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  • Delivering Health Care in Saharawi Refugee Camps Near Tindouf (Algeria)
  • Vincenzo Pezzino


In the years 1991-2002 I visited the Saharawi refugee camps near the town of Tindouf in south western Algerian desert ten times. The objective of these visits was to provide medical assistance in various areas of health care and organize more effective health care services. Each time I spent 8-12 days in this territory, either alone or as part of a team of medical doctors and nurses. These medical missions, were organized by "Al Awda," an association of solidarity for Saharawi people, located in Catania, Italy. A comprehensive range of services were provided during each of these trips.


About 170,000 Saharawi people have been living in this region since 1976, when they escaped from Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara), a large territory (266,000 sq. Kms.) located on the Atlantic Ocean coast, south of Morocco. Since then, Saharawi people have been camped in Algerian territory, under prohibitive environmental conditions—especially for children and elderly people, in a desert area where summer temperatures easily reach 131°F. After the exile, they have worked to slowly re-organize their life with the aid of the Algerian Government and international solidarity, including UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), ECHO (the European Union's European Community Humanitarian Office), and NGO (Non-Government Organizations) projects.

In addition to this dramatic exodus, a real war followed between Polisario Front army (the political representative of Saharawi people) and Moroccan army. This lasted until 1991, when a cease-fire armistice was signed, in view of a subsequent referendum for auto determination (never celebrated).

Consequences of these complex events were terrible: victims of the war, victims of the exodus, displacement of Saharawi society and families (the majority of Saharawis still live in their homeland under a rigid occupation by Moroccan army and suffer violation of fundamental human rights), precarious life in refugee camps (mostly tents and sand-made huts), poverty, food deprivation, unsafe drinking water from wells, lack of essential services, and so on.

An education system and a health care system (including vaccinations) were gradually organized with some success. However, health care services remain far below the standards of western countries. Essential drugs, diagnostic tools and instruments, and specialists are largely needed.

Solidarity for the Saharawis' terrible life conditions prompted me and other colleagues to offer our medical expertise to help providing better health care. I have always been concerned by the disparity in access to medical care existing around the world, and so I felt committed to help alleviate this problem. My efforts could be only a drop of water in the ocean, but the ocean is made of drops. My contact with the Saharawi population, their welcome, and my life in these refugee camps—all this experience markedly increased my commitment to providing any kind of support I was able to give in favor of these admirable people.

To my eyes the Saharawi people appeared as a proud and dignified population, who were firmly [End Page 92] seeking for a peaceful and legal solution of their struggle. Their objective is to be recognized by the international community as an independent population, with the right of self-determination and to return to their homeland, where they would like to build up a new country inspired by democracy and freedom. The Saharawis' dramatic vicissitude has won this population numerous international acknowledgements, as well as the admiration of all those who have become acquainted with their cause.

In spite of very difficult environmental conditions, the Saharawi people have been able to survive and to organize life in the refugee camps in a way that arouses amazement in any visitor. In addition to social, educational and health organizations, they have started experimental cultivations (vegetables) and breeding (goats and chicken).

Delivering Health Care

The activity of our medical team was usually carried out as follows: date, objective and components of the medical expedition, which were planned preliminarily with the Saharawi representative in Italy. Then we flew from Rome to Alger, where we spent a night. On the following day we embarked on a domestic flight from...


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