it? And finally, how often has a revolution elevated women only to cast them aside once its goals were achieved?
Perhaps the most painful reflection is that the matriarchal experiment might just have worked and we’ll never know. Mariam insisted that, long though it had been, the time in the camps had been put to good use, cementing women’s place at the fore of the revolution and refining visionary, accountable forms of political leadership that would translate into capable statecraft. And yet, after so much time and so many false starts, it seems like madness to expect a referendum. So the waiting continues. For the long game to succeed would require nothing short of a miracle.
However, the refugees’ suspended sentence does have some advantages. Many feel they are ahead, not behind. “A lot of countries that seem freer than us don’t have the freedoms we have here,” said Hamdi, a lanky, 21-year-old Sahrawi. He had traveled extensively throughout Western Europe and North Africa, having come of age during the Arab Spring. “Many are ruled by dictators. Someday they will start their own revolutions and experience what we went through. Their own governments occupy them. Just look at how Moroccans live inside their kingdom. They protest and get locked up. The young generation just wants to move to Europe. Here, we are free. We have schools and hospitals, we travel abroad, we can criticize our rulers and communicate with the world. Moroccans cannot.”
Hamdi and his friends were about the same age as Mariam’s sons, who had told her that Polisario should put returning to war to a vote. All the members of this young generation I spoke with agreed. “The UN was not able to provide us with independence, but it cannot stop us from dying a dignified death in war,” one of them said.
For now, Mariam keeps the peace but yearns for war. And she is not alone.
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