San Martin, Pablo. WESTERN SAHARA: the Refugee Nation. 2010. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales.

“…If you ever arrive
at a wide white land
coupled with immense black statues
and the passive pace of camels and Bedouins,
remember that there exists a land without master and owner,
mirror and soul of all innocent beings.”
Ali Salem Iselmu

San Martin was a child when he saw scenes from the Western Sahara on TV in Spain.“…what really captured my attention were the images of guerrilla fighters with yellowish turbans, waving their Kalashnikovs and departing for battlefield, crowded into the back of old open Land Rovers.”

His attention has been captured ever since and he has written one of the few books available in English about the Saharawi people and their cause. The Saharawi, the people of the Western Sahara, have been fighting and working for their independence and self–determination since their homeland was occupied by Spain in 1884. The present struggles date from the Moroccan takeover of the Western Sahara in 1975–6 when Spain abandoned their colony situated between Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria; the home of a tough and determined people, half of whom have lived in refugee camps in Algeria for three decades.

The author gives us an excellent overview of Saharawi history from before and after Spain´s colonization to the annexation of the land by Morocco and the struggles of Frente POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el–Hamra y Rio de Oro) created in 1973 to fight for independence and freedom. It also declared the creation of the new state, Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is recognized by more than fifty nations.An armed struggle with Morocco after its occupation of most of the Western Sahara ended in 1991 with almost half the Saharawi in camps, now communities, in Algeria. Promises for referendums have been broken and the outside world either ignores the illegal and unjust situation or collaborates with Morocco, a well–supported ally of the USA.

San Martin sometimes lapses into an academic postmodern vocabulary, but this book is really a labour of love; his passion for these people and their cause carries the reader through the necessary historical and political detail.

In chapter 2 on the emergence of Saharawi Nationalism, he writes about international interest in the mineral deposits of the Western Sahara where mainly Spanish companies began the exploitation of rich phosphate deposits that continues to this day, now by Moroccans. The Saharawi´s only participation was to provide cheap labour. These deposits and the potential for other minerals along with the rich off–shore fishery are the main reason for Morocco´s militarized occupation and in spite of agreements, refusal to allow a vote on the possibility let alone the reality of Saharawi independence. The Moroccan government receives military aid from the USA and Canada is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Morocco, it in turn is supported by the province of Saskatchewan where the agriculture minister says that Morocco is a major market for its agricultural products and he wants trade barriers removed. The giant Saskatchewan Potash Corporation also might benefit, it buys phosphates from Morocco, much of which originate in the Western Sahara. Nationalism arose in response to oppression by Spain, then Morocco and the tacit support by most global powers; this oppression was made more obvious by the resource exploitation.

There is a growing new awareness of the injustice of Africa´s last colony on many fronts. But San Martin writes, “In the meantime, 2009 has already ended and the Saharawi refugees are still witnessing, frustrated, how their lives fade away in the middle of no–man´s land, in a situation of neither peace nor war that seems not to have an end.”

Western Sahara book review by Theresa Wolfwood

Map courtesy of www.sandblast–

San Martin says that in spite of the many UN recommendations, Morocco still rules the Western Sahara. The portion of the state along the Atlantic coast has received so many Moroccan migrants that they now outnumber the Saharawis who are constantly subjected to surveillance, harassment and detention which may result in torture and lengthy jail sentences.

A narrow strip to the east and south is a “liberated zone” with little development and few people; this strip is separated from Morocco and the western region of the state by a more than 2000 km long berm liberally planted with landmines. Before this barrier was constructed by Morocco thousands of Saharawi fled from their homeland, perused by the Moroccan air force dropping napalm and white phosphorus on terrified civilians.

The soul and centre of Saharawi life and culture is in the refugee camps; it is also the administrative centre for the SADR nation. The Saharawi live displaced in a “refugee nation” in the Algerian desert. All the while they maintain their sense of nationhood and have created governing structures, for now and for the future independent Saharawi state. This is not a refugee existence as much as a people preparing for statehood.

The last chapters San Martin devotes to description and analysis of society and life in the refugee camps. He explains how exile, impermanence and constant struggle, now on the political and diplomatic front, has changed peoples. Tribalism has been weakened as nationalism is forged. The role of women changed; women now have a great sense of equality and participation. The cash economy has changed lives, donations and remittances from abroad, consumer goods and small business have changed the original ideas of economic equality. Many young people go abroad for education, bringing back new ideas and social norms. Children go on organized holidays to families in Spain. All these factors change relationship and expectations. The desert is not so remote as it seems. San Martin makes it seem close and personal with his encounters and quotes from many Saharawis.

Recently there has been some success in raising awareness of this little–known issue. An important EU fishing treaty with Morocco has not been renewed. The illegal export of mineral products from the Western Sahara is gaining attention; the Arab Spring showed us that change can be sudden and unexpected by outsiders. San Martin says that his book does not have an end; history is still happing there. Legal experts and solidarity activists are participating on many fronts, from direct contact to political lobbying to cultural events.

Time keeps on, always keeps on
leaving calluses in the hands
of history.
Years plummet
like the beads of a rosary
over the long-lived memory
of exile.
Providence carves
our footsteps of tomorrow
in a path without limbs,
without flowers in the edges,
and without you on the horizon.
Time keeps on, always keeps on
dragging the scars of the universe
towards a splendorous north.
Days fly over, silently,
like birds of prey,
the roof of this rootless home,
the nest of our children´s dream.
Time keeps on, always keeps on. By Luali Lesha

For good photographs and information see also:–
For an article on the Western Sahara and maritime law by see:
Western Sahara Resource Watch has current news on resource developments in the region

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