Becalmed on the Sahara's ocean of heat: The refugees dreaming of a homeland

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Khalifa Ben Bashir, 77 years old and almost toothless, greeted me at the door of his grey concrete shack beneath the white desert sun. A veteran of the Spanish army of the Sahara, he now lives with 140,000 other Saharawi refugees amid an ocean of heat, waiting - along with his four wives and seven sons - for his return to an independent Arab Democratic Saharan Republic that does not exist.

"We must have children to make up for the thousands we lost in exile," he said, introducing me to his first wife, 41-year-old Fatima. The sand hissed into our faces and Khalifa smiled his broad toothless grin at me - toothless because the faeces-contaminated drinking water rots the teeth and gums of all the refugees by middle age.

The sand creeps through the camp in waves, great windswept seas of grit and dust that creep past the tents and stone huts, moving in front of our eyes, physically passing us - covering our feet, ankle deep - as we talk in the immensity of colourless light or the profound darkness of near-windowless rooms. Hama Nighiha, beneath a roof of corrugated iron, was married to Nami, a Polisario soldier who was killed in 1980.

Living only 200 metres from Khalifa, she has four children by her "martyr" and another four by Mohamed, her second husband. "I met Mohamed in the normal way," she says gently. "You know we have nothing here - no discos, no entertainment, no nothing. So we drink tea and visit each other's huts and Mohamed came one day and we talked and met again and then he said: 'I want to marry you', and asked my mother's permission."

Sirka, Hama's mother, is only 65 but looks as if she is approaching 80, a thin woman in black with beautiful eyes and skin as wrinkled as the sand dunes outside their home. "Many have died in this war so men must be re-born," she says quietly. "The Moroccans are very, very many - the Saharawi people are not. So we must have children."

She has a point. Perhaps 35 million people live in Morocco; the Saharawi population - both in the fetid Algerian camps and in the Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation - number scarcely 200,000. No wonder the United Nations' efforts to arrange a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara collapsed under the weight of identification procedures. Should one include all those who once lived in the region, accepting the Polisario's figure for the camp population of 170,000? Or the Moroccans trucked into Laayoune and the other towns of the Western Sahara to take the place of those who fled to Algeria on the Polisario's orders 22 years ago?

Given the filth in which most of the Saharawis live, their battle for re-birth - in the most literal sense of the word - is an all-consuming one. Daniel Mora-Castro, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' senior water development expert in Tindouf, understands what their struggle means in human terms. He treats their tragedy in scientific terms. "There are very high levels of organic pollution in the drinking water," he says. "There are no latrines in the camps. Water holes are open when the sirocco comes and the wind blows faeces and sand into the water."

Mr Mora-Castro's story builds to a fearful climax that comes quite unexpectedly. "We have a system of measuring the E. coli bacteriological indicator," he goes on. "If it's 0-1 in water it's potable; if it's 1-5, action should be taken. Five to 50 means it needs urgent action. Over 50 per 100 millilitres of water needs drastic action. But we are finding a figure of 2,500. These people are drinking shit soup."

Sulphates in the water act as a laxative. High levels of fluorine mean that 90 per cent of the Saharawis have missing teeth. Iodine in the water has affected thyroid glands; 10 per cent of the population have goitres. Newly-born children have poor respiration - they call it the "blue children's disease" - and no one knows if the contamination has affected the aquifers as well as the wells. Given 185 water hand-pumps in 1983, the Polisario failed to maintain them. Only two still work; there is a cemetery for the rest - no one has thought to cannibalise them for spare parts.

The Saharawi may demand independence - and hope that UN envoy James Baker can provide it for them - but they are at the end of the line. An intensely private people, they now watch aid workers inspecting their homes, deciding how much food they may be allotted. "They feel embarrassed and controlled by the non-governmental organisations," another UN worker says. "These people feel violated when Western people come into their tents to monitor their food. They had rights and now they are being treated like vulgar refugees. People say they prefer to die of hunger rather than have their intimacy violated in this way."

Hama Nighiha has eaten no meat in years. All her children have rotten teeth. But she rejects the idea of defeat. "We are not like the Palestinians," she says. "We still have part of our land - the liberated area [east of the Moroccan sand wall]. This is Algeria and it is not our land - that is why we build no mosques here. We can pray only when we return home."