By Tafi Mhaka

The thought of landing Apollo 13 – the American spacecraft, in a dessert, somewhere in Western Sahara, may have fleetingly crossed the minds of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise on April 17, 1970.

The space crew, all highly-trained, vastly-experienced pilots, had to frantically abandon a costly, but scientifically valuable mission to the moon.

Many years of research, training, sacrifice and dedication to space exploration went up in smoke after an oxygen tank exploded.

Where success had surely appeared plausible, failure irretrievably set in.

The political situation in Western Sahara, much like Apollo 13’s space mission, is imploding.

The Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

The native Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara region have been fighting for independence forever and a day.

Spain occupied the arid, sparsely populated territory, then known as Spanish Sahara, from 1884–1975.

Following the Spanish withdrawal Morocco laid claim to the region and invaded it in 1975.

The late Mohamed Abdelaziz, a Bedouin nationalist leader, co-founded the Polisario Front (PF), a movement dedicated to the formation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976.

The movement waged a war against Moroccan occupation, until a UN brokered ceasefire in 1991 bought hostilities to a stop.

The deal made provision for a referendum to decide the future of the Western Sahara region.

The vote is yet to take place though, as Morocco keeps stalling on the issue.

A refugee crisis, fuelled by the war, intensified during the armed struggle.

Thousands of people fled to Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

The camps are named after towns in Western Sahara: Laayoune, Awserd, Smara, Dakhla and Cape Bojador.

According to estimates from Algerian authorities, there are 165 000 refugees living in the camps.

Some refugees like Tumana Ahmed who were born in the camps are agitating for a return to war.   

“For me, I think there are only two solutions,” Ahmed said. “We go to the borders, fight, make war, which is not the best solution. And the other solution, which is self-determination, this is the best one. Just let us vote. Is Morocco afraid of something?”

“We’re still believing in peace, and we’re still believing that United Nations is able to do something,” said M’hamed Khadad, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) coordinator for the Polisario Front, the resistance movement. But they are in need really to push this thing hard because you cannot really control the feeling and the sentiment of people.”

Living conditions in the camps are dire: women and children are undernourished and access to clean drinking water is limited.

The refugees are wholly reliant on international aid agencies such as Oxfam, The World Food Programme, UNHCR and Western Sahara Red Crescent for food, drinking water, building materials and clothing.

UN-led efforts to find a solution to the crisis have been crippled by deep mistrust and disagreements between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Some milestones have been achieved though: the world is keenly watching developments in the Western Sahara region – and the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic is now a member of the African Union.