TINDOUF, Algeria // Hot with anger and clutching a stone, Brahim Labid abandoned caution and charged straight into a minefield towards the defences of the Moroccan army.
John Thorne, Foreign correspondent
“When I got close I tried to throw the stone and at that moment the explosion happened,” said Mr Labid, 19, a refugee from Western Sahara.
The accident happened in April, when Mr Labid joined a protest march beneath a security barrier that seals most of the desert territory annexed by neighbouring Morocco in 1975 as Spanish colonisers departed following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.
The march ended in disaster when an anti-personnel mine blew off most of Mr Labid’s right foot.
“I knew there were mines,” he said from a hospital bed in the nearby city of Tindouf, Algeria. “But when you see the berm up close you just lose your patience.”
For more than three decades, Morocco has vied for control of Western Sahara’s destiny with the Polisario Front, an indigenous liberation movement backed by Algeria. The conflict has displaced thousands of people and paralysed regional integration, costing a generation of North Africans countless opportunities for development and growth.
After years of fruitless diplomacy, the United Nations is now trying again to coax a solution out of either side.
The battle line is a fortified berm running some 2,500 kilometres through Western Sahara, manned by about 160,000 Moroccan soldiers. To the east are thousands of Polisario fighters based in camps outside Tindouf, where about 125,000 Saharawi refugees live.
The surrounding plains are littered with mines, cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance left over from 16 years of fighting that ended in 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire.
“That makes Western Sahara one of the most dangerous places in the world,” said Ahmed Sidi Ali, a refugee and the programme manager for Landmine Action, a British non-governmental group that is de-mining the territory’s Polisario-held areas.
Mr Sidi Ali’s team has identified 36 minefields and 136 cluster bomb strikes. But the group is not authorised by the UN to work inside the five-kilometre buffer zone along the berm, where most of the minefields are.
In the place where Mr Labid lost his foot, the berm rises in a golden wall above a plain of black pebbles concealing untold numbers of mines and other explosive debris.
Occasionally there are accidents. Most happen in spring, when rain brushes the desert and many refugees shepherd their goats and camels from the camps in Algeria into Western Sahara in search of pastures.
“They depend on grazing land and water holes,” Mr Sidi Ali said. “It’s their main business and their society is based on it.”
Saharawis descend from Arab nomads who migrated from Yemen to North Africa in the 14th century and mingled with the local Berber tribes.
Their daily quest was documented by James Riley, an American sailor shipwrecked on the Saharan coast in 1815, who wrote, “Nearly all parts of this vast desert are inhabited by different tribes of Arabs, who live entirely on the milk of their camels and wander from valley to valley, travelling nearly every day for the sake of finding food for their camels, and consequently food for themselves.”
The Saharawis herded livestock, dabbled in commerce and plundered the caravans passing between Mediterranean ports and sub-Saharan kingdoms. Their dialect, Hassaniya, has strayed little from classical Arabic, preserved by the remoteness of the desert.
The Spanish colonised the Saharan shore in the 19th century, attracted by fishing banks and later phosphates. When they left Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania moved in, claiming historical ties.
Many Saharawis fled to Algeria, which supported the Polisario Front’s armed struggle. Mauritania dropped its claim while Morocco took control of most of Western Sahara. The 1991 ceasefire was meant to allow an independence referendum, but disagreement over voter lists has kept a poll from taking place.
The stalemate has disrupted traditional life, left refugees in political limbo and cut them off from family who remain in Western Sahara.
“There’s a lot of green grass inside the berm, but the land is divided now,” said Ali al Mayli, 21, camped with his family in a stand of gnarled acacia trees. “We have family on the other side and I’ve never even seen them.”
Every spring after the rain, Mr al Mayli’s father, Mohammed-Salem, a weathered patriarch in a blue robe, leads the family into the desert to fatten their goats for sale in the refugee camps.
The floor of their tent is covered with rugs and blankets, and in the corner hangs a goatskin bladder called a shikwa, where milk is left to curdle and shaken to make butter.
Outside, black-and-white goats are skipping about on a vast dun plain undulating to the horizon. The wind blows fiercely and Mr al Mayli fires up a charcoal brazier to brew tiny glasses of sweet green tea.
“We worry about the mines, but the greatest difficulty is living on land that is not ours,” said Mr al Mayli’s brother, Bilal, 25. “We have no resources, nothing in our hand. Nothing is certain.”
The same goes for the Western Sahara peace process. Talks that began in 2007 ended inconclusively. Last year the UN tapped Christopher Ross, a veteran US diplomat in the Arab world, to lead renewed efforts on the territory.
Last month, Morocco and the Polisario agreed to Mr Ross’s proposal of informal meetings aimed at progressing to formal talks on the future of Western Sahara, but no date has yet been set.
The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option. Morocco rules that out, proposing autonomy for the territory under Moroccan sovereignty.
Breaking the deadlock will require the UN to show greater will than in the past, said Jacob Mundy, an expert on Western Sahara with the Washington, DC-based Middle East Research and Information Project.
“There’s no incentive for the Polisario to talk about the nitty-gritty of power-sharing, and no incentive for Morocco to agree to any sort of referendum,” he said. “Without those kinds of guarantees, neither party is going to open up.”
Morocco argues that autonomy addresses the Polisario’s demand that Saharawis be allowed to exercise self-determination.
“It’s a serious solution that takes into consideration the positions of both parties,” said Khalid Naciri, Morocco’s communications minister. “Apart from the creation of an independent state, anything is possible.”
According to a report last month by TelQuel, an independent Moroccan magazine, the country spends three per cent of its GDP on infrastructure and subsidies aimed at enticing Moroccans to live in Western Sahara, and on maintaining its army there.
Establishing autonomy in the territory could strengthen democracy in Morocco by setting a precedent for devolution, said Mustapha Naimi, a sociology professor at the University Institute of Scientific Research in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, and a member of King Mohammed VI’s advisory council on Saharan affairs. “The Sahara gives Morocco the chance to reconstitute itself.”
But to Saharawi refugees like the Al Mayli family, autonomy is a hard sell.
“We want independence,” said the patriarch, Mohammed-Salem. “The land is our land, we’ve lost martyrs, we’ve waited 34 years, and in the end we accept autonomy? Impossible.”
The return of refugees to a non-independent Western Sahara would be “a recipe for disaster unless you have some kind of understanding between Morocco and Polisario”, said Mr Mundy, from the Middle East Research and Information Project.
“We’d like to give the UN a chance to solve the problem,” said Mohammed-Salem. “But if they can’t, we want to return to war.”
Saharawis increasingly share Mr al Mayli’s bellicosity, said Mohammed Abdelaziz, the secretary general of the Polisario and president of the self-proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, an exile government that administers the refugee camps.
“Young people want war and we’re under a lot of pressure from our military wing to defend our rights by force of arms. War is still on the table, but we prefer a political solution.”
Meanwhile, life grinds on for the estimated 125,000 refugees. The four camps are clean and well-organised, with clinics, schools and clean drinking water. But they lie isolated on a bleak gravel plain, with freezing winters and burning summers.
The refugees live in canvas tents and mud-brick houses. Some have cars and most use solar panels to charge car batteries that power a few appliances. They subsist mainly on foreign aid and malnourishment is common.
A few have become merchants as money trickles into the camps from friends and relatives abroad.
“I buy stuff from Mauritania,” said Mohammed Laroussi, a thin man with a bristly moustache and fine birdlike features. “You meet people, go through friends and bit by bit you build up relationships.”
Bolts of cloth hang from the walls of Mr Laroussi’s shop in Smara camp. Rolled-up rugs lean in a corner. On shelves at the back are aluminium cooking pots, bottles of perfume, sacks of rice, camouflage trousers and piles of leather sandals.
The ramshackle market area slumbers under an afternoon sun. At one corner, a group of elderly men sit in the shade of a building, playing dominoes. Other men recline on mats to drink tea.
At dusk, women and groups of girls begin drifting through the market. Most wear mlhafas, gauzy robes with bright florid patterns that are draped over the body like an Indian sari. They stand out against the sand and pale stucco like inkblots on a page.
The Polisario flag, which has similarities to the Palestinian one, is daubed on the walls alongside revolutionary slogans – “No alternative but independence!” The refugees conduct business in doros, a theoretical Saharan currency with an agreed exchange rate of 20 doros to 1 Algerian dinar.
Grocers sell fruit and vegetables from northern Algeria and butchers sell the meat of camels and goats – relative luxuries that liven up the rations provided monthly by the UN’s World Food Programme.
“But it seems like they’re always sending less,” said Darifa, 19, who joined dozens of other women and girls one afternoon at a ration centre to stock up on lentils, dried peas and tins of vegetable oil. “And as each year there are more people, this doesn’t work.”
Men unload bags and crates of food from a flatbed lorry and the women open them, chatting amiably. Darifa helps them measure rations of lentils.
“I was planning to study medicine in Spain with a scholarship, but my father lost his leg in the war and I can’t leave my mother alone,” she said. “War should be a last resort.”
Far to the north, other young North Africans have problems of their own.
Morocco and Tunisia have enjoyed economic growth in recent years, while Algeria and Libya have benefitted from oil prices that reached US$147 (Dh514) per barrel last summer. Yet unemployment remains high across the region and is worst among young people. Many still set off in flimsy boats across the Mediterranean to seek jobs in Europe.
In 1989, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya tried to address the economic problems by forming the Arab Maghreb Union, intended as a North African trading bloc and forum for political and economic co-operation. But so far it has failed to function, thanks largely to the between Morocco and Algeria.
“There are long-standing mistrust and difficulties between the two regimes,” said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre. “If Western Sahara is solved it won’t clean the slate, but the major problem will be gone.”
Until that happens, “it’s difficult to take seriously any initiative for regional co-operation or integration”, said Mr Mundy, with the Middle East Research and Information Project.
While Morocco has existed for centuries as an independent kingdom, Algeria was never a political entity until France wrested its territory from a declining Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. But the French never bothered to clearly delineate a Moroccan-Algerian border, viewed as superfluous after France took control of Morocco as well in 1912.
In 1963, rival claims over parts of the Sahara led Morocco to launch incursions along the border, repelled by Algeria. In 1975, Algeria struck back, arming the Polisario and supporting its quest for an independent Western Sahara.
Sour relations have also led Algeria to slam shut its land border with Morocco, which has remained closed since 1994. Morocco has called repeatedly on Algeria to reopen it, but Algeria says a solution for Western Sahara must come first.
“Algeria is trying to signal the seriousness with which it takes the issue of Western Sahara,” said Mr Mundy. “One also has to take into account a history of Moroccan aggression in the region – Algeria would like to see that kept in check.”
Meanwhile, North Africa’s inability to integrate carries a heavy cost.
“Africa pays a high economic price for political fragmentation,” said Paul Collier, the head of Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of African Economies. “Banning movement is opposing the trend of the last 50 years, which has been to try and reduce the economic costs of borders.”
North African integration would open the door to a free-trade agreement with the European Union and allow countries to bargain collectively. According to a 2006 study by the World Bank covering Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, that would dramatically boost North Africa’s exports and foreign investment, and roughly double projected per-capita GDP growth by 2015.
For now, the region is losing up to $9 billion (Dh33bn) yearly in potential external trade, according to a study last year by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a non-profit economic research centre in Washington, DC
“Investment leads to more high-skilled jobs and more room for educated people to get them,” said Claire Brunel, a researcher at the Peterson Institute who co-edited the study. “And integration helps spread the cost of improving infrastructure around the region.”
Streamlining is becoming increasingly urgent as global financial turmoil bites into North Africa’s tourism industry, foreign investment and remittances from expatriates in Europe.
“Being small and isolated, you’re very vulnerable to crises of confidence and being specialised, you’re vulnerable to shocks,” Prof Collier said. “The more you can integrate into a diversified economy, the more robust you become.”
Back in the desert near Tindouf, the Al Mayli family’s concerns are closer to home. Six months ago Mohammed-Salem’s daughter, Jemha, 27, became a mother with the birth of her son, Khatri.
“I want him to live a peaceful life, to be a doctor or a journalist,” she said.
The family watched for a moment as Khatri crawled over the tumbled blankets on the floor to investigate a bowl of dates and butter.
“We want him not to suffer like us,” Mohammed-Salem said. “We want him to go back to his land, free to work there in peace and comfort.”
In his hospital room in Tindouf, Brahim Labid is weighing similar dreams against his new predicament. He sits up in bed, drawing the stump of his right leg close to him.
“Before the accident I was learning carpentry, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that anymore.” He moves to get up, reaching for the pair of crutches leaned against the wall.
“I want to go back to our land and create a good life, just like anyone anywhere.”