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Western Sahara refugee camp attacked

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Sometimes when you're writing, a news item hits you hard.  Yesterday I saw the reports of the Moroccan attack on the Sahrawi refugee camp in Aaiún in Western Sahara in which at least thirteen Sahrawis died from machine gun fire - unarmed civilians were attacked by helicopters.  As ever, the justification seems to be that the Moroccan army suspected that there were armed militants there.  Quite why that justifies an air attack on unarmed civilians is not explained.

Ever since the Spanish withdrawal from its former colony in February 1976, the territory has been disputed with Morocco, Spain, France, Algeria and the US debating how to settle the rival claims to the area.  In amongst all the diplomacy, there is a displaced population of Sahrawi tribes who live in the area.  And of course, there's the mineral wealth and access to the fisheries which attracts international commercial interests.  The Sahrawis are treated as almost incidental.

They are the people who are living in the protest camps in Western Sahara, nominally under the control of Morocco.  The Sahrawis are largely without representation, discriminated against, desperately poor, and even though they have their own government body, the SADR, which is recognised by over forty states, Morocco does not recognise their right to sovereignty.  The UN has been trying to implement a scheme to hold a referendum but the dispute has been around who gets to vote.

In 1975, the Moroccans had organised a "Green March", a movement of 350,000 people into the disputed territory to take over the land, effectively pre-empting any discussion about sovereignty.  In a move that greatly resembled to Israeli occupation of Palestine, settlers were established.  Morocco subsequently argued that these people should also be able to vote in any referendum.

As there are around 300,000 Sahrawis from ten tribes, they would be outnumbered by the settler vote and effectively deprived of self-determination.  For more than thirty years, the struggle has continued with a new generation of Sahrawis growing up under occupation and suffering hardship and discrimination.

I wanted to articulate this situation with perhaps a short story, or something longer.  I created a character who had grown up in the camps, in southern Algeria, someone close to the Polisario Front, the organisation fighting sometimes militarily for Sahrawi independence.  I quickly found myself drawn into the history and the politics of the conflict, and trying to make the character authentic I found a level of complexity that threatens to overburden any plot.

The first thing you realise is that the material on the conflict ranges from the studious academic treatment of the various diplomatic initiatives all of which have failed, through the statements of political positions.  What is missing is the first hand accounts of the people themselves.  Just as you never see a Palestinian in the media talking for himself, the same is true of Sahrawis.  They always have someone, not from their community, talking on their behalf.  And just as history is always written by the victors, it seems sometimes that the experience of the Sahrawis is being packaged and presented by journalists.

This is understandable because a refugee community often does not have the resources required to publish its own accounts.  Political organisations are focussed on the political message, the campaigning.  I'll continue to look for first hand accounts, some of which occasionally appear in the Spanish press, but if anyone knows of anything that might be useful, please add a comment.

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