Self Control—Makeshift
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After decades as refugees in the desert, Saharawis define their laws of the land through solidarity

— Self Control

At eight o’clock on a dusty morning, a rumbling supply truck arrives in the Lamsid district of the Bojdor refugee camp. Sinia H’med emerges from a field of clay huts and pitched tents, making her way to the barbed wire-enclosed circle where sealed bags are stacked high. She is wrapped in a traditional melhfa and carries a mechanical scale.

This is where food aid is distributed to Saharawi refugees twice a month. Today’s shipment is for fresh fruits and vegetables; the next will be for grains.

If this were a United Nations-run camp, guards would be out monitoring the goods as official aid workers collect ration cards and diligently pass out bags of food. But Bojdor is different. The Saharawis’ food system is based on solidarity and is part of an informal law of the land that refugees say gives them autonomy and dignity. They appoint local coordinators like Sinia via voice vote, though no formal leadership council exists.

“Our model is based on our own perception of justice: decentralized and participatory,” Sinia explains. She argues that the ration cards used in UN camps are “just a modern technique of humiliation, to make you feel that you are in need”.

In the late 1970s, many Saharawis were forced to flee their native Western Sahara after Mauritania and Morocco invaded the country. The refugees formed self-run communities in Algeria’s southwestern Tindouf province. Around 117,000 people live in five camps in Tindouf, and 40 years later, they still refuse to leave until the UN finalizes a referendum that allows them to choose independence, or integration into Morocco.

The Saharawi Red Crescent, a humanitarian group, supplies food to Bojdor, but its mission is limited to just that. “We are refugees of justice and not of bread,” Nosra Salek, the Saharawis’ liaison with the group, says about the arrangement. The Red Crescent also teaches refugees how to avoid malnutrition, a problem that acutely afflicts pregnant women and about nine percent of children in the five camps.

Camp members alone are responsible for rationing out the sacks of grain and produce. In Lamsid district, the task falls to Sinia. She keeps tabs on the community, stays in touch with other refugee leaders, and alerts the Red Crescent if a family moves, so that the supplies are sent to the new quarters. “We know how many members there are in every family by socializing,” she says of the informal community.

That morning, she lingers a bit at the food site but eventually wanders away, dropping off her scale and leaving the vegetables boxes unguarded. Around midday, women arrive alone or in groups with empty crates to carry home their hauls. No one checks to make sure they only take their ration of one kilogram for each person in the family.

“If a family is not here at time of delivery, a neighbor will save their rations,” says Darifa, a refugee at the camp. “And if the family stays away for long, their fresh food will be given to anemic individuals or pregnant women.”

Nguia, a mother of nine, says she doesn’t care “if my neighbor takes 200 grams more than me”; she’s more concerned that the food supplies don’t end up on the black market for resale or in the hands of politicians. While that’s common in other refugee camps, the solidarity system has so far managed to keep corruption largely at bay among Saharawis.

By sunset, Lamsid’s food site is mostly bare, save for a few scattered sackcloths. Darifa calls on children playing nearby with punctured tires to gather the woven bags for future use. A young girl strides quickly toward the clay huts, returning the scale to Sinia. The site will remain empty until the next shipment of bags of grains.

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