Morocco’s vociferous attempts to legitimise its occupation is the foundation of a duplicitous narrative it continues to propagate. Foreign journalists are often banned and censorship of the local press goes so far as to prohibit the printing of the name Western Sahara. This occupation is supported by the so-called leading world democracies such as the US and France. Saharawi cultural activists are fighting this oppression – with their words.
A fairy tale stretch of desert…an endless sky, blue like the sea. Walking barefoot on a carpet of sand, smooth like silk. (Mohammed Dchira)
Bare feet walking. But on a carpet of barbed wire. (Mohammed Dchira).
Machinery, bombs, tanks. (Mohammed Dchira) Darkness. Black. Nothing.
These are some images recalled in the poetry of Mohammed Ebnu, Fatima Ghalia and Bahia Awah. The warlike elements will not be unfamiliar to us, from the frequently televised news reports of conflict and suffering that elicit such human compassion for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and others. But not for Western Sahara. To many, the name Western Sahara evokes only these first ambiguous images of empty desert land, a land without a people, without an identity, and, particularly, without a freedom-threatening occupation. Because Western Sahara’s conflicted story of colonisation, illegal occupation and oppression is shrouded in darkness, unknown to most, few are aware that it is anything more than a landscape.
The Saharawi Friendship Generation is partly responsible for engendering this recent explosion of ‘cultural [and] literary activism’. As Bahia Awah, a founding member, remarked in a recent interview, it aims to take the Western Saharan narrative away from its occupier, Morocco, and bring it back to the long-silenced Saharawis. Poetry has become a method of activism allowing them to reassert their cultural identity and voice, and to convey their pain to the world, through the medium of language.
Africa’s last colony
Western Sahara is often referred to as ‘Africa’s last colony’ and if the UN fails to grant the promised self-determination referendum for independence, it will become the first non-self-governing territory to be appropriated without its people’s permission since the UN was formed.  Western Sahara’s colonisation officially began in 1884-5, when Africa was divided up by the colonial powers of Britain, France, Spain and Italy, leaving the territory in the hands of Spain, renamed the Spanish Sahara. Awah notes that ‘Western Sahara was one of only two colonies that belonged to Spain in the African continent, together with Equatorial Guinea’. Nearing Franco’s death, the colony was ceded by Spain, at which point Morocco and Mauritania stepped in to deny any short-lived hopes of independence. Seeking permission from the International Court of Justice, Morocco was denied the legitimisation it sought for colonization. Its decision to proceed in the form of the deceptively-peaceful Green March marks the point at which Morocco took control of Western Sahara’s narrative to create its own sanitised version of events.
The POLISARIO independence movement, established in 1973, went to war against Morocco from 1975 to 1991, in an armed struggle which led to the exile of many indigenous Sahrawis, the majority to Tindouf in Algeria, a region barely hospitable for its heat. Many Sharawis still live there under POLISARIO rule, as part of a state-in-exile. Among the exiled Sahrawis was Bahia Awah himself, and it is a period he recalls as ‘a very difficult time in my life’; ‘at 15 years old I was separated from my family in the Sahara due to the war with Morocco.’
The conflict also saw the forced disappearance of civilians, many of them without trace to this day. Nowadays, the conflict continues to have its repercussions. Awah points out: ‘many of us have gone into exile in Europe, due to the Moroccan invasion, away from the lands of the Western Sahara.’ The people of Western Sahara are now so widely dispersed that maintaining a sense of identity is an increasingly fraught struggle.
Where is the referendum?
Mauritania withdrew from the territory in 1979 and a ceasefire was brokered by UN intervention in 1991, with the promise of an independence referendum that, over 40 years and many failed attempts later, is yet to be carried out. This failure is one that has left the Sahrawis a people exploited for their resources and a minority in their own land. Awah outlines the situation today: ‘Currently the Western Sahara is divided in two parts: one controlled by the government of the Western Sahara and the other controlled by the government of Morocco, that illegally occupies half of the territory.’
The people of Western Sahara have faced war, and still endure exile and human rights violations that the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO has failed to suitably report or eradicate. It is the only modern UN peacekeeping mission that does not have a human rights mandate, meaning that although its staff may witness atrocities they have no jurisdiction to act upon them.
Moroccan police unjustly instigate violence against peaceful protestors, use torture as a means of interrogation. Families are separated by the ‘Berm’ sand wall that divides Western Sahara, that is guarded by 120,000 Moroccan troops. Their landmine defences have maimed at least 2,500 people.
Despite going against international law, Morocco continues to exploit Western Sahara’s natural resources of phosphates and fisheries for their own selfish interest. As Awah has come to realise, ‘the rulers [of the occupied Western Sahara] have their thinking. They follow their political and economic interests, but often they don’t pursue or notice the interests of the people.’ Rather, it seems, they blatantly ignore and inhumanely disregard them.
However, despite the atrocities inflicted by the Moroccan government, the Sahrawis do not live in resentment of or in animosity towards the Moroccan citizens, a pacifistic understanding from which likely stems their tendency to pursue non-violent strategies in their struggle.
The controversy surrounding the issue, and Morocco’s increasing economic and socio-political power, means that the dispute has become an international taboo, a silence and invisibility that only further vindicate the Moroccan cause. The massive press restriction and media blackout that characterises Morocco’s vociferous attempt to legitimise its occupation constitutes the foundation of the duplicitous narrative that it continues to project. Foreign journalists are often banned and censorship of local press goes so far as to prohibit the printing of the words ‘Western Sahara’.
Morocco claims that historically, the Western Sahara is part of the Moroccan Sultanate, a claim they profess warrants the designating of the territory as its ‘Southern Provinces’. Internally and externally, only the opinions of the Sahrawis in favour of integration with Morocco are represented, and the number of Sahrawis who actually want independence are portrayed as a minority. It rejects the term ‘occupation’ with regards to the situation and paints the narrative that the Moroccans are improving the Sahrawis’ lives. A distorted and delusional account of a situation that in reality violates UN rights (but is validated by some of its most powerful members, such as the US and France, for economic and socio-political reasons) is one cultural activists and poets from the Western Sahara are attempting to rectify with their own words.
Despite finding themselves in a situation similar to that of Palestine, the people of Western Sahara have consistently adhered to a policy of non-violent resistance (NVR), something that helps to distinguish their conflict from others such as that of Israel and Palestine, with many Palestinians instead resorting to terrorist-style violent protests. Non-violent resistance means that even in the face of torture by the Moroccan regime, the Saharawis continue to fight using language instead of violence. It can therefore be argued that, by doing this, the Saharawis are able to maintain legitimacy for their cause as the Moroccan use of violence in the face of peaceful protest is evidently unnecessary.
Language is arguably the primary, means of protest for the Saharawis who continue writing songs (that regularly top world music charts) and poetry about their region and their struggle. For the people of Western Sahara, poetry has long been an intrinsic part of their culture, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. So, whilst for many Western nations poetry does not have a big commercial market, for the people of Western Sahara it has great cultural and ancestral significance and is regarded as a high art form.
In Saharawi culture, poetry has its place on television talent shows, and is one of the very first skills that Saharawi children will learn in school. Many Saharawis will then go on to develop this skill, as they grow up and become more involved in their people’s struggle. In recent years, many Sahrawis have travelled abroad to places such as Cuba, Spain and Latin America to study. This is how the Friendship Generation of poets was founded. After finishing the baccalaureate in Havana these Sahrawis returned to the refugee camps in Algeria, some in order to find work, later moving to Spain, where they continue to write their poetry to this day, making use of the Spanish language, which generates an international audience of 400 million native speakers of the language. As a collective they have published several anthologies, including for example Bubisher: Contemporary Saharawi Poetry (2003, Puentepalo), Aaiún: Shouting What One Feels (2006, Autonomous University of Madrid), and Gdeim Izik, the Saharawi Spring: Saharawi Writers with Gdeim Izik (2012, Bubok) that have helped to bring a greater international awareness to their struggle.
Bahia, alongside Conchi Moya, an author born in Madrid who is linked to the Friendship Generation of Poets, runs the Poemario por un Sahara Libre (A collection of poems for a free Sahara) project, that aims to use all art forms, including poetry and music, to raise greater awareness of the suffering of the people of Western Sahara.
Since the invasion of their homeland by Morocco, Saharawi poetry has predominantly been used to express the injustice that the people of Western Sahara are suffering, but at the same time express the nostalgia that they feel towards their country and history. Crucially, however, as Bahia says their poetry has never been antagonistic toward the Moroccan people, only the actions of the regime.
‘In our poetry, you won’t find verses that are resentful towards the Moroccan people but towards the Moroccan regime. We have always considered the Moroccan people to be akin to brothers; however, we don’t agree with their invasion because of their governance of our territory…But in no instance do we criticise or speak badly of the Moroccan people or the Moroccan culture.’
Bahia makes the point that whilst there may not be a large commercial market for poetry in the Western world, it does, nonetheless, allow them access to academic markets. ‘We, the writers in the Western Sahara have embraced poetry as the most effective weapon against the rifles, in order to defend our cause, explain our history and highlight what we have in our heart of hearts, to the university world, to the intellectual world, to the world of the streets, to the villages of Europe, that are on our side of the cause. Possibly, without the verse, without prose, without anthropology and without the thoughts that we write, our cause would not have had a place in your university.’
And Bahia’s poetry such as El Aaiun o Beirut (Layounne or Beirut) has allowed many people a means to access the conflict through the medium of literature. Bahia writes: ‘I am the other Beirut for which no one cries/ I am the other Beirut about which no one talks…’ and this is a particularly poignant message from Bahia as it highlights the primary struggle of the Saharawis simply to be heard by the international community.
Not only is this use of language different to that of many other conflicts, but also the use of the Spanish language itself by the Saharawis is unusual. Their use of Spanish comes from the colonisation of the Western Sahara by Spain and, since the invasion of their territory by Morocco, a formally French colony, it has been a way for the people of Western Sahara to distinguish themselves from their Moroccan counterparts. Spanish has become important enough that, as Bahia mentions, ‘Our students go to Latin America or Spain in order not to become trapped by the French language.’
Here Bahia uses language to evoke the Saharawi sentiment that Morocco has ‘trapped’ and continues to ‘trap’ the people of the Western Sahara by not allowing them the freedom to express their cultural identity. Therefore, as a way of peacefully resisting the Moroccan regime, the people of Western Sahara have continued using Spanish to passively resist any attempts by Morocco to kill their culture.
“Spanish is forbidden [in the Occupied Territories of the Western Sahara] because it is a language of struggle, it is a language of resistance, that the Saharawis have adopted as a peaceful way of saying that we are not Moroccan, that we are not Tunisian, that we are not Algerian, that we are not another identity but, yes, that we are the people of the Western Sahara where Hassanía is spoken and Spanish is spoken,” says Bahia.
For the people of the Western Sahara, Spanish has become very important as it has opened up an international market for their writings. As Bahia says, “the best legacy that the metropolis left us is the Spanish language, the language of Cervantes, with which I am communicating with you and with which I have been able to travel to many parts of the world.” As unusual as it may be, the former colonial language of Western Sahara has now developed into an intrinsic part of the resistance, helping Saharawis to convey their struggle to the rest of the world and also to show their individuality in the face of oppression by Morocco.
Optimism for the future
In a struggle for independence that has been ongoing for so many decades, we must question whether such stagnation in progress should mean that hope for an independent Western Sahara is futile. However, modern innovation in the form of more widespread access to video-recording technology and the artistic rejuvenation of the non-violent battle that is underway seem to have elicited optimism for the future. The greatest problem in the struggle is its ‘invisibilisation’; as long as it remains a situation relatively unknown across the world, Morocco faces little pressure to alter a situation that is advantageous to them.
The rise in use and access to technology and social media platforms is one aspect that has recently generated a higher visibility. As Bahia notes, ‘due to the technology that we have, […] today whatever protest takes place in Beirut, in Jerusalem, in Baghdad, in Laayoune or in any other place, it is a matter of seconds before it is on social media, on Facebook, on Twitter. [And it is through these means] that we are able to connect with one another, to unite with one another and to know what is happening in the world.’
However, Morocco’s stringent restrictions around filming mean that those who attempt to capture footage of unjustified and barbaric violence towards peaceful protestors are putting their lives at risk, even as they film discretely from a distance. The problem with such footage is the lack of clarity and authentication that can be given to them. It is for this reason that other countries are helping Western Sahara to establish workshops to train ‘citizen journalists’ to record certified footage that exposes the reality of the situation to the world.
Morocco joins the AU
However, the approval of Morocco’s recent request to re-join the African Union - in giving them a greater platform to promote their narrative and more allies to corroborate their story - may simply imperil the Sahrawi cause. Morocco originally left what was then the Organisation of African Unity in 1984 following a dispute over Western Sahara. The passing of time seems already to have evoked a leniency in other countries, as Morocco gained the approval of 39 out of 55 member states to re-join. Support for the Sahrawi independence movement, POLISARIO, has come from Algeria and South Africa, whose opposition to Morocco’s desire to re-join the African Union demonstrates a long-lasting support for the cause. It is their involvement that had instigated the AU’s decision to appoint an envoy for Western Sahara, who would importune the UN to go through with their promise of a referendum. Allowing Morocco back into the continental platform will strengthen their capability to weaken the support for Western Sahara by other countries, by reinforcing their own fabricated narrative.
The longer Morocco occupies the disputed territory, the easier it becomes for it to claim a right to Western Sahara. With ethnic Moroccans now comprising the majority of the population of Western Sahara, and with an increasingly long occupation, Morocco’s claim that the territory belongs to it historically becomes harder to dispute and the small Sahrawi population easier to disregard. It is for this reason that the perpetuation of the Sahrawi identity through language and poetry is crucial to proving that there is a culture and that the people of Western Sahara are not, contrary to Morocco’s story, non-existent. In this context, literature and the arts are a crucial form of activism. The liberation of the territory is not about removing a cultural part of Morocco, but a matter of restoring a territory to whom it belongs. So as we now read the poetry of the Saharawis and listen to their music, let us not forget that they are a people in their own right, whose conflict we must not let be overshadowed by the other political struggles that continue to dominate our daily headlines.
* Esmée Charley is a first year undergraduate student in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (Spanish and Ab-Initio Italian) at the University of Durham. Juliette Holland first year undergraduate student in the School of Liberal Arts (Spanish, French and English Literature) at the University of Durham.
* A full transcription of the interview, which was carried out by students at the University of Durham in February 2017, is available at http://humbox.ac.uk/5038/
(Berm wall facts: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/05/western-sahara-struggl... )
 Mundy Article: Stephan, Maria, and Mundy, Jacob (2006), ‘A Battlefield Transformed: From Guerilla Resistance to Mass Nonviolent Struggle in the Western Sahara,’ Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 8 (3): 1-32. Available at http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/132/148 [accessed 25 April 2017].
 Goodman, Amy and Moynihan, Denis (2016), ‘Repression and Nonviolent Resistance in Africa’s Last Colony,’ Democracy Now. U.S.A. broadcast on 24 November. Available at http://m.democracynow.org/blog_posts/3070 [accessed 27 April 2017].
 Watching Western Sahara’ project here. http://watching-western-sahara.silk.co/
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