Algeria’s Tindouf province is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Located deep in the Sahara in the westernmost corner of the country, summer daytime temperatures there rarely drop below 40˚C (104˚ F). It is difficult to imagine that anyone would choose to leave their home to migrate to such a forbidding place. Yet for the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who left Western Sahara after it was occupied by Morocco in the 1970s, it is the only place that is truly their own. Having been displaced from their homes, they’ve now based their struggle for self-determination in a sprawling collection of refugee camps of low, squat buildings set against the blistering sands of Sahara. Unfortunately, that struggle has become significantly more difficult with the death of its leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz.
Abdelaziz had been the president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the name of the Sahrawi state, since 1976. SADR claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1975. The colony was populated mostly by an Arabic-speaking people called the Sahrawis. After Spain decided to withdraw from the region, Morocco and Mauritania both attempted to annex parts of it while SADR fought for Sahrawi self-determination with support from Algeria. After a violent war that lasted until 1991, Morocco gained control of about 3/4 of the territory while SADR gained control of 1/4, most of which was uninhabited desert.
As Morocco gained control of more and more of the territory, it began to build a network of walls to prevent the displaced Sahrawis from recapturing their lost land. Thus the territory is crossed by a sand berm that stretches for hundreds of kilometers. Military installations pockmark the territory along the wall, and the wall is lined by kilometer upon kilometer of landmines. As a result, hundreds of the thousands of Sahrawis fled into the Tindouf province, where they established a network of refugee camps and have continued to fight for recognition diplomatically.
At the helm of that fight was Mohamed Abdelaziz. Despite the massive hardship faced by his people, he turned away from war and pursued political compromise. He supported a UN-backed peace plan in 2003, but Morocco refused to accept the terms of the compromise. He led his country to join the Organization of African Unity, which later became the African Union, in 1984. He also attempted to turn SADR into a secular democracy. Its constitution emphasizes the importance of human rights and outlines a plan to transition to a multi-party democracy. Under the rule of Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has maintained its commitment to peace and and democracy even in the face of immense adversity.
His rule, however, came to an end after he succumbed to illness this week at the age of 68. Sahrawi politicians have announced a 40 day mourning period, after which a new leader will be chosen. They have vowed to continue the fight that Abdelaziz has led for decades. Unfortunately, though, their fight may continue unresolved. While Abdelaziz may have brought peace to his people, it came at the price of liberation. With a policy of peace, the international community lost interest and SADR lost its leverage.
But while shots no longer ring out across the desert, hundreds of thousands are still stranded in it. An entire nation has been driven out of its home, forced to live under the unrelenting heat of a foreign sun with little protection besides low huts and flimsy tents. An entire generation has grown up as refugees. Children have grown up separated from their country by a wall of sand and landmines. Armed conflict may have ended decades ago, but the humanitarian crisis has not.
The best way to honor Abdelaziz’s legacy of conflict resolution is to remember that the arrival peace does not allow us to forget and lose interest. Peace has arrived, but the humanitarian crisis remains. And a humanitarian crisis does not become any less dire simply because it has persisted for decades. If anything, the longevity of this crisis is all the more reason to insist on finding a solution. Let us allow his death to remind us of this, and, now that we remember, let us not forget.