Update on Western Sahara

The Western Saharans, the Saharawi, have been a divided people since Morocco invaded their country in 1975. 160,000 people fled for safety into the deserts in south west Algeria where they have lived since, dependent on international aid but self governing. They are an example to us all in terms of what can be achieved with few resources in the areas of health care, education (especially for women) and agriculture in the harsh conditions of the Sahara desert. Those Saharawis remaining in occupied Western Sahara live very much as second class citizens, subject to arrest, torture, disappearances and death at the hands of the oppressive Moroccan regime which has a poor human rights record even against its own people. Exact figures are unknown, but between 500 and 800 Saharawis have been "disappeared". More recently, some of the disappeared have been released due to efforts of ARAPRADESA - the organisation for the families of prisoners and disappeared - and Amnesty International.

In October, Manchester hosted the 24th European Conference of support for the Saharawi people, with delegates from 12 countries including a small delegation from Western Sahari. The conference was successful in that the discussions were realist and practical, and the Saharawis who attended felt supported by it. A vigil to remember the disappeared Saharawis was very moving, supported by Manchester people as well as the conference delegates. The vigil was addressed by the president of ARAPRADEA and a man who had been disappeared for 16 years.

A ceasefire in 1991, and promises of a referendum to determine their future had raised the hopes of the people. However, they have twice been disappointed due to Morocco sabotaging the plans. Cautious optimism is present now because a UN peace plan seems to be moving in a more positive direction with Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, about to visit the refugee camps. It now seems that the referendum will be held in December 1999. Hopefully it will mean that, at last, the Saharawi people will be free to live in their own country, united with families and friends. However, there is still far to go and support from all those concerned with justice and human rights is needed more than ever.

Western Sahara Campaign, Dept 132, 1 Newton Street, Manchester M1 1HW (0113 245 4786)