The survival of the Western Sahara people as a whole is on the brink after the abduction of three foreign workers. It's yet another challenge for a nation displaced in the Algerian desert for 37 years, and counting.
A nightly curfew for foreigners starting at 7 pm; compulsory military escort for any journey by road; new walls being raised next to Algerian watch towers and radars and so on…In the Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Western Algeria, routines and the landscape have been changing by the day since the first and only kidnapping, seven months ago, in the territory under the Polisario Front's control.
Western Sahara was the object of a decolonization process interrupted in 1976, when Spain - its former colonial power - left the land the size of the UK in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. Since a ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory - including the entire Atlantic coastline - has been under Morocco's control, whereas a small, largely uninhabited and economically useless desert area - known as the "liberated territories" - remains under the Polisario Front's rule.
The UN recognizes the Polisario Front (a national liberation movement working for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco - the ed.) as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. However, almost all of the Sahrawi people - between 200,000 and 250,000 - today live in Algerian refugee camps in Tindouf.
On October 22 last year, Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez, Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were abducted from Tindouf's Rabuni refugee camp by a hitherto unknown armed group.
The people at the refugee camps depend exclusively on foreign aid but the kidnapping has scared off foreign visitors.
"This compound can host over 200 people but you'll hardly find 20 of them staying here today. Besides, many foreigners are scared and they try to keep behind the compound walls as much as possible," Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker at the center who witnessed the kidnapping, told DW.
"The attackers were not from the region but, very likely, of Touareg origin," added Ali, who was handcuffed during the attack.
"This is doubtless not what it used to be," a Spanish aid worker who prefers not to give her name due to her NGO policies, told DW from the same scene of the abduction.
"On a day off we would even grab a few blankets and sleep in the open. Today we can hardly move around unescorted," the NGO worker said. Nonetheless, she said that the reduction of visits is mainly due to budget constraints rather than for fears of new attacks.
"Most of the aid comes from Spain so the financial crisis back home is also visible here," she explained, adding that, despite the hardship, they are all "in good spirits."
Right to fight
A 10-minute walk from the compound lies the Rabouni refugee camp, yet another sea of mud houses and corrugated iron where Western Sahara exiles have languished for the past 37 years. None of them could possibly imagine it would be such a long stay when they left their native Western Sahara behind.
"I was born in Laayoune, in Morocco-occupied Sahara and I was 15 when I arrived here. My three kids were born here," Sidi Ahmed told DW from his humble food shop. "After the ceasefire, we had the secret hope that we would go back after the referendum but that simply didn´t happen," he recalled while he unpacked boxes of tuna fish that had just arrived from the Mauritanian border - less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
In April 1991, the UN established the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The ceasefire held but the mission was never fully deployed. The key point was an "identification process" to decide who was eligible to vote. In 1996 the UN suspended the identification process and left only the military personnel to oversee the truce.
Dispair is not exclusive to the humble barracks alongside dirt roads. From the Sahara presidential residence in Rabouni, Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, confirms that Rabat has shut every door to further negotiations - Morocco turned down the mediation of Christopher Ross, the personal envoy of the UN Secretary General last May - and describes a "stalemate that has lasted for 21 years and counting."
"Our people are tired and there's a growing popular demand to take up arms to fight for independence," he told DW. "Nobody should forget that the UN recognizes every nation's right to conduct an armed resistance for self determination."
In the strip of barren land fully under Polisario's control, security has also been boosted. The so-called liberated territories are a geopolitical no-man's land between the Algerian border and the "wall" built by the Moroccans during the 1980s: a French-designed structure over 2,500 kilometers long that criss-crosses Western Sahara from north to south. This intricate network of fences, trenches and barbed wire cordons off the most economically useful parts of the land - under Rabat's control - and the economically useless, monitored by the Polisario.
Born in the refugee camp of Ausert, 30 kilometers northwest of Rabouni, 28-year-old Mohamed Salem scans the sector alongside the Mauritanian border from a pick-up truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear
"We look for drug smugglers and terrorists sneaking across the border," the young soldier told DW. "We've been told that terrorists are likely to hit again against journalists and foreign aid workers so we need to stay alert."
Back in the Polisario headquarters in Bir Lehlu, 63-year-old Mohamed Salem cools down over a cup of tea after a long day under the Sahara sun.
The veteran fighter joined the movement "from the very beginning, when local youngsters where organizing to fight the Spanish occupation." Unlike most of his fellow colleagues in uniform, Salem points to some "significant moves" in the last three decades.
"USA, France, Italy, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia… everybody was supporting the Moroccans when they occupied our territory. Today, only France is backing them - Paris' veto at the UN is partially responsible for the current status quo. Besides, tell me: does Morocco think it will be able to stifle the Arab Spring in its own streets forever?"
Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Western Algeria
Editor: Rob Mudge