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Saharawis Prepare for Independent Democracy - 2004-05-11

Over more than a quarter of a century, Bedouin refugees from the Western Sahara have transformed a patch of arid desert land in southwestern Algeria into a thriving community. Known as Saharawis, they have set up schools, community councils, women's groups and even a local newspaper. Lisa Bryant visited the Saharawi camps and has this report.

Recess is over for primary school students in this refugee camp called Smara, where a blazing, early morning spring sun is beating down. In the classrooms, children are studying Arabic, math, science and Spanish, the language of Spanish colonists who once occupied Western Sahara, a patch of desert bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Today, neighboring Morocco occupies much of Western Sahara, and these Arabic-speaking Bedouins, who once herded camels and goats across the desolate region, are confined to refugee camps in the Algerian desert.

The Saharawis, numbering about 160,000, fought Morocco and Mauritania for territory. They live in Smara and other refugee camps in the shadow of a 2400 kilometer, U.N. patrolled wall that separates them from Morocco. After more than a decade of fighting, the two sides have established an uneasy cease-fire, but they have yet to agree on a plan to resolve the status of Western Sahara.

Meanwhile, the Saharawis have settled down. They have set up primary schools, which are compulsory and literacy classes for women. They have also formed local governments, with elected officials. What they have established is a virtual country in the Algerian desert, complete with a flag, a parliament and a president-in-waiting, Muhammed Abdelaziz, the leader of their independence movement, the Polisario Front.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Abdelaziz said that the Saharawis are preparing for democracy, which they hope to establish if they gain control of the Western Sahara.

Critics of Mr. Abdelaziz dismiss his statements as political posturing and accuse his Polisario Front of human-rights violations against hundreds of Moroccan prisoners, but others praise this Muslim refugee community as an example of grassroots democracy, religious tolerance and gender parity absent in much of the Arab world.

Development experts like Elzaki Eissa say women form the bedrock of the Saharan camps here.

"Here the refugee women are very, very active," he said. "And they are participating. Whenever you organize something, you find that 90 percent [of those participating] are women. They are really contributing to food distribution, women's activities, culture, politically."

A field officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Eissa says Saharan women have come a long way since the 1970s, when they first arrived to these refugee camps. Most were illiterate then.

However, many learned to read and write in this school for women, called the 27th of February school. Today, there are women doctors, politicians, and teachers, like 33-year-old Suadu el Habib, who is attending a refresher course in Arabic at the school.

Clad in a traditional head-to-toe gauzy wrap, and cradling her two-year-old daughter, Mrs. Habib says she is a nursery school teacher from Dakhla, a camp located 150 kilometers away. She has moved here to attend school full-time. Her husband helps care for the children, but she admits that juggling housework and studies is tough.

In more conservative Arab countries, women are forbidden to drive and vote. But in these refugee camps, Saharan women (who are also Arabs and Muslims) head community councils and make up almost a quarter of the Polisario's parliament.

Families still arrange marriages for their daughters, but increasingly, young girls have a say in who they will wed. Traditional Saharawi society has always been egalitarian, says women's rights activist Khadija Hamdi.

When they were still nomads in the Western Sahara, she said that, women ran the households, while the men were away herding. A member of the Polisario parliament, Mrs. Hamdi is quick to point to women's prominent role in the refugee camps. Nonetheless, she noted that very few women achieve top posts in the refugee government.

Bedouins at these camps face more basic drawbacks. School buildings are peeling, and school libraries have very few books. Teachers and politicians like Khadija Hamdi work without salaries, and children in Smara and other camps have no playgrounds. Getting enough nutritious food and potable water is a daily struggle.

Many say they are hopeful they will someday transfer their refugee society in Algeria into a model, independent country in Western Sahara. For the moment, it is unclear how long these Saharawis will remain here.