x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Saharawi families reunited in bid to build trust

Some of the thousands of people separated by conflict over the Western Sahara are now meeting relatives, some for the first time.

Mohamed Barri with his sister Kouria, left, and their mother, Saadi Hatra, centre, in the family's house in Laayoune, Western Sahara.
Mohamed Barri with his sister Kouria, left, and their mother, Saadi Hatra, centre, in the family's house in Laayoune, Western Sahara.

LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara // Last July, a United Nations plane touched down in Moroccan-held Western Sahara, and Mohamed Barri, a communication ministry official, looked for the first time on the face of his brother, Hamadi, a refugee visiting from Algeria after three decades of war and stalemate.

"We went to the beach, we went dancing, it was a party," said Mohamed Barri, 34. And, he said, they swapped views on the future of Western Sahara, the disputed desert territory where both of them were born. The brothers are among thousands of Saharawis divided by conflict over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony largely annexed by Morocco in 1975 and contested by the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement.

This year they briefly reunited through a programme of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Called the Confidence Building Measures (CBM), it enables family visits while giving Morocco and the Polisario a humanitarian arena in which to co-operate and build trust. Tension over Western Sahara has risen recently as Morocco has jailed, and in one case expelled, Saharawi activists it accuses of working for the Polisario, which the Polisario says could threaten UN-led peace talks launched in August.

Last week, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, appealed for calm. Both sides remain committed to the talks, the UN's latest attempt to resolve a conflict that destabilises North Africa and severely cripples economic growth there. Morocco and the Polisario have also agreed to supplement the CBM's weekly flights with land travel between Western Sahara and Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria. The conflict has split about 200,000 Saharawis between the two locations.

Saharawis descend from Yemeni nomads who entered Western Sahara in the 14th century and mingled with Berber tribes, herding livestock, dabbling in commerce and plundering desert caravans. Spanish colonisers arrived in the 19th century, attracted by rich fishing banks and later phosphates. When Spain withdrew in 1975, neighbouring Morocco invaded, claiming historical ties, and later raised a 2,500km defensive berm to keep out raids by the Polisario, which had previously contested Spanish rule.

Around half of Western Sahara's population fled across the desert to Algeria, where they live today in dusty camps of canvas tents and mud-brick houses. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 meant to allow a referendum on independence, but disagreements over voter lists have prevented it. Today the Polisario still wants that referendum, while Morocco proposes limited autonomy instead. Meanwhile, Saharawi families remain partitioned from one another: cousin from cousin, brother from sister, parent from child.

The CBM was partially created as a means to reunite families. Since the programme began in 2004, it has enabled over 9,200 Saharawis from some 2,200 families to meet in Western Sahara or the refugee camps, travelling in UN aeroplanes. "Every week I see families meeting each after a long separation," said Fathia Abdalla, the CBM's head of operations. "These are very emotional moments." However, they are just a trickle of the 41,000 Saharawis registered for the programme. The wait is about 14 years, with priority given to the old and infirm. The planned land route would reduce the wait by about two thirds and allow visits to lengthen to 12 days from the current five.

Even five days make a difference, said Sidi, 15, a student from Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city. In July, he boarded a sleek UN turboprop, soared for two hours over dunes, rocks and the Moroccan berm, landed at the town of Tindouf, Algeria, and was transported to the nearby refugee camps he left as a baby in 1995 with his parents. "I met my grandmother for the first time," he recalled, sipping green tea with his mother and siblings in their Laayoune apartment. "I spent five days with her, talking every day. She's old but she still has her health."

He had seen her face in photographs and heard her voice over a telephone line, thanks to the appearance in the camps of mobile phones, the internet and telephone centres built by the CBM. "But talking on the phone is not the same as sitting face-to-face with a person," said Sidi's mother, Fatima Ferkana. CBM officials stress the strictly humanitarian nature of the programme, a logistical ballet requiring co-ordination among the UN, Morocco, the Polisario and Algeria.

While the CBM and its personnel do not get involved in political issues, UN leaders hope that co-operating on the programme will help nudge Moroccan and Polisario leaders towards mutual trust. Meanwhile, in the quiet of his house down a side-street in Laayoune, Mohamed Barri enjoyed a private and unofficial exchange of views with his brother, Hamadi. "He's a Polisario official, I'm with the Moroccan monarchy," Mohamed Barri said. "That's too awkward to talk about over the phone. But sitting together, we could say plainly what we wish for."

When it was time for Hamadi to return to the camps, his sisters wept. But not Mohamed. "I look at the future," Mohamed said. "I am sure that one day we will live together, one way or another." jthorne@thenational.ae