Decades-old dispute separates Western Sahara families

4 min

Smara refugee camp (Algeria) (AFP)

Ergueibi Abdelahi was just nine months old when his aunt scooped him up and fled fighting in Western Sahara after Morocco sent troops into the former Spanish colony, leaving his parents and brother behind.

Until he was 10, he thought his aunt was his mother.

"She (my mother) was at the market on the day we ran," Abdelahi says of their escape in 1978 across the border into Algeria.

"From what I was told, people fled the bombing barefoot. We arrived in the refugee camp and never left."

Abdelahi's family is just one of thousands split up in the war that broke out after Morocco annexed the vast desert territory in 1975 in a move that was not recognised by the international community.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis live as refugees in the west of Algeria, while some of their relatives remained hundreds of kilometres away in Western Sahara.

Their future today looks even more uncertain after a diplomatic row broke out last month when UN chief Ban Ki-moon referred to Western Sahara's "occupation" during a visit to a refugee camp.

A furious Morocco expelled dozens of UN personnel and demanded the United Nations close its military liaison office in Western Sahara.

The incident has stalled UN efforts to broker a settlement for the area that have dragged on for a quarter century.

A 1991 ceasefire ended one and a half decades of fighting between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front backed by Algeria.

But Rabat remains unwavering in its insistence that Western Sahara is an integral part of its kingdom.

Larger than Britain but with a population of under one million people, Western Sahara has lucrative phosphate reserves, rich fishing grounds and potentially oil.

Sahrawis are campaigning for the right to self-determination, but Morocco insists its sovereignty cannot be challenged.

- 'Mother, father and brother' -

Abdelahi is now almost 40 years old and heads the editorial team at Radio Smara, a small radio station that broadcasts for three hours a day out of the Smara refugee camp near the Moroccan border.

His wife and three children were all born in the same camp, near Tinouf around 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) west of Algiers. It is named after a town in Western Sahara.

At least 90,000 Sahrawi refugees live off international aid in five camps in the Tinouf area, according to the UN. The Algerian government says the number is closer to 165,000.

For decades, the two sides of Abdelahi's family -- one in Western Sahara, the other in the refugee camp -- were unsure of each other's existence, he says.

"Those who had fled thought those who stayed had been jailed or had died, and those who stayed under the occupation thought the same about those who had escaped."

The Polisario Front provided Abdelahi with a second family, he says.

"I've always thought the Polisario was my mother, father and brother."

In 2011, he was finally able to see his family again in Western Sahara, thanks to a family visit programme run by the UN refugee agency with agreement from Morocco and the Polisario.

"It was very moving," he says. "But we had to go straight to the hospital to see my mother who had not been sleeping for a week."

- Boys turned 'old men' -

Others have not been so lucky.

Mohammed Cheikh Kentaoui was 19 years old when Morocco annexed Western Sahara.

He fled with a pair of military boots, determined to fight the Moroccan army. But instead the Polisario assigned him a teaching job in a refugee camp.

Two decades later, he was in the Algerian capital when he heard his mother had died.

Kentaoui, now an accountant with three daughters, leafs through a family photo album in the Smara camp, telling his story as his wife prepares tea.

In 2008, through the same UN scheme, he was able to visit some relatives in Western Sahara.

"They welcomed us with a massive party that lasted five days," he says. "It wasn't long, but at least we saw the family."

Another Smara resident, Khadija Metkhari, says she cried with joy when she saw her brothers for the first time in 2004 after decades apart.

"When I left, they were still going to school," she says. "When I returned, I found old men I barely recognised."

Her father had died of old age and another brother had died in the war.

But Metkhari is quick to brush aside any nostalgia.

"I couldn't stay with them," she says, referring to her brothers.

"I promised the Polisario I would fight with it until independence, and I won't go back on that."