Rebuilding your friends’ house

Fernando Peraita outside the Association in Support of the Sahrawi People in Seville. / F. RUEDA

November 6th, 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the green march, which concluded with the occupation of the western Sahara, the former Spanish province and colony in west Africa, by morocco. At the time, Fernando Peraita, president of the association of friendship with the Sahrawi people in Seville, was a member of the Spanish army that abandoned the inhabitants of the western Sahara to their hopeless fate. Since then, he has been fighting to mend that act of injustice while coordinating an important part of the humanitarian relief intended to help the Sahrawi refugees.


“I was part of the radio company and was on duty every other day. We received telegrams, which we had to take to the headquarters. They came from both the Canary Islands and from the mainland of Spain. On my days off, I studied. I was working to get my Civil Engineering degree in Madrid. I tried to make good use of those days because life was very boring there. When the Green March started, we found ourselves in a prewar situation, which made us feel scared all the time. Higher officers were scared too, but they felt ashamed at the possibility of going away without doing anything. Leaving the Sahara the way we finally did was a great humiliation for them. They wanted a war with Morocco in order to teach its people a lesson.We ourselves gave the keys to our compounds to the Moroccan army. Quite literally, we went to find them in the suburbs Laayoune and, once they got in, we left.”

The refugee camp of Dajla after the floodings, November 2015. / EDI ESCOBAR


“I had no idea what the Sahara was when they posted me there. I knew it was an overseas
province, but that was it. This cursed destination meant leaving my friends and my studies to be stranded for a year and a half in a distant place that appeared to be a kind of colony, although they kept on calling it a province. And we were there, and the Sahrawi people were great, quiet people who did not hurt anyone but nonetheless, we abandoned them and allowed an army to go in there and kill them. The weeks prior to the Green March, we had been asked to surround the perimeter of Sahrawi neighborhoods with a wire fence. We started searching people who went in or out. Everything felt truly absurd because we did not have any problem with the people themselves. You had to search people who had done nothing wrong, maybe even friends of yours. And then, the Moroccans arrived in Laayoune, whose government and king were not popular in Spain. It was an awful situation; one that made me feel like an accomplice of the genocide that was about to take place.

The flight of the Spanish army was a decision made by our government, so we reluctantly
went away. Most members of the army were pro-Sahrawi.”


“When I came back to Madrid, I felt as if I had played a huge dirty trick on some friends. It was then that we decided to extend a helping hand to them. The first associations of friendship with the Sahrawi people were founded in Madrid, formed by colleagues and progressive politicians; members of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) for the most part. There was a strong movement in favor of the Sahrawi people and against the Moroccan regime among the people of the left.

At first, the assistance was primarily political: conferences and press articles. We tried to influence politicians to see whether they were willing to act as mediators in the conflict. It was then that Felipe González first travelled to the camps, and promised he would support the Sahrawi people until their final victory. The Polisario Front’s flag fluttered in the wind in every PCE and PSOE rally.

But in 1982, there was a point of inflexion. PSOE won the parliament election, so sym-
pathizers thought that everything was over. We expected the new socialist government to
intervene and put an end to the conflict, as Felipe González, now president of the govern-
ment, had promised. However, he betrayed the Sahrawi people by taking Morocco’s side. It was a severe blow to our associations, which were almost demobilized by then, since we thought the government would continue our work.”


“After this act of betrayal by the new Spanish government, we started to move again, and in 1989 the first humanitarian convoy was sent to the Sahara. In the early nineties, Spain was undergoing a deep transformation; we were not a poor country anymore, so people started talking about cooperation with other countries.

In 1992, a program we called ‘Vacaciones en Paz’ (Holidays in Peace) started bringing into
Spain Sahrawi children, who lived in the refugee camps that the Sahrawi had set in Tindouf after they fled their land. Humanitarian collaboration with the Sahara officially became a reality.

These children had a profound impact on the Spanish society and since then, humanitar-
ian aid has become really powerful in the camps. Children unveil the truth of situations to all of society. Our associations are not just made up of militants and politicians anymore, but of ordinary people as well.”


“I have no hope for the conflict to end soon; it is a very hard fight. They won’t give up. The level of education of the Sahrawi society has increased significantly. During the last 40 years, the Polisario Front has offered education to the Sahrawi people, causing thousands to graduate university, instead of two or three, which was the amount of people with access to higher education when I first went there. Now, there are doctors and engineers; people ready to perform in an independent Western Sahara.

Sooner or later, the Sahrawi people will get their referendum. Time passes by, but Moroccans cannot convince the international community to recognize the Sahara as part of their legitimate territory, which gives the Sahrawi great strength. I don’t think I will live to see an independent Sahara, but they won’t give up.

Education at the Sahrawi camps focuses on their roots in the land. Children are insistently taught this at school. They consistenly have their sights set on their occupied land, which is why they are always singing nostalgic songs about places they don’t know. Sahrawi culture is deeply grounded in a land that was stolen from them.”

The refugee camp of Dajla after the floodings, November 2015. / EDI ESCOBAR


“The Association of Friendship with the Sahrawi People carries out a great deal of projects in the camps, so I have to go and meet with the people in charge to ensure that they are doing alright. Going to the camps feels like I’m recharging my batteries, an escape from life here. I’m in the place and with the people to whom I have devoted 40
years of my life, working together to improve the living conditions of the camps. I need to understand their reality. I get to see the Sahrawi friends who have become my family over the years.

Right now, we are absorbed in several projects. One of them is ARTIfariti, an arts and human rights festival, where artists from across the world travel to the camps to create works which will stay there. When these artists go back to their place of origin, be it Madrid, Paris, New York or Berlin, they stage exhibitions in which the issues affecting the Sahrawi people are discussed and their cause voiced. We also work with a medical board; we build dwellings adapted for those who have suffered amputations as a result of the landmines planted by the Moroccan army and we cooperate with the National Union of Sahrawi Women to help them obtain microcredits for companies that foster employability and education for women.

When we go to the camps, we usually stay with families at their haimas (tents). Living with them is a very pleasant experience. They take care of us like kings. I always stay with the same family at the Bojador camp, a place that now feels like home. This family is a bit special because they have all studied abroad and have achieved a very high level of education. The father, Omar, works at the Sahrawi Ministry of Cooperation.

As a government employee, he runs everything related to external cooperation. The mother,
Jadiya, reliably takes care of the housekeeping. They are all very polite and great cooks.
Evenings at the camps are always enjoyable; when they arrive home for dinner, we have long
conversations while sipping on cups of tea. We talk for hours, while various visitors and neighbors come in to join the gathering. We talk about everything, but mostly about the Sahrawi conflict. Half their home was torn down during last October’s flooding, as were most of the houses.

It looks as if a bomb hit them. Out of the six camps, Dajla was the most damaged. There’s
not a single house standing. All of the families are living in provisional haimas (tents). The structures are made of artisanal adobe bricks, and it had been many years since it rained like that; ten whole days of nonstop rain. At first, the government of Algeria and UNHCR sent a lot of help. Now, European associations and governments are starting to do the same, yet it will never be as much as they need. Sahrawi people take it slowly; they acknowledge that nobody died and believe they can fix everything else. They never complain. They come from a Bedouin tradition, nomads of the desert, and they’re just used to suffering every kind of misery.

The first time I was in the refugee camps, in 1986, the standard of living was much lower
and they were at war with Morocco. I will always remember one night there, when I was sleeping on an air mattress in a family’s haima (tent), and they tucked me in with a blanket. Then, the lady of the house came and put some cologne on me. I was so amazed that, in such terrible circumstances, they cared enough to make me smell nice. I saw a sign of love for life in the lady who did that. Despite their lack of basic human needs, they have always lived with total dignity.” •

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FERNANDO PERAITA has his second office—and half his life too—at the premises of the Association of Friendship with the Sahrawi people in Seville, of which he is president. Born in Burgos in 1953, as a young man, he was a promising basketball player for students in Madrid, while he studied to become a civil engineer.

In 1974, he was sent to Laayoune to perform compulsory military service, so he had to give up basketball when the army denied him permission to move to Tenerife, where he could have played for Club Náutico. As a soldier, he lived the most convulsed days in the history of a region which had been a Spanish colony for almost a century, the Western Sahara. In 1975, he lived through the previous, ongoing and ulterior moments of the Green March.

When he came back to Spain that same year, hurt by how the Spanish army had abandoned
the Sahrawi people, surrendering the keys of thecolony to king Hasan II of Morocco, Fernando took part in the foundation of the first Association of Friendship with the Sahrawi People in Madrid. In 1992, he created the association in Seville. He now constantly travels to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf. Calm, quiet and moderate when talking about any other subject, his tone of voice and his gestures are altered when it comes to the Sahrawi cause. Tall, gawky and with sad eyes, his nature seems to be shaped by that of the Sahrawi people. He says that they never complain, that they are tough and patient. He kindly describes his friends, not realizing that he is perfectly characterizing himself as well. •