Story from the Sahara

Text: Fatma El Mehdi
Translation: Tess Kuntz

I am going to tell my story, knowing that it is one more story that tells the lives of women in very difficult situations.

I was born in my country, Western Sahara, in its capital Aaiu. At two years of age, my parents moved to live in Elgelta, since my father worked in a Spanish roofing business.

In my neighborhood everyone knew everyone, and children played hide-and-seek and other games while the adults chatted and did all their daily chores.

The journey to an unknown place

In December of 1975, a normal winter day, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the children were playing in a house filled with the simple tranquility generated by the innocence of youth, while the situation arrived at its most critical moment. The men had begun to organize the evacuation.
Around 4:00 the airplanes appeared and with them began the rain of mines that caught fire all around. We went running, terrified, searching for our parents. Unable to find my grandmother, I took my aunt’s hand and we ran; I do not remember if my feet touched the ground or not, we crossed stones and trees until we arrived at a cave, where there were many people asking for help and support.
I arrived with a torn dress and many wounds, but those did not matter to me; what worried me was the sound of the airplanes that were bombarding nonstop outside. At one o’clock in the morning we left to see what had happend, and we saw that all the houses were burnt down.

The mothers began to search for water and something to eat among the debris of the burnt homes. My grandmother recovered a large 20-liter pot and made rice with water, without oil or salt.

We gathered almost 54 people to satisfy our hunger. We were all women and children; the men had gone to find transportation, because it was impossible to stay a minute longer. Flight was the only option there was.

After an hour had passed, three men arrived; among them was my father. The greeting that was always extensive reduced itself to a single work: SALAM ALEKUM, and without waiting for a response, saying: Let’s go! Hurry!

No one worried about where we were going, we took the pot of rice and left to go to the three Land Rovers. Eighteen people squeezed into each car, with what we had with us, water and a few blankets.

Our journey lasted four days, and luckily in that time there still weren’t mines, because the car was jumping between trees during the night and people were searching for places to hide among the trees and mountains during the day.

It was the longest and hardest journey of my life, through the street there were many people fleeing on foot, above all women with children.

Of all the tragedies that I lived through during that journey, the most dramatic moment was when my cousin Safia gave birth. Since traditionally the Saharawi woman does not talk about her pregnancy even with her own mother, my cousin suffered in silence. At 5:00 PM, while the women prepared food and the few men got firewood, fuel and water, suddenly we heard a very strong scream. At hearing it, all the people ran toward the trees thinking that the Moroccan soldiers were coming. Two hours later we realized that we were missing Safia. My aunt thought that she could have been giving birth and asked for some women to accompany her to find Safia. They took a blanket, rags, and water and we went running toward the place where we had heard the voice. When we found her she was so tired that she seemed dead. The childbirth had not been easy and because of the bad conditions of the moment, we had to assume that the fetus had been dead for a few hours and that she didn’t have the strength to expel it. It was very painful and even more critical when finally a precious girl was born, but lifeless.

The fourth day, at 11:00 PM, we arrived at the Algerian desert of the Hamada, which in my language means a place that is difficult and without resources, where only two seasons exist, summer of 52 degrees (125 degrees Fahrenheit) and winter of 1 degree below zero (30 degrees Fahrenheit). Here we installed the Saharawi refugee camps. There was a part of my family, that lived in large cities like the Aaium, who couldn’t leave and are living in the occupied zones even until today. We went more than thirty years without knowing almost anything of them. Three years after his death we found out that my grandfather had died in one of the jails in the occupied zones.
The first moments in the Hamada were very difficutl because there was no food, water, housing, etc. My grandmother and my mother put together various melfas (the vestment of Saharawi women) and blankets to make our first refuge, a tent for the whole family, and we slept all together, drank in the same earthen bowl and ate from the same plate. Food consisted of a single plate of rice with oil and salt or, in some cases, bread with oil.

After a few months the Polisario Front began to create a system of education for children and adults. The women offered their tents to give classes, and they became teachers when they hadn’t even finished the third year of primary school, which obligated them to learn the material themselves on the eve of teaching it the following day. Other women, in light of this new situation, had to begin to make adobe bricks with sand to build schools, hospitals, etc.

I was seven years old and being the oldest of the family I was obligated to help my grandmother and my mother. My father had to go to the army like all the men. In the Hamada there were only women, children, the elderly, and those injured in the war that arrived at every moment.

Following an outbreak of epidemic in which many girls and boys in my neighborhood died, they sent the rest of us to study in Algeria, Libya, or Cuba.

I went to Libya, an Arab country in which I spent nine years. Then I was in Algeria for another two years. During this time we returned to visit our familys only every two years. During the summers we had many activities in the camps: literacy programs, sports, theater, etc.

The summer of 1982, with 13 years of age, I went to the camps to spend the summer with my family. We took a military plane from Tripoli, Libya, to Tindouf. Having gone several years without having any news from my family, we were all very excited, such that everyone looked the same to me when we arrived: with melfas, thin, dark skin, screaming with joy. It was for me very difficult to distinguish my mother until they named me on the list and a very dark-skinned woman came up to embrace me and give me kisses, crying with joy.

On the way home we could understand why my mother was in such a hurry to arrive at the house of my grandparents, without even stopping to have a glass of water. It seemed that someone important was waiting for us. When we arrived at my grandparents’ house, she called my grandmother and said “the girls are here.” My grandmother turned on the butane light, embraced us and began to talk about my father. She told us that he was a very brave person, that he had fought hard against the enemy in a great military operation where he was a martyr with 11 other Saharawis.

It was a profound loss that obligated me to reestablish myself in light of the new situation of my mother: alone, with children and without anyone to help her. I was in a situation of confusion without knowing exactly what to do: leave my mother and siblings alone, or abandon my studies. At the end I decided to abandon my studies and to stay home to help my mother.

When I was 16 years old I married and went to a primary teaching school in Camp 27 de febrero. I was there for two years and then began to give classes in the school of the camp where my family lived, in the Wilaya of Smara.

A few months later my first daughter Selma was born; I was 18 years old, and I took her to the daycare of my school since she was 6 months old. She was precious. At 11 months, she got polio, which was the first epidemic in the camps so there was not sufficient infrastructure to attend to this problem. My daughter had a fever for two days after taking a vaccine that was poorly preserved due to the heat. Going to the regional hospital, they did not detect the virus since Selma had been the first case, at least in the Smara camp. Seeing that the fever did not go down even with treatment, they sent me to the national hospital. It was terrible, the rooms were filled with affected children, many didn’t last 24 hours. They told us that the children who survived 24 hours could live, but with physical handicaps.

Selma, my daughter, was one of the most serious cases, she could only move her eyes. The rest of her body was immobile. Thousands of children died, it was the year of the most infant mortality. Those that surivived were taken to the children’s hospital. There were 85 children and their families were living in the hospital for six months. During this time there was not much advance such that at the end they sent us home.

The day that my daughter got sick I was 3-months pregnant with my second son. When my daughter was 1 year and 4 months old, Jabubi was born. It was the most difficult and complicated time of my life, where I saw how difficult life is. The worst for me was that I had to do it all myself, my husband was in the Front and came home only 10 days per year, and my mother had enough work caring for my eight siblings.

I lived then in a situation of total isolation, very busy all day, without time to rest, read, or see friends. I spent two years like that until my son began to walk, he was small and weak but he walked. In contrast, the oldest had to be carried in braces everywhere since there were no wheelchairs to carry her.

I decided to reincorporate myself in my work, at least to improve my moral situation and to try to do something for my people even if it was from my home. I began to collaborate in informative jobs and research for the school where I worked.

At the end of a time I found myself with Mama, a colleague of the education school in Escuela 27 de febrero. It was a great joy to see her. She asked me about my life and I told her all about my daughter and the difficulties I had in working. She suggested that I contact the National Union of Saharawi Women (UNMS), where I could do more than I had been doing and my children would be in a daycare without any problems. At the end, she offered to put me in contact with this organization.

After two weeks in my house, a woman came who was wearing a military suit, she saluted me warmly and took my daughter in her arms and then introduced herself and told me that she was Senia Ahmed, the Secretary General of the UNMS. She told me that she would love it if I would go to work with them and that she would look for a person to take care of my children in the daycare. In that instant I burst into tears, I felt that that nice woman was going to be my final salvation and then I told her that I would accept but that I needed two days to consult my mother. She, after hearing the proposal, became very happy and supported my decision.
Three days later a truck came with four women of the UNMS, they took my tent and took me to Escuela 27 de febrero, the seat of the UNMS. They helped me to put up my tent again and offered me help. The next day Senia Ahmed came and introduced me to the girl that was going to help to take my children to the daycare. Her name was Lita. A very happy woman who my daughter would later call a second mother. I installed myself as a general administrator for the office of the UNMS, that was in 1989. Something that has led me assume different roles: in the general office, with the Department of Cooperation, and , at last, as the Secretary General of the UNMS, a position I have been in for three years. For many years my job in the organization was to foment the presence and participation of women at the level of Saharawi instititutions.

While my daughter went to the daycare, Senia had offered to arrange a passport to look for foreign treatment. She contacted the Saharawi Delegation in Andalucia (Spain) to look for a family that could take care of the girl while she received her treatment. So it went.

I didn’t have a passport, such that Senia had to look for another woman with a passport to accompany my daughter. To me, on one hand, it hurt me to not be able to accompany her because she was only three, but on the other hand, her health was what mattered to me most, such that I had to accept that she go without me.

A year passed without news. During all that time I don’t remember a night that the face of my daughter did not pass through my mind. Many questions came to me: how would she be, in what condition, with what family, if she was happy, if she was in better health, how was the family… One day while I was working in my office with Senia, I told her that I really wanted to talk to her and I asked her if she could help me to communicate with her. She told me that it was difficult but she put me in contact with MINURSO that same night (International Mission of the United Nations for the Referendum of Western Sahara). I was so excited to hear her voice that I hadn’t even realized that my daughter would only speak Spanish. When the time came, it was two o’clock, we made the solicitation and they asked us for the telephone of the Saharawi Delegation in Andalucia to get the telephone of the family with which my daughter lived. A few minutes later they told us the telephone of the family, but none of us spoke Spanish. We could not understand the family and we had to look for a girl that worked there to help us. The girl took the telephone and explained to the family that I was the mother of Selma and that I wanted to speak with her. When she passed me the telephone I was so nervous that I had difficulties starting the conversation. At the end I said “Selma ana mama,” meaning that I was her mother. She did not understand any of it, and spent a moment repeating qué, qué, qué…

We spent almost 15 minutes without understanding each other and at the end the girl took the telephone, tried to explain to my daughter that I was her mother but that she could not understand me. My daughter told her “I don’t understand, if she were my mother she would speak as I do.” It has been a phrase that has really tortured me, I felt I had lost my daughter. I was beating around the bush but then I realized that in this life everything requires sacrifice. Besides, it obligated me to study Spanish to be able to communicate with my daughter and the family.

Now my daughter is with the Spanish family, as she has been for 14 years (since 1991). That family for me has been an example of dedication and solidarity. I will always appreciate all the effort that they put in making my daughter a person with many aspirations in life. Thanks to their labor I have learned that solidarity is everything and that really there are no barriers that hinder more lasting and binding coexistence.

2 comentarios
  1. Kirby Gookin dijo:

    Hi Tess, we are friends of Fatma’s. It is great that you translated her statement and have it posted. We are using this link for some existing and upcoming projects (particularly a new web project sponsored by the public arts group Creative Time that my partner Robin Kahn is preparing to be launched in August). What I’m asking is that you will hopefully keep this live so it can be accessed through our portals, etc. Here are some links to projects that we’ve been working on so far: and and for fotos of Robin’s installation at documenta in Kassel Germany (which will have over 1million visitors!!) see:
    Best, Kirby Gookin and Robin Kahn

    • Hello! I’m glad to hear that you are making use of the statement! I’m not planning on taking this down, so it should stay live as far as I know. Also, if you’re interested, the piece that I wrote regarding the women of the Western Sahara can be found in Spanish and English at
      so you’re welcome to look into that as well.


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