A marathon in the Tindouf refugee camps reminds us that African decolonisation isn’t over

Si chiama Sahara Marathon ed è una maratona tra i campi profughi di Tindouf, in Algeria. Una volta all’anno ci ricorda che la decolonizzazione in Africa non è ancora finita.

Tindouf, an Algerian city close to the Moroccan and Western Saharan borders, is home to some of the world’s least known and oldest refugee camps. Some 350,000 people live there, claiming to be citizens of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a territory that stretches within the borders of the Saharan area once colonised by Spaniards (now Western Sahara) and later militarily occupied by Morocco.

Brief history of the refugee camps of Tindouf

Most of the people living in the camps fled from Western Sahara in the 1970s due to the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro), founded in 1973 by some women and men of the Sahrawi people. When the war broke out after Spain’s withdrawal in 1976, Mauritania signed a peace accord with the Sahrawis in 1979. Conflicts continued until September 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed thanks to the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Who lives in the camps

These refugee camps are the emblem of how a temporary condition can turn into something permanent. Indeed, they’re also home to the new families of the refugees who first fled war. There are young women and men who, even if they’re part of a population that comes from a land on the sea, have never seen the Atlantic Ocean or smelled the sea breeze. These camps are managed as if they were cities despite they aren’t autonomous as there’s no water and, therefore, food. Their life entirely depends on state aids and international missions.

The Sahrawi people

The Sahrawi people wants the independence and sovereignty of the SADR to be recognised, as had happened for the other African countries and as urged by the United Stations to Spain in 1967. The referendum for self-determination, set to be held after Spain’s withdrawal, was never called due to Morocco’s obstructionism. What impedes the creation of the State is the presence of natural resources and raw materials such as metals, oil and phosphate mines that led Morocco to invade the territory, scattering it with landmines and building walls to force the Saharawis to retreat and give ground.

Western Sahara is today home to 2,720 kilometres of walls, and only 35 per cent of the 266,000 square kilometres of land is managed by the Polisario Front. Despite this, and for the will of achieving diplomatic esteem, the Front has never fought using methods and techniques typical of terrorist organisations. The army has always confronted its enemies on the battlefield and civilians have never taken part in the violence. Instead, they declined any negotiations with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

A marathon through refugee camps

With the aim of shedding light on the situation and drawing the attention of media and international institutions, the Sahara Marathon takes place in the refugee camps of Tindouf, in the Hamada du Draa Desert. This place is often defined as alien by geologists visiting the area. More than 700 people from tens of countries will participate in the sport event, having the possibility of seeing first-hand the climate conditions refugees have to endure, with temperature ranges from 0 degrees at night up to 60 degrees during summer.

The Sahara Marathon is now in its 17th edition, but the Saharawi people have been waiting for 40 years for the United Nations and the governments of the Security Council (including France and the United States) to stop vetoing any forms of solution. The battle of the Polisario Front is the demonstration that, when international interests are not at stake, people are forgotten, abandoned to their fate or, worse, left at the mercy of governments not inclined to respect human rights. What the Sahrawi people are requesting is a referendum to put an end to the situation and end the last phase of the decolonisation of Africa.

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