RPN 24 September 1997

11. A voice for children in the Western Saharan refugee camps by Margaret Burr

Spanish Voices: today's children, tomorrow's world is a three year project funded by the European Union with the support of a number of development agencies and the Tower Hamlets Local Education Authority in London, UK. The project focuses on displaced children in the Western Saharan refugee camps and in Guatemala; its aim is to provide a voice for these young people, to help them feel that they are not forgotten and that they are part of the wider world community. The project gives them the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences through different media: initially video, photography, writing and drawing, and more recently the Internet as well.

The 9th June School is a boarding school for 2500 Saharawi refugee children, built near the camps in the middle of the desert, close to Tindouf in Algeria. The children study the usual subjects but with so few resources that it is difficult to differentiate one lesson from the next, apart from the writing on the backboard. The windows are small and shuttered because of the heat but there is little on which to look out. There is none of the romance of the desert, simply a harsh, gravelly landscape which brings little stimulation or colour into the lives of the young refugees. Their visions, however, are unlimited and they delight in colour. Every piece of paper is returned with imaginative and colourfully decorated borders. They draw pictures of the school and of the Western Saharan landscape of which they have heard so much. The Saharawis speak a dialect of Arabic known as Hassaniya but their second language is Spanish which is used to establish links with their partners in the project.

'Spanish Voices' has taken on a new dimension via the Internet. One World Online recently launched an exhibition of Saharawi children's paintings - 'Sand Colours'. Another Internet site was launched by The Photographers' Gallery, entitled 'Mirage: an imaginary city', which allowed the young people of the four communities to share their visions through pictures and in writing. The Guatemalan children revealed their 'Paradise for women' with houses and trees, transport by horse and elephant, and vines with which to swing from house to house: no cars nor men, and tourists for the day only. In contrast, the vision of the Saharawi children for their 'City of Dreams' was a vibrant, colourful city by the sea with an enormous swimming pool and plenty of cars.

Products of the three year project will include:

* a language resource introducing development and rights issues into the UK's Modern Foreign Languages National Curriculum with ideas and experiences from all partners

* a series of Spanish language teaching programmes for the BBC, based on the project with film from all locations

* a Minority Rights Group leaflet on the life of the Western Saharan refugees to be produced in English and Spanish and distributed in schools in the UK

For more information on 'Spanish Voices', contact the Humanities Education Centre, English Street, London E3 4TA, UK. Tel: +44 171 364 6405. Fax: +44 171 364 6422. E-mail: hec@gn.apc.org Website: http://www.oneworld.org/spanishvoices.

Western Sahara: direct talks bring new hope

Many of the young Saharawi people have never left the camps established over 20 years ago when their families fled the invading Moroccan army. The Western Sahara, formerly known as Spanish Sahara, continues to be claimed and occupied by Morocco. A UN brokered referendum on self-determination has not been implemented due to a failure to agree on those eligible to take part. The 1991 cease-fire - called to allow the referendum to take place - still holds but the situation has reached a critical stage. In March 1997, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed James Baker (former US secretary of state) as his Special Envoy for Western Sahara. Baker visited the refugee camps in April 1997 and has since succeeded in brokering the first direct talks between Morocco and POLISARIO (the Saharawi liberation movement formed in 1973). There is still considerable concern, however, over continuing human rights abuses by Morocco; hundreds of Saharawi people remain disappeared and agencies report that Morocco has blatantly compromised the fairness of the voter identification process. The Peace Plan provides the UN with a mandate to ensure that 'no-one can resort to intimidation or interference in the referendum process'; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recommend that the mandate of MINURSO (the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara) needs to be widened to include the monitoring, investigating and reporting of human rights violations.

[Information taken from the July 1997 newsletter of the Western Sahara Campaign UK, Oxford Chambers, Oxford Place, Leeds LS1 3AX, UK. Tel/fax: +44 113 245 4786. See also the report 'Floods hit Saharawi refugees in south west Algeria' by John Howe in RPN 18, January 1995]

Letter from an RPN reader:

My refugee children by Ali Salem

When I was young, I dreamed of an independent Western Sahara, studying medicine, and a happy life. But when Morocco invaded my country in 1975, I was obliged to flee and live in refugee camps in Algeria. Twenty-two years later, I am still living there with my wife and children.

The Saharawi children continue to suffer silently in the desert. A recent medical survey indicates that most of the children are anaemic and that their physical development has been affected by the lack of adequate food. They are condemned to exile and to an endless dream about their eventual return to their homeland. Summer visits to European countries, organised by NGOs and Councils, have helped the children understand that there is a world which is more tolerant and beautiful than the one in which they are condemned to live. The purpose of the visits is to show them the world beyond the refugee camps: flowers instead of thorns and stones, rivers instead of the thirst of the desert.

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October 1997