BY STEPHANIE BRENNAN
SMARA REFUGEE CAMP, Algeria — As our battered four-wheel drive makes its way through the desert into the outskirts of the Wilaya, dozens of small dusty children run out to meet us looking for sweets — caramello, caramello? Behind them hundreds of canvas tents stretch into the flat spaces of the desert.
This is Smara, one of four major refugee camps in the desert of south-western Algeria, a place so inhospitable no humans have ever lived here, and I am about to have a meeting with a group of women who will affect my life profoundly.
One hundred and eighty thousand refugees exist here — indigenous Saharawis who fled the bombs and napalm of invading Morocco 25 years ago.
Having endured a bloody guerilla war for 16 years they were promised a referendum on self-determination as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991. They are still waiting.
In the meantime the Saharawis exist on humanitarian aid amid international promises. Children's bones are brittle from no fruit or vegetables and eight-year-olds look like four-year-olds. Lung problems are endemic because of the savage dust storms, hospitals have no medicine, and the people become increasingly despairing of their future.
Polisario, which represents the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, attempts vainly to negotiate a referendum that has been obstructed by Morocco for over 10 years. The UN negotiations drag on and on as the international community loses interest. The situation becomes increasingly tense, as the region is on the brink of war.
I am visiting this place as a representative of an Australian Western Sahara solidarity group, one of many such groups that exist internationally. Polisario controls this bleak bit of desert and its government-in-exile (the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic) operates from here. Conditions for the Saharawis are grim and becoming grimmer.
Yet the people here are resilient, politically educated and well-organised.
Their hospitality is overwhelming as I share their meagre food rations and blankets. Although their diet consists mainly of powdered milk, pasta and rice and they rarely ever see meat or fresh vegetables, I am treated to what in Saharawi terms are feasts.
Today I meet with the Wilaya of Smara's Council of Women. This council is made up of women from each of the districts that comprise the Wilaya. I leave my shoes outside the entrance to the tent where about six women in brightly coloured mulhafas sit cross-legged, waiting. I am late. They greet me warmly.
We sit on thin foam mattresses placed at the edges of the tent around the only furniture — a low table next to a gas cooker where one of the women is making mint tea.
After the traditional greetings and welcomes I ask them through my translator, Zorgan, to tell me about what the council does. They explain that the council meets every morning at 8am to discuss what needs to be done that day.
The women run most of the services within the Wilaya — schools, looking after the elderly, sick and injured, the bakery, political education, administration and tending the Wilaya's sparse and stunted communal garden. They rely on humanitarian aid and donations but they say that "sometimes no door opens in front of us".
They tell me that everybody in the refugee camps works (except for those with dementia or "bad gizzards") but that it is hard relying on NGOs. They explain that "because Morocco wanted to destroy Western Saharan society, because they used bombs, the generation after [the invasion of 1975] carry the flag and sing songs of martyrdom".
But the mood of the people has become increasingly desperate as their children's lives are wasted in the refugee camps. They grow weary of diplomatic promises.
"If the UN does nothing, if they fail in taking us back to our land, we are ready to take the land by force. Everybody hates war because war destroys everything, destroys all forms of life." The atmosphere in the tent has become more intense.
As I sip my mint tea the leader of the council lowers her glass deliberately. "If there is no possibility of a peaceful solution then it [war] is the only thing we have".
I think of the 175,000 Moroccan soldiers stationed along the 2000km wall that divides Western Sahara. The Moroccans have had 10 years of referendum talks to fortify the wall with millions of land mines. Their ceasefire violations have been the subject of reports to the UN but have been blithely ignored. The war will be one-sided and bloody.
I attempt to absorb the meaning of these words, an Australian who has never known war. All the women are looking at me intently.
The leader continues. "Please try to consider our terrible situation: please try to represent this society. Try to go places we can't get to.
"We don't need papers or messages of threat. We need people standing and attempting to express our rights, to get freedom, to get independence within Western Sahara. If all countries are friends of Morocco we prefer to die. After that we prefer them to say that once there was an ancient nation that walked upon this land."
There is silence except for the flapping of the tent in the harsh wind. I struggle for words. There are none. I lower my head so that these proud women won't see my tears. But they do. I feel overwhelmed by the suffering of these people. And I know that it is right that we weep.
[The Western Sahara Alliance and Australia Western Sahara Association are organising a musical fundraiser on Thursday September 6 at Harbourside Brasserie, Pier One. Bands include BaBaluand and there'll be a performance by Metro Flamenco. Tickets are $15 or $10 concession and it starts at 8pm.
[If you would like to take part in Australian actions to campaign for independence for the Saharawi people or join a solidarity group email <Stephanie.Brennan@fsunion.org.au> or phone her on 0411 239934. You can learn more about the plight of the people of the Western Sahara by visiting <http://www.arso.org>.]