“To those who endure the wait, the shade will come”, Sahrawi proverb.

Refugees from Western Sahara often refer to their lives as “Gurba” - a collective sentence imposed on their people forcing them to live in endless banishment, permanently homesick for a homeland they cannot reach and far from loved ones they cannot embrace. The Hassanyia language defines “Gurba” as a collective condemnation against Sahrawis in exile who are on an endless search for their promised land, meanwhile living on borrowed land.

Decades after their exodus to Algeria, Sahrawi refugees still await a diplomatic solution to the Western Sahara conflict that will allow them to return home. Most are so young that they have never been to their land.

The Sahrawi refugee camps are in Northwestern Algeria near the town of Tindouf, in an area of the Sahara Desert commonly known as the Hammada or "Desert of deserts" because of its unforgiving climate. Sahrawis have lived there since they were forced to flee their homes in the Western Sahara in 1976, after Morocco and Mauritania invaded. (Read more about the conflict) (Hipervínculo - About the conflict).

While most men went to fight in a war against Morocco and Mauritania, Sahrawi women built basic structures to house schools, clinics and community centres and ran the camps themselves. Women continue to have a central role in Sahrawi society and politics.

Separated for decades from family members who have remained in their occupied homeland, Sahrawi refugees have created a parallel society and government-in-exile known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Although in Algerian territory, the Sahrawi exiles established a system of self-rule, with a constitution and an independent government administration that includes a president, a prime minister and ministries handling areas such as education, health, transportation, culture and security. The SADR government is a founding member of the African Union and is recognised by dozens of countries around the world.

The main refugee camps, known as wilayas, are named after the main occupied cities in the Western Sahara: Dajla, El Aaiún, Ausserd, Smara and Bojador. Rabuni, the administrative center, is home to the SADR government and international NGO’s working in the camps. The camps are subdivided into dairas (towns with mayors) and each has several neighbourhoods mostly run by women. There are also numerous community organisations and cooperatives that work on youth, women, culture and other areas.

The refugees depend on dwindling international humanitarian aid for food, medicine and other goods and services. These resources are administered through the Sahrawi Red Crescent and the Cooperation Ministry. Women community leaders are charged with distributing the aid to families.

The camps suffer from a scarcity of drinking water, sanitation, food and electricity. Medical centres and hospitals are barebones, although the Sahrawi and Cuban medical professionals staffing them are well trained. The extreme climate and lack of basic services are especially hard on the children, who suffer from parasitic, respiratory and skin ailments and many of whom are malnourished. Among the adult population there are high levels of diabetes, asthma and other chronic illnesses, and many pregnant women suffer from anemia. Over half of the refugee population is under the age of 18 and there is chronic unemployment.

The government-in-exile has prioritized education and culture as survival tools to endure the years of waiting and with the hope that these skills will prepare the refugees for an eventual return to their homeland. All the camps have pre-schools and primary schools, and there are several secondary schools. The camps also have post-secondary education and technical programs for various trades. Primary school children spend summers with families in Spain and become fluent Spanish speakers through a program called “Holidays in Peace”.

There is practically a 100% literacy rate in the camps -- a monumental feat for a population that was 95% illiterate when the camps were first built. Many youth study abroad through secondary and university levels, primarily in Algeria and Cuba. Cuba-educated Sahrawis are bilingual and are known as "Cubarawis"; many are doctors and schoolteachers but some graduate in careers such as engineering. A significant amount of Sahrawis also study in Spain.

In addition to international country donors, large NGO’s and the UN, support for the refugees comes from the vast solidarity movement in Spain and other countries. Hundreds of solidarity associations send humanitarian aid, and volunteers are constantly traveling to the camps to conduct trainings and support projects. Most of these organisations are based in Spain but there is a large network of support groups from many other parts of the world.

There are several schools in the camps specialising in culture and the arts that operate within the realm of the Sahrawi Ministry of Culture: The Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, often referred to as the Sahrawi film school, trains the very first generation of Sahrawi filmmakers, while students at the Sahrawi Arts School are trained in visual arts such as painting and sculpture and the Sahrawi Music School trains young musicians.

Scores of international events take place annually in the camps, including FiSahara, ARTifariti, the Sahara Marathon and the International Theatre and Circus Festival.

The refugee camps have community radios and a TV station known as RASD-TV. Both center on educational and community programming.


“Words uttered at night are erased by day”, Sahrawi proverb.

The story of the Western Sahara conflict is filled with heartache and loss. For over a century and a half, its indigenous population, the Sahrawi people, have been colonised and invaded, massacred and separated; persecuted and disappeared. Ultimately, they have also been betrayed by promises not fulfilled. But above all, the story of the conflict in Western Sahara is one of struggle against colonialism and occupation, and of extraordinary resilience and resistance in the face of international neglect.

Western Sahara (hipervínculo a sección About Western Sahara) suffers from one of the world’s most protracted and invisible conflicts. After Spanish colonial rule, a brutal invasion by Morocco, a 16-year war and a 29 year-old ceasefire, Sahrawis still wait for a long-promised referendum on self-determination that the United Nations fails to deliver. For the past decades, they have used diplomacy and creative non violent resistance against an illegal, violent occupation.

A century and a half of Spanish colonialism partially destroyed Sahrawi culture and traditions, as nomadic groups were corralled into new colonial cities and forced into sedentary life and the territory’s vast phosphate reserves were exploited by the Spanish. Those who resisted colonialism were detained, tortured, killed and disappeared. At a time when other parts of Africa were decolonized, in 1973 the Sahrawi organised into a national liberation guerrilla force known as the Polisario Front in opposition to entrenched Spanish rule.

As Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying in late 1975, Spain finally withdrew from the territory. But instead of giving way to a process of decolonization, Madrid allowed neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania to invade. Aspiring to expand its borders to create a “Greater Morocco”, Rabat accompanied the military invasion with a large-scale re-population campaign known as the Green March, with hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians lured to the territory by King Hassan II and settling there with the promise of financial incentives. The invasion was supported militarily by the United States and France, Morocco’s Cold War allies.

Moroccan forces began a campaign of killing and persecution against Sahrawis and thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, fled into the desert by foot, camel and jeeps, leaving family members and homes behind. Morocco bombed the fleeing Sahrawis with napalm and white phosphorous using French-built warplanes. Many more died in the exodus.

Exhausted and terrified, survivors eventually arrived in Southwestern Algeria, where they built and settled in refugee camps (hipervínculo a la sección Sahrawi Refugee Camps) in the heart of the Sahara Desert. While the men went to war with Morocco and Mauritania, the women ran the camps and created a society and government in exile.

Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979. The war between the Polisario and Morocco ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered cease-fire accord and a promise of a "free and fair" referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize the population census and the vote, and the UN Security Council has refused to implement its own referendum plan or allow its peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, to monitor the human rights situation in the territory —a key demand of Sahrawis and international human rights organizations. Economic and geopolitical interests have kept the world’s major powers from allowing Western Sahara’s people to choose their own future through a democratic vote on self-determination.

The last resolution approved by the Council on a plan for self-determination called for a five-year autonomy under Sahrawi political leadership followed by a referendum that would allow Sahrawis to choose between remaining under Moroccan rule, becoming an autonomous region or full independence. Known as the Baker Plan (named after former US Secretary of State James Baker, who was then the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Western Sahara), it languishes since 2003, when it was approved. Morocco has refused to allow the plan to go forward and insists that the option of independence is off the table.

As a stalwart Moroccan ally, France has been a major obstacle to a resolution and blocked all attempts for human rights monitoring by the UN peacekeeping mission. Spain has also refused to assume its responsibilities as a former colonial power and has repeatedly sided with Rabat in its proposed plan for autonomy for Western Sahara, which the Polisario rejects. The UN Security Council convenes each year to renew MINURSO’s mandate with little additional debate, a time when Sahrawis usually take to the streets to demand the adoption of human rights monitoring and the celebration of the referendum.

Since signing the ceasefire, the Sahrawi people have embraced diplomacy and non-violent resistance as their chosen form of struggle. But UN-brokered negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, whose diplomats represent the Sahrawi people, have been stalled for many years. An attempt to rekindle the talks in the Spring of 2019 ended with no progress towards a solution.


“Sahrawis are known as the sons of the clouds because they always chase the rain. They also chase justice, which is more evasive than water in the desert”. Eduardo Galeano.

Most people have never heard of Western Sahara, a territory in Northwestern Africa whose long coastline stretches along the Atlantic Ocean: south of Morocco, north of Mauritania and west of Algeria. Western Sahara is currently one of the world's 17 territories listed by the United Nations as “non-self-governing,” and for the past 45 years, most of its land has been violently occupied by Morocco.

The indigenous population of Western Sahara are known as the Sahrawi. With Arab, Berber (Amazigh) and Black African roots, Sahrawis have a rich history and culture dating back thousands of years that depend on intergenerational oral transmission for survival. For over a century of Spanish colonial rule, they struggled to preserve their identity and cultural practices in the face of forced sedentarization and assimilation. More recently, cultural repression under Moroccan occupation and the severe lack of resources in exile present the greatest threats to their survival as a people.

The Sahrawi speak a form of Arabic known as Hassanyia and their traditional home is the haima, a desert tent used both for living and to house their numerous cultural traditions.

Often referred to as Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule until 1975, when Spain withdrew from the territory and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to invade. A 16-year war ensued between the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi national liberation movement, and Morocco (read more here — hipervínculo a la sección The Conflict); Mauritania withdrew in 1979. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire and a promise of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people that has never been held.

Half of the Sahrawi population fled to Algeria in 1976 and settled in refugee camps (read more here — hipervínculo a la sección Sahrawi Refugee Camps) while the other half remained in the territory under Moroccan occupation (read more here — hipervínculo a la sección Occupied Western Sahara). Some Sahrawis, mostly nomads, live in the area known as the “Liberated territories”, a stretch of Western Sahara under Sahrawi control.

Every Sahrawi family suffers from the tragedy of longterm separation from loved ones. Western Sahara is home to the world’s longest fortified separation wall, which was built by Morocco with US, Saudi and Israeli support with the purpose of stopping Sahrawis who fled from entering the territory under its control. Sahrawis call it “the wall of shame”.

Measuring about 2700 kilometers in length and stretching along the territory like a long scar, the wall stands between Sahrawis in exile and those under Moroccan occupation, dividing the occupied from the liberated Western Sahara. The berm boasts the world’s largest minefield, with an estimated seven million landmines buried in the sand that kill and maim Sahrawi nomads and their children every year. Over one hundred thousand Moroccan soldiers are deployed there.

The occupied part of Western Sahara is rich in natural resources, including phosphates and plentiful fishing. A fair amount of the seafood eaten by Europeans comes from its seas, although it is labeled and sold as Moroccan. Sahrawi phosphates used for agriculture are extracted and sold by a Moroccan state-owned company and shipped in large quantities to countries whose citizens are unaware that their rightful owners have not been paid for the resources. Western Sahara’s southern coastline boasts beautiful beaches and spectacular sand dunes, a magnet for kite surfers and other tourists unaware that a few hundred meters from their hotels and resorts lives one of the most repressed populations in the world.

On the liberated side, Western Sahara is landlocked but breathtakingly beautiful, with rivers, valleys and stunning rock formations. Some regions such as Leyuad are a source of inspiration for Sahrawi poets and storytellers, who travel there to “drink from the wells of poetry”. Sahrawi refugee families travel from the camps to the area in the summer in search of respite from the oppressive heat of the Hammada. Nomads in search of rain are constantly on the move in the territory with their camels, and there are small settlements such as Tifariti. The region is patrolled by the Sahrawi military. Along the separation wall, Sahrawi de-mining teams work to rid the land of millions of landmines planted by Morocco.