The Saharawi Narrative of resiliance:
Creating a state in the exile
Diana Julià Llobet
GRECS (Researching Group of Social Control and Exclusion)
Department of Anthropology, University of Barcelona
The contemporary restructuring of the global order has taken place in an era defined by fast-paced economic and politic globalisation, creating a social and cultural urgency within the field of anthropology to construct new paradigms which can explain the complex wex of self-interest and domination that define the state-society relationship. The inherent value of reforming our way of thinking and giving voice to cultures that are neglected or discarded by overriding structures of power are vocalised in the words of Eric Wolf (Europa y la gente sin historia. FCE): "Why do we insist on transforming dynamic and interconnected phenomena into static and disconnected things? Part of it is due to the way in which we have apprehended our own history".
It is from this perspective that a revisionist study of refugees can explain the phenomenon of social exclusion as a consequence of the strategy of mass rearrangement promoted by the "international geopolitical scene." This global context, defined by the humanitarian crises, suffered by entire societies forcefully driven from their territories and homes, is causing the dismemberment of cultural identity and the production of a new one in many parts of the world. The situation is further accentuated when transitory conditions of suffering are categorized and institutionalized under tha label of refugee, and extend indefinitely over time. Consequently, when one chooses to analize refugees as a new social identity caused by a masive exclusion or forced displacement, it becomes clar that the saharawis in Algeria are a historic group with no-place to leave. The situation is agravated when, instead of being granted a place to live, their transit area acquired a permanence. That is the great paradox of the fact explained by Augé with the term "non-places" and the meaning of trasiency for the political status of a refugee.
This is the case of Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria as to be analised from the phenomenologic tendency.
In the late2010, I carried out fieldwork for three months in the Saharawi refugee camps located in the vicinity of Tindouf (Algeria), in what is called the Algerian Hamada, a most inhospitable piece of wasteland about 800 kms from the border with Western Sahara occupied by Morocco. The Saharawi are separated from their former country by a vast wall in the world after the Great Wall of China, built by the Moroccans to avoid contact with and prevent the return of Saharawis to their territory. It is a physical and simbolic manifestation of Saharawi political and social fragmentation. The purpose of my study was to analyze the social and health strategies that adopted for some 165,000 people forced to leave their territory and developed a sedentary new lifestyle.
For over 34 years, about half of the Saharawi people have survived in precarious conditions under political asylum granted by Algeria and by humanitarian aid provided by European non-governmental organisations and other external cooperation agencies. Despite being a rootless community, their organizational capacity for survival and motivation to construct an ex-patria state against all odds overrides any concept of what it means to be a refugee community so far. The Saharawis have shown physical and psychological resistance against the adverse circumstances of repression, war and unforgiving climate, but in so doing have developed a resilient capacity of adaptation and self-education, spurring transformations in their economic and healthcare strategies.This has had the effect of fostering a sedentarisiing tendency, both the cause and result of building a state from exile.
A capacity for deep structural change began in 1973 with a revolutionary process culminating in the creation of a unique Frente POLISARIO government, rather than a system based on tribal organization. This government exemplifies a form of social change that breaks from classical definitions in Economic Anthropology and Ecology Policy. It is constituted in the different strategies that a group can take under unfavourable circumstances, including the large-scale opression, social exclusion and widespread poverty experienced by many refugee populations.
One of the priorities of the RASD (República Árabe Saharaui Democrática) from the beginning was the creation of a comprehensive public health system to attend to the unique needs of a population locked in a desert environment without many resources. It was especially important to assist the large number of wounded war victims resulting from clashes with the Moroccan army. What is striking is that most of the new Saharawi medical culture that has emerged is pioneered by local doctors who lack professional training, but rely instead on firsthand experience of conflict on the frontlines. War has defined much of the identity and idiosyncrasies of existance for the Saharawi community. This explains why many hospitals and healthcare centers in the camps are named after men killed in battle, those who are revered as martyrs or shrouded in a mythical narrative of their epic survival in exile. Such narrative of fallen heroes attach a token of authenticity to the powerful concepts of f nation and historical continuity - linking past, present and future- as well as the struggle for honour and statehood that sustains the frustrated hope that their territorial aspirations will not fall apart.
At the beginning of the period of exile, the community created a central military hospital located in Bol·la to treat the most severe cases of trauma and injury. The major hospital is now located in Rabouni (center camps) and is supported by four regional hospitals distributed along the four wilayas (provinces). This are supported by local clinics in the dayras (municipalities), which attend to the basic healthcare needs of the population and are accessible to all citizens. The healthcare covering that runs the Saharawi camps is focused on three basic areas of intervention: the prevention of common infectious or contagious diseases; the assistance to most frequent diseases; and the training of qualified nursing personnel and provision of medicine from other countries friendly to the Saharawis, including Cuba, Algeria and Libya.
Social provisions coexist with traditional healing practices of traditional Saharawi medicine, including “taglidi” (based on ancient knowledge of herbal medicine) or others that are linked directly with the magical-religious tradition. Ancient techniques are still in force among the population, even if they are less widespread than conventional medicine because the official authorities try to eliminate this old practices as they represent an obstacle to the modernization development. However, the use of plants and other rituals remains a reality of life, especially among the older generations and in the early stages of a disease in the domestic context.
Despite the good coverage of the RASD modern healthcare system there exist shortages and diferent problems caused by the specific liminal situation in which they are.The state of the indigenous new strategies makes the role of cooperation and assistance (such as NGOs), absolutely essential for the survival of the Saharawis. The way ahead lies in overcoming the structural deficiencies of what can only be described as a hibridation and a “half-way system”. Policymakers must be wary of interventions that could potencially increase the ills common to Third World dependence and delay the establishment of locally devised public spaces that could consolidate the creation of a new state. Externally driven development policies that risk uprooting traditional practices and the local healing culture should be critically analised.
Anthropologists must carefully evaluate the range of challenges and risks that may lead to dependence among the Saharawi refugees on European assistance policy in the areas of poverty-reduction, health and nutrition, and social inclusion. Such dependance may subvert their own efforts to construct a public space on their own terms.
Ultimately, the fact is not to eradicate the effects of certain concepts coined by a political mobilization charity that cares for the most helpless, but rather to understand the context why these logics affect people and cultures in a large-scale.
My fieldwork has lead me to appreciate the unexpected reality on the ground that, against all Darwinian expectations, the Sharawi have demonstrated great resilience over several decades and have not given up their hopes of creating a structure of self-organisation from exile.
[La photo is of Diana Julià]