Food fight in the Algerian desert
Tindouf, Algeria13 June 2007 09:30
Just north of Tindouf, near the turn-off to the sleepy airport, a highway sign breaks the news unapologetically: Algiers, 1 797km. Morocco lies nearby, but the border is firmly closed between two neighbours at loggerheads for decades over the status of Western Sahara. And if Tindouf is an isolated outpost, the surrounding Sahrawi refugee camps -- part of the legacy of this long dispute -- lie up to 180 sandy kilometres further out. On the outskirts of nowhere.In the desert of south-western Algeria, existence is hand to mouth at the best of times. Very little, if anything, grows. The goats survive mainly on a diet of garbage, and the threat of landmines buried in the shifting sands hampers the Sahrawis' traditionally nomadic lifestyle.The tens of thousands of refugees who have called these dusty camps home for more than 30 years rely heavily on the international community for sustenance. But in the context of the Western Saharan conflict, food and politics are inseparable, especially when a problem arises. And lately, things have gone wrong.Beginning in October, a "break in the food pipeline", as the World Food Programme (WFP) puts it, made it increasingly difficult for the United Nations agency to deliver the basic monthly rations of oil, flour, sugar and lentils. By the time January rolled around, the refugees were only getting about one-third of the recommended daily minimum of calories.Even before these problems, described by the head of the Sahrawi Red Crescent as the worst since the WFP began providing aid to the refugees more than 20 years ago, two-thirds of the camps' women were anaemic and one-third of children under five suffered from chronic malnutrition. But frustration and hardship are nothing new for the Sahrawi people, who often end up playing little more than a supporting role in their own story.ExileIn 1975, as Spain was preparing to leave its Saharan colony, Morocco moved in and staked a claim to the land over the objections of the Algerian-backed rebel Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario Front), which had been fighting the European power for independence.A low-intensity conflict continued until the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and promised to organise a referendum on self-determination within six months. While the ceasefire has held, the vote never happened and the two sides continue to wage a diplomatic war, accusing each other of human rights violations and of hijacking the peace process. In the territory under Moroccan control, the Sahrawis are now outnumbered by settlers who have come down in waves from the north, drawn by tax incentives and the low cost of living. For the original inhabitants, life in the territory means modern infrastructure and greater economic opportunities, but the massive presence of Moroccan security forces -- by some estimates, there are almost twice as many soldiers as Sahrawis -- helps explain the repression denounced by human rights groups. While Morocco and the Polisario are set to resume talks this month after years of silent treatment, self-determination remains a distant goal. That leaves Sahrawis unhappy under Moroccan rule with only two other options: either migration -- often through illegal and risky attempts to reach Spain's Canary Islands in rickety fishing boats -- or life in the Algerian camps.Much of the civilian population fled the territory when Morocco first moved in and followed the Polisario to the Tindouf area from which the movement has served as the government in exile of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ever since. Separated from relatives by minefields and a garrisoned sand wall more than 2 000km long, the refugees continue to live in small cities of tents and mud-brick houses built haphazardly in the belief that exile would be temporary. In early 2006, torrential rains punished this optimism by destroying many of the slap-dash shelters as well as the monthly food rations shortly after their delivery. After three decades and despite limited economic prospects, the refugees -- who Morocco claims are held against their will to increase the Polisario's bargaining power -- continue to make do."Some raise livestock; some have a job here and a job there," according to Marius de Gaay Fortman, WFP country director for Algeria. "They're not in the camps all the time doing nothing."So they scrape by and wait patiently to move up the list of the world's priorities, hoping the international community will at last give them the referendum it promised long ago. Number gamesNobody knows how many people live in the camps. The Algerian government says there are 165 000, but Morocco argues that number is inflated in order to squeeze as much out of the international community as possible.In 2005, the WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cut the number of aid recipients by almost half to "90 000 of the most vulnerable refugees" because Algiers would not allow a census. The Sahrawi Red Crescent's president, Yahia Bouhoubeini, who wonders how one can determine vulnerability through satellite photography, thinks Moroccan pressure lies behind the new figure. But a leaked UN report cites concerns over possible mismanagement and fraud, things that one expert says are all too common in aid operations. "In long-running programmes, there's the risk of a decreasing attention span," the Overseas Development Institute's Paul Harvey said on the phone from London. "People take their eyes off the ball."At the same time, he believes assistance should continue as long as the initial reason for aid remains. And though he could not comment on the Sahrawi case specifically, he said that inflated numbers are a constant problem in camps and the question of refugee registration is always a delicate one. "Ideally, the solution shouldn't be to arbitrarily cut rations in half, but to figure out how many people there are." Of course, the situation in the Tindouf camps is far from ideal. The Polisario wants to link registration to preparations for a referendum on self-determination that Morocco now refuses to consider. The very impasse that is keeping people in the camps is also preventing the UN from completing a census. And the resulting uncertainty over numbers, along with donor fatigue, helps explain how the food ran out late last year, according to the WFP.The Sahrawi Red Crescent released a series of appeals to the international community starting in late September, warning of impending famine and blaming the situation on Morocco and its allies, which it accused of scaring off donors in order to starve the refugees.For its part, the Moroccan press wondered how the Polisario could justify holding a celebration marking the 31st anniversary of the foundation of its republic in February if a risk of famine existed.To which Bouhoubeini responded: "They're not building stadiums and hotels out there. We're talking tents and a few hundred people."But Khat Achahid, a controversial reformist movement within the Polisario, echoed the criticism and called on the government to shift its policy from "begging" to self-sufficiency.Dependency?While the Polisario deplores the reduction in food aid, the WFP's Tindouf head, Michelle Iseminger, credited the Sahrawis with organising themselves to the point where they have a high standard of living compared with other refugee populations. "It's not sad or unfortunate when food aid levels go down," she said. "It's a step toward self-reliance." But Omar Mansour, the governor of Laayoune Camp and a former Polisario foreign affairs minister, argued there could be no improvement in the refugees' lot without access to Western Sahara's resources, and the unilateral decision to reduce aid just meant less food to go around. The WFP's own website concedes "the harsh and hostile geophysical environment" will continue to make aid necessary.Meanwhile, the "pipeline" has slowly started flowing again and there are hopes that a new WFP project, with a greater emphasis on transparency and accountability, will start up next month. But De Gaay Fortman continues to worry about substantial shortfalls in both food and money. "Given the rates of anaemia and malnutrition," he said, "donors should really be more forthcoming with their help." In other words, the future is far from certain. And about the only thing the various parties can agree on is that the refugees are the ones paying the price -- however many of them there may be.