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Saharawis' Continue Long Wait for Independent Country - 2004-05-17

One of Africa's longest running disputes involves a swathe of desert called the Western Sahara. The northern African territory is claimed both by Morocco and by the Polisario Front, a rebel movement representing the native Saharawi people. From a Polisario refugee camp near the Algerian town of Tindouf, Lisa Bryant reports on the Saharawis' long wait for an independent country.

The 27th of February camp comes alive in the evenings.

A setting sun casts a rosy glow on the huddle of tents and mud-brick huts - and on the desert that stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see. Women wearing colorful head-to-toe wraps called melhafas feed their camels and goats, kept in barbed-wire pens at the edge of camp. A small store blares out Arabic music. Children call out to a visitor in Spanish - the language of the former colonial power in Western Sahara.

During the day, the camp of Saharawis - natives of Western Sahara - is virtually silent. There is no traffic: Only a few people here own vehicles, mostly run-down jeeps. There are no signs of wildlife in this unforgiving chunk of land of southwestern Algeria.

For the 160,000 Saharawi refugees living in 27th of February and four other camps, years turn around bitter winters, spring sandstorms, and fiery summers. Life is spent indoors - visiting neighbors, playing traditional board games, and mostly waiting for the day they can return to their native land.

In 1975, Spain handed control of the northern African territory to Mauritania and Morocco. The Polisario drove out the Mauritanians four-years later, but Morocco hung on, building a sand wall in the Western Saharan desert, and claiming the entire region as its own.

The conflict forced many Saharawis to flee.

Today, generations of Saharawis are being born and grew up and died as refugees in these Algerian camps. Some, like Selma Boulahi, fear they might remain here forever. ?We have been here for 30 years. Close to 30 years. And no war, no peace. We are living in a situation worse than the situation of war. Even though I do not like war. But we are waiting for something. Or for nothing. And you do not know,? she said.

Relief agencies distribute monthly supplies of flour, sugar, canned milk, tea. Saharawi refugees also raise goats and chickens, and grow a few vegetables. But drinking water is scarce, and relief workers say many Saharan children and pregnant women are malnourished.

For the foreseeable future, says Elzaki Eissa, local field officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there is no chance for a better life.

?This area is desert. There is no potential for agricultural production. It is a very remote area also,? he said. ?Very far from Algiers - like 2000 kilometers from Algiers. So the potential even for commerce or business is very small. For agriculture, it is almost nil. Because it is not fertile, there is not enough water. So they will depend wholly on international community assistance.?

But as the years pass, Mr. Eissa says, international aid to the Saharawis dwindles. Experts call it donor's fatigue - these refugees have been around too long. And U.N. efforts to resolve the Western Saharan conflict have achieved few results.

Polisario Front leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, blames lack of international will, along with Moroccan intransigence, for the years-long standoff.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mr. Abdelaziz says, the international community rushed to liberate the Gulf country. He wonders why foreign countries have not similarly ousted Morocco from Western Sahara.

But others, like African historian Bernard Lugan, says the desert does not belong to the Saharawis.

In a phone interview from Lyon, France, Mr. Lugan says Morocco, not the Polisario, has a rightful and historic claim to Western Sahara.

The Moroccan government recently rejected the latest U.N. peace plan for Western Sahara, which the Polisario accepted last July. Under the plan, Saharawis would be granted immediate self governance, followed by a referendum on independence from Morocco within five years.

Late last month, the U.N. Security Council approved a new effort to urge both sides to accept the plan. But perhaps the most encouraging news came from Spain's new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

During a recent press conference in Paris, Mr. Zapatero says Spain, as Western Sahara's former colonial power, would work for a broad agreement to end the conflict. With renewed effort, he predicts, such a resolution could be achieved within six months.

Skeptics see Mr. Zapatero's prognosis as overly optimistic. But, in Algeria's desert camps, it offers Ahlissa Breika and other Saharawi refugees hope that they will someday go home.