Four decades ago, tens of thousands of Western Sahara's indigenous population, the Saharawis, fled the advancing Moroccan army and bomber planes across the border into neighbouring Algeria.
Here they set about building what they thought would be temporary refugee camps in one of the most inhospitable parts of the world, the so-called “Devil’s Garden”, where sand-storms are frequent and where temperatures can exceed 50C.
Some 165,000 Saharawis remain in the camps in the Tindouf Province today. Others remain in occupied Western Sahara, one of the world’s most repressive and torturing regimes. And others still live in exile in Spain or in Denmark, like Abba Malainin.
Through the desert
Abba Malainin was seven years old in 1975 when the Moroccan army invaded his home town of El Aaiun, the largest city of Western Sahara, with aerial bombardments with napalm and white phosphorus. A genocide forgotten by the international media, he insists.
“My family and I were living a normal life in El Aaiun with its mild desert climate when our lives were turned upside down by the military invasion by Morocco. Suddenly our lives became a nightmare,” he recalls.
Abba and his family initially settled in the El Aaiun refugee camp (named after the city in Western Sahara) and ended up in the Auserd camp. “There was nothing there at all when we arrived”, he says.
Almost-ambassador in Amager
Today, Abba is the Saharawi liberation movement Polisario’s representative in Denmark. If Denmark had recognized Western Sahara’s republic in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as over 80 other countries have done over the years, he would be an ambassador.
Instead, Abba lives in a small flat in Amager not far from Copenhagen Airport, which is rather practical when he has to travel to and from the refugee camps where his mother and much of his family still live in tents and mud-brick houses with corrugated iron roofs.
Abba goes there either to visit his family or on official Polisario business, making sure that Danish politicians, NGOs and journalists don’t forget the Saharawis and get to see what it is like to live in refugee camps that have stood for 40 years.
A republic in exile
In many ways the Saharawi refugee camps are unlike other refugee camps. The Saharawis managed to build a proto-state in the desert camps. SADR is a member of the African Union and has a government, an elected parliament, a constitution, schools, hospitals, social services and a press service.
According to Abba Malainin, the camps are well organized and the Saharawis are considered the most educated refugees in the world. About 90 percent of the population is literate, which is a dramatic rise from the 10 percent literacy rate when the Saharawis arrived in the camps in 1975. This is also well above the regional average.
But these are nevertheless still refugee camps where there is a constant shortage of water, food and other necessities, resulting in, amongst other things, acute child malnourishment. And the situation is worsening all the time as the international aid that the Saharawis in the camps rely on has been more or less halved since the economic crisis.
Broken promises and inaction
So how will Abba’s family and the thousands of other Saharawis who live in the camps be able to leave the misery of what has been their home for 40 years and return to a liberated and democratic Western Sahara?
Abba Malainin believes that the only way he and his fellow Saharawis can return to their homeland is through the referendum on the status of Western Sahara, which the United Nations have promised the Saharawis for decades.
Achieving such a referendum, which will almost certainly lead to independence for Western Sahara, must come through the collective efforts of the international community and its influential actors, he insists. But decades of inaction from the international community has made a return to war seem an acceptable prospect for many Saharawis, especially the youth.
Listen to our story
“The international community, including the UN and the EU, should exert more pressure on Morocco to avoid a conflict that will benefit no one. And foreign governments and companies must stop making economical agreements and purchasing stolen goods from an occupied country, as this only helps legitimize Morocco’s illegal occupation and keep it financially viable”, Abba Malainin concludes.
The Saharawis are struggling and suffering for their freedom and independence every day in both the refugee camps and in the occupied territories in Western Sahara, he says.
But they need the help of the international community and solidarity movements to put pressure on Morocco and those who aid them, to ensure that the Saharawis will not have to wait another 40 years to escape the refugee camps and Moroccan occupation.
Peter Kenworthy is a freelance journalist for Africa Kontakt and other publications.