Last month I was invited to the Western Sahara to report on a conflict I knew nothing about. Without even thinking about it, I responded with my characteristic “Hell yeah, I’ll go.” I mean, sleeping on the floor of refugee camps is sort of my thing. Why not?
So on December 6th I boarded a plane to Paris, then on to Algiers. We landed in Algiers and were met by amabassadors who took us to lunch in town. It was meat on a skewer, bread and dates, basically, but it was wonderful – and really nice to see some of the city before we headed off into the middle of the desert.
We returned to the airport to pick up the Chicago contingent of our delegation and left several hours after planned. We learned later, while talking to a group of people from a huge Spanish delegation, that they refer to Air Algerie as “Insha’Allah Air”, or “If God Wills it”… apparently they’re even less reliable than the airlines around here. We did, however, make it to Tindouf in one piece and were transported by Land Rover (the official vehicle of the Western Sahara) to our compound.
We stayed on a chicken farm on an oasis about half an hour outside of Tindouf. Don’t know where tindouf is? You’re most likely not alone. Here’s a map:
So, really far away from everything. Now let me give you a little bit of background on the conflict we were investigating.
Back in 1975, Spain began the process of decolonizing Morocco, and held meetings with the Polisario leaders to negotiate the independence of the Saharawis. The UN became involved and went to the Saharawis to gather information on public opinion – did these people actually want independence? The answer was resoundingly yes. Morocco, however, invaded the Western Sahara on November 6th and a bloody battle ensued. The Saharawis left in protest, setting up the four camps on Algerian soil – this territory is where I spent all of last week.
From the moment we arrived, I was impressed with the Saharawis. They were beautiful – vibrant clothing, animated in their conversation, and incredibly hospitable. Over the course of the next few days we met with the President, the President’s wife, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Defense Minister, the Education Minister, the head of the Red Crescent, and the head of a Saharawi women’s organization. We toured hospitals, schools, museums, and camps, and slept in the home of a refugee family. Everywhere we went, there was only one request: Tell Americans our story.
Right now, Morocco is spending billions on this fight, arming the 1,200+ mile Berm on the border of the Western Sahara and now lobbying the US Congress with propaganda about the supposed horrendous conditions in the camps and information on how the Algerian government is holding these people hostage. One thing was clear from everyone we spoke to: The Saharawis are in camps in voluntary protest. No one is holding them against their will. They are incredibly well educated, and the only hostility I encountered was from a woman who was upset that the United States, the freest nation in the world, wouldn’t recognize their fight to be independent.
It’s taken me a few days to process everything, but over the next few days I will be posting several articles about the trip, focusing on the women, the culture, and their fight for self determination. Please feel free to ask questions, and send this information around, and look into the conflict for yourself. The Saharawis are an incredible group of people, and it was an honor to get to spend time with them.