Endless Sands of Time: Four Generations of Sahrawi Women Cope with Conflict and Exile

Endless Sands of Time

– Kary Stewart

Four generations of Sahrawi women cope with conflict and exile.

In the Boujdour Sahrawi Refugee Camp, 30 kilometers from Tindouf in southwest Algeria in August 2021 Nanaha Bachri remembers her grandmother Mariam’s story of the day in 1975 when she fled from her home in the Western Sahara town of Bir Magran:

They had heard on the radio that some towns in the country were being bombed, but despite that a neighbour wanted to celebrate the birth of her first son. She had slaughtered a goat and invited their friends to eat with them. During the feast, a messenger arrived at the house very agitated. He announced that bombs were approaching and that the men were going to war. He then gave my grandmother some money which my grandfather had sent – and told her to get their children to safety. Nanaha’s paternal grandparents had six children - two boys and four girls. The youngest boy was still nursing, so Mariam wrapped him in a cloth and ran out into the street. She grabbed what food and water she could, and then sprinted – children in tow – to the trucks that would take people to safety.

Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindou Algeria. Ruben Capilla/Shutterstock.

By the time she reached them, however, every truck was crammed to bursting with frantic women and children, scrambling over one another to stay inside.

Mariam and others who had not been able to escape in the trucks huddled desperately under trees and or next to rocks, praying and shaking in abject fear as the sound of the planes came closer. When they arrived (“like a plague of locusts”), the napalm bombs began to drop.

Today, Nanaha recalls her late grandmother’s relation of this tale – and her own response to it. “She always cried a lot,” she says, "and it made me cry too. She told me how everyone was screaming, and how she saw babies being burned, [and] women losing their feet and hands as they ran."

“She always cried a lot,” she says, "and it made me cry too. She told me how everyone was screaming, and how she saw babies being burned, [and] women losing their feet and hands as they ran."

“She would close her eyes,” Nanaha continues, “and when she opened them again, she would see people split in half: the brains, the bones, the flesh. The sand was a sea of red blood and there was a terrible smell of burning meat.”Mariam tried to look for her neighbours but couldn’t find them. A badly wounded woman asked Nanaha’s grandmother to look after her five-year-old girl and then died. The little girl begged her not to leave her mother behind. 

Someone whistled and beckoned them to safety. Mariam counted her children and then told them to follow her as she crawled away from the scene. When they arrived at the hideout, she checked on her children again. 

Agila, the youngest of her girls, the child that she had been holding by the hand, was missing.“My grandmother went crazy and started running back towards the bombing,” Nanaha continues “She could not understand how her child was not with her. People were telling her to think of the other five children and trying to stop her.”Eventually a soldier went back to search for the missing child. All he could see was an indistinguishable mass of black and charred bodies. He returned with news that there was no one left alive. 

Nanaha says that her grandmother never got over the loss of her youngest girl: “For many years, she had dreams that someone would arrive at the camps and Agila would be with them and would run to hug her. But that never happened.”

A Third Generation

Nanaha is 30 years old now. Her grandmother, Mariam, died in November 2018. The story of her family is a tale of how prolonged human displacement spans generations – and shapes the worldview of those who are affected by it.

For instance, it wasn’t until the summer of 1998 when eight-year-old Nanaha first saw a tree on a holiday exchange trip to Spain.  It was a trip where she and other children in the group happily played on swings, walked barefoot on the grass, paddled in rivers and ran under waterfalls. Until that trip, she had never seen nor experienced those things. She had not even known of their existence. The trip was also Nanaha’s first realization that something was amiss in her own life. Her home was a windy, desolate and inhospitable desert, without a tree in sight. Even while she laughed with the other children, she recalls feeling sad that her own mother and grandmother would probably never see the things she was seeing.“When I got home, I was full of questions,” she continues. “My mother told me that we lived in a refugee camp and that I was a child refugee. She told me that both my father and her had come to the camp with our grandmothers. She told me that our home was not our country, and that because of the war most of my people had fled. They fled because they were afraid that they would be killed.”

The wait for resolution to a flight that has spanned four generations is a fact of life. “That is why I live here in the camps,” she observes. “I am waiting for a peaceful solution.”

Colony and Conflict

Nanaha’s grandparents on both sides were born in Western Sahara in the 1950s, when it was a Spanish protectorate.  

Spain had been trading and fishing in the region since back in the 1700s.  After the Berlin Conference in the late 19th Century, various European countries had colonised much of the West African region known as Spanish Sahara.

Nanaha’s family was part of the Sahrawi population – tribal and nomadic people of Berber, Arab and African descent. They had always resisted the Spanish presence, and for many decades were able to keep them out of large parts of their territory.

Mariam Brahim, Nanaha’s paternal grandmother, was born into a nomadic community in Layun. Her father, a local Sheik, owned horses and camels. Nanaha’s maternal grandmother, Dida Sidahmed, was born in Bir Magran. Her father was a shepherd. As was, and still is, common among the predominantly Islamic population of Sahrawis, both women were taught the Koran as part of their daily routine and studies. 

As Nanaha’s grandmothers both reached school age, decolonisation had started to sweep through Africa. Things began to shift in Western Sahara.

As Nanaha’s grandmothers both reached school age, decolonisation had started to sweep through Africa. Things began to shift in Western Sahara. Although the Sahrawis had plentiful natural resources, they had become increasingly impoverished under Spanish colonial rule. As discontent spread and the anticipation of further decolonisation became widespread, the Sahrawis began the process of unshackling themselves from the Spanish. As they did so, tensions and skirmishes between the two nations increased.

The Moroccans who also had fought to regain their autonomy from the Spanish (as well as the French) eventually succeeded in 1957 following a series of armed incursions called The Ifni War. When a peace deal was brokered, Morocco attempted to take over all of Spain’s interests by claiming that they were historically and geographically part of Moroccan territory. In the end, a peace agreement kept Western Sahara under Spanish rule. In 1963, the United Nations declared Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory. The long-awaited process of decolonization took another 12 years to play out, leaving Western Sahara as Africa’s last remaining colony. 

In the late 1960s, while the Spanish were still in the process of reluctantly relinquishing control of the region, Mariam, 17, married Hassan Mohamed. Meanwhile 19-year-old Dida returned from Mauritania – where she had been studying the Koran – to marry Baba Ali Mohammed, Nanaha’s maternal grandfather. Her own mother, Minatu Ali, was born in 1970.It would be another two decades before the two paths taken by Nanaha’s grandmothers finally converged in the refugee camps.

Flight to Safety

In 1975, life for both women and their families took a radical turn.

Having finally relinquished administrative control of the territory, Spain passed its administration jointly to Morocco and Mauritania. The Sahrawis of the region objected, and the nationalist movement they formed — the Polisario Front – immediately went to war with both countries. 

Mauritania pulled out in 1979, But Morocco held fast to its claim – refuted by the International Court of Justice – that Spanish Sahara had belonged to the Kingdom of Morocco.

Children play at a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf Algeria, in the Sahara. 2017. PintoArt/Shutterstock.

It was in this stage of the conflict that Nanaha’s paternal grandmother, Mariam, lost a child in a Moroccan attack. Her other grandmother, Dida, also did not escape unscathed.

Dida had trained to become a nurse and was working with those injured in the ongoing war. Eventually, she was informed that her husband had died in battle. The shock caused her to miscarry her second child, and she returned home from the war front to Boujdour to grieve.“When she got home,” relates Nanaha, “my [maternal] grandmother, Dida, was told that all the families of military personnel were being watched and rounded up by the Moroccans.” 

Dida managed to escape across the border to Mauritania. It was not long before other Sahrawis who were fleeing also arrived, closely followed by the Moroccan bombers.

Dida managed to escape across the border to Mauritania. It was not long before other Sahrawis who were fleeing also arrived, closely followed by the Moroccan bombers.

“My [maternal] grandmother remembers an ambulance speeding through the town one day,” remembers Nanaha, “the driver screaming and telling people to run. At that time no one knew much about the geography of the area and the women and children who had fled to Mauritania from Western Sahara were getting into trucks but they didn’t know where they were running to. They just knew that they had to get away from the bombs.”

With the air still blanketed with dropping bombs, they travelled at night towards Algeria, which had granted the escaping Sahrawis a safe haven. 

They hid under trees and rocks during the day. As they hurtled down stony roads, away from the ordinary lives they had known, none of them had any idea that they would become refugees in Algeria. The need of the women in that moment was much more primal - to reach a safe place for them and their children. 

The need of the women in that moment was much more primal - to reach a safe place for them and their children. 

“Both my grandmothers believed we would go back to Western Sahara and that one day they would have their freedom. When you are safe in your house and then suddenly someone comes and kicks you out, going back is not just something you believe in, it is a given.” 

Left to right: Tekween, Nicole, Fatimetu, Violeta (project manager) and Nanaha stand in front of the new Desert Voicebox learning center, facilitated by Sandblast. Photo courtesy Sandblast.

Building a Life as Refugees

As the war raged on in Western Sahara, countless women and their children  arrived in the Tindouf region of Algeria with  little but the clothes on their backs. The region where they settled was now part of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the Sahrawi state-in-exile declared by the Polisario. 

Algeria had offered them shelter, but the rest was now up to these refugees.

Where they started to build was a vacant, desolate, windy wasteland scorched dry by the unyielding sun. Algeria had offered them shelter, but the rest was now up to these refugees.

The National Union of Sahrawi Women had previously been founded in 1973 but the arrival of the women in Tindouf in 1975 marked a pivotal moment for Sahrawi women. Most of the men in their community were at war, and they were left brutally displaced from their homeland, with children to feed and educate. As mothers and as wives, they had no choice but to take control – and their refugee status spurred them to become community leaders.

The Libyan government had pledged to support the Polisario Front with the provision of scholarships for the refugee children. Since rearing a child in such conditions was impossible, many mothers sent their children to Libya for part of each year to be educated. Among those who left for Libya was Nanaha’s mother Minatu. 

“When she got to the camps Mariam didn’t talk much about the suffering she had faced, she was more concerned with being practical,” recalls Nanaha. “She was one of the founders of the camps and she helped to build schools and homes, making bricks with sand. She also taught the children the Koran.”

Life in a refugee camp in Tindouf in the Sahara desert. Alberto Canalejo/Shutterstock.

The Sahrawi women in the Tindouf camps began to build kindergartens and schools and very quickly became the primary educators and health workers. Illiteracy, part of the legacy of Spanish colonisation, was then at 95 percent. Today that figure has been reversed.As Mariam and other women built, the war raged on. In 1980, the Moroccans began to build a wall dividing both the Polisario liberated territories of Western Sahara -  called the Free Zone  and the refugee camps near and around Tindouf from the areas controlled by Morocco. The 2,270 kilometre wall known as the Moroccan Berm took seven years to complete. Millions of landlines were buried around it since its construction. Some 16,000 have been destroyed. Since its construction more than 2,500 landmine casualties have been reported on both sides of the divide. 

Minatu’s Return 

Algeria was fully supportive of the Western Sahrawis’ right to self determination. That coupled with the exceptional circumstances by which they were displaced, created a unique opportunity for unity and cooperation among the women refugees of the community. 

Algeria were fully supportive of the Western Sahrawis’ right to self determination. That coupled with the exceptional circumstances by which they were displaced, created a unique opportunity for unity and cooperation among the women refugees of the community.

Young Minatu had attended school in Libya every winter since they had arrived at the camps. In the summer, she witnessed the work and determination of the women to establish an infrastructure; she grew up in an atmosphere where female empowerment was a given.

So, it was a shock to her when at the age of 19, she came back to the camps for the summer to be told that a marriage had been arranged for her.“My mother was very young and she had no understanding of marriage,” Nanaha observes. “She had only met her husband once before the wedding and she did not feel anything for him. It was months before she could accept him as her husband. She was scared and he understood that. He didn’t force anything.”

As the couple settled into their first years of marriage, the stalemate between Morocco and the Polisario Front came to an end in 1991, when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire agreement. At that time, the Polisario controlled less than 20 percent of the territory, including Tindouf and the camps. Morocco occupied the coast and all the areas to the west. These more or less remain the lines of control today.

The 1991 peace plan was intended to be an interim agreement in preparation for a referendum. The referendum would give the Sahrawis the chance to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. 

To date, the referendum has not taken place. And the camps remain. In 2014 the Polisario and Algeria estimated that there were about 165,000 refugees in the camps. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the total population to be closer to 125,000. Morocco alleged that both these numbers were highly inflated.

Four Generations in Exile

Minatu went on to have five children. Her first, a little girl, died at six months old. Nanaha was her second child and the first of the family to have the opportunity to visit Spain. She grew up in the camps, was educated in the camps and in Algeria, married in the camps and now has a five-year-old daughter called Lamia. They still live in the 27th February Camp, recently renamed the Boujdour Camp.

“We wake up really early,” she says. “We play, we work, we do housework. Many people have goats so people go to feed them. There is no water here and we cannot farm. As refugees, we receive humanitarian aid, but we never have enough, so we have to work to buy food.”

Walking in the footsteps of her grandmother, Nanaha is teaching English to the children with the help of a humanitarian project called Desert Voicebox

I want to teach the children the world’s first language so one day they might carry the message. I don’t want my daughter or the next generation to survive from the handouts of others.

“I want to teach the children the world’s first language so one day they might carry the message,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter or the next generation to survive from the handouts of others. We have been waiting for the UN to find a solution for us, but sometimes I feel like we are just another folder on the pile on their desk.”

In 2020 under President Trump, the United States made a statement recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara,  in exchange for Moroccan normalisation of relations with Israel. The statement ended nearly 30 years of US support for UN-led negotiations in the region and was swiftly criticised by the international community.

On November 13, 2020 Sahrawi protesters blocking a controversial road project clashed with the Moroccan military forces sent to disperse them. The Polisario Front declared this a breach of the 29-year UN-brokered ceasefire and declared war on Morocco. To date the fighting has taken place, along the Western Sahara part of the Moroccan Berm which separates the occupied territory from the Polisario-controlled zone. The unresolved war which led Mariam and Dida to flee their homeland and lose so much 45 years before had once again reared its ugly head.

“When my brothers went to war, it was a nightmare for my mother,” says Nanaha “She cried a lot. She spent every moment by the radio listening to the news. My brothers, my uncles, my neighbours, my friends, my people: They are now facing war. We are all scared. We hope we will not lose them.

“This is something no one wanted. It means death and sadness. But if you are furious and angry, if you have screamed, and no one has heard you, then in the end, this war becomes inevitable.”

Despite the hope and strength demonstrated in the story of her family’s resilience across generations as refugees, the prospects at present seem grim – and promise only further suffering amidst a hope for the future seemingly always postponed.

In a long message sent [this August] via online messaging, the only reliable way to exchange information with those in the camps, Nanaha concludes: “We will keep seeking freedom until the last Sahrawi human has died. I’m sure that will not happen. We will have our land back. That’s my land. The land of my grandparents and my great grandparents. It’s the land of our roots. We will have our land back. If not me, then my hope is for the next generation.”

Kary Stewart is a multimedia journalist and producer. The author wishes to thank Danielle Smith at Sandblast.