Australian Peacekeepers in Western Sahara
On 6 September 1991 a group of Australian signallers in the remote Western Sahara desert strung an antenna to the roof of their hotel room, connected it to two “very sad looking” Moroccan radios in the Australian contingent commander’s bedroom, and established the Force Headquarters Radio Room for a major United Nations peacekeeping operation. It was an unglamorous start to Operation Cedilla, Australia’s contribution to the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The rudimentary technical conditions were short lived. Within days of setting up that first radio system, the Australians were able to move to sites across Western Sahara and begin to establish more extensive communication capabilities for military observers across the disputed territory.
MINURSO was established in April 1991 to oversee a ceasefire between independence fighters and Moroccan troops in Western Sahara, which had been the site of conflict and completing claims from Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. As well as overseeing the ceasefire, the UN operation helped register voters in preparation for a referendum for the people who lived in the region to decide on their political future. Australia provided five contingents of signals staff to MINURSO between September 1991 and May 1994; some 225 Australians served on the operation.
Operation Cedilla took place in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. In the scorching Sahara desert, where temperatures could reach well above 50 degrees Celsius, the Australians operated in an area strewn with minefields, the location of which often shifted with the massive sand dunes, and plagued by enormous dust-storms and malaria.
After more than two years deployment it was clear that the referendum, originally been planned for early 1992, was not going to take place any time soon. Disagreements between the warring parties on the nature and terms of the election prevented real progress, and in May 1994 Australia ended its deployment to Western Sahara.
On 21 June 1993, 32-year-old Major Susan Felsche, a medical officer serving in the fourth contingent, was killed when her plane crashed as it took off from the remote base at Awsard. She was the first Australian woman to die on overseas operations since the Second World War.
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