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  Issue No 99 Official Organ of LaborNet 15 June 2001  




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A Saharawi Woman's Plea

Sydney unionist Stephanie Brennan travelled to Africa to witness first-hand the struggle for independence in West Sahara.


Stephanie Brennan with Wilaya

Smara Refugee Camp, South-western Algeria - November 2000

As our battered 4 -wheel drive makes it's way through the desert into the outskirts of the Wilaya, dozens of small dusty children run out to meet us looking for sweets - caramello, caramello? Behind them hundreds of canvas tents stretch into the flat spaces of the desert. This is Smara, one of four major refugee camps in the desert of south-western Algeria, a place so inhospitable no humans have ever lived here and I am about to have a meeting with a group of women that will effect my life profoundly.

180,000 refugees exist here - indigenous Saharawis who fled the bombs and napalm of invading Morocco 25 years ago. Having endured a bloody guerilla war for 16 years they were promised a referendum on self-determination as part of a UN brokered cease-fire in 1991. They are still waiting. In the meantime the Saharawis exist on humanitarian aid amid international promises. Children's bones are brittle from no fruit or vegetables and eight year olds look like four year olds. Lung problems are endemic because of the savage dust storms, hospitals have no medicine, and the people become increasingly despairing of their future.

Polisario, who represent the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, attempts vainly to negotiate a referendum that has been obstructed by Morocco for over 10 years. The UN negotiations drag on and on as the international community weakens and loses interest. The situation becomes increasingly tense, as the region is poised on the brink of war.

I am visiting this place as a representative of an Australian Western Sahara solidarity group, one of many such groups that exist internationally. Polisario controls this bleak bit of desert and its government-in-exile (the SADR) operates from here. Conditions for the Saharawis are grim and becoming grimmer.

Yet the people here are resilient, politically educated and well organised. Their hospitality is overwhelming as I share their meagre food rations and blankets. Although their diet consists mainly of powdered milk, pasta and rice and they rarely ever see meat or fresh vegetables, I am treated to what in Saharawi terms are feasts.

Today I meet with the Wilaya of Smara's Council of Women. This Council is made up of women from each of the districts that comprise the Wilaya. I leave my shoes outside the entrance to the tent where about six women in brightly-coloured mulhafas sit cross-legged, waiting. I am late. They greet me warmly.

We sit on thin foam mattresses placed at the edges of the tent around the only furniture - a low table next to a gas cooker where one of the women is making mint tea. After the traditional greetings and welcomes I ask them through my translator, Zorgan to tell me about what the Council does. They explain that the Council meets every morning at 8am to discuss what needs to be done that day. The women run most of the services within the Wilaya - schools, looking after the elderly, sick and injured, the bakery, political education, administration and tending the Wilaya's sparse and stunted communal garden. They rely on humanitarian aid and donations but they say that "sometimes no door opens in front of us."

They tell me that everybody in the refugee camps works (except for those with dementia or 'bad gizzards') but that it is hard relying on NGO's. They explain that 'because Morocco wanted to destroy Western Saharan society, because they used bombs, the generation after that (the invasion of 1975) carry the flag and sing songs of martyrdom.'

But the mood of the people has become increasingly desperate as their children's lives are wasted in the refugee camps. They grow weary of diplomatic promises. "If the UN does nothing, if they fail in taking us back to our land, we are ready to take the land by force. Everybody hates war because war destroys everything. Destroys all forms of life.' The atmosphere in the tent has become more intense.

As I sip my mint tea the leader of the Council lowers her glass deliberately. 'If there is no possibility of a peaceful solution then it (war) is the only thing we have.' I think of the 175,000 Moroccan soldiers stationed along the 2,000km wall that divides Western Sahara. The Moroccans have had 10 years of referendum talks to fortify the wall with millions of land mines. Their cease-fire violations have been the subject of reports to the UN but have been blithely ignored. The war will be one-sided and bloody.

I attempt to absorb the meaning of these words. An Australian who has never known war. All the women are looking at me intently. The leader continues. "Please try to consider our terrible situation: please try to represent this society. Try to go places we can't get to.

'We don't need papers or messages of threat. We need people standing and attempting to express our rights, to get freedom, to get independence within Western Sahara. If all countries are friends of Morocco we prefer to die. After that we prefer them to say that once there was an ancient nation that walked upon this land."

There is silence except for the flapping of the tent in the harsh wind. I struggle for words. There are none. I lower my head so that these proud women won't see my tears. But they do. I feel overwhelmed by the suffering of these people. And I know that it is right that we weep.

If you would like to take part in Australian actions to campaign for independence for the Saharawi people or join a solidarity group email mailto:[email protected] of the Australia Western Sahara Association (AWSA) and the Western Sahara Alliance or phone her on 0411 239934. You can learn more about the plight of the people of the Western Sahara by visiting

Special fundraiser for West Sahara

Wednesday Junwe 20 - 6pm NSW Parliament House, Janelle Saffin MLC, Presient of Amnesty International Parliamentary Group hosts this Western Sahara fundraising event to raise funds for SAHARAWI women and children in the refugee camps.

There'll be an auction of beautiful photo from the camps by UK award-wining photogapher, Danielle Smith. 2 camels will be at Macquarie St entrance available for rides.$45 TICKET, 20%discount for Amnesty members, concessions available.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 99 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: In Defence of the Umpire
Australian Industry Group chief Bob Herbert on why the Industrial Relations Commission is worth fighting for.
*  Unions: Diary of a Dude
One.Tel worker Warren Manners thought he had a dream job and no need for a union. That was until the money ran out.
*  Legal: Dot.Com Casualties
The high profile collapse of One.Tel had significant implications for its employees. But what about its contractors?
*  Industrial: The Shopfloor, United
Chris Christodoulou argues that without an active union membership, workplace democracy is just a pipe dream.
*  International: A Saharawi Woman's Plea
Sydney unionist Stephanie Brennan travelled to Africa to witness first-hand the struggle for independence in West Sahara.
*  History: Once Were Tuckpointers
Trawling through the files, Paul Howes stumbles upon some unions that represented workers long departed.
*  Politics: Out Of The Comfort Zone
In his new book, Brett Evans argues that while Labor is honing its reform agenda, it is still struggling to reform itself.
*  Satire: World Domination
The US has threatened not to pay the UN the money it doesn’t pay anyway.
*  Review: Wiped Out
Bread and Roses is a new movie about the struggle of invisible office cleaners to gain dignity and respect at work. Pity you won’t see it here.

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