From heat and dust to water-world

The refugee children of Western Sahara live in an arid desert camp, forced by civil war from their mother country. But each summer, a few are brought to Britain for a holiday. And what do they like best? Ice cream and the seaside...
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The Independent Online

It's a bright summer day, with clouds sitting high in the sky and a light wind ruffling the surface of the boating lake in Cardiff's Roath Park. I'm sitting in a boat with two 10-year-old children, who are laughing and splashing each other. Suddenly, they and their friends in boats alongside them start clapping and singing a song in uncertain English. "Saharawi refugee, we cannot live in our country/ In order to be free, we have to leave our family." The song goes on for a few verses and then peters out, amid more laughter and splashing.

It's a bright summer day, with clouds sitting high in the sky and a light wind ruffling the surface of the boating lake in Cardiff's Roath Park. I'm sitting in a boat with two 10-year-old children, who are laughing and splashing each other. Suddenly, they and their friends in boats alongside them start clapping and singing a song in uncertain English. "Saharawi refugee, we cannot live in our country/ In order to be free, we have to leave our family." The song goes on for a few verses and then peters out, amid more laughter and splashing.

It's an odd scene, a strange mixture of fun and pathos. The children are here on a holiday organised by the Western Sahara Campaign, an interlude from their everyday lives in some of the oldest, but least-known, refugee camps in the world. Those refugee camps, based in the Saharan desert in a corner of Algeria, house tens of thousands of people, the "Saharawi", who were pushed out of Western Sahara by Morocco when it occupied the country in 1975.

Metu Mustafa, a confident 25-year-old Saharawi woman, who has accompanied the children on their trip to Britain, tries to explain to me what life is like in those forgotten camps. "It is very hard there. Very, very hard. There are no trees, no water, no sea, no flowers. Only desert." When I ask the children what they like about Britain, their responses are immediate. They like the trees and the flowers. One 10-year-old boy, Saliq, looks across the lake, with its ducks and green willows fringing the shores. He looks at me and grins, gives me a thumbs up sign and says something. Metu translates. "This is the best thing he's seen," she says.

But these children wouldn't want to stay here for more than a holiday, no, they want to go home - not home to the refugee camps in Tindouf, but home to their own country, Western Sahara. All of them were born in the refugee camps and they have never seen Western Sahara, but they know all about it. It's the dream on the horizon, a paradise which lies behind them and, they hope, in front of them.

"Western Sahara, it has the most beautiful coast, the most beautiful fish," says Saliq. "My mother has told me all about it. It is the most beautiful country in the world," says Salahi, a 13-year-old with an expression that is serious beyond his years. "It is a wonderful country, and if we were there we would be the nicest, happiest, most respectable people."

The Saharawi must hold on to the hope of that return. Otherwise, life in the rocky corner of Algeria, which is all they can call their own, would be insupportable. After their interlude on the boats, the children drift through the park and end up by the ice-cream van, eating 99 cones like all the Welsh kids around them in the bright sunshine. But this isn't really hot to the Saharawi kids. They keep their jackets and hats on - all bought by the charitable donations that have made their holiday possible. In the camps where they live, summer temperatures can reach 48 degrees, and life becomes a daily struggle. If it rains on this holiday, it will be the first rain these children have seen for five years. "We have no electricity, nothing. No water that runs," Metu explains. The Saharawi rely on international aid for everything, including food and even water, which is provided by Algerian tankers.

What's possibly tougher than the physical hardships is the odd psychological situation of life in the refugee camp. "This is the hardest thing in life," says Salahi. "To grow up away from your country. Never seeing its trees. This is too hard." The situation of the Saharawi in their camps is essentially not much different from the situation of the Palestinians in their camps in the West Bank, Gaza or Jordan. It's a life lived in limbo, a life scratched out of inhospitable conditions and reliant on international aid, a life dominated by tales of past injustice and expectation of future return. But the Palestinians can at least see their plight dominating the international agenda. They know they give Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan a few sleepless nights. The Saharawi, on the other hand, know that no one is listening.

After the bitter fighting of 1975 and its aftermath, when Morocco first moved into Western Sahara, the Saharawi independence movement - Polisario - fought a guerrilla war against the Moroccans throughout the Eighties. But for the last 10 years a ceasefire has held, above all because of the expectation of a UN-sponsored referendum on independence. That referendum was first arranged for 1992, but has been postponed year after year as the Moroccans wrangle about who should be eligible to vote. It currently looks as far away as ever. A UN-brokered meeting is due to be held this September between representatives of Polisario and Morocco, but if the outcome is unsatisfactory, Lehbib Breika, the deputy representative of Polisario in London, told me: "There is now a chance of a return to armed conflict."

Just before their trip in the boats, the British foreign minister Peter Hain turns up for a quick photo-opportunity with the children, who crowd around him, looking eager but rather puzzled. When Metu tries to ask him whether the West will press Morocco to agree terms for the referendum, he looks non-committal. "I'm not promising anything," he says hastily. "We'll do what we can." He smiles, and then he is gone, off to his next appointment.

The Saharawi have waited 25 years in their desert tents, but these children attest to the sense of a growing impatience with the current situation. When I ask them how they see the future, they speak of two alternatives - independence, or war. One 13-year-old boy walks with a limp and has to use a crutch to get about, but even he knows what he will be doing when he is older. "If there is no independence, I will be a fighter. If not, I will be a doctor or another job. Yes, I would like best to be a doctor, it's the best job, but..." He stops talking and fires an imaginary gun in the air, and then shrugs. "I think I must fight."

All the boys receive military training, and when I ask them what their fathers do, I get one of two answers: their father died in the fighting or is a soldier and lives in Polisario's military bases. For them, future conflict is a constant threat. Salahi looks even more serious when I ask him what he will do when he grows up. "I am very worried," he says. "I don't want to go to war, but I think this might happen. I don't like to see children running from guns. I want to see children running for fun."

Prospects for a compromise granting Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty - hinted at by King Mohammed VI of Morocco last November - now seem distant. Certainly among this group of children and the two adults who accompany them, the legacy of injustice seems to bite too deep for such a settlement. At one point, as we drive through the suburbs of Cardiff, Metu tells me about her father, and her voice is rich with anger. He was captured by Moroccan authorities, way back in 1975, and, like hundreds of other Saharawi prisoners, has never been heard of since. "Not a letter, not a telephone call - nothing," she tells me. But she still holds onto the belief that he may be alive in a Moroccan prison, and she won't give up until she knows.

What's more, like most of the refugees in the camps, she has family who still live in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, including a grandmother and grandfather whom she saw for the first time earlier this year in a meeting in Mauritania. "You can't imagine," she says, when I ask what it was like. "My family don't know me. I was born in refugee camps. We were crying a lot." But although she had never met her family before, she has heard about their lives under Moroccan rule, and what she has heard has kept her anger against Moroccoalive. For instance, as the latest Amnesty International report on the region documents, peaceful protests by Saharawi students in Western Sahara last September were violently broken up, and dozens of Saharawis were beaten and imprisoned.

At the end of their day in the sunshine, the group of 10 children are divided among the Welsh families who are looking after them for this part of their holiday. One by one, the children shake my hand and try out their few words of English. "One day," says Lqefa Eslam, their teacher, "you will come and visit me in my home country. I will welcome you there."

The Western Sahara Campaign UK can be contacted c/o Oxford Chambers, Oxford Place, Leeds LS1 3AX, 0113-245 4786

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