Misc 21/11/2020

Young Catalan Saharawis go to war

They drop everything to fight for a land they have never set foot on

Cristina Mas
4 min
Refugiats sahrauís tallant el pas fronterer de Guerguerat.

BarcelonaThey were born in the middle of the desert, in the inhospitable refugee camps of Algeria, and came to Catalonia as children, first to spend the summer holidays and then welcomed by families who gave them the opportunity to study. Now they are leaving everything behind to go fight for a land they have never been able to set foot in, and which they only know thanks to the stories their grandparents told them. Young Saharawis from all over Europe are now returning to the camps after the Polisario Front declared war on Morocco last week for having broken the ceasefire signed in 1991 - when they were not yet born.

Mohamed Khalil, a 28-year-old doctor, has stopped studying for his MIR tests in order to respond to what he considers a "historical moment". From his home in Mataró he has only taken his stethoscope and some clothes. "We have to go and help our army: the Saharawi people have been massacred by Morocco since 1975 with the complicity of the UN, France, the United States and Spain. Now Morocco has broken the cease-fire and the people have decided to take up arms", he explains in a telephone conversation from the refugee camp of Tindouf, in Algeria, where he was able to travel from Mauritania despite the closure of borders due to the pandemic. He is waiting for orders to start specific training for health workers so that he can go to the front. He says that only grandparents, mothers and children are left in the camps. The rest are in the military training schools. "A martyr is a hero."

They are a frontier generation. Their parents and grandparents fought in the war and they were born as refugees. They have always lived with the hope of returning to their land. Years ago in the camps the youth demanded that the old Polisario leaders take up arms again. Under pressure and in international oblivion, the leaders have decided to tighten the rope until war is declared after the Moroccan army illegally entered their territory to open the way for goods coming from Guerguerat, on the border with Mauritania, which has been blocked by Saharawi demonstrators since October 21st.

Lehbib Sidahmed, who has been living in Catalonia for 14 years with a foster family and is working as a social integrator in a centre for minors, is also preparing to pack his bags. "I don't have a passport, but I've asked for a travel document. I'll leave as soon as I can", he explains from Dosrius. His biological family lives in the "liberated" territories under the control of the Polisario, and his father, who is a military man, is mobilized at the front.

"We will not wait for another 30 years"

"After 30 years waiting for a way out, we have no choice but to take up arms if we do not want our children to be born in the desert too. We don't like it, but there is no other way. When all of this starts, we cannot look back." He admits that he is afraid of losing his father in the war and that it is also difficult for him to separate from his Catalan family, which he considers equally his own: "I am afraid, but it is a fear full of rage, because the solution for my people should not cost any lives".

However, on the ground the situation is very uncertain. No images of deaths or fighting have come in, but the Polisario says it is carrying out attacks along the entire 2,900 kilometre stretch of the Moroccan wall that separates its territory. Despite its military superiority, Morocco prefers to say that nothing is going on, and has ratified its commitment to a ceasefire that benefits the country, because time is playing in their favour. Sidahmed affirms that he believes in a referendum but he has already lost hope that it will be the path to self-determination: "The ones who should guarantee the referendum have not done anything in 45 years".

There are also girls who are willing to take up arms, like Nora Mulay, a 25-year-old business administration student who lives with her host family in Olesa de Montserrat. Her father is in the territories under the control of the Polisario and her brother is at the front lines. "All of us young people are ready to fight. Everyone is travelling downwards. I have a friend who has already arrived in Mauritania. No one has given us the order or provided the means. This has been decided by the Saharawi youth. Our chance has come".


1. When did the conflict start?

The war began in 1975, when Western Sahara was a Spanish colony and was awaiting a U.N.-driven referendum on self-determination. The King of Morocco, Hassan II, ordered a march of 350,000 people to occupy the territory.

2. Which ceasefire has been broken?

In 1991, the Polisario Front and Morocco signed an armistice which established that a binding referendum on the future of the occupied territories would be held under the auspices of the UN. Saharawi people are still stranded between the refugee camps in Algeria, from where they had fled the war, and the territories under occupation by Morocco, which refuses to hold the referendum.

3. What does Spain say?

Despite its historical responsibility, Spain avoids positioning itself regarding the self-determination of the former colony. Madrid cooperates with Morocco controlling the dinghies that arrive in the Canary Islands, and also those that arrive from Western Sahara.