With Bare Feet, She Fled
Fatma closed her eyes as the warm sand blew across her toes. She stood among the circles of tents that made up Guelta, her home, a small village in the desert of Western Sahara. It was a lively area in a territory that was seemingly untouched, harsh, desert land. For centuries though, the Saharawi people had touched this land. They had tread their feet across its sand and sought shade under its trees. They had laid with it, fought with it, and lived off it, a nomadic way of life part of their culture and their history.
During the divide of the African continent in the late 1800s, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain, establishing borders that disturbed the nomadic ways of the Saharawi people. Spain had obtained the smallest region of any colonial power, but the area was not barren. Resource-rich with phosphates, prospective oil sources, and a vast coastline, Spanish leaders were especially intent on maximizing their new land in the northwest of Africa. They approached the newly Spanish Sahara with tenacity, eager to fill what was seen as a meager population and an absence of development. Saharawi development, however, was as forceful as the powerful desert winds. It grew from the nomadic roots of Fatma’s people, whose civilization was not defined by bustling cities and infrastructure, but firm values and principles. Most importantly, family.
It was Fatma’s turn to search for her cousins in their game of hide-and-seek. She knew the ins and outs of Guelta with her eyes closed: her grandparents’ tent where she lived as the eldest grandchild. It was a smooth, intricate black weave of sheep’s wool and goat’s hair that opened to a sanctuary of colorful rugs lining the walls and floor. Her grandmother’s kitchen: a small brick room just feet away, filled with the mouthwatering aroma of fresh camel meat being roasted, where her mother and aunts would gather to make bread from a sweet blended barley dough of milk and honey. The homes of her uncles and their families — tents arranged in a circle around that of her grandparents.
All of Guelta was arranged like this, hundreds of people organized into clusters for each family, creating a togetherness they all understood. The grandparents’ home was always the center to which their children, once married, would build around. The vibrant Saharawi life that Fatma lived happened in that center; sharing tea, praying, telling stories. On occasion their pet goat, Safara, wanting to share in the family’s excitement, would poke her head into the tent to steal some warm bread. Fatma felt light as she ran through the village.
It was the end of 1975 and many things had changed over the last two years. Excluding Western Sahara, much of Africa had been liberated from the colonial powers. The United Nations began urging Spain to give the Saharawi people back their independence, but progress was slow. People grew tired of living under Spanish rule and a group of young civilians formed the Polisario Front — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro — two years before. A liberation movement advocating for their freedom, it indicated the two territories in Western Sahara: Saguia el-Hamra in the North and Rio de Oro in the South. Pressures for autonomy had also increased in the preceding years as Morocco, newly independent from France, made claims of ownership to land in Western Sahara. Both Morocco, bordering the north, and Mauritania, bordering the southeast, noticed the potential for development.
Fatma’s father and his five brothers had joined Polisario Front, as all the Saharawi men did, but to Fatma nothing had changed. She didn’t know that a major political shift was underway.
In the weeks prior, King Hassan I of Morocco had led the Green March, a mass demonstration of 350,000 Moroccan civilians, on foot across the border into Western Sahara. It was a final push from Morocco to signal their intent to claim the land and pressure Spain out of Africa. Fatma didn’t feel the ground shake as hundreds of thousands of footsteps crossed into her land but the tranquil sand of the Sahara was stirred. Clouds of dust formed as Spain relinquished their control, signing an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, transferring to them the rights to Western Sahara.
It was late afternoon and the sun began its descent through the sky. Fatma caught up to one of her cousins, their giggles filling the cool air. An unfamiliar sound overwhelmed their ears and they stopped, silent. Fatma looked around, forgetting their games and curious to see from where the noise emerged. A crow, she thought, a large black figure soaring toward her in the sky. A second passed and the noise was so loud that it even fooled with Fatma’s vision — she could barely see. Her confusion kept her still and she watched things abruptly release from the figure, turning to flames as they reached the earth. A plane, she realized. The first one she had ever seen. Fatma stared in wonderment at the mechanics of two planes as they circled above the village, dropping bombs with aggressive precision.
“Come on! Come on! Come on!”
Fatma’s attention was drawn back to eye level as she heard the frantic screams of many women. She saw mothers running toward them with an urgency that filled Fatma with fear. What’s happening? The hundreds of people in the village formed a collective chaos. The women ran, screaming for their children — all the children — trying to keep the melfas that draped past their feet from being caught in the flames engulfing their homes. Terror rose inside Fatma. She ran back and forth, disoriented, searching for her family.
“Gabula! Gabula!” she screamed her grandmother’s name. The flames grew as they swallowed tents whole, making it harder for Fatma to see.
Suddenly, she felt someone grasp her hand. My aunt. Without stopping or exchanging words, they ran out of the village, her bare feet barely touching the ground.
Bombs cascading through the sky behind them, Fatma and her aunt ran, stumbling over stones and through bushes to seek cover a few miles out of Guelta. They didn’t have time to look for the rest of the family and sought cover under a large tree, the dense branches draping heavily around them, providing shelter. Fatma’s light cotton pants were torn from the bushes and stones they sprinted through but she didn’t care. The two of them stood, breathing heavy from the long run, and stared at Guelta — their home.
After a few minutes, Fatma’s aunt, still shaking, looked around the tree for a place to sit. Instead, she found a heavy gas tank in the bushes behind them. Panic-stricken, she ran, screaming, hoping for anyone to respond. Fatma gripped the side of her aunt’s melfa as they took flight again, the white flowers that decorated the black material wilting as it trailed behind her. Half a mile away, they heard voices call out. They found people from the village, crowded into hollows at the bottom of a tree-covered hill, hidden from Guelta. Their family was not there and no space was left for either of them to seek shelter. But Fatma sat down, glad that the fires were out of sight. The hollows filled with the sobs and prayers of the terror-stricken women. It was mostly women, all the able-bodied men having left for the Polisario military area weeks before. Fatma hadn’t seen her father in almost a month but it hadn’t worried her. Now, it did.
For hours the group stayed crouched under the trees, fighting sturdy tree roots for space to sit. They couldn’t see anything but heard planes whirring in the sky and the crackling fire whipping down their tents. After nearly 10 hours, the sky was finally quiet.
Polisario had anticipated these attacks and feared for its people. The men were outside of the villages, assembling evacuation plans and conducting military preparations. Polisario asked all Saharawi people with vehicles to lend them to the liberation movement. No one hesitated or insisted that their vehicles be returned — everyone had a duty. When the bombing began in Guelta, it was a hideous surprise. The liberation movement, however, had planned for this. It meant not that Polisario had accepted the occupation, but that it had accepted its responsibility to protect its people.
It was one o’clock in the morning when the women around Fatma urged everyone out of the shelter and fearfully led them away from the trees. Saharawi women had always been strong but there was a new kind of strength. It was their duty.
They guided them down to the village. Fatma and her aunt reached the area where their home was, finding their family there waiting. Fatma ran to her grandparents, relieved to see them. For just a moment, they stared at the tent they shared. The pinks, purples, and blues of the vibrant rugs that lined the walls and floors of their tent were replaced with burnt thread. The bricks of their kitchen had crumbled, tiny charred pieces strewn across the sandy courtyard. The only color left was the blistering orange of the flames that still burned.
The horrors of what had happened pushed adrenaline through the women. Fatma watched her mother and aunts furiously gather whatever food and materials they could find. They moved at high-speed, petrified that more planes would return. Fatma cried quietly, images of the crow, the planes, and the fire replaying over and over in her head.
Fifteen minutes passed and men started to appear in the village, and with them, Fatma’s father. Everyone in the family was thankful to see him after weeks away. Her grandparents started greeting him, a lengthy custom but one that is obligatory whenever someone returns.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum!” her grandfather offered to his son.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Let’s go!” he yelled firmly, not stopping, sifting through the ash for anything recognizable. He left their greeting unanswered, confirming the dire need to leave at once. Her family grabbed what they could, Fatma carrying only her cat Bisa, her warm body filling Fatma’s small arms.
Together they left Guelta. On foot.
She walked in silence, barefoot, behind her father. It was dark and she had never walked this far from home. She couldn’t see the ground beneath her, small stones and sticks cutting her feet. Her father left her questions unanswered, the wind whistling past her ears only magnifying the silence. For 30 minutes they walked, though to Fatma it felt as if hours had passed on the dark path. They stopped under a clump of trees, three Land Rovers waiting in a line beneath them. People slowly emerged from the cover of the bushes, waiting to confirm Fatma and her family’s Saharawi identity before safely uncovering themselves. There were eight families total, none of whom Fatma knew, but they would travel together. The men directed people toward the Land Rovers and they moved quickly, still silent. Eighteen people loaded into each vehicle, twice as many as would comfortably fit. Water and petrol were packed in the trucks, the two absolute necessities. There was no time for questions. There was no time for anything.
Fatma sat in the back of the uncovered truck, Bisa curled in her lap. She looked across at her grandparents, their discomfort painful to see as they shifted on the cold metal bed of the vehicle. Her father climbed into the driver’s seat and started the Land Rover without hesitation. It was almost 4 a.m. and he could only drive until sunrise. It was too dangerous to turn on the headlights with the chance of being seen. A man Fatma didn’t recognize sat next to him, his arm out the window, shining a flashlight to guide their path. There were no roads. They had no maps or even a compass, but neither did their ancestors. The capacity to which they knew their land was the same as the nomadic generations before them. They didn’t need signs — the stars would guide them.
Rocking in and out of sleep, Fatma felt the Land Rover stop. It was almost sunrise and the three vehicles parked together. The Saharawi people had often traveled in caravans, tall rows of camels treading across the desert in elegant lines, carrying people and their things. The caravan of vehicles was not unlike this: no one was to travel alone and if one truck stopped, all of them stopped. When the tires of one got stuck in the sand, everyone unloaded, helping to layer branches under the tires and push it forward. Their flock, however, did not move with patience and peace. Rather, it was an aggressive herd, fueled by fear. Two of the car batteries were too weak to start on their own, needing the third’s charge to trek on. The sense of fear within Fatma intensified each time the vehicle in which she rode reached the back of the caravan, images of soldiers invading her every second. Where are we going? Fatma thought. Her father seemed to know, but would not say.
Just before sunrise, people unloaded, many looking for their families whom they had been separated from during the ride. “Gather as many branches and leaves as you can. We have to cover the trucks,” another driver instructed. Fatma put Bisa down and ran to the nearest trees. Everyone from the eight families snapped off branches and collected wide palm leaves. Fatma worked next to her grandparents, noticing they had become weak from the journey. She thought for a moment about their home, wishing she was lying down to sleep near them — her stomach full and warm after some tea — as she had done every night since she could remember.
After collecting enough for coverage, they arranged the branches into the back of each truck using string to support them, doing their best to mimic years of photosynthesis. To Fatma, it looked like trees had grown from the earth at high-speed through the metal bed of the trucks. From the Moroccan planes looking down from the sky, it hopefully looked like a group of trees, their branches overgrown. To the Saharawi men and women, it looked like survival.
For three days they traveled like this: hiding during the day and driving through the night. Layers of dust slowly piled on Fatma’s skin as she sat in the back of the uncovered truck. Even Bisa’s white spots had turned dark brown. New scrapes appeared every day as she covered herself with branches for camouflage and laid on the ground, each spot harder than the last.
It was midday, and the people standing on watch — who had been silent for hours — called out to the rest of the group who lay hidden in their makeshift leaf covers.
“Soldiers! Over there! Soldiers, we must hide! Don’t move!” Everyone stiffened, trying to meld right into the earth. Hours passed. Fatma started to feel like she had willed herself to disappear. A few people courageously uncovered themselves to assess the safety of the 50 Saharawi people, still cringed under the branches.
“Animals. It’s only animals,” they confirmed. The families shared a moment of relief but it passed almost instantly. They were still in danger.
All Fatma had to eat was some dry bread that had been salvaged from the fires days before. One family offered their small pot of rice to share between the large group. There was barely any water and Fatma was thirsty. Her hair was heavy with dust and she was growing weary of the silence. Fatma wondered who they were hiding from. She wondered where they were going.
After sharing their meal, the caravan reloaded and began on another unknown path. A few minutes passed and Fatma felt panicked.
“Bisa! I left Bisa!” she began crying and her father stopped the truck, the whole caravan coming to a halt.
“We have to go back! She’s back where we ate, she’s alone!”
It was dark as all three Land Rovers turned around, reversing their path — a cat to be retrieved. Everyone unloaded at the spot where they had eaten and searched for Bisa, calling her name. Fatma heard a faint sound from one of the trees. On the top branch sat Bisa, unsure about leaving her shelter in the leaves. Fatma coaxed her down and they all returned to their crouched spots in the Land Rovers, part of what felt like a cruel new routine.
Falling into an unsettling sleep, she awoke to her father’s voice at full volume. People were talking. Shouting, even! The mood shifted and Fatma saw some of the tension in her mother’s face release. Anguish and relief battled to take over, neither winning. Her mother’s family lived in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara and the area closest to the Moroccan border. Like many women, her mother’s heart was torn with thoughts of her parents in the center of the attacks but she couldn’t leave Fatma and her three siblings — she knew they would need her.
They drove another few miles as anticipation grew. They looked strange, but Fatma could see many tents. Her vehicle leading the caravan, her father stopped at what looked like a checkpoint. A Polisario coordinator was guarding it and directed her father to follow him. The Land Rover drove down a bumpy, unestablished road, jostling everyone around in the back as they stared at the rows of tents set up. They stopped, unloaded, and each family was shown to a distinct area in which they must stay. Fatma watched as her father said goodbye to her grandparents and walked back to the vehicle. Where is he going?, she thought, sprinting after him.
“I’m coming too!” she yelled, trying to climb into the bed of the truck, her legs too short to reach on her own.
“No, Fatma,” he said sternly.
“But why? Where are you going?” she pleaded.
“I have to go back, I still have some work to do,” he said.
Her father had to transport people from Western Sahara through the border into Algeria, where they now were. They had just arrived in the Desert of the Hamada. A safety zone in a war that had just begun.
Fatma looked around her. Her mother and aunts were working quickly, gathering clothes they had managed to bring from Guelta to sew together into what would be their new homes. Polisario coordinators seemed to be directing people all around her. She didn’t know what was happening but she did not want to think about Guelta.
She looked down, her feet still bare.
1 Year into the War
Narrative title photo: Traditional Saharawi tents in the camps (Provided by Fatma)
Section title photo: Sand dunes in the Libyan Tadrat Acacus desert, part of the Saharan desert (Wikipedia)
Fatma closed her eyes as water from the warm Mediterranean washed over her feet. Her heart pounded fast in her chest as she fought the urge to run back to the familiar dry sand, the crash of each wave evoking both fear and wonderment. Her classmates squealed around her, young boys and girls, some still in their clothes, running in and out of the water. She was captured by the powerful force of the sea; her feet sinking deeper into the wet sand, the damp salty air that filled her nose arriving on her tongue. She was thankful for the orange life jacket that hugged her small body. She breathed in and out. It was the beginning of summer in Libya.
The land outside of Tindouf was not gentle — it did not take the roots that the Saharawi people tried to replant there. It was land to marvel at, but a desert too extreme to be a home. People were doing all that they could to mend their torn roots. They filled the dry air with songs rich in spirit and softened the cracked earth with thousands of dancing footsteps, but the land was not meant to be a home.
They lost so much when they fled: their homes, their animals, their land. Mothers and fathers lost children, some killed in the bombings, some unable to survive the journey that many took on foot to Algeria. Families were separated as people remained in Western Sahara, no means of communication to confirm their safety or their lives. For those who reached the refugee camps, like Fatma and her family, there was constant disruption among their struggle to settle. Fatma’s father and uncles, and all the able-bodied men, had marched to the front lines; women, children, and the elderly filled the makeshift villages that Polisario had organized. The women’s work filled every moment of their days and into the night: sewing clothes together in intricate weaves with their neighbors to make tents, scrubbing pants and shirts until their hands fell raw, caring for their elderly parents and raising their young children. They no longer had markets to buy food or animals to produce meat, and relied on international support for food and water. The women collected the humanitarian aid — small portions of dry rice and flour — and tried tirelessly to invent a meal out of the scarce supply. If the women were not working in their homes, they were working everywhere else.
They received military training and guarded the camps — long melfas traded in for pants and jackets when on patrol. The camps were safe but the women guarded the checkpoint entrance to ensure the area was protected. After midnight, documented permission was required to enter. One night, a truck pulled up, wanting to enter the camps. The women on duty linked arms to block the entrance, rifles hanging at their sides.
“Can I please enter?” a man shouted out of the truck.
“It’s past midnight, do you have a permit?” they asked, following the protocol outlined by Polisario.
“No, but my family is here in the camps.”
“You need to have a permit to enter, even if your family is here.” The women stood tall and still until the vehicle turned around.
The following day, Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of the Polisario Front, said he had been denied entry into the camps. Embarrassment filled the women, not knowing it was the president whom they had barricaded. Seeing their reaction, he clarified: It was not frustration that filled him, it was pride. It was the story he would tell to explain how proud he was of the Saharawi women and their strength.
The weight the women carried was heavy but they did not put it down.
Since the camps were established, there were six commissions in each one: health — working in the hospitals and cleaning the camps; education — teaching and working in the schools; legal issues — coordinating weddings and divorces; red cross — distributing the humanitarian aid; manual labor — doing material production; and political issues: the most important — teaching about the ideology of the movement.
Everyone joined a commission, whichever they could work best in; each one made up of only women. Fatma’s mother, Jera, worked in manual labor, making carpets, tents, and dishes. She would dry branches from azara plants, weaving them into mats to line the ground in tents. Her outgoing nature turned any work into a simultaneous social gathering. Fatma could see the energy radiate off her mother like a force field. After days full of work, she never complained, cooking for the family, songs filling Fatma and her grandparents’ tent as Jera entered to share dinner. Her beauty had always been captivating and her energy was powerful.
On the days when her mother could not find time, Fatma would join the end of the line that snaked through the camp to collect her family’s portion of water, thousands of people waiting for their liter of life. She would tie the armful of water jugs around her neck, the bulky containers hanging like a necklace too difficult for her small body to wield. Sometimes the organized line would frantically scatter as a loud ring echoed through the rows of square plots. A hubcap tied to a large pole was being struck, the warning signal that sent everyone far underground into shelters that they had dug together as families. Fatma would sit in the dark of the covered pit with her knees against her chest, leaning her head against her grandfather’s arm. Polisario organized this routine to ensure its people would be prepared and kept safe in case of a Moroccan air raid. Fatma would wait in the shelter for hours, and on some days would climb in and out many times. The Saharawi people worked hard to create normalcy, but the clang of the makeshift bell reverberated through their spines even when it was quiet. It was not normal. It would never be normal.
The Polisario Front did not stumble over the barrier of the abnormality in the camps. They were incredibly organized and had declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic their official government that year. The word of Polisario was something that gave people confidence and that was always to be respected. To the Saharawi people, the Polisario Front was like a father and mother who would defend their child to no end. Their priorities were very clear: food, water, shelter, healthcare, education. This was unwavering; their children had the right to go to school. Within the first weeks in the camps, thousands of children would walk to the large billowing tents for classes, sitting on the ground, no supplies but their young minds. Without enough resources or space to separate them by age, everyone was taught the same elementary lessons. Realizing quickly that this would not suffice, Polisario extended its hand, looking for solidarity. Cuba, Algeria, and Libya offered their support, providing centers, teachers, and supplies for the children, joining hands with Western Sahara. Polisario would organize the children into groups and establish Saharawi boarding schools in the countries of their new fellows. Saharawi people had been given land to house their government, and now land to house their education.
Fatma’s grandparents cried. Only two weeks after the announcement of the education plan, children 6 and older were to leave. How can we send our children to a place even less familiar? Will we have contact? Who will take care of them? Fatma was only 8, her sister, Galia, even younger. Who should be expected to feel comfortable sending their children away so young? They had lost so much already. Fatma and Galia were the only children in the family old enough to go and their father, Chej, insisted they receive their education. He had returned to the camps for a few days before returning to the chaos of the guerilla war. Fatma was grateful for his persistence, convincing the family of the critical opportunity.
“Please let them go,” he pleaded. “They should go. They have to go.” His patience was constant. He did not argue with the worries of his wife or parents, but he defended his daughter’s departure as a worthy sacrifice. In Guelta, Fatma had attended the Quranic school that a teacher held in his home with 15 other children from the village. Her grandparents knew that school was important but they did not want her to go so far away.
Sensing the difficulty, Polisario held huge meetings in each neighborhood to discuss the worries and fears that pulled at the hearts of every family. We have given away our men, and now our children? The students would be together and accompanied by Saharawi educators to care for them and nurture their culture. They would have classrooms and notebooks and hot meals and warm beds. Polisario would run a boarding school on the outskirts of the camps for the first few months: a training period before moving away. The children would return home for the summer after two years and every summer after that.
Fatma’s grandparents cried. Her mother pleaded. They knew it was the right thing to do. Fatma said goodbye, Ma’assalama.
She sat on a chair that lined the walls of a military plane, the cool metal against her legs and her feet dangling, unable to reach the floor. Her sister and 400 Saharawi children surrounding her, Fatma flew away from the refugee camps and into Libya. Songs and cries filled the massive plane, an exquisite blend of emotions soaring through the air. Throughout the long flight, more and more children fell asleep, waking up in a new world: Tripoli, Libya. There were people everywhere, the street packed with cars painted vibrant colors, men and women shuffling down the concrete sidewalks. “Allah, please make her days green,” Gabula had always said, a hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder. The sentiment of the prayer was echoed in the name she called Fatma: Eljadra. It meant “green” in the Bedouin language — “the best thing” — like when the rain brought a thriving green to the trees and plants in the dry desert land. Few people in Fatma’s neighborhood had ever known her as anything but Eljadra.
Fatma looked around, her first sights of Tripoli. A blanket of grass covered the ground, a green as rich as the color of their flag.
Wet sand hit the back of her legs, sticking to her dewy calves. Her sister and a group of girls jumped rope behind her, spraying sand into the eyes of her youngest classmates who sat crying, far from the water that they were sure would swallow them whole. It was late May and their first trip to the sea, all 400 children loaded into buses and driven just one hour to the mesmerizing place from their underwater dreams. They had been in Tripoli since September and would spend the summer in Libya. The trip to the sea was the start of a new weekend tradition, one that Fatma waited for each week. The Saharawi women who were coordinators in the school arranged weekend activities for the children and even a camping trip with Libyan students. The transition to summer as easy as a page turning in their notebooks.
When they had arrived in Libya, the Saharawi Ambassador of Libya received them with celebration, giving out flowers and backpacks filled with candy and toys before they were taken to their new home. It was not to a school but a wing in the vacant Tripoli Hospital. It had been cleaned and prepared for them, both Polisario and the Libyan government providing everything they could make available for the children. Cots were arranged in two rows of six for each sterile room and classes were held one building over. There were no patients, but the hospital did not always feel empty. Fatma ignored the eerie stories her classmates would share, unable to distinguish what was imagination and what was truth. She was thankful for a secure place to learn and, as the oldest girl in Tripoli out of the 30 children from her neighborhood, her new role as a caretaker for Galia extended beyond her sister. She mimicked the care she had watched and received from Gabula. She would hide her worries and be generous with her spirit.
Fatma was at the top of her class, the entrance exams putting her in level three, and she was proud of her new role as student coordinator. She walked the never-ending hallway each night, stepping in and out of each tiled room, checking to make sure each child had tucked into their beds before crawling into her own. In the place where other students posted letters or pictures on the wall next to their beds, her timetable was taped each week — Fatma checking it once more as she pulled the light cotton sheet up to her chin.
The joint effort of the allied countries provided the Saharawi children an identity as students over one as refugees. Fatma had supplies to paint for the first time and she could not put the wooden brushes down. Her free time was filled painting pictures, swooshes of greens, blues, and purples transforming the white paper in front of her. Fatma was in charge of the monthly newsletter, that she and other students painted life-size in the hallway with beautiful fonts and colorful animation, making announcements, and sharing test scores beside silly cartoons. Studying made Fatma happy. The way her Libyan instructor would teach Arabic language, her writing assignments and intricate math equations — she loved to learn. Her world in school was full of answers and questions and ideas and creations.
“Stay in your seats until we land!” one of the Saharawi coordinators yelled through the whirring military plane, strands of hair sticking to the beads of sweat that rolled down her face. The metal of Fatma’s seat did not cool her down, the military plane like a traveling sauna. It was the beginning of June 1979, her first time returning to the camps after almost two years. Her feet that once dangled could now reach the ground.
The children ran into the open trucks that sat waiting for them in Tindouf, one vehicle traveling to each camp. The sun scorched Fatma’s back as the children rocked back and forth on the bumpy ride. A sense of familiarity filled her as they got closer to Smara camp, but she did not feel complete. This was still not home.
Polisario had informed each neighborhood of their children’s arrival times and a large crowd greeted the truck in the center of the camp. The children unloaded and Fatma checked to make sure Galia was beside her. Each child was brought, one by one, to a podium where their name was called, women immediately pushing through the crowd to the front. The group of families was loud, the names barely decipherable through the microphone on the podium. Fatma scanned the throng of people for her mother but could not see her. A tinge of worry gathered at the back of her throat.
“Fatma Chej Mehdi”, the coordinator called.
She saw a figure moving furiously through the crowd to reach the front but the sun was too bright to confirm who it was.
“Eljadra! Eljadra!” The woman ran toward Fatma.
“Jera?” she asked.
The woman’s skin was much darker than her mother’s and a long moment passed as she stared into the eyes of the woman she did not recognize. The piercing sun of the Hamada had transformed her light skin to a warm brown that Fatma did not know, but as they came into a tight embrace Fatma felt something like a force field fall around her. Jera cried, holding her two daughters; precious cargo returned.
4 Years Into the War
Section title photo: Saharawi refugee women (Flickr)
The summers always came and went quickly, long days spent hiding from the sun’s tiresome presence. At the end of Fatma’s first return, Mauritania withdrew from the war, abandoning control over Rio de Oro, the Southern half of Western Sahara. As fast as Morocco moved south, capturing power over the area, so too did months pass in the camps. Each summer she returned, but each fall she left. Every arrival day, after her mother and aunt received her from the center of Smara camp, Jera would take her to the home of her grandparents where she would stay for the duration of the summer. Just as it was before, when the heat suffocated the air, they sat together pouring tea and sharing stories in the comfort of their tent, family together again.
Although they had a break from their studies, the children were busy. The Polisario Front organized a Summer Youth Program and Fatma joined the Commission of Culture and Information. She would spend the mornings teaching older women how to read and write in Arabic, their classrooms on a rotating schedule through the women’s tents. The dynamic was unique — one of her classmates taught his mother as a student in his class — but it never felt out of the ordinary. Polisario recognized the capacity young people had and the necessity for everyone to receive an education, in no matter what form it came. Civil service was a pillar that supported the camps, and something Fatma poured her spirit into; there was nothing she did without her full dedication. In the afternoons, she went to the homes of disabled people as part of an initiative run by the National Union of the Saharawi Women (NUSW), helping them with housework and providing daily support. NUSW was established in 1974, a grassroots group that brought women into politics and created a network of Saharawi women in leadership, but this had changed since arriving in Algeria. The absence of men left women responsible for everything, no time to focus on their struggles as women. The fight for independence became the primary issue for all Saharawi people and NUSW shifted their focus to social services. Programs were created, like the one Fatma was a part of, to support elderly, disabled, and widowed people who needed support in the camps. Life was hard in the Hamada and even harder for the more vulnerable. Fatma was happy giving her time to help them — cooking, sewing clothes, washing women’s hair — and she felt connected. If you help people, god will help you.
One afternoon, at the home of her classmate’s grandmother, she offered to braid the elderly woman’s hair. The woman was surprised because most girls weren’t able to, but having lived with her own grandmother, Fatma had learned how. Excited, she asked Fatma to bring the gems that were weaved in black thread and were to be placed at the front of the hair as part of traditional Saharawi dress. The colors and number of gems represented a woman’s children, and without someone to braid her hair, the threaded gems had been put away. The woman was a widow and many of her children had died, leaving few people to care for her. As Fatma layered the strands of the black hair that fell softly down her back, securing the gems to frame her face, the woman was moved.
“I will pray for you because you have made me so happy,” she said. “You have helped me have all my children with me again.”
Her fragile hands ran over the thread Fatma had carefully placed, the ends of it set right over her heart.
Years passed and the trips back and forth felt like a routine. When the thick desert air cooled each September, it was time to board the military plane. Inside Fatma’s heart, a seesaw of excitement and sadness teetered back and forth. Another eight months would pass without seeing her family, only letters sent back and forth. Another eight months would pass full of new words and pictures, captivating lessons and ambitious activities.
After her first two years attending school in the Tripoli Hospital, the centers that were being built in Libya for the Saharawi students were complete. When she returned to Libya, she arrived at a new school just for Saharawi girls, 200 strong. The building was a big loop: classrooms, a dining hall, and dorm rooms lining a grassy oval courtyard in the center. Classes throughout the morning, activities in the afternoon, cultural lessons in the evenings. With the highest grades in her class, Fatma was sent on a special 15-day trip around Libya, planned for the top three students in each class, exploring different cities as a reward. She was happy — analyzing every page in her textbooks and questioning teachers when she scored a few percentages shy of 100.
She was 14, her heart in Western Sahara and her head full of possibilities.
It was a warm afternoon, the comforting breeze blowing through the window next to her bed. She sat cross-legged, organizing her notes from morning class.
“Fatma! Fatma!” her classmate sprinted into the room, nearly falling as she approached the bed. “Where is Galia?” she yelled. A smile had captured the girl’s face. Fatma caught her friend’s excitement.
“I don’t know, what’s going on?” She smirked.
“There’s a man here asking for you!” and with that the girl ran off, knowing Fatma would follow.
In the middle of the courtyard stood a group of men in civilian clothes. There were almost 30, and Fatma wondered why they were there. One of the men turned around, bringing a hand to his forehead to block the sun from his eyes.
“Chej!” she screamed, running toward him. He wrapped his arms around his daughter, amazed at how much she had grown. Chej and his military unit were receiving training in Libya and had asked if there was a Saharawi school to visit nearby. Fatma and Galia stood next to their father in awe. The war began seven years ago and time with their father was never guaranteed. It was like a dream.
Fatma ran to the rooms of each of the girls from her community, knowing that they would take the great news as their own. Chej stood hugging the girls, some as young as Fatma when she had first left the camps. The 15 girls spent the day sitting under the ethereal Libyan sky, listening to the advice from their wise father. Fatma concentrated to make sure she would remember everything. He told them how happy each of their parents would be if they passed their exams and how important it was for them to study. He was a brilliant surprise.
The girls wanted to send letters for their families home with him, and Fatma spelled out the sweet messages on paper for those too young to write. With each letter in a careful military fold, Chej tucked them into his pocket, promising their successful delivery. Fatma hoped for a moment alone with him, privately as father and daughter, but it was not the way of their culture. One’s time was not meant to be given only to one person, instead it was always shared. She understood.
The sky was dark and it was time for Chej and his unit to leave the school.
He talked with the Saharawi coordinators, asking about his daughters. “Fatma is very clever,” they said. He asked God to give his daughter a long life. Fatma knew she had made her father very proud.
“You have to obey these women like your mothers,” he said, nodding to the Saharawi coordinators standing on the other side of the hallway.
“I’m staying in Libya now, so I will visit again. Anytime I can.”
It was 1983, and as always, Jera stood waiting in the center of Smara camp when Fatma’s feet hit the dusty earth, returning for summer. Her father hadn’t made another visit to the school in Libya, but Fatma knew the men had little time away from duty. Jera was pregnant, a large stomach hidden under her sunny melfa. She was quiet as she rushed Fatma to her grandparent’s tent, not stopping the whole way. Fatma was greeted by her grandparents but there was no celebration.
Gabula spoke softly. “Your father was always a very brave man,” she said without pause. Fatma was confused. She knew that. She was proud of her father and uncles for fighting in the war. She understood it was important.
“Gabula, I know ...” she said, a question mark hovering at the end of her words. “I want to tell him about my test marks. Do you know when he will visit again?”
“Eljadra,” Gabula took the hand of her granddaughter who had grown into a young woman, “Your father has been killed.”
The air inside Fatma’s lungs escaped. She couldn’t breathe.
“Pray for him and ask God to take him to the best place,” she said gently. “Allah never tells us when we will be given new life and He does not tell us when He will take that life back.”
The summer passed, faster than Fatma thought possible. She learned that her father had been killed in a military operation not far from Guelta, their home. He died defending his country, his people, his family, his daughters. Around the time of his death, Moroccan soldiers began construction on a 2,500 kilometer wall running north to south, the 5 million land mines surrounding it dividing Western Sahara and its people. Her mother mourned; the loss of her husband and an unrelenting war was a weight so heavy it broke her spirit. Fatma did not want to leave. But like the end of any summer, as the thick desert air began to cool, she drove out of the camps in the crowded bus to Tindouf and boarded the military plane, flying away to Libya.
Fatma’s leg shook, the heavy rectangular box on her lap sliding around. It was 1984, another school year had passed and she sat at the front of the sweltering bus, on her way to the camps after landing in Tindouf. Inside the box was a radio, one she had bought for Mehdi, her grandfather. He was a teacher in Quranic schools — traditionally a conservative role — but he was a charismatic, open person. Fatma knew the radio would mean the world to him. He was always interested in the news. She had bought it with the small allowance that each of the students received to buy gifts for their families. Instead of bringing back sweets, as usual, she saved the allowance for a different box of joy. Things were no longer as they once had been.
She felt an urgency to be back, wanting to return to the summer youth program but concerned about her mother. The recent summer had been the most difficult to leave. Her mother considered moving with her children to be with her parents in another camp after Chej’s death. Jera had a newborn and Fatma’s siblings were still young. It was difficult to manage life in the camps alone but Jera did not want to leave and uproot her children again. She shared a bond with her sisters-in-law that was strong, and something she was unsure she could survive without. So Jera stayed in her tent near Gabula and Mehdi, but continued to deliberate over the decision. Fatma continued to worry.
The radio was a thrill for Mehdi and Gabula and the words of the radio reporters swayed with the heat in the air of their tent all summer. Everyday, Mehdi would go to the area where the elderly men gathered and tell them about the news he had heard. For him, it was something he could do to share what he had with those who had less. The camps were a well-informed place.
When September arrived, Fatma was not ready to leave. She had carried many of her mother’s responsibilities for a few months and was unsure if Jera would be able to take them back. In the midst of her worries, Polisario announced that the students would not be returning to Libya. Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, had entered into agreements with the King of Morocco, and Polisario felt it unsafe to have their children in the land of a split ally. Fatma and her classmates were to be transferred to a different Saharawi boarding school in Algeria. The summer extended as they waited for their school paperwork and files to be transferred, unable to begin classes until their levels were verified. Weeks passed until Fatma boarded the military plane, nearly impossible to leave her mother. Her lap felt bare without the box of the radio as her leg shook, the plane landing on the other side of Algeria.
Fatma could barely stay seated as the bus rolled into Smara camp. It was 1985, the summer before her final year of school. For the last eight months, something strong had pulled at everything inside her; a tension that was impossible to ignore. She rushed toward the door before it completely stopped. Her mother no longer came to receive her. When she reached the tent of her grandparents and said her greetings, she walked across the pebbly road and stepped inside her mother’s house.
“Jera?” she called.
Her mother looked up from the clothes she was vigorously scrubbing, Fatma’s youngest sister playing at her feet. Her eyes were weary. Her force field was gone.
Fatma would not return for her final year of school. Her notebooks would stay closed. She would not leave her mother alone. When the thick desert air cooled in September, one of the stiff metal seats on the military plane sat empty.
Fatma closed her eyes as warm sand blew across her toes. For now, this was home.
10 Years into the War
Section title photo: Saharawi men, in uniform to fight for Polisario (Wikipedia)
A Year Each Day
Her mother told her to go. Her grandparents told her to go. Members of Polisario even told her to go, but Fatma stayed. She would stay in the camps. She would not go back to school.
It was 1985, the 10th year of the war between Morocco and Western Sahara, and the Polisario Front was defending their land and the Saharawi people. One year prior, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) became a member of the African Union — a major advance in their fight for recognition — causing Morocco to withdraw in protest. The people that the King of Morocco had called “smugglers” were not so easy to defeat.
Fatma was 18. She was filled with sorrow as she left her studies but she did not hesitate to stay in the camps. She sat on the hard ground outside her mother’s tent, her hands full of her brother’s and sister’s clothes which she dunked in and out of the pail in front of her, careful not to spill the water past the rim. Instead of the shirts she scrubbed between her fingers, Fatma imagined that she held her grief, trying to wash away the sadness she felt, no longer having thick textbooks to examine or crisp paper to cover in streaks of paint. It was important for her to hold her grieving mother, the way her mother and all the women in the camps held her for so many years. She would care for her younger siblings the way she had cared for Galia in Libya. She sewed their clothes, she made their meals, she took them to school, she gathered their water. Fatma grew a year each day.
The choice to stay presented her with another decision. Mustafa was a friend of Fatma’s family, whom she had known for about a year. He was a Saharawi man who had studied in Cuba and had returned to fill his duty as a militant for Polisario, protecting his people and their land. A marriage with Fatma though, was what he proposed. She did not have to deliberate, she was happy to say yes. Mustafa was a good man. The dowry was small, nonexistent in modern terms, but none of that mattered: They were in the midst of a war. All the Saharawi people had were each other. The first melfa Fatma donned was not her own, but one that was borrowed from a friend of Jera’s. With her mother still wrapped in despair, Fatma wrapped herself in the soft, white cotton and married the loving man. She did not build a home for her new family near the tent of Mustafa’s parents — traditions had started to change. Fatma stayed with her mother as Mustafa returned to the liberated territory to train and move forward in active duty, fighting for the independence that they had long been owed.
Four months passed and Jera held her daughter’s hand.
“I’m OK,” Fatma said reassuringly. Jera and Fatma’s grandparents had been persuading Fatma to go and study at a school for women in another camp, but she was not convinced that her family was OK. She stayed, her feet planted deep in the ground of Smara camp.
“I’m OK now. I’m with the family and I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere, her mother said.”
Jera had chosen to stay in place near Chej’s parents rather than move closer to her own family. Since Fatma’s return, the relationship between her and Jera resembled that between two sisters more than a mother and daughter. However, as her mother continued to reassure her, holding her hand, Fatma felt like a young girl in Guelta, her mother’s words soothing her to comfort.
“You have sacrificed so much for me, please go.”
With her mother’s final words, Fatma went.
The camp of the 27 of February — named after the day of declaration of the constitution of SADR — was small, mainly for the women attending the school which shared the name of the camp. With the help of her family, Fatma made her first home there and began training to become a teacher, but things were not easy. Studying was different than before; Fatma was pregnant and her new husband, like most Saharawi men, was in Western Sahara defending their rights to freedom. Yet this did not slow Fatma down. She was a brilliant student and received her certificate after less than one year, returning to Smara camp to teach in a primary school.
It was September 1986, and two months before at the age of 19, Fatma gave birth to her first child, Salma, a beautiful baby girl. Things continued to look different around her. There were not enough teachers in the camps, so she needed to start her job in the school at the beginning of the term, bringing 2-month-old Salma to school with her. The children she taught in level three loved the baby, wanting to hold the healthy child and enjoying the presence of new life around them. There was joy but it was masked in the hardship of the realities of life in the camps. Fatma’s days were long and difficult — without Mustafa she was left to care for everything on her own, and again she was pregnant. Fatma and all the women in the camps — young girls, new mothers, elderly women — they all struggled with an uncertainty for their future. For Fatma, that uncertainty was no longer her own but it was an uncertainty for the future of her children. For the women, days were as rough as the sand the wind threw against their skin. Their culture though, was a comforting shield from their difficult lives, like the soft cotton they wrapped around their heads to protect them from the strong gusts of dusty air.
In April, Salma caught a fever that persisted beyond one week. Fatma didn’t understand; she had been strong and healthy. The nurses didn’t understand, the fever nagging at the poor child. Fatma, pregnant again and alone, brought Salma to the hospital in Smara camp to try and reduce her temperature. For three days, Salma was given aspirin as they tried to regulate her tiny body but her condition declined. Her body lay in the crib next to her mother, looking weaker each day. By the fourth day in the hospital, her life was under question. They would go to the national hospital outside the camps.
Polio had enveloped Salma’s body like the most unkind embrace. She was one of the first cases in the camps — why it was so difficult to diagnose her illness — but it soon spread like an epidemic. More than 100 children and their mothers joined Fatma and Salma in the national hospital.
The heat was unbearable. Fatma spent months in the hospital, each day drawing closer and closer to her second child’s delivery date. Salma’s was one of the most severe cases of polio in the hospital, needing intensive care. Each day the nurses provided physical therapy, but the children were so young and success was limited. Fatma paced at the hospital day and night, day and night, day and night, but nothing improved. She yearned for Mustafa to return, her husband ignorant of his daughter’s illness. His brother was a dentist in the hospital, giving Fatma a small piece of family while she sat alone for so many weeks. Her mother would go and stand in for her, relieving Fatma with a day in the camps to rest, her stomach unable to hide under the layers of flowing material. The hospital was far enough away that a car was needed to reach it but with any opportunity, Jera would go, doing everything she could to help her young daughter.
The long corridors of the hospital reminded Fatma of a small comfort from her first years in Libya, although now instead of young girls, the halls were filled with women. Instead of books they carried worry. Some of the mothers had to bring all of their children to stay, quiet and privacy not something that prevailed. The summer was insufferable, the sun burning the sand as it touched their feet and disintegrating hope they had for their children. Each night though, when the temperature eased by a few degrees, the women would bring their children who were well and sit on the ground outside the hospital. Almost six months they had spent together, and the nightly gathering shaped a significant part of their day. Those were the moments they shared as mothers and as women, discussing everything about their children, their lives, their history. They talked about the National Union of the Saharawi Women (NUSW) and their roles as women in the camps. They circulated information in each beautiful meeting, precious moments of solidarity in times of extreme trial.
One evening as Fatma walked back to the room where Salma lay, a woman followed beside her. Mamma Sidi was close to Jera’s age and had been one of Fatma’s peers in the school of 27 of February. She had no child that was ill but spent time in the hospital supporting her sick niece.
“Fatma, I think you have many ideas for NUSW and I advise you to go work with them,” Mamma suggested.
“How can I do that?” Fatma said with doubt. “I am pregnant and my daughter is ill.”
“Let me talk with the president, Senia Ahmed. I’m sure she will help you.”
Fatma had heard from Mamma Sidi that they were looking for people who knew how to work with computers, but it was not something Fatma could consider. Salma’s condition was not improving. The hospital began organizing the children into groups based on their progressions, gradually sending them back to the camps. Salma’s was the last group, 30 children and their mothers. After almost seven months in the hospital there was nothing left for the nurses to do. Fatma went back to the camps, Salma in her arms because she could barely crawl.
In October, Fatma gave birth to her son, Jabubi, a gift of joy in the midst of dismay.
Mustafa arrived in the camps for a few days, expecting to celebrate the birth of his son. A mixture of extreme feelings poured out from him. A new breath of life, a son, but Salma’s condition was a surprise and he was disheartened. Mustafa did as much as he could to take care of the children, cleaning the tent and cooking meals, to try and support Fatma during the short time he could. He returned to the liberated territory, the time spent with family feeling no longer than the time it takes a bullet to fire from a gun. In less than two years, Fatma’s life became unrecognizable. She had two infants to care for, one of whom was desperately ill. She could no longer teach in the school, only collaborate from home. The kindergarten was far from Fatma’s home in Smara camp and Salma could not go with her condition. She felt helpless about how to treat her daughter’s polio. Struggling to maintain hope, she prayed that something would change. Whatever situation God gives you, He is always preventing a worse one. Fatma thanked her God.
After leaving the hospital, Mamma Sidi contacted Senia Ahmed, the president of NUSW. She knew Senia from her role as a member of the executive committee at the school of 27 of February where Senia was the director and told her about Fatma’s capacity. As her classmate in school, Mamma knew the dedication and quiet fierceness Fatma possessed. She was everything NUSW was.
Fatma struggled to keep her eyes open as she finished making the tea in front of her, the smooth pour of the liquid hitting the glass like a sweet, familiar lullaby. It was night and her days felt as long as the desert horizon. In her grandparents tent, she prepared the silk blankets for them to sleep and cleaned the dishes from their evening meal. As she finished, someone appeared at the entrance of their tent in military clothes. Fatma looked up from the glasses of tea as the person entered, wondering what kind of news they would receive.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum. I am Senia Ahmed with NUSW.”
Her grandparents were surprised to find a woman, their eyes tricking them at the sight of a military uniform. Gabula and Mehdi recognized the name, Senia, as two years before she had been the governor of Smara camp. All of them had known her name but not her face.
“I came because I would like to ask you to give me your daughter,” she spoke, knowing Fatma’s relationship with her grandparents. The request resembled that of a marriage request and the joyful spirit shared by Gabula and Mehdi found it humorous.
“We would like to but Fatma is already married and even has two children,” they said, laughing. Senia smiled.
“No, no, I want her to work with me,” she stated. Gabula and Mehdi were surprised. The NUSW office was in a different camp, far from their own. They did not expect to be separated from their Eljadra.
“How? How can it be?” they asked.
“I want her to help me in the organization.”
“But do you think, really, she will be able to help you?”
“Yes,” Senia replied confidently.
“But she is busy and she needs help, even. We are trying to help her. She has a small child and her daughter is ill, she cannot take care of both of them. She needs us to be with her.” Pain filled their voices. “It will be impossible to leave her living alone with her two children. We don’t think she will be able to do that.”
Senia never believed in impossible. She believed in the young woman, sitting quietly between her grandparents.
“I will do exactly what you are doing for her. Can you trust me?”
For a moment, the four of them shared silence.
“We cannot let you go without her,” Gabula said slowly. “If you say you will take care of her, and if you think it is better for the organization and for the cause, then OK.” She trusted Senia. “We are supporting the same cause.”
Senia promised to send women the next morning to help Fatma move her things.
Once Senia left, Fatma’s grandparents began to cry. They had waited, not wanting Senia to see and think that they did not support NUSW, an organization that had provided so much for the Saharawi people. They wanted her to know they were true collaborators, but they did not want Fatma to be alone. They had seen her sacrifices and her suffering.
In the morning, Fatma’s mother and aunts surrounded her, crying. She had become like one of their sisters and an aunt to many of her young cousins, helping them finish homework and drawing pictures for them. Their sadness was diverted by the hectic day. Hours passed quickly as Butita, Embarka, and Syatu — three women from NUSW — with the help of their driver, filled the white truck with Fatma’s things. They carefully took down her tent, meticulously folding each corner of her family’s home. She saw the tears Gabula held back, her grandmother wanting so badly to go with Fatma to reassemble the tent she had sewn for her granddaughter. The heartache Fatma and her family felt hovered like a cloud over the opportunity that laid ahead for her. They said their goodbyes. Ma’assalama.
Fatma did not know what to expect. Her new job was as the general secretary for Senia, doing administrative work for the organization. She had participated in their programs years before as a young student. She couldn’t believe how things had changed.
During her first week in what would grow to become Boujdour camp, things were new but she did not feel alone. The four women who had moved Fatma, her children, and her things, assembled her tent with everything in place. They provided her food until she was registered in the new camp and guided her to the NUSW office. Her neighbor, Senia Hanin, became a close friend. For her first month in the new camp, before Fatma felt comfortable alone in her tent, Senia Hanin agreed to share a space to sleep and they alternated between their homes, Fatma carrying her blankets and children across the sand to reach comfort for the night. NUSW had chosen a place for Fatma’s home that was very close to the kindergarten, making sure that Salma could attend. She even arranged with the director of the school to assign one educator to Salma, giving Fatma the comfort of knowing Salma would never be in the streets, waiting alone if Fatma was late. It would not heal her polio, but it would begin her education, something Chej had always taught her was a precious thing. That was how she started work with her colleagues. That was the Saharawi spirit.
Changing her own situation: that was something Fatma knew she needed to do. She had forgotten about herself, attending to the difficult situation her life had become. Working at the school, taking care of her son and doing everything she could to fix her daughter’s illness. She knew that changing her situation would not be easy. She knew she needed to be strong. But strong was something she had been taught for the past 22 years. Strong were the men: the fathers and sons and brothers at the front lines, defending their country. Strong were the women: leading everything in the camps, taking care of their people. Strong was her family: keeping culture alive, nurturing love and patience. Strong was Fatma: who had changed her situation.
When Fatma began working at NUSW, she understood their mission and believed in the words that spelled it out. After nearly a year working at NUSW, she felt their mission course through her veins, like a syncopated rhythm of heartbeats between the women. Although Salma was able to attend kindergarten thanks to the care of her private educator, Lita, who nurtured her with as much important love as from a mother, her condition became stagnant. She was 3 and barely crawling — she needed treatment that the camps could not provide.
Senia Ahmed, through NUSW, had an extensive network of collaborators who supported the Saharawi cause. She was close to Fatma and knew the helplessness she felt about Salma’s polio. Senia offered to arrange for Salma to obtain a passport, in order for her to receive medical treatment outside of Algeria. Without a passport herself, Fatma could not go, nor could she imagine sending her child off without her, but she did not hesitate. Senia contacted the Saharawi delegation in Andalucia, Spain to look for a family that would care for Salma while she received the many operations needed to enhance her life. A Christian family came forward. Fatma had not met them: a mother, Maria Jose, and a father, Jose Maria. She did not speak their language or believe in a shared religion, but it never mattered. They opened their home and their hearts, and with that, Fatma saw family.
In 1990, Fatma sent 3-year old Salma to Spain, traveling with a woman she had never met and without a way to contact her. The sacrifice felt unbearable, but she had to believe in those people as collaborators. Together they had changed Salma’s situation.
15 Years into the War
Section title photo: Saharawi girls collecting water (UN Photo)
A Unique Opportunity
Fatma picked the silver tray up from her desk. Eight small glasses lined on the shining circular platter were filled just slightly more than halfway, a smooth copper liquid filling each one with steam.
The sturdy wooden desk was hers, in an office that was her very own. She was the secretary for the National Union of the Saharawi Women, her life very different than it had been just months before.
Fatma walked down the hallway of the women’s center to an area where a group of men were working to repair flood damage from the year before. They had been working for over a week and were nearly finished restoring the building. The men were Moroccan prisoners.
Their homes were in a separate area of the camps, controlled by Saharawi guards, but their conditions were similar to those of the Saharawi people: they lived in tents and built homes with sand bricks. They worked in the camps and relied on humanitarian aid for food and water. There were 2,000, all men, and many had lived there for as long as the Saharawi people. They had grown to be part of the community. Like the Saharawi people, they were separated from their families. Like the Saharawi people, their futures were uncertain.
Approaching the group of men doing repairs, Fatma felt comfortable. Saharawi women had always given what they could to the prisoners, collecting things like soap and clothes to provide them with. She had even seen some women give them money. People in the camps did not discriminate against the prisoners, in hospitality or sharing.
As she put down the tray of tea, Fatma heard the men talking about their families. The Arabic they spoke was a different dialect than her own, but the pain in one man’s voice was a language she understood.
“Since I came here, I haven’t heard anything from them.” The man of about 50 years old was crying.
If I were him, how happy would I be if someone could help me? Fatma thought to herself, What is the biggest thing I can give to him?
Making sure that the man would feel comfortable, she waited until the other men left before she spoke.
“How long has it been since you’ve spoken to your family?” she asked. He could not answer, tears streaking his cheeks.
“What if I can arrange for you to speak with them?” Fatma offered.
“This is my dream,” he pleaded. “This is my biggest dream. Even if you only give me two minutes, it will be the biggest dream for me.”
They arranged to meet in Fatma’s office the following morning, giving him the evening to prepare. Fatma carried on with her day but a warm comfort had settled over her. The thought of her gesture bringing peace to the man gave her hope.
The next morning, he arrived outside the doorway of her office, equally emitting gratitude and nervousness. She offered him her seat and the phone. He dialed, waiting to connect with home, with family. Fatma was unsure how long it had been since the man made contact with anyone outside of the camps. Five, 10, maybe even 30 years; she hadn’t asked but she knew each day was painful to withstand. Before she could ensure him that he would be given privacy as she waited outside, someone answered his call. The man spoke as rapidly as his heart was surely beating.
“I’m fine! I will come back soon!” he shouted. It was clear that he did not know how much time he had for the call.
“What about my children? How are they?” he quickly asked, likely his wife on the other end. He was trying to give and receive all the information he possibly could.
“Take your time!” Fatma interrupted, trying to put him at ease. “Come and get me when you’re finished,” she said calmly.
Fatma stood outside her office with the door closed behind her. She wanted the man to feel free as he connected with his family across so many barriers, after so many years. The news of his safety would bring peace to his family and, maybe, it would reach the families of other prisoners in the camps, giving them reassurance too. The thought built pressure behind Fatma’s eyes. Ten minutes passed and again the man stood in the doorway. They were still, on opposite sides of the places in which they stood before.
“I will never forget this gesture,” he thanked her, through tears.
Her office was a humble space. The flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — red, white, black, and green — hung next to a blackboard on the walls that were otherwise bare. There was a desk with an old computer, a handmade shelf, and only one chair. And a telephone.
No one would know it was the site of someone’s miracle.
On September 6, 1991, the war reached its end. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, desperate to create a truce after 16 years of war. They did not yet have their liberation, but the camps erupted in celebration. For three days the Saharawi people rejoiced — an end to the war had finally come — and they sang and danced and used their water tanks as drums. They would see their families. They would return to their villages. They would tread their feet across the land that was home.
News reached the camps through the national radio and was spread through local levels of government by SADR. People immediately prepared for their return. The United Nations created the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), a peacekeeping mission to ensure a referendum would be held for the independence of the Saharawi people. Most referendums that had been held in Africa to end colonial rule took no longer than two years to be reached. Hope pulsed back and forth through the ground of the Hamada to the Saharawi people in the west. Soon they would unite.
In the camps, everyone prepared chests of return. They stripped the roofs off their homes, using the sheets of zinc to bend and cut into large boxes. The rectangular trunks that each family assembled were filled with any important possessions. In most cases, it was not much. Fatma built one for her family, filling it with an old computer and some blankets that the harsh winds had not yet worn. The camps were ready for departure. The Saharawi people waited 16 years and were ready to go home. For three days, the camps did not sleep. They sang and danced and prepared for what they had prayed would come.
A year had passed since Fatma sent Salma to Spain. She had received no updates about her health, no confirmation that her daughter had even arrived safely in the country. Despite the joy of the news of the referendum, her heart felt heavy. She struggled to accept their separation, the face of her daughter appearing every time she closed her eyes. She worked at NUSW and cared for her son, Jabubi. In April, she gave birth to a third child but the boy died on the day of his birth. Fatma named him Chej.
Her office at NUSW was simple, but in the next room papers piled on every flat surface, on the tables and across the floor. She started a project to archive the decades worth of documents belonging to NUSW that were spread throughout the camps and across the country in different offices. Realizing the necessity of compiling the files, she led a team of five women to organize the paper history. Her hands sorted through years of files, while her mind sorted through months of worry.
Fatma waited months before approaching Senia Ahmed for help. Gaining contact with Salma would not be easy. Advised to approach MINURSO directly, Fatma did not wait. MINURSO called the Saharawi delegation in Andalucia, Spain. She held her breath. They transferred her to phone of the family where her daughter lived. Fatma did not breathe while it rang. A woman answered. Fatma did not understand her.
Through the excitement of the possibility to speak with her daughter, soon turning 5, Fatma hadn’t realized that Salma would speak only Spanish. Frantically yelling for someone to translate, she stood in the MINURSO office, engulfed in panic. For 15 minutes Fatma tried to understand her child and for her child to understand her.
“Que?” Salma repeated after each of Fatma’s Arabic words.
The room seemed to get smaller around her. She had known she wouldn’t hold her daughter for some time, but she assumed she could embrace her with words. In a last attempt, Fatma tried to explain again that she was her mother, but Salma did not understand. Fatma reluctantly handed the phone back to the Spanish-speaking girl in the office, who interpreted for Salma in Spanish.
“I don’t understand,” the light voice spoke through the phone, undecipherable to Fatma, “if she were my mother she would speak as I do.”
Her words translated into Arabic. Each letter exploded inside Fatma, a landmine against her spirit, the MINURSO office seeming to crumble around her. For years the phrase would tighten around her, torturing her heart, but out of the pain she grew. Soon they would unite.
1 Year into the Peace Process
Section title photo:A Sahrawi classroom (Flickr)
Children in the camps needed to keep busy. They attended primary school run by Polisario until they were old enough to study abroad, but a refugee camp was not a typical playground. The women at the National Union of the Saharawi Women (NUSW) ran after-school programs, and for one activity the children were given blank paper and told to paint whatever they like. Fatma watched with joy as they transformed the empty sheets into spirals of color as she had once done as a student in Libya. Walking down the rows of desks, eager to admire their creations, the first painting she saw was of an army tank. The next, of a gun. She moved down the row: a plane, other weapons, a scene of women clapping as soldiers returned — their memories dominated by war. At 6 years old, they were connected to terror by seemingly unbreakable links. Many were orphans. Many had lost mothers and fathers and siblings in the brutal conditions. Many, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, said, “I want to be a soldier to liberate my territory!” The words were too big for the children’s small mouths, but so was the burden the war had forced them to bear.
One of the paintings a child made pictured a line of Moroccan prisoners with hands tied behind their heads. It was not something the children had seen — the Moroccan men were treated with respect in the camps — but there was a misunderstood hatred in the students towards the prisoners. The women at NUSW continued the after-school program, using it to hold workshops for the children to replace their misconceptions of the men with feelings of empathy. Fatma helped teach the primary students that, together with the Moroccan prisoners, they all shared the impermanent home. Together, they shared a unique relationship that formed out of their struggles.
The first English words that Fatma learned were taught to her by a Moroccan man.
She had been working at the headquarters for almost two years and was enraptured by the initiatives that NUSW was leading. One of them, English classes for women in the camps, was especially exciting. Studying languages was one of Fatma’s strongest skills and favorite pursuits. She had always excelled in school, both as a teacher and a student — an energetic spirit filling her in both roles. As a young girl in Tripoli, the dean of the school had once caught her playing teacher, the Arabic dialect of her Libyan instructor rolling off her tongue in a perfect imitation as she stood in an unoccupied classroom in front of her friends, giving them a private lesson. The dean assumed she was a Libyan student, Fatma’s ability to grasp languages so powerful.
The course at the headquarters would take place over one year with classes everyday, in the morning and afternoon. When NUSW representatives suggested the idea to the women in the camps, it was clear that demand was high. Like Fatma, the women knew it was an important opportunity to learn English.
An eagerness pushed Fatma out of her office, away from piles of paperwork and down the hallway to the classroom where the lessons were to begin. She felt like her younger self, always first to arrive in the classrooms in Tripoli, thrilled to draw a bright landscape or learn a new equation. The classroom in the center had 20 desks, and NUSW decided they would need three teachers for all the women.
Leglawi was Fatma’s teacher, a Moroccan man who had been living as a prisoner in the camps for nearly 15 years. He was close to the age that her father would have been, and had a leisurely confidence. Fatma enjoyed her lessons with the 20 women joining her in class. Every day, Leglawi taught with patience and fairness, wanting each of his students to study to their highest potential. He tried his best to teach and he wanted them to try their best to learn.
Busy with her position at NUSW, her children, and daily life in the camps, Fatma couldn’t always attend but she studied hard. She completed her homework assignments with the same care and detail that went into all of her work. Her grandfather told her, “You must always step into things with both feet.”
So many women had attended the initial classes that young men heard about the course and wanted to join too. NUSW made a space in the headquarters for the Moroccan teachers to live — the trip back and forth to their separate area in the camps having become tedious with the increased classes. Everyone shared lunch with them, and since they were not being paid the women would bring them meat, breads, and other foods in an effort to show their appreciation.
During conversation, in class or when sharing meals, Fatma was careful to never pry about Leglawi’s family, not wanting to upset him. She knew that like most of the Moroccan men, decades had likely passed for Leglawi without contact with his family, including the two daughters she had heard him speak of. His warm demeanor did not reveal his suffering, but Fatma knew the pain that came with being kept from your land and your people.
One afternoon, Leglawi led a conversation class, everyone using their new English to answer questions about themselves. Fatma thought carefully about each word but spoke casually about her job and family.
“Your personality is contradictory,” Leglawi said. He was looking softly at Fatma, smirking.
“When I see you, I find a very calm person. But when I started working with you, I’ve found that you have a fire within yourself.”
Fatma was confounded. Part of what he said was not a surprise. Friends would often tell her, “You’re so calm, Fatma, you must not have any problems!” But she never felt like they understood. Leglawi saw the fires that ignited in Fatma the same day the fires burned in Guelta. A quiet fierceness that did not mean she was without problems, but that she chose not to dwell on them unless it was time for their resolution.
The two of them stood — Fatma, a young Saharawi woman, her long red melfa flowing to the floor — and Leglawi, an old Moroccan teacher, in a classroom at a women’s center, in a refugee camp in Algeria, speaking English. Fatma looked at the man who had a familiarity of her father. He is the first person who understands me.
Their differences were strong but so is humanity.
2 Years into the Peace Process
Section title photo: Saharawi refugee children in class (Wikipedia)
The Seventh Son
The rain falls every winter, cooling the lingering steam of a corched desert summer — but it does not always pour with kindness. In 1994, it fell as heavy as the grieving hearts of mothers who had lost their sons in the war.
Fatma stood alone, the cold murky water reaching halfway up her calf. She scanned the area in front of her, hoping for a single flash of color in the sea of brown, a signal of one of the vibrant rugs that had lined her family’s tent. Her husband was away in the military area, still on duty after the war, so she would have to begin the search on her own. She stopped, her eyes on her children splashing happily in the new lake.
The damage in the camps was devastatingbut expected. This was not the first flood. The aftermath of the floods had become one phase in a recurring cycle of destruction and reparation. It took days to find their homes and years to rebuild everything, always in time for the next one. The bricks used for construction were made from sand, through a tedious process of mixing and drying, in order to create a stable structure. It was not a task for the impatient, but the Saharawi people know how to be persistent.
Three years before, the war ended and the peace process began but the Saharawi people were still waiting for their referendum. Morocco realized that the population of voters, made eligible from the Spanish census of 1974, would not vote in its favor and thus disrupted the identification process. The year 1992 passed with no referendum. The Saharawi people continued to wait.
Though Fatma knew when consistent rainfall would transform into a flood, there was nothing she could ever do to prepare. There was nothing anyone could do except roll up the bottoms of their tents and pray for its end. Her entire camp had just descended from a hill outside of Boujdour camp where they stayed for days, the thousands of people cramped in the large plastic tent that international aid had provided. Together, they waited for the rain to stop, watching as it weighed down the tents until the support beams snapped. From the top of the hill, they watched below, the “boom” of each collapsing tent a perfect imitation of the thunder crashing overhead — a gut-wrenching show.
Back in the camp, she waded through the water, feeling around with her feet for anything that might be useful. She realized that once again, their passports were gone along with her children’s schoolwork. Fatma lost nearly everything — every pot and pan, important documents, her clothes, their tent — but she was lucky. She could have lost more.
“Fatma, have you seen my daughter?” It was one of her colleagues from NUSW, a woman close to her age.
“No, I’m sorry,” she replied, looking over at Jabubi and Priscy, splashing each other. Priscy, her second daughter, was born in Spain the year before, while Fatma had been visiting Salma and her Spanish family.
After a few hours Fatma saw a group of women, tracing large circles through their area in the camp, with worry that indicated their search was for more than some glasses for tea. She saw her colleague crying, distraught, leading the group. They were covered in mud, lifting fallen roofs and sifting through the deep puddles that spotted the grounds of Boujdour. Fatma joined. They would find their girl.
“Over here!” one woman screamed.
Everyone looked with hope as the mother ran over to the large puddle, 100 meters away. Fatma watched as her colleague thrashed into the puddle, the cloudy water suddenly at her waist. Running to help, Fatma’s heart sank as she came close enough to see the young girl floating at the surface, her back facing up.
The girl was not the only child they lost that year. Many drowned or disappeared, falling into the deep holes that had been dug to make the sand bricks. There were always holes spread throughout the camps but when the floods came, the deep pools were disguised as innocent play zones. No increase in humanitarian aid could ease the kind of suffering that each flood brought.
The rain falls every winter but it does not always pour with kindness. The sons build the houses but they do not always return from war.
Fatma was the eldest grandchild and the “Queen of the Family,” as her grandmother called her. In Saharawi culture, the first grandchild is to live with the father’s parents, and Fatma maintained this tradition. One year after her birth, her grandparents received Fatma into their tent to live with her father’s six unmarried siblings — five uncles and one aunt. She was loved immensely. In her grandparents’ home, she was much more than a granddaughter.
Now living and working in Boujdour and with her own children, Fatma would travel to see her family on holidays and weekends, but free time was not something she had. After the floods, however, she knew she must go and see them. She stayed in her camp for less than a day, seeing enough tragedy to know the trip to her grandparents was urgent. Loading an excited Jabubi and Priscy into the truck, they left for Smara Camp.
Fatma arrived to find them in a painful but unsurprising situation. The clouds had given generously and equally to each camp, and her grandparents’ home was destroyed. The rain had melted the sand bricks back into the earth, each structure standing weakly in an obscure slouch. The bathroom, a small square structure, suffered the worst damage. The canvas roof had sunk, fully bloated with water, and the lower bricks had disappeared into the brown pools that covered the area. The entire bathroom was ready to collapse. Fatma had just two days before she had to return to work, but understood that for them, the bathroom meant access and dignity. During times of flood damage, people walk far distances to the outside of the camps in order to seek privacy while their bathrooms are useless. Her grandparents were old and could not make the trip. They were more worried about the bathroom than the house.
“The bathroom is bad, you can’t have this! I’ll repair it,” Fatma declared.
“No, no, no, no, you can’t. Leave it. When our son comes home he will repair it, so don’t worry,” her grandmother said. One son had survived the war, five washed away in the flood of conflict.
Fatma knew that they thought she was unable to rebuild it, but worried about them waiting for her uncle to return. They were both ill, their ailments compounded by the terrible living conditions. All day, she pleaded with them to allow her to repair the damage.
“Leave it, leave it. He doesn’t want you to work hard. Just leave it,” her grandmother insisted, nodding to her husband.
Fatma heard her grandmother but her own heart rang louder. Waiting until they went to sleep, she immediately got to work, tearing down the bathroom. She was thankful that the moon illuminated the dark sky. She had a lot of work to do.
Fatma had bought bricks from her cousin living nearby — she would otherwise have to make them, waiting days for them to settle in their molds. She worked frantically to finish the demolition. She knew that she had to destroy the entire structure before her grandparents woke up. As long as I can finish tearing it down tonight, I can rebuild it tomorrow.
As she knelt in the mud, the sand bricks crumbling in front of her, she thought back to the day she left Smara camp years before. She was living as a single mother next to her grandparents in the tent her grandmother had sewn for her. Wanting her to have more space, her grandfather, Mehdi, had begun building one for her. Fatma’s husband still away at war, he spent hours alone each day, carefully laying each brick on top of another. The morning when Fatma left to go work at NUSW, he had almost finished, only the roof left to assemble.
The bold sun swept away the moonlight hue and it was morning. Fatma had not slept. Her grandfather awoke and moved toward the bathroom, before even beginning his prayer. He found nothing.
“This woman just does what she wants to do! She doesn’t listen! Why doesn’t she listen?” he yelled.
Fatma said nothing. She had been living alone in Boujdour for years and had learned how to build and rebuild after each flood. As he retreated, disappointed, to their tent to make tea, Fatma began building. She worked completely alone. Thoughts of her grandparents’ happiness filled her sleepless body with energy. I will not leave them disappointed. At 5 p.m., she walked into their tent. “Come outside,” she said.
They beamed. Fatma had flattened empty water tanks to replace the weak canvas roof, a new idea for repairs with their lack of resources. People walked over, curious, asking who had built the bathroom.
Fatma’s grandfather had a brother living in another camp who came to visit that day. He examined the once-damaged bathroom with appreciation. Knowing that the men in the family were not there, he asked his brother, “Who built this?”
“I have two daughters but one of them is not only a daughter. She is a son, also.”
Pride washed over Fatma like a warm rain. It was her grandfather’s way of congratulating her, appreciating all the things she was capable of.
The rain falls every winter but it does not always pour with kindness. The sons build the houses but the daughters do too.
3 Years into the Peace Process
Section title photo: A photo of the refugee camp after flooding (Photo Source: Wikimedia).
A House of Their Own
It was not a modest gathering. The congress that the National Union of the Saharawi Women (NUSW) held nearly every four years was a grand occasion. Six hundred people gathered in the camps under one hand-sewn tent, representatives from each neighborhood and international delegates both ready to participate. There was formal business to be discussed but always a celebration to follow.
In March 2002, it was time for another congress — one that came long awaited — to elect a new president and the executive committee. Fatma had been appointed nearly six years before as part of the national executive responsible for cooperation. Her role on the committee was much different than that which she had done before; she traveled often, establishing a network of supporters to the Saharawi cause. She met with women from different countries establishing relationships with NUSW and the women in the camps. Opportunities to study in Spain were even presented and Fama accepted. Her dedication never wavered and neither did what she had learned from Saharawi women: perseverance.
Having just returned to the camps after days spent in the city putting together materials for the congress, Fatma rushed to the tent in time for the commencement of the congress. The blue carpet that lined the tent glowed onto the faces of the hundreds of people seated underneath it, a sea of people in the middle of the desert. They would discuss ideas for the organization, identify needs of the community and debate on statutes. The final action on the agenda was to elect the new president.
As she busily finished the last of her tasks, Fatma heard someone calling for her.
“Fatma!” It was Senia Ahmed, the chair of the congress. Senia had been reelected as president in 1998 but resigned in order to care for her mother who had become ill. Needing a president but lacking the resources to bring together an expensive congress earlier than planned, SADR, working closely with NUSW, appointed one of Fatma’s acquaintances as the interim president: Mamma Sidi. At the time, she was also the director of the school of the 27 of February. Being president and running the school was an overwhelming amount of work for one person but they did the best they could as they always had. It was time for a change.
“Did you really think about your decision?” Senia asked.
“My decision?” Fatma asked, distracted.
“Your name is on the nomination list for president.”
“What?” Fatma stiffened.
“I think you should learn more first so you can improve your capacity in all areas. Then you can apply for president,” Senia stated, she was an important mentor in Fatma’s life.
“But I didn’t apply!” Fatma pleaded, confused. She had been away from the camps for a few days and had yet to see the nomination list. Worry compounded in her stomach. President? The women who had filled the role in the past were much older than her, more experienced.
Over the following two days of the congress, she repeated Senia’s words over and over, anxious to see what the votes would decide for her future. For the past 11 years, she had been waiting for a different vote, the referendum, to decide her future. That was one she felt ready for.
Fatma had tried to convince the national executive to remove her name from the list, but the women told her not to disturb the process. At the end of the three days, the conference was coming to a close. Senia spoke into a microphone at the front of the tent, quieting the group with her confidence.
“Thank you for your participation,” she said. “I would now like to acknowledge the newly elected president of NUSW.”
Fatma sat holding her breath. The air inside the tent made it feel like summer.
“Fatma Mehdi Hassam,” Senia said, smiling.
She stood in disbelief and walked slowly to Senia. The woman who had entered her grandparents’ tent, over 10 years ago, now presented Fatma as the leader of the organization that had always given her a piece of hope.
“Congratulations,” Senia beamed. “Being president is another way to improve your capacity. I wish you much success in your work, Fatma.”
Senia was a revolutionary person. She had inspired Fatma and taught her many things. From Senia, Fatma learned that nothing was impossible — that if there was ever something she wanted to do, she should always try. Try is what she did.
Fatma accepted the presidency on the condition that she would have the support of the national executive and the experienced women in NUSW. Doubt initially constrained her, and she worried that her age and level of experience would hinder the ability for her to lead the organization. This was not the case. She found methods to push her learning experience, consulting with the women individually before meetings, ensuring she had their support and input. Fatma had always felt a responsibility to support Saharawi women but now it was different. She would do more.
The war had been over for more than 10 years, but so too had the referendum been on hold. The men who had been away from their families, some for over a decade, returned to the camps. They spent less time in the military areas and more in the community, relieving women from their work. But often they did not need relieving. Saharawi women led everything in the camps. They had built a place of peace out of faith, hope, and perseverance and wanted to keep building.
With the camps expanding rapidly as men returned for good, Fatma saw an opportunity to transfer the work NUSW was doing in social services somewhere else. Since fleeing Western Sahara, their programs focused on helping disabled people in the camps, the elderly, and widowed people who needed extra support. The work they were doing was incredible; there were centers for the blind and disabled in each camp, and youth programs were a pillar of their efforts for decades. However, the organization was originally formed for Saharawi women — to create spaces for them to engage in politics and society. NUSW had changed their priorities when the war began, but with the war long over, it was time for more change.
Fatma knew that many people were going to be unhappy, that, at first, they would not understand. NUSW had always run social services in the camps and Fatma was asking Polisario to remove that responsibility. People felt betrayed but Fatma understood the importance of the change. She did not hesitate. With the support of women throughout the Saharawi refugee camp, she petitioned Polisario to create a Secretary General for Social Affairs. It seemed like an unreachable goal. Fatma gathered extensive information, showing the SADR government how social services was a pillar in most democratic states and that it needed a formal position in theirs. Polisario, like Fatma, did not hesitate. They acknowledged the importance of the work the organization had done and, with that, the position was created and a woman from NUSW appointed.
After one year, what had begun as a single position for Secretary General became an entire Ministry of Social Affairs. The work of NUSW transformed to prioritize and fit the original mission of the organization, under Fatma’s lead. The women’s programs they offered expanded and their office grew busier each day.
Fatma’s days were filled with work — running programs, coordinating staff, organizing events, fighting for independence — but she was fostering another skill. Salma, her oldest daughter, was about 17 and still in Spain with the caring family who had taken her in as a child. Fatma was determined to improve her Spanish language skills and worked on it daily. As a way to practice, she was lent a book in Spanish from her neighbor: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. It gave Fatma an idea.
“A Woman’s House,” she said, as she presented the idea to her colleagues. “A space for women that is their own. Where they can learn and share together.” Since the men had returned, it was nearly impossible for Saharawi women to find time for themselves. This would provide the much needed time for them. The women in the camps were enthralled by the idea but it was not an inexpensive one. A “Women’s House” would go in each of the five large camps and 35,000 euros was required to build each one. The centers would be equipped with classrooms and a kitchen and a library and a market and a salon and a kindergarten. They would provide safe spaces for women to find solace and expansive rooms to host meetings. Computer classes would be taught and conferences held about economic empowerment. The houses were to be a special place, for Fatma and for all the women in the camps. After a successful pitch by Fatma and her colleagues, the government approved the houses but had no money to distribute to the program. They supported the idea, but laughed at the amount Fatma hoped to obtain. She would find a way.
In her time spent on the national executive responsible for cooperation, Fatma created a network of women’s groups internationally that supported the Saharawi cause. She contacted groups in Spain that she knew were working for women’s rights in their own communities. Strength in solidarity was something she understood. After a few months, a representative from SADR called NUSW.
“How? How did you manage that?” A sum of 35,000 euros had entered the government’s account for the first NUSW Women’s House. The organization didn’t have their own bank account so it appeared as a surprise in that of the government’s. Generous women’s groups in Spain had funded the first house and would collaborate with NUSW to design and construct the first structure. In 2006, in Smara camp, the first NUSW Women’s House opened.
Slowly, Fatma walked toward the murals that decorated the front of the new building, women rejoicing in painted bursts of color. The yellow melfa that draped around her head grazed the top of her feet, as if she were her own sun. She stepped forward and stopped in disbelief. A house of their own.
They would keep building.
Section title photo: Fatma gathers with other citizen leaders for an African Women Networking meeting (Flickr)
Wall of Shame
Every year, as the cold winter air begins to ease and the days become longer, they march, peacefully along the wall. The wall that is over 2,500 kilometers long. The wall that is surrounded by 7 million landmines. The wall that was built as a weapon of war. The wall that was excluded from the peace agreement. The wall that after 25 years of waiting for the peace process to be achieved, still stands, and is reinforced and built stronger each day.
Preparations began two weeks before the march. The annual event that NUSW organized brought women together every April to peacefully denounce the wall Morocco built in the 1980s to divide Western Sahara from north to south, separating the occupied territory in the west from the liberated area in the east. In 2009, Fatma was the coordinator for the women’s march along the berm. Everything was organized. They had coordinated with the government’s Ministry of Defense to prepare security measures, planning the 3-kilometer route the group would walk. Fatma and her colleagues, together with members from the ministry, lined the path with stones as an indicator for the participants to stay in a safe zone, away from landmines. Fatma arranged with the Ministry of Health to prepare an ambulance for first-aid in case of emergencies. The Ministry of Transportation was contacted to ensure water trucks would be traveling with the women out of the refugee camps in Algeria into the desolate liberated area of Western Sahara. The government would provide food: boxed lunches with tuna and eggs. NUSW even collaborated with a de-mining group that was working with people in the liberated territory to mark areas that were especially dangerous. The no-man’s land where millions of landmines were scattered extends 5 kilometers out of the wall, only protruding on the liberated side of the berm. There is always a risk.
The women participating decided that they would all wear white, a message to the Moroccan soldiers that, “We don’t want war, as women, we want peace.” Decreasing hatred among people was something the Saharawi women sought to accomplish, through whatever means they had. Art was a powerful tool for peace: women wove flowers out of wool to be placed along the dangerous area and stitched beautiful roses onto their melfas. Place one flower for every landmine, even in the desert, a blooming field will grow. To stop hatred and send their message of peace, they needed solidarity, and women from Spain, Italy, France, and throughout Africa were invited to join the march that April. They would support the Saharawi women and their cause.
Fatma made announcements in each camp the week before, notifying everyone to be ready at 8:00 in the morning and the buses would be lined up waiting to drive them to the liberated territory. The morning of the march, crowds of women began to emerge from their tents, all dressed in white. The women loaded into the buses, singing songs drenched in spirit and dancing to their seats. They lifted their arms to wave the flags they carried, their melfas draping like wings. A flock of doves, 2,500 in total, taking flight for peace. It would be a beautiful day.
They drove as far as they could until the buses could no longer handle the bumpy terrain. Fatma organized the women as they unloaded and showed them to trucks that stood waiting to take them to the starting point of the march. Their energy was high but Fatma noticed their group had grown substantially. A crowd of young people stood in front of a truck that they had organized themselves. Fatma approached the group of almost 100 youth whose attendance was a surprise.
“Hello! This is the women’s march. You are welcome but know that we want it to be peaceful. That is how our manifestations work.” Fatma wished she had known in advance that they were going to join them. A few months before, in December 2008, Fatma and NUSW organized a peaceful manifestation on the international day of human rights outside of the U.N. office in the camps. All the women wore black and they delivered letters to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and international organizations urging them to respect the human rights of Saharawi people. One hundred youth from the camps showed up to the demonstration and it turned violent as they replaced the U.N. flag with that of SADR. Fatma did not want violence that day.
“We don’t want to have any problems. We have many international guests with us, who are here to support us.” Young people in the camps had expressed their feelings in situations of violence, their impatience with the unmet peace process transformed into anger. Many of them were born in the camps and after 20 years, still in the camps, would not accept waiting any longer for their land and their futures. Fatma did not want them to disrupt the peaceful process but as she looked at the young group, she saw in their faces the desperation for something that would lessen their grief.
“We don’t want any problems, OK?” she asked.
“OK, don’t worry!” the group laughed, reassuring her. They had taken their own truck and didn’t need help with anything. They were prepared. One of the young men, however, had been told by his father earlier that day not to attend the march. A close member of the family had died a few months before and he was supposed to stay with his siblings. He arrived in the liberated territory, surprised to find his father there. The young man, about 25, didn’t know his father was a driver in one of the trucks. His friends laughed as he ducked in and out of groups to stay hidden, not wanting to be scolded by his father and told to return home.
The crowds of women were arranged into groups by camp and placed in the long line that was nearly ready to commence the walk. The youth had joined their respective camps and everyone held their flags in place. Fatma climbed into one of the trucks and grabbed her megaphone. The crowd took their first steps of the march, everyone erupting into songs and cheers, a beautiful symphony of resilience.
Fatma felt as if she stood on a cloud, watching the flock of doves move together in perfect unison. She yelled into the megaphone with excitement, giving each group their time to sing and reminding everyone to stay within the path. They had been walking for 20 minutes, part of the race for peace they had already been running for 35 years. The women did not tire.
Fatma was alert, enjoying the march and monitoring the surroundings to make sure things went as planned. Suddenly, small figures appeared near the top of the berm. Moroccan soldiers. They were filming the demonstration. Despite the women signaling their hope for peace, she was not surprised. The young people though, became enraged. They came from all directions, joining different groups, running outside of the designated path toward the wall. Women yelled, calling them back, worried for the safety of their Saharawi children. They reached the metal fence that indicated the start of the sea of landmines. They began to climb.
“Go!” Fatma yelled to the driver of the truck, speeding over to the fence. Women had left the line, running and clinging to the backs of the shirts of the young people on the fence. There were over 150 and the women were struggling to retain them. Screams from all directions.
“Come down!” Fatma screamed into the megaphone. Chaos ensued as organizers and women scolded them to return, terrified at the risks the youth were putting themselves in. As soon as they crossed the fence, the odds were not on their side. Each step was a gamble for their lives. People were losing grip of the young people, they would not be able to hold them back much longer.
A cloud of sand surrounded Fatma. A piercing ring echoed in her ears. She could not take a step, unsure which direction would take her to safety and which would not. Fatma couldn’t see the woman who had been standing next to her moments before. In an instant, the air mimicked the effect of an hour-long wind storm and wrapped around her. Minutes passed, she heard voices yelling, but still could see nothing but the clouds of dusty brown that filled her mouth and nose. A landmine had exploded 2 meters from where she stood. She waited, no one moving. Fatma was disoriented but as she began to make out figures around her, she saw which direction the path was. She resisted the instinct to run to safe ground. Instead, grabbing the megaphone, she directed everyone back to the line of safety, staying where she was.
Fifteen minutes since the explosion. No one understood what exactly had happened or where. It was still difficult to see but Fatma continued to guide people back to the path, away from the wall. Everyone seemed to have returned to their places.
“Look!” someone shouted, sending fear through Fatma. She turned around.
A man laid on the ground behind her, at the bottom of the fence. He was motionless. Likely dead.
Cries emerged from the man’s still body. Men who had been driving the trucks ran to help him, Fatma following next to them. As they got closer, they saw the blood. Red pools gathered under the man’s body — he was one of the young people. As they reached him, they called for the ambulance but one of the drivers froze. His son lay in front of him, barely conscious, his right leg suddenly ending at the bottom of his calf. He was supposed to be home with his brothers and sisters. Blood covered the faded blue denim of the jeans he wore as he wailed. Fatma watched the father’s face as his life changed in that instant. The ambulance pulled up, scattering everyone away from the young man. The father did not move, now kneeling over his son’s chest, covered in the blood that the two of them shared.
It was 2009, the 18th year of the peace process, and in so many ways, the war that had ended waged on. But so did their march for peace.
Fatma guided everyone as they finished the 3-kilometer march. The young man had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. Hoping his life would be saved, they continued on their path. They reached the spot that had been planned for lunch, a large tent sewn together for all the women. Meetings had been organized to talk about landmines and the danger of the wall but the tone was somber. The international guests were in shock from the scene they had just witnessed. Fatma knew this was the right time. She and her colleagues created the International Platform of Women to Destroy the Wall of Shame in Western Sahara.
Media around the world had finally noticed the wall in Western Sahara and how it plagued the Saharawi people. Why was it only a gruesome event that made them notice? The world needed to know about the wall that stood in horrifying strength as a barrier to their future. Fatma would not stop walking its length with her army of angels, pleading for an end to what had persisted for too long. God will love the person that starts asking for peace.
18 Years into the Peace Process
Section title photo: Saharawi youth charge the Wall of Shame separating the occupied territory in the West from the liberated area in the East. (Photo provided by Fatma)
“Picture!” someone yelled across the grand tiled room. Fatma was in Italy, at an international meeting about gender equality. It was common at the end of conferences to take a photo — special diverse groups of people gathering to discuss important ideas for powerful change. The sense of unity comforted Fatma. As the men and women gathered closely to fit the frame of the photo, she opened her reach and smiled, turning her head to the woman on her left, a representative from Morocco seated next to her. The woman stood and abruptly moved to the opposite side of the group in silence.
An energy inside Fatma broke. The woman’s gesture was overt.
“Why did you move?” another woman asked, stunned.
“I don’t want to lose my life,” the Moroccan woman said, her neutral tone ringing through the tense air. “I don’t want to lose my blood.”
The woman spoke through the fear that had morphed into truth for people living under the strict rule of the Moroccan monarchy. Politics of terror had followed her across the border and across the continent. The Saharawi struggle was not something to be spoken of, the Saharawi people not to be acknowledged. Pictures from the meeting would be shared internationally — she could not be seen next to Fatma.
The final meetings at the conference had ended and Fatma sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room, staring blankly at the faded carpet under her feet. A knock interrupted the thoughts muddling her full mind. She walked across the hotel room, the fibers rough against her bare feet, and opened the heavy wooden door. The Moroccan woman stood centered in the frame of the door.
“Sorry,” her voice wavered, “I am sorry.”
Fatma stepped to the side, her back pushing the door open but the woman did not enter. Her hands shook.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s all I can say,”
She paused a moment, looking at Fatma before returning down the hallway, away from the Saharawi woman whom she dare not be seen with.
Fatma did not understand, but felt sorry for the woman — that the fear of the Moroccan forces had followed her across borders. The terror in her eyes was enough to assume that King Mohammed VI followed 10 footsteps behind her everyday. The terror was powerful — it muffled the voices of hundreds of thousands — but it would not silence the Saharawi people. It would not silence Fatma.
In the occupied territory, the Saharawi people are tired of waiting. Their days are filled with uncertainty and fear as the hand of Moroccan rule hovers over their heads. Their voices echo, sometimes in unison and sometimes alone, as they speak and cry and yell and sing through the day but not into the night. By night, their voices fade, deadened by Moroccan security forces in the occupied territory. They are filled with fear but they are not still. Rallies are forbidden but the Saharawi people refuse to be idle. Their voices are not free but they are not silent.
In the camps, the Saharawi people are tired of waiting. Their days are hard and their future is a question that international powers have left unanswered. Their voices echo, sometimes in unison and sometimes alone, as they speak and cry and yell and sing through the day and into the night. Their voices push through the clouds of dust that fill their homes. Polisario gives them megaphones. Their voices are free. Their land will be too.
The ground in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, shook many times throughout the war and again through the peace process, rumbling as a reminder of the referendum that never was. Saharawi people comprised less than one-third of the population in the occupied territory but together their presence felt like millions. There was peace between Moroccan and Saharawi neighbors if they did not discuss politics. But politics was life, and not something the Saharawi people would ignore. The youth rallied for better economic opportunities, proper social treatment, and an end to the human rights violations that plagued the people indigenous to the land.
Their protests were grounded in peace but the responses were not. People were beaten and arrested by Moroccan police, women dragged by their feet, their bruised bodies leaving trails of blood in the streets that paved over the land their ancestors had walked. MINURSO was the only U.N. peace mission that did not monitor human rights. And human rights were violated through gruesome threats and fierce beatings. The Saharawi people in the occupied territory lived in Laayoune for the winter months, traveling to the rural areas for the summer establishing their tents. After some time, Moroccan forces banned the tradition, torching family tents as a signal that their cultural homes were forbidden. The Saharawi people though, would not be silent and they would not leave.
In October 2010, they left the cement buildings in which they lived and trekked 12 kilometers out of the city of Laayoune. They tread, the women walking slowly, heavy with layers of melfas that they would use to build their tents. Gdeim Izik, the protest camp, was built, thousands of people helping in its assembly. This was their home. This was their culture. This was their freedom.
Their peaceful resistance was not met with peace. Moroccan forces invaded the camps with force, firing their weapons and torching the tents. It was another devastating tragedy, another violation of human rights that, like so many others, would go unnoticed by the international community. Morocco had established a ban on entry into the country by anyone that was not Moroccan, including all media sources and major journalists. Including U.N. Secretary-General himself, Ban Ki-moon. No reporters could enter, meaning no headlines could exit. However, at Gdeim Izik, reporters had entered. Disguised as Saharawi people, journalists managed to make their way into the occupied territory and shine light on the media blackout. It brought recognition of their struggles to the international media, but it did not bring justice.
By 2013, Fatma’s network of people supporting the Saharawi cause had grown around the world. In April, she signed an agreement on behalf of NUSW with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, to collaborate on peacebuilding and human rights. She wanted to do more, and particularly with the women in the occupied territory. The International Conference about Women and Peaceful Resistance was held by NUSW in Algeria but something was missing. The work the women in the occupied territory, Fatma knew, was both vital and dangerous. They had insight. They were a pillar of the struggle for independence. But they were not at the conference. They were an essential piece that needed to be included. She would arrange to hold the next conference in Laayoune.
In June, a group of solidarity activists from Spain, France, and all over Africa flew to the occupied territory. Women from the camps could not be sent, as they would likely be denied entry or held in the airports by Moroccan forces. The activists had to be subtle — the foreign entry ban had been lifted but it did not mean that there was flexibility or freedom. The women stayed in the homes of NUSW fellows living in Laayoune. The conference was not held in a formal meeting hall but rather on the roof of a small building. The women gathered and spoke about the conflict and the brutal human rights violations of the Saharawi people. They spoke of independence. They spoke of peace. Fatma attended the conference through video and through her heart.
The next year, in April, Fatma made arrangements for the same conference to be held in Laayoune, the last one having been an unbelievable accomplishment. She coordinated with the activists and again sent them into the occupied territory. At the airport though, they were stopped. Why were they returning? What was their business there? They were denied entry, they were suspicious. Before even stepping a foot outside the airport, they were turned around.
This stall, however, was but a small blip in the plans. Fatma would not let this end the strength the group had built. Instead, on the same rooftop where the women had met nearly 12 months before, speeches were given. The roof was empty but everyone was there. One by one the women gave their speeches through live video. They spoke about the conflict and the brutal human rights violations of the Saharawi people. They spoke of peace. They were resisting. It was a beautiful thing.
23 Years into the Peace Process
Section title photo: Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon in Algeria with Fatma. (UN Photo / Evan Schneider)
Colors of Hope
The noise got louder in the air that only whistled with the wind. Fatma heard voices singing. It was 1976, a few months after they fled Western Saharah. She sat outside her grandparents’ tent in the refugee camps in Algeria, unsure of where she was. Somewhere in Western Sahara, she thought, somewhere a bit further from home. At 7, Fatma did not yet know that the camps extended beyond her own, stretching hundreds of miles into the desert as a home to thousands of Saharawi people. The noise got closer and soon she saw big trucks filled with people, flags of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in everyone’s hands. Wanting one of her own, she walked closer. Megaphones rang out — it was time for a celebration! Curious, she stretched her small arms up onto the ledge of the truck and climbed in.
After a few hours, the excitement grew. The singing resumed as they pulled into a world from Fatma’s imagination. The city — Tindouf — was nothing she had ever seen. It was busy and grand and colorful. The cars that whipped past them in the crowded street were bright blues and yellows. The buildings were taller and built strong with cement. People were everywhere. She knew they were not in Western Sahara. This was Algeria.
As the parade of trucks rolled to a stop, Fatma watched young children her age run around a square courtyard nearby. Drawn to the school, she moved closer. The school building was clean, life-size paintings of tigers and other animals on the walls. She watched the school kids, her eyes following the pink balls they threw back and forth. They dressed in uniform, dark blue shorts with tights in their matching black shoes. The girls’ hair was pulled back into bright hair ties. She could not understand them, their Arabic a different dialect than her own, but she smiled at their fun. Fatma stood in the entrance, enraptured by the colorful scene, wanting to join them. She had never seen anything so beautiful.
Her attention was pulled away from the school, the celebration had gotten louder.
“We welcome you to Algeria,” a voice echoed over a microphone. Fatma couldn’t see over the crowd.
“We are celebrating today to show our solidarity with the Saharawi people and welcome you to Algeria. You have our support!”
In less than one year, Fatma was sent to Libya to attend school. In 12 years, she would begin working at the National Union of the Saharawi Women. In 25 years, she would be elected as president of the organization. She would lead international organizations and represent women around the world. She was taking action to change their lives. She would paint her own colorful world.
Flags filled the streets in Tindouf as everyone rejoiced. Fatma stood alone in the crowd of people. She knew, though, that she was not alone. There was war but there was solidarity. There was hate but there would be peace.
2016 - 25 Years into the Peace Process
Section title photo: A Saharawi man, waving the Western Saharan flag (Wikipedia)
About the Author
Serena Pelka holds a degree in environmental governance from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. As a human geographer, Pelka’s research interests are on the gendered impacts of development issues related to water and waste infrastructure, particularly in urban areas in the Global South. A member of Guelph’s Oxfam group, she helped create spaces to engage in dialogue about gender equality in politics and international women’s rights. For a field course in DownEast, Maine, Pelka researched sociocultural relationships within the lobster industry, informing her understanding of the value of storytelling. She studied abroad at Lund University in Sweden, and served as an intern for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. She used her research and writing skills to develop educational and marketing materials for the Women PeaceMakers program, which fostered her interest in the narrative process as a powerful tool of change.
A Conversation With Fatma
A Conversation with Fatma Mehdi Hassam
The following are excerpts from interviews between Hassam and her writer, Serena Pelka.
Do your children have a strong sense of Saharawi identity?
Yes, and I am always trying to keep this because this is my responsibility. We still need our unity as people because we’re still struggling for our existence. If everyone stays there [in foreign countries] without thinking about the people and the main objective to be a free state, that will affect our project as Saharawi people.
I think that’s what we need to do to keep our diversity alive, to try to collaborate and have consideration and respect for diversity. To be a good friend of Spanish people, I don’t need to take off my identity. I need to keep it and try to be integrated for important things. I don’t think the real meaning of integration has to do with clothes or things — these are secondary issues. The important thing is to always think of people, to collaborate and be positive.
For example, both of us, we can work together, we can live together, and without depreciating my things or your things. Your culture, your identity is very important for you and mine is very important for me. In relationships there are always fixed things and common and shared things. This part, the common and shared things, is the part we should work to improve.
On Freedom of Speech and Division:
Have you ever felt, in the camps, that you couldn’t freely speak? In any context — in your home, as president of NUSW, when you were a teacher? Have you ever felt restricted?
Never, and I will tell you more about this situation. We, as groups who have grown up in the camps, we’ve grown up free. Now our people are having problems with exchange visits that the UN is organizing. The UN organizes a trust-building program, taking people from the camps to visit their families [on the West side of the wall] for one week. People cannot get through the wall — you have to fly. They take you from Tindouf in a plane and then they take you back to the camps and they are doing the same the other way. People haven’t seen each other in 40 years so it was a very critical human situation.
However, for example, when a member of the family living in the camps goes to visit the occupied territory, they talk about everything — politics, etc. So for the other groups [the family in the occupied territory] they are like mad people because they are very frightened. They don’t enjoy our time with them because they think that in every corner of the house, there will be a camera. Some of them send someone to stand outside the house because they are afraid that Moroccan spies would be listening. We had a problem with this when they come to the camps. They bring this fear with them. In order to distinguish the families having a visitor, because all people want to greet them, they put a [SADR] flag in the tent where they are visiting. Some of them were frightened by this and they think that when they go back [to the occupied territory], Morocco will kill them because of that flag.
Because they can’t hang any flags?
Because they can’t hang any flags, they can’t hang any pictures. If they are carrying some videos, some recordings, they cannot include any politics. The problem is that our group in the camps, politics, for us, is life. It’s everything. So we cannot have any conversation for five minutes without mentioning our hope and our future and our land. It’s very, very hard.
Would you say that it’s created another kind of a divide? Not just a physical divide?
Yes, it’s a spiritual one. The wall is not only dividing a territory but dividing us as people also. This kind of pressure, this kind of terror, has prevented us from enjoying our time for the visits. We could not enjoy them. They are only five days. You go there, and the situation is so different. You have two days in order for you to reestablish or try to understand where you are. Even then, you start having trust [with each other] but you cannot talk. We talk about everything. They are even frightened to listen to us. I have visited them and sometimes, when you’re talking about things and say, “Agh, my country, I’m just waiting for the day to go there.” If you talk about these things, you notice that they’re not there. This is the politics of terror of Morocco. This is what they’re using on everybody so it’s affecting our people a lot.
We [NUSW] have a real problem because sometimes some institutions don’t like talking about politics and this has always been a reason for us to be rejected from many programs. Some of the [women’s] groups say, “No, we don’t like anything related to the politics, we just are working in women’s issues.” But sometimes they don’t realize that for some groups, like our group, politics is our life. If you want us to collaborate on women’s issues about equal salary, about right to the land, many rights, we cannot do that before resolving this political situation. Really, they were closing the door.
When the peace process started, we knew that this was not peace because even living in a peace process, we suffered a lot. Sometimes, for example, when we meet women from other countries and they tell us, “You should be happy because the peace process is coming, they are already in negotiations with you and Morocco. UN is discussing your problem.” They think that if we start the peace process, our problem is finished. But what we realized is that even living in a peace process, that never means we are living in peace. There are other aspects. We have suffered from the war, from the landmines in our territory, by lack of food, by the feelings of anger. When you think of all these things, you realize that absence of war never means peace. Before this time, before living in this situation and having this peace process, peace for me was something that makes you feel good. Even within yourself.
I always say, “Peace is life.” So if I want to be alive, I should make peace with myself, and making peace with myself is important for me and for others. If I’m not feeling at peace, I cannot help anybody. I always think that when I say peace is life, that means peace is everything and without peace, nothing. Peace is like the medicine for everything. Everything. Within yourself, with your family, with your children, with your relatives, with your friends, with people who are surrounding you. For me it’s like water and air. Really.
That’s when I realized peace is not only the absence of war, it is everything. That’s what we are trying now to transmit in our society because people are very angry. They’re always talking about waiting. “We have been waiting for this peace process to be implemented for now 26 or 27 years,” but the problem is that they should not be waiting. They maybe feel that it’s a very long time because they were waiting but if they were acting they will easily see the results. When you are only waiting, you can hardly see the result — but when you are acting, when you are involved, when you are doing your best, you can be happy because you can see easily the results. It’s something that you are a part of and even you can feel the responsibility to improve it. The solution will not be brought in or given from the UN and that never happens in any situation. That’s what we believe as the Saharawi [people]. We believe that the solution should come from our side. These things are what we are trying to work on in our society. Let them participate more in the peace process. So that is peace.
How can we mix air, water, life? We should look for something that really can. Peace is very rich, very profound, as I said before. It’s not easy to give the meaning of peace. It means a lot of things. I think it includes all the good things. That’s what I can express, the word peace.
On Giving Thanks
Thank you to my family. My father especially, who could not see this process, who could not see the result of something that he had started. Thinking about this sometimes helps me a lot in doing more, trying just to demonstrate that his work was worth it. It’s my commitment to his dream, trying to help him to complete that dream, and to see his children with great capacity.
Thank you to my grandparents, for the important principles that they provided me to grow up within — that was very important. Their advice, their wisdom, all the good things that they left me with as a person really helped me a lot.
Thank you to my colleagues, Saharawi women who are working with me. I know that without their support I would never reach this important result. Their trust, their support — many thanks. There still are many women whose stories are stronger than mine and who have worked even more than in my case. When I listen to the Saharawi women, I realize that really they are doing their best. Just to show that the Saharawi women have always worked [hard] and they are still working very hard. They are very active. I want their work to be visible also through this knowledge.
Thank you to the Saharawi men, who have always made me feel appreciated and for their support. I never felt disrespected, working often as the only woman. That has been a very important thing for me. Thank you.
Thank you to Polisario, who helped create the National Union because they believed that the Saharawi women are very strong. Thanks to this thinking, the Saharawi women are now more visible. Our culture appreciates us as women, but the political participation and this visibility we have are thanks to the Polisario Front and the ideology that helped us overcome the culture, to overcome everything and start in the front lines.
Thank you to the Institute [for Peace and Justice]. Really, I wanted to appreciate the spirit of these people who are giving the priority to work in peace and attending everybody who is collaborating in this peace. They are making a lot of effort, protecting me, protecting this process, protecting this knowledge, and protecting the future work in my community. That for me, is a very big sacrifice. I really appreciate this spirit and collaboration from their side.
Section title photo: Fatma speaking at a Panafrican Women’s Organization meeting (Photo provided by Fatma Mehdi Hassam)
Political Developments in Western Sahara and Personal History of Fatma Mehdi Hassam
Western Sahara is colonized by Spain.
Formerly Western Sahara becomes a Spanish province and is renamed Spanish Sahara.
Morocco gains independence from France.
Morocco demands sovereignty over Western Sahara, referencing centuries-old claims to the land based on a supposed allegiance of Saharawi tribes to the Sultan of Morocco.
Western Sahara is placed on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories under Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter.
The United Nations urges Spain to decolonize Western Sahara.
Harakat Tahrir, a secret Saharawi liberation organization, is formed with an aim to peacefully end colonial rule in the territory.
Fatma Mehdi Hassam is born in Laayoune, Western Sahara.
Fatma and her family move to Guelta, a small village east of Laayoune in Western Sahara.
1970 June 17
The Zemla Intifada, an uprising led by Harakat Tahrir, is held in Laayoune to peacefully hand Spanish colonial rulers a petition for proper treatment and independence. The demonstration turns violent. After Saharawi demonstrators disappear and are killed, Harakat Tahrir is abolished.
A new Saharawi liberation movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front), is founded.
The International Court of Justice issues an advisory opinion that there are no ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and Morocco.
The Green March, a mass demonstration led by the Moroccan government brings over 350,000 Moroccans civilians across the border into Western Sahara. Spain evacuates the territory. Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania sign the Madrid accords, a confidential agreement that withdraws Spain from Western Sahara. Morocco and Mauritania invade Western Sahara and the Polisario Front begins their fight in the guerilla war.
Fatma flees the northeast under bombing by Moroccan Forces. After three days, she arrives at the Algerian desert of the Hamada, Tindouf province.
1976 February 27
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is declared by Polisario Front in Bir Lehlu, Western Sahara.
Fatma is sent to study abroad in Tripoli, Libya.
Mauritania withdraws from the war and signs a peace agreement with Polisario, renouncing all claims to land in Western Sahara. Morocco moves into the southern part of the territory and asserts administrative control.
Fatma returns to the camps after two years in Libya.
Morocco begins construction of a 2,500 kilometer wall surrounded by 7 million land mines to separate the occupied territory in the west from the liberated area on the east.
Fatma’s father, Chej, dies in a military operation during the war.
Gaddafi II, the leader of Libya, enters into economic agreements with Hassan II, the King of Morocco. The Polisario Front pulls all Saharawi children out of Libya.
Fatma and her studies are moved to Mascara, Algeria.
SADR is recognized as the governing body of Western Sahara and becomes a member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union. Morocco withdraws from the OAU in protest.
Fatma leaves her studies and returns to the camps to take care of her mother,Jera. She marries Mustafa, a family friend.
Fatma begins training to become a teacher at the 27th of February school, the first center built for women by the Polisario Front.
Fatma’s daughter Salma is born.
Fatma begins teaching primary students in the Smara camp at the School of 17th of June, named after the National Day of Intifada.
Salma becomes ill. Fatma spends months in the National Hospital with Salma and over 100 children from the camps who have contracted polio.
Fatma’s son Lehbib (Jabubi) is born.
Through U.N. and OAU joint mediation efforts, the Polisario Front and Morocco accept a Settlement Plan with the aim of holding a referendum to enable the Saharawi people their right to self-determination.
Fatma begins working as the general administrator for the office of the National Union of the Saharawi Women (NUSW).
Fatma sends Salma to live with a host family and receive medical treatment in Spain.
Fatma’s son Chej is born and dies on his day of birth.
A U.N.-brokered ceasefire ends the war. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is created, a peacekeeping mission under U.N. Security Council Resolution 690 as part of the agreed upon Settlement Plan. Plans for a referendum on self-determination are included, to be held in 1992.
The UN moves nearly 400 peacekeepers into the area to aid voter registration for the scheduled referendum. No vote is held, due to conflict over voter eligibility and who is able to claim Saharawi ethnicity.
Fatma’s daughter Priscila is born in Spain.
Fatma is appointed to the National Executive of NUSW, responsible for cooperation.
The U.N. Secretary-General calls for the removal of MINURSO peacekeepers from the area and a suspension on the identification process in voter eligibility, after the U.N. Security Council is sent to assess the situation.
Former U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, is appointed as Personal Envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General for Western Sahara. The Houston Agreement is signed, the first document signed by both Morocco and Polisario during the peace process. Both actors outline action items and a referendum is planned for 1998.
Fatma receives a certificate in feminism and gender studies from the Women’s Institution in Basque Country, Spain.
The referendum is halted, due to disagreements over voter registration. The Houston Agreement is not upheld.
King Hassan II of Morocco dies. His eldest son, Mohammed VI, ascends the throne.
A new plan for self-determination, Baker I, is formed in place of the original Settlement Plan and the Houston Agreement. The first draft of the plan offers Saharawi people autonomy within the Moroccan state. With no option for independence proposed, it is rejected by the Polisario Front and Algeria.
Fatma is elected president of the National Union of the Saharawi Women.
On behalf of NUSW, Fatma petitions the Polisario Front to create a Secretary of State for Social Affairs. The position is created and a Saharawi woman is appointed.
Baker II is proposed, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, offering Polisario four years of autonomy followed by a final referendum that would include non-Saharawi Moroccan settlers in the vote. The plan, reluctantly accepted by Polisario, is rejected by Morocco.
Many of the NUSW local and regional centers become part of the new Secretary of State for Social Affairs.
Unable to receive support from both parties and the U.N. Security Council, James Baker resigns, stating he has done all he can to resolve the conflict.
A series of demonstrations are held in the occupied territory, known as the Independence Intifada, with Saharawi people protesting human rights violations under Moroccan forces. A violent police response unfolds and Saharawi activists are publicly beaten, arrested, and disappeared. The violence draws international attention.
Fatma is the honorary president of the International Festival of Music and Ethnic Culture and Mestizaje of Elche in Alicante, Spain.
NUSW opens the first Women’s House in Smara Camp, under Fatma’s lead.
The U.N. Security Council adopts Resolution 1754, calling on the Polisario Front and Morocco to enter into negotiations with the intent of achieving a mutually acceptable political situation. Human rights monitoring remains absent in the renewal of MINURSO. The first of four rounds of talks, titled the Manhasset Negotiations, begin in New York with Algeria and Mauritania in attendance.
Expanding the role of Secretary of State for Social Affairs, Polisario creates the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Emancipation of Women.
Fatma is appointed as Representative of North Africa in the Panafrican Women’s Organization (PAWO).
The final round of the Manhasset Negotiations end with no progress toward a referendum.
Fatma is a keynote speaker at the European Parliament’s Headquarters in Brussels regarding women’s and human rights in Western Sahara.
Fatma is appointed National Coordinator in Western Sahara for Women Advancement for Economic Leadership and Empowerment (WAELE/ARCELFA) in Africa.
Fatma announces the creation of the International Network to Support the Saharawi Women’s Struggle and Protect Human Rights. She introduces Winnie Mandela as the honorary president of the network in the camps.
Fatma is appointed as a representative of PAWO in the Committee of 30 for the AU’s African Women’s Decade (AWD).
Fatma is a member of the official Saharawi delegation participating in the AU Summit in Uganda.
Gdeim Izik protest camp is created 12 kilometers outside of Laayoune, several thousands of activists protesting the human rights abuses in the occupied territory.
A Saharawi boy is shot and killed by Moroccan forces on his way to the camp. Moroccan security forces dismantle the camp, forcefully beating and arresting hundreds of Saharawi people. The violent evacuation causes many fatalities.
Fatma signs an agreement on behalf of NUSW with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to collaborate in peacebuilding and human rights.
Fatma organizes the first conference in the occupied territory for the International Conference about Women and Peaceful Resistance.
Fatma organizes the second conference in the occupied territory for the International Conference about Women and Peaceful Resistance in Laayoune.
Fatma becomes a member of the General Assembly of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC).
Fatma becomes the chair of the Women & Gender Cluster of ECOSOCC.
Fatma represents Polisario during U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the Saharawi refugee camps.
Morocco threatens to withdraw soldiers from the peacekeeping missions in Western Sahara, following U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” when referring to the territory.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of Polisario and President of SADR, dies at the age of 68.
Fatma is chosen as a Woman PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies.
Section title photo: Demonstrations for the independence of Western Sahara in Madrid, Spain (Wikipedia)
Conflict History of Western Sahara
Western Sahara is the home of the longest running territorial conflict on the African continent. Despite a 16-year-long war and an unaccomplished referendum for independence, the incomplete process of decolonization is largely forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of Saharawi people have been living in refugee camps in Algeria for nearly the last 40 years; others remain in the occupied territory facing brutal human rights violations — both trying eagerly to gain freedom over their futures and their territory.
The country was acquired by Spain during the divide of the African continent in the late 1800s. Western Sahara, with an extensive coastline, resource-rich with phosphates and possessing potential sources of oil, appealed to Spain, which out of the colonial powers, received the smallest portion of land. Eager to develop, Spain entered Western Sahara in 1884. Prior to its colonization, the area was largely uninhabited, with small nomadic groups of Saharawi people traveling throughout the territory. With the new borders in place, the Saharawi population was contained within the region and forced to transition out of their traditional lifestyle.
In 1934, Western Sahara was declared a Spanish province and renamed “Spanish Sahara.” Much of the population began working for Spanish businesses, unable to survive a nomadic lifestyle without the ability to move freely. Following World War II, as a process of decolonization slowly began and much of Africa started to transform into liberated territories, neighboring Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. Shortly after, noticing the potential for development and with their new freedom, Morocco demanded sovereignty over the Western Sahara based on centuries-old claims of the supposed allegiance of Saharawi tribes to the Sultan of Morocco. However, with Spain occupying the territory, Morocco’s demand had minimal impact. After nearly 80 years under Spanish rule, the country was placed on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories under Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter in 1963. Over the next few years, the United Nations continued to urge Spain to decolonize the region and hold a referendum for independence of the Saharawi people. Spain, seeing the economic potential of the resource-rich land, was not ready to leave.
With inaction from Spain toward decolonization and a refusal to relinquish control, the population grew frustrated, restrained by the harsh rule of the foreign power in their country. A secret Saharawi liberation organization, Harakat Tahrir, formed with the intent to peacefully end colonial rule in the territory in 1966. Founded by Muhammad Bassiri, a Saharawi journalist and Quranic teacher, the grassroots movement grew to nearly 5,000 members. The group went public in June 1970 at a demonstration in Laayoune, peacefully handing Spanish colonial rulers a petition for proper treatment and independence. The rally turned violent after police attempted to disperse the crowd, with Spanish Legion forces opening fire and killing more than 10 Saharawi protesters. The event, known as the Zemla Intifada, abolished Harakat Tahrir as activists were jailed and many disappeared. Three years later, a new Saharawi liberation movement emerged, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front), by a group of students in Laayoune. Small units of the Polisario Front formed across the country, transforming into the main representation of the Saharawi people as they struggled for independence.
Both the United Nations and the Polisario Front continued to pressure Spain for an independence referendum but no vote was held. Despite this, the situation seemed to be transitioning in the favor of Western Sahara’s decolonization when Morocco’s claims to the land resurfaced. The neighboring country submitted their request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and in October 1975, the ICJ issued an advisory opinion that there were no relevant ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and Morocco. Offsetting the Moroccan monarchy and at the brink of Spain’s potential departure, the news launched the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara.
A month after the ICJ’s statement, the King of Morocco urged his citizens to join a mass demonstration in which the government led over 350,000 Moroccans, many on foot across the border into Western Sahara. Spain subsequently evacuated the territory. Days later, the governments of Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania secretly met in Madrid. “The Madrid Accords” were signed by each party, a confidential agreement that withdrew Spain from Western Sahara on terms of promises of opportunity to maintain access to the profitable resources in the territory. Mauritania invaded Western Sahara from the South and Morocco from the North, fighting to obtain land falsely believed to be their own. The Polisario Front assembled a military and began their fight against the two nations in a guerilla war.
The Moroccan military had vast resources compared to its two opponents and executed bombing missions on civilian villages across the country. The Polisario Front had anticipated the attacks and made arrangements with Algeria, a new ally, who provided space on the northwest border of the country to host the Saharawi people as they fled to safety. Many made the trip on foot, losing their lives in the harsh conditions. By the end of 1975, a majority of the Saharawi population established themselves in the Algerian desert of the Hamada, the refugee camps growing to protect hundreds of thousands of people.
The Polisario Front, determined to protect its people and reclaim their land, formed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a government in exile housed in the refugee camps. The government was declared on February 27, 1976, in Bir Lehlu, Western Sahara, and continues to be led by the ideology and power of the Polisario Front. As the war brutally waged on, Polisario and SADR worked tirelessly to provide for their people, establishing allies with Cuba, Libya, and Algeria to create education programs for Saharawi youth. Local governments were created in the refugee camps, maintaining peace as they sought protection from the war.
Mauritania, lacking the strength of the Moroccan military, withdrew from the war in 1979 and signed a peace agreement with the Polisario Front renouncing all claims to the land it had occupied in the southern parts of Western Sahara. Morocco then extended its presence and asserted administrative control in the territory. Possessing close to two-thirds of the country, Morocco in 1981 began construction of a 2,500-kilometer wall that extends north to south, separating the occupied territory on the west from the Saharawi liberated area in the east. The wall is surrounded by 7 million landmines, serving as a weapon of war and posing an extreme threat to any person attempting to cross.
By 1984, SADR established itself as the governing body of Western Sahara and became a member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). In protest of their recognition, Morocco withdrew from the OAU and persisted in its brutal fight against the Polisario Front. However, after four years, through joint mediation efforts between the United Nations and OAU, the dueling nations accepted a Settlement Plan with the aim of holding a referendum to enable the Saharawi people to vote on their right to self-determination. Morocco and the Polisario Front continued fighting, but the end of the war was in sight.
After extensive negotiations, September 1991 brought a U.N.-brokered ceasefire to end the war. The U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created, a peacekeeping mission under U.N. Security Council Resolution 690 as part of the previously agreed upon Settlement Plan. Included were plans for a referendum on self-determination to be held in 1992. In preparation, the United Nations moved nearly 400 peacekeepers into Western Sahara and within the refugee camps to aid voter registration. The eligibility to vote in the referendum was based on a Spanish census from 1974, permitting indigenous Saharawi people who resided in the region during Spanish rule the right to vote. However, Morocco, sensing the results would not unfold in their favor, revoked their support for the 1992 referendum and no vote was held. Five years after the ceasefire was declared, Morocco maintained its occupation of the western majority of Western Sahara, refusing to reasonably negotiate. The U.N. Security Council was sent to assess the situation, removing MINURSO peacekeepers and suspending the identification process in voter registration. With the majority of independence referendums having occurred no later than three years after the peace missions were declared, the situation started to look grim.
To try and remedy the failed referendum, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was appointed the Personal Envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General for Western Sahara in 1997. Proposing direct talks between the two parties, Baker convened the rivals in four rounds of negotiations based on the framework of the original Settlement Plan. The talks concluded in Houston, with both Morocco and the Polisario Front agreeing to a planned referendum date for 1998 and additional action items regarding troop withdrawal and political prisoners. The Houston Agreement was formally accepted — the first document signed by both parties during the peace process. Voter identification resumed, with each potential voter individually interviewed by MINURSO workers. However, hope for a conclusion to be reached waned as the referendum was again delayed. Morocco compromised the voter eligibility system, causing the Identification Commission to re-start the extensive process.
Baker, determined to establish reasonable and lasting negotiations between the rivals, set out a new plan for self-determination, known as Baker I, in place of the failed Settlement Plan and Houston Agreement. Excluding an option for independence and offering Saharawi people only autonomy within the Moroccan state, the proposed first draft put forward in 2001 was rejected by the Polisario Front and Algeria (an ally involved in the negotiations). Two years later, Baker II was presented and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. The second draft offered the Polisario Front four years of autonomy followed by a final referendum that would include non-Saharawi Moroccan settlers as eligible voters. Willing to compromise and seeking an end to the standstill, Baker II was reluctantly accepted by Polisario, only to be rejected by Morocco shortly after. Frustrated with their unwillingness to compromise and unable to receive full support from the Security Council, in 2004, James Baker resigned stating he had done all he could to resolve the conflict.
Baker’s resignation was discouraging for the Saharawi people and their right to self-determination seemed distant. By 2005, the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria had been home to hundreds of thousands of Saharawi people for 30 years. They were conscious that if they were to begin a process of resettlement, the fight for their independence would further vanish. For the Saharawi people living in the occupied territory under Moroccan rule, they continued to face severe human rights violations, hidden by the strict media restrictions Moroccan police enforced. By May of 2005, a series of demonstrations unfolded in the capital city of Laayoune, known as the Independence Intifada. Peacefully protesting the human rights abuses and petitioning Morocco for proper treatment, Saharawi activists were publicly beaten by police, many were arrested, and many were disappeared. International attention was drawn to the region as MINURSO remained the only U.N. peace mission without a mandate to monitor human rights, even in light of direct evidence of abuse.
By 2007, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1754, calling on both parties to enter into negotiations with the intent of achieving a mutually acceptable political situation. MINURSO was renewed once again, but still with an absence of human rights monitoring persisted in the mandate. The first of four rounds of talks began in June, titled the Manhasset Negotiations. They ended in March of the following year. Algeria and Mauritania both attended. But there was no progress. Saharawi people in the occupied territory continued to face violent discrimination from Moroccan forces and the refugee camps in Algeria, run by Polisario, continued to rely on humanitarian aid for food and water.
By October 2010, thousands of Saharawi activists formed the Gdeim Izik protest camp, 12 kilometers outside of Laayoune in the occupied territory. Moroccan forces had previously restricted their freedom to make traditional tents to rural areas outside of the city. The camp was a protest against the human rights abuses and mistreatment from the occupying ruler. The camp grew and caught the attention of international journalists who had managed to sneak into the strictly monitored borders of the occupied territory. By November, Moroccan security forces became aggressive; a young Saharawi boy was shot and killed on his way to the protest camp. Violently dismantling the camps, the Moroccan police burned down tents as they forcefully beat and arrested hundreds of Saharawi activists. Many people were killed during the violent evacuation and, again, many Saharawi activists disappeared. Noam Chomsky later called the events at Gdeim Izik the true beginning of the Arab Spring.
In 2015, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria and was later denied entry by Morocco into the occupied territory of Western Sahara. His use of the word “occupation” when referring to the territory sparked rage from the Moroccan monarchy, with the king threatening to withdraw soldiers from U.N. global peacekeeping missions. Things seemed to be at a complete standstill. However, in September 2016 — 32 years since it resigned — Morocco officially presented a request to rejoin the African Union. Whether or not they will be able to rejoin remains to be seen but will largely impact their levels of power over the area that they continue to occupy in Western Sahara.
The Saharawi people have been denied their right to self-determination over the last 40 years, are subjected to human rights abuses, and are still fighting to secure their future and liberate their territory. As the Polisario Front works to keep their struggle on the international agenda, their persistence to find a peaceful solution to the abhorrent injustices the Saharawi people face serves as a lesson in national peaceful resistance.
Section title photo: Women combatants from the Polisario Front (flickr)
Women PeaceMakers Program
The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s (IPJ) Women PeaceMakers Program annually hosts four women from around the world who have been involved in human rights and peacemaking efforts in their countries.
Women on the frontline of efforts to end violence and secure a just peace seldom record their experiences, activities and insights — as generally there is no time or, perhaps, they do not have formal education that would help them record their stories. The Women PeaceMakers Program is a selective program for leaders who want to document, share and build upon their unique peacemaking stories.
Women PeaceMakers are paired with a Peace Writer to document in written form their story of living in conflict and building peace in their communities and nations. While in residence at the institute, Women PeaceMakers give presentations on their work and the situation in their home countries to the university and San Diego communities.
The IPJ believes that women’s stories go beyond headlines to capture the nuance of complex situations and expose the realities of gender-based violence, thus providing an understanding of conflict and an avenue to its transformation. The narrative stories of Women PeaceMakers not only provide this understanding, but also show the myriad ways women construct peace in the midst of and after violence and war. For the realization of peace with justice, the voices of women — those severely affected by violent conflict and struggling courageously and creatively to build community from the devastation — must be recorded, disseminated and spotlighted.