The Smara Refugee Camp
The children are getting bolder now, especially Sidi, the more hyperactive of the five-year-old twins. In between fetching water and preparing breakfast, Bachir tries to call him to order, but the lure of thirty pieces of film equipment is too much and he spends most of his time in our room shrieking with excitement at each new discovery.
Though I hear the muezzin’s call in the morning, religion does not seem a big issue here. Education and political discipline are more important. Bachir and Krikiba’s children are educated at the primary school nearby, after which they will go to one of the two big boarding schools that serve the camps. The literacy rate amongst the Saharawis is now 90 per cent, far higher than in Morocco or Algeria. The Hispanic connection is strong and many of the teachers are from Cuba. Some of the brighter pupils go over there to complete their education.
Bachir introduces me to a young woman called Metou. She is in her early twenties, was born in the camps and has never seen her homeland. She’s bright, well educated, lively and attractive, a modern girl. She wears a light, but all-encompassing, purple sari called a melepha, which doesn’t attempt to hide the imitation leather jacket, jeans and Doc Marten boots beneath. Metou is a cosmopolitan Saharawi. She has travelled in Europe, speaks fluent Spanish, French and English and spent time at university in Wales. Beneath the blazing Saharan sun we discuss the knotty problem of getting from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth by public transport.
She takes me to a workshop in a collection of mud buildings called the 27th February Village, which cumbersome title commemorates the day on which the landless Saharawi Democratic Republic was founded, in 1976.
Thirty women are weaving brightly patterned rugs and carpets on the simplest of hand-looms. The carpets are made of thick, coarse sheep’s wool, in bright, strong colours and improvised designs, and I’d buy a couple if we weren’t on our way to Timbuktu.
The women run the camps, says Metou. They cook, build, administrate and raise the children. The young men leave at eighteen for military training.
I ask her if keeping a conscripted army isn’t just a romantic gesture, bearing in mind there has been no fighting for years. Her response is quick and unapologetic.
‘My people are tired of being ignored. If force has to be used to gain our birthright of independence, then that’s the way it must be.’
Smara camp is so well run that it really doesn’t resemble a camp at all. As I look out from a low hill, which is now the cemetery, the pale brown mud houses blending in with the desert around them could have been there for ever. The considerable size of the cemetery, a scattering of rocks and boulders just outside the town, suggests that life expectancy is low. Bachir shakes his head vigorously.
‘It is seventy, eighty years.’
Sanitation is basic, he concedes, but the air is dry and there have been no epidemics here.
He smiles at my nannyish concern. ‘People don’t die in the desert, you know.’ In that case, the size of the cemetery merely emphasises how long the Saharawis have been away from home.
That night in the camp we tuck into camel kebab and pasta cooked with carrots and turnips, served, as ever, with tea. Tea is central to the nomadic life. In a land where alcohol is forbidden and most bottled drinks are beyond people’s means, it offers welcome, gives comfort, stimulates conversation and provides a focus for social intercourse. Being a rare indulgence in a land of extreme scarcity, its preparation is taken very seriously. The water we splash on our faces in the morning is not good enough for the tea.
‘Too salty,’ says Bachir. ‘The best water for tea comes from 50 miles away.’
Water this prized should not be heated on a gas ring, but on a brazier with charcoal from acacia wood, which heats the water more slowly and provides better flavour. Once heated, the tea is poured from one vessel to another before being tipped into small glass tumblers from ever-increasing height. Then it’s tipped from tumbler to tumbler, until the required alchemy is deemed to have taken place, whereupon it is poured with one last grand flourish that leaves a foaming head on each individual glass.
These are offered around on a tray and drunk swiftly. Then the glasses are washed and a second serving is prepared, tasting delicately different as the sharpness of leaf and sweetness of sugar continue to blend. The process is repeated a third time and that’s it. I’m told that if you’re offered a fourth glass it’s a polite way of saying you’ve overstayed your welcome.
Tonight Bachir’s brother-in-law and two other men are sat around the brazier taking tea with us. Their eyes sparkle and their faces crease easily into laughter. It seems a good time to ask Bachir about the future for the Polisario. He plays down the military solution.
‘We still have many friends,’ he argues, reminding me that only a year ago the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and US Secretary of State, James Baker, had been staying in this same camp. The Moroccans might be supported by other Arab monarchies, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but the Polisario have powerful European allies, especially the Spanish, their old colonial masters, who now seem to be falling over themselves to help. Assuaging guilt? Annoying the French? Whatever the reason, Bachir is a grateful man.
‘Five…six thousand Saharawi children go to stay with Spanish families every summer, and the families come back to see us.’ His eyes shine in the lamplight. ‘Two thousand came last year to the camps – doctors, nurses, teachers.’
He pauses as if aware I’m not convinced.
‘We are small, but sometimes the small guys win. Look at Kuwait…’
But he and I both know that the Saharawis are, in world terms, much smaller small guys than the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf.