Brackish water from under ground aquifers gives them diarrhoea, trachoma
and scabies, mottles their teeth and makes their bones brittle. To eat,
there is only flour, rice and semolina delivered in sacks by the aid
agencies. Without fruit, vegetables or protein, the children's growth is
stunted. For jobs, there is a handful of Polisario schools and clinics and
a guerrilla army immobilised for the past six years by a ceasefire.
The Hammada, as this part of the Sahara is known, is a bad desert, the refugees say. They don't want to live here, yet it is here that 160,000 Sahrawis have languished for 22 years. Their encampments are divided into four remote wilayas, administrative areas bearing the names of towns back home in the neighbouring Moroccan occupied Western Sahara.
Themselves hostages of the conflict with Morocco, the Polisario keep their own hostages in this giant sand filled prison without bars. Two thousand Moroccan prisoners of war live in the same wretched conditions as the refugees.
The families of Polisario apparatchiks and guerrillas live in Wilaya Awsserd, a collection of seven virtually indistinguishable refugee camps. On the outskirts of each shanty town there are goat pens made of scrap metal and chicken coop wire. Most families have a tent where they sleep at night, and a mud hut with a tin roof where they spend the hot days. The sensory deprivation is so total that I was startled by the smell of incense when I took off my shoes and entered a tent at Liguera camp. Their men were in the "liberated zone", the part of the Western Sahara to the east of the high sand berm built by the Moroccan army to fend off Polisario attacks.
Sitting on grass mats laid on the sand, barefoot and wearing the bright sarilike dresses known as melhfa, their feet and hands tattooed with henna, the women spoke of sons and husbands killed in the war, of property they lost when they fled in 1975, of the relatives who stayed behind. "We thought we would return in a few months, " Bleiha Mohammed Fadel (55) said. "Back in Laayoune we had everything - a tent, a camel, a Land Rover. Our men were with us and the whole family was together. When we got here, there were only women, because the men were fighting. The women organised everything. We have no money, only freedom." It is to replace those who died in the war and to fight Morocco that they have so many children, the women said. In the past year, they have exchanged letters with relatives in the Western Sahara for the first time. "They have work and money, " Mariam Mohammed Fadel (27), said, "but in their hearts they are sad because they are thinking of us, their families in the Hammada, who have nothing."
King Hassan II of Morocco calls the Sahrawis his fils egares - wandering sons - and he would like them to come back. The Moroccans claim the refugees are forced to stay in Algeria against their will. It isn't true, Bleiha Mohammed Fadel said: "We came here because we want to be free. Life here is very hard, but I prefer this to living under Moroccan rule." The women carry water, which is rationed, in jerry cans from a tank in tlie centre of Liguera camp. Daniel MoraCastro, a water expert from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says it is poison. Wind blows sand and animal and human faeces into the water holes. "We are finding up to 2,500 E coli (faecal bacteria) per 100 millilitres, " he said.
"That means they are not drinking water but shit soup. Thirty per cent of the population have diarrhoea at any given time ... none of the water in the camps is fit for human consumption." The Polisario took us to a village of whitewashed domes surrounded by high walls where they keep 500 of their 2,000 Moroccan prisoners of war. The prisoners do forced labour in the searing daylight and sleep inside the cramped little domes at night. They eat the same food and drink the same water as the refugees and suffer from the same diseases. From time to time, the Red Cross delivers letters from home, telling of the death of loved ones, or that a wife has given up waiting for her imprisoned husband and remarried. While Polisario intelligence agents hovered about to listen, a 42 year old Moroccan army officer pulled me aside. He has spent 18 years in this nameless hell hole, but his determination - like that of the Sahrawis - is intact. "We are here for the Sahara, " the Moroccan prisoner said. "We are ready to give our lives for the Sahara. It is our territory. As long as the Sahara remains Moroccan, I don't care if I have to spend 60 years in prison.".