Norwegian People's Aid in Western Sahara: Mine Awareness
in a Refugee Setting
By Justin Brady
Issue 3.1 | February 1999
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In September 1997, Norwegian People's Aid began efforts to assist Saharawi
refugees living in southwest Algeria to return safely to their country. While
the mid-Seventies are best known for the exit of Portuguese colonization from
the continent of Africa and the subsequent problems that arose, the exit of
Spanish forces from the area of Western Sahara brought its own legacy of war,
landmines and UXO. The war saw Morocco, Frente POLISARIO, the Front for the
Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro, and in the beginning Mauritania
as well, battle for control of the former Spanish holding. The war, which
lasted from 1976 to 1991 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire, resulted
in a territory divided between Morocco and Frente POLISARIO by defensive walls,
known as berms, constructed by the Moroccans fortified with mines and substantial
contamination from mines and UXO throughout the rest of the territory.
The question of who will govern Western Sahara remains unresolved. Recent
efforts by the United Nations and the Secretary General himself have yielded
mixed results in advancing the referendum agreed to in principal by the two
parties to determine independence for Western Sahara or integration into Morocco.
The on-going impasse puts in jeopardy the standing cease-fire that has lasted
for the past eight years. While the future of Western Sahara remains unclear,
preparations continue for the hopeful repatriation of the more than 100,000
refugees, most of whom reside just over the border in refugee camps in Algeria.
27 February School team leader Nasra
Ahmed Elghaid attracts a crowd of Inquisitive Saharawi children during
a practice session in the Smara refugee camp. Effectively working with
children has been a major concern for the project.
The refugee camps are located twenty-five kilometers south of the Algerian
outpost of Tindouf. NPA's project, located near the administrative center
Rabuni, and in the four main camps of Smara, Awserd, El Aauin and Dahkla and
the 27 February school and adjoining camp provides mine awareness to the over
100,000 Saharawi. The situation of the refugees is unique in that they have
lived in exile in Algeria for over 20 years. During the more than two decades
of existence as refugees, the Saharawis have built considerable structures
and POLISARIO claims literacy in the camps is almost universal. However, over
two decades in southwest Algeria also means that a significant majority of
the population has no understanding of the country they will repatriate to
nor the considerable danger that awaits them as a legacy of years of war.
After several visits to the camps and inside the POLISARIO held territory
to determine the needs and structure of the project, expatriate staff arrived
in the camps in June 1998 to begin the actual project. A three-week training
of Saharawi mine awareness team leaders was held in June 1998. Thirteen candidates,
of more than forty people interviewed, were selected for the course, which
centered on an introduction to the danger and impact of mines and UXO, organization
and instruction skills, and practical presentation experience. During the
course, Saharawis along with the expatriate staff designed the starting point
of the program. The aim was to place information and messages on the danger
of mines and UXO in a contextual framework for the first phase "Return," as
envisioned in preliminary repatriation plans, with consideration of the future
steps of "Provisional Living and Stable Living".
Of the 13 candidates that began the team leaders' course, six were chosen
to be leaders based on their leadership skills, knowledge of the subject,
and dedication. Four of the team leaders represent each of the four main camps
with the lone female team leader managing the team at the camp that adjoins
the 27 February School. The remaining leader serves as the deputy local project
manager. In his role as deputy local manager, he has the responsibility of
traveling to each of the camps to monitor the implementation of the program
and the development of new materials and methods. He joins a local project
manager as the Saharawi counterparts to the NPA expatriate staff.
|US Congressman Joseph R. Pitts, R-Pennsylvania
(far right), Polisario's US representative Moulud Said (second from left)
and members of a US delegation join NPA project manager Michael Hands
(foreground) in examining a mock-up of the defensive walls inside Western
Sahara. The mock up is part of the Saharawi War Museum, which includes
a wide variety of A/P and A/T mines.
During the month of August 1998, the new team leaders prepared the foundation
for their work in the camps and for the team members' course held in September.
Part of the course preparation was the identification of possible candidates.
Several team leaders also worked with three groups of refugees to test out
the various information, materials and teaching methods contained in the tentative
mine awareness curriculum. In addition to these tasks, the team leaders also
interviewed mine survivors in their respective camps to develop resources
for the mine awareness campaign, practice their research skills and deepen
their own knowledge on the subject. One-week prior to the team members' course,
the team leaders came together to share their knowledge and ideas and prepare
the course curriculum.
Three of the Team Leaders were chosen as chief instructors for the some forty
candidates on the Team Members' course. The two-week course was handled almost
exclusively by the Team leaders and the local project managers both in terms
of course work and administration. The course was structured much like the
team leaders' course with extra attention paid to practical presentation experience.
Selected candidates from each of the camps also took part in a specialization
course on either working with children or evaluation methods. Based on performance
during the course, five team members, two having participated in the specialized
training, were selected to join each of the five teams.
Mine Awareness in the Camps
With the teams fully staffed by the end of September, the work of mine awareness
fully began in mid-October 1998. Each team leader has been responsible for
coordinating the work of his or her team with local camp authorities. Each
of the camps is broken down into districts, areas and neighborhoods, which
must be systematically covered to insure that everyone has the opportunity
to receive training. By and large, the majority of the attendees to the mine
awareness sessions are women, reflecting the predominance of women in the
camps as a whole. Training in the El Aauin camp was initially delayed in order
to conduct a full baseline evaluation from which to guide the curriculum and
measure future success. To date the teams have provided at least one-hour
of training to approximately 30,000 refugees. In-service training for the
teams continues to be an on-going feature of the program.
Opportunities and Obstacles
Since its start last year, the NPA project has evolved to meet the realities
of life and work in the camps. The project was the first to hire local staff
on a large scale and conduct operations in the camps. This has presented a
steep learning curve both for NPA and the POLISARIO authorities on issues
ranging from compensation to staff selection. The project has been fortunate
to have a wide base of candidates to chose from, including former soldiers
some of whom are themselves landmine survivors. However, few people have practical
experience working on a project and competency building for team members and
particularly pedagogical management is a constant need.
The outskirts of the Smara camp give
a picture of typical construction within the camps. The tent and mud
brick homes must withstand temperatures over 50° Celsius and ferocious
sandstorms in what is commonly referred to as the "inhospitable Algerian
The development of materials and methods is a crucial factor. The project,
like others working with refugees outside of the mined environment, must connect
the information to a distant reality. The challenge of not only informing,
but more importantly, changing behavior is exacerbated by the long tenure
of the refugees outside the danger area. An exploratory mission into the POLISARIO
held territory was made by NPA expatriate and local staff in January and February
1999. The goal was to compare the information contained in the mine awareness
curriculum with the realities experienced by the few people living in the
region. A major finding was the various methods of marking danger areas, some
of which were also used at times to mark safe routes. The project immediately
made efforts to rectify the marking system with the UN and POLISARIO authorities
to avoid confusion and standardize a system that can be taught to refugees
in the camps. The local staff also interviewed local nomads to understand
better dangerous behavior in the Western Sahara context.
Another challenge has been the children's training. Saharawi children are
known for their inquisitiveness and sense of independence, traits that must
be channeled to avoid danger in a mined environment. While some efforts were
made in the beginning to structure methods and materials appropriate for the
many children born in the camps, it soon became apparent that new measures
had to be taken. The result was a four week course specifically for working
with children with members from the various teams conducted in November 1998.
Subsequently, a theater group was formed to inform children of the dangers
of mines in an interactive way.
Other problems such as importing materials and obtaining visas for expatriate
staff, common to many projects, have also hindered the implementation of the
project. Even the extreme heat of the desert can also limit operations. As
the first year comes to an end, sufficient funding is left over to provide
for three more months of project operations. Funding for the first year was
provided entirely by the Norwegian government. Efforts are now underway to
obtain funding to extend the project in the camps and possibly expand to reach
people in the territory and Mauritania.
For more information about NPA:
Norwegian People's Aid
NPA - "Landmines - The Silent Killers"
For more information about Western Sahara:
Factbook for Western Sahara
Sahara Update (Western Sahara Campaign (UK))
Sahara Page (Columbia University)