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cc Recognised and supported by an extensive range of governments and countries across the globe, Western Sahara’s colonisation and exploitation at the hands of Morocco must come to an end, writes Peter Kenworthy.

‘We would like to call on the influential international actors to take immediate measures, including exerting pressure and imposing sanctions on the Moroccan government, to put an end to this conflict,’ said Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Western Sahara’s Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), at the 35th anniversary of the proclamation of SADR. He was speaking to his fellow countryfolk at the anniversary, but he was also speaking to the many foreign delegations that had come from all over the world, as well as those countries not present.

For those who do not know what SADR is, and there are unfortunately many who do not, SADR is the internationally recognised exile government of the people of Western Sahara, the Saharawis. The SADR government is a member of the African Union and has a president, a prime minister, a judiciary, ministerial departments and a parliament, just as any other country in the world. And the reason that the conflict is largely unknown in Europe and the USA is probably that the USA and France, both permanent UN Security Council members, and Spain, are not interested in changing a status quo that they believe they benefit from strategically and financially, and that low-intensity conflicts, such as the one in Western Sahara, do not get much coverage in the press.

The distinctive feature of the SADR government is that its administration lies in a refugee camp near Tindouf in neighbouring Algeria. The reason that SADR and many Saharawis are exiled in inhospitable camps in the middle of the Algerian dessert, where thousands fled to escape the advancing Moroccan army in 1975, is that Morocco has illegally occupied the more fertile and resource-rich three-quarters of the Western Saharan territory for the past 35 years and brutally clamped down on anyone within this occupied territory who dares dispute their rule, however peacefully.

The Saharawis have been in a non-violent protracted struggle with Morocco to gain control of the whole of Western Sahara since a ceasefire was negotiated with Morocco in September 1991 that ended actual military battle between the two. But although SADR-controlled Western Sahara is fully dependent upon outside aid, life in the refugee camps near Tindouf is about much more than conflict and desperation. Indeed, as the foreign delegations to the anniversary celebrations discovered, the Saharawis there were both welcoming, proud to show their culture, and ardent in their call for political and national recognition, as well as for the referendum on the status of Western Sahara that the UN and international law has demanded since 1975 but not delivered.

As part of the Danish delegation to the anniversary, I first experienced this when staying at the ‘27 of February’ camp near Tindouf. Here I briefly lived and socialised in the houses and tents of the people in the camp and was treated to meals, large quantities of Saharawi tea and to political discussions about Western Sahara and the unfolding situation in Libya. The discussions of the latter was especially fuelled by the TV in the common tent of my hosts, where family and friends gathered to drink tea, talk and watch Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

There are four large Saharawi refugee camps, as well as smaller satellite camps such as the ’27 of February’ camp. The camps have a total population of around 165,000 according to the UNHCR, although this number is disputed by Morocco for political reasons. The camps lie near Tindouf in an area known as ‘The Devil’s Garden’ where temperatures in summer reach 50 degrees. The area has little vegetation and experiences frequent sandstorms. Drinking water has to be brought in by lorry and many of those living there experience nutritional deficiencies.

Despite all these challenges, the SADR government and the Saharawi people seem to be coping remarkably well. The educational level in the camps, for instance, is surprisingly high, mainly because the SADR government has made education a priority. About 90 per cent of the population are literate, against a regional average of about 50 per cent, a dramatic rise from the 10 per cent literacy when the Saharawis arrived in the camps in 1975. Saharawian women are also seen as some of the most liberated in the Arab and Muslim world. These facts underline the impression the foreign delegations came away with from the celebrations that SADR is a well organised and efficient entity and that the Saharawis in general have decided to make the best of the situation while waiting for the world to help them regain their homeland in its entirety.

But when driving from the camps in Tindouf to Tifariti in the SADR-controlled part of Western Sahara where the first part of the celebrations took place, the unsustainability of having 165,000 people cramped together in camps near Tindouf really became obvious. The desert might be able to sustain the scattered Bedouins living in impermanent tent camps with free-roaming goats and camels that we passed, but certainly not such a large and densely populated population. The area is a vast, but surprisingly beautiful and diversely coloured, desert where much of the sand has been scorched by years of unforgiving sun. This part of the desert therefore appears almost black. Apart from the semi-domesticated animals belonging to the Bedouins, the little animal life that there is on the route to Tifariti consisted mainly of the odd bird or lizard.

In fact the only larger, fixed manmade construction that we passed in the over six hours that the journey by car to Tifariti takes, was the Moroccan wall, ‘Berm’ or ‘Wall of Shame’ as the Saharawis call it. It is manned by thousands of soldiers, is heavily mined with around 6 million mines and spans and divides the entire length of Western Sahara. The wall was and is an attempt by Morocco to protect the resources that they illegally extract from occupied Western Sahara. What it means for the Saharawis, apart from being a symbol of the occupation of their land, is that families living on opposite sides of the wall have been unable to visit each other for years on end as crossing from one part to the other is virtually impossible. Indeed, activists from the Moroccan-controlled occupied territories had to take a long detour via Algiers or Mauritania to be able to participate in the celebrations in Tifariti.

The town of Tifariti lies near Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania and has a population of around 3,000 people, many living in scattered tents. There is also a hospital, a school, and many new houses are being constructed. Tifariti was the scene of several battles during the Western Saharan war (1975–91) between Morocco and Polisario, the Western Sahara liberation movement that also forms the government. Ruins of houses destroyed during this war and scattered shells and missiles still bear witness to this legacy, especially that of the heavy Moroccan bombardment of Tifariti two weeks before an already-agreed ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario in August 1991.

Tifariti still has a military presence, as the sound of orders from soldiers of the Polisario’s Sahrawi People's Liberation Army exercising on the morning of 27 February, the day of SADR’s 35th anniversary, could be heard throughout the early morning. In fact, the first event of the day was a huge military parade held at a small stadium where thousands of soldiers, with each unit representing the different regional army divisions, paraded in front of the crowds of ululating women and foreign delegations. The military feel to the celebrations, epitomised by the donning of a military outfit by President Abdelaziz and the vast scope of the actual parade itself, which included thousands of male soldiers, women soldiers and soldiers on camelback, reflected the fact that the Western Sahara conflict is still potentially ‘hot’ and can still descend into actual physical warfare. It was also clearly meant as a symbolic gesture to the Moroccans to show the military strength and resolve of Polisario. As if to press the point home, the announcer proclaimed during the military parade that the Saharawis can be proud of their army that has ‘won important military battles’, thereby ensuring that ‘Morocco cannot defeat Western Sahara militarily’.

The 82 flags that lined the parade ground represented the mostly African, Asian and South American nations that recognise SADR, showed the support and legitimacy of the SADR government in the eyes of most of the world. No countries, on the other hand, recognise Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. Further legitimacy came from the presence of the many press delegations – including news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, EFE, Cardena Ser, France Presse – that were present, as well as from the many delegations of ambassadors, parliamentarians, activists, NGOs and others from around the world. Saharawi TV, who broadcast throughout the day, made sure that Saharawis in the camps and in the diaspora who were not present in Tifariti could also watch and feel part of the celebrations.

‘Inviting the world to be part of the celebrations is also to show you that Western Sahara is more than conflict and refugee camps,’ Polisario representative to Denmark Abba Malainin told me. This view was also reflected in the post-parade speeches. SADR President Mohamed Abdelaziz spoke of the ‘determination and resourcefulness of the Saharawi people’ who are trying to ‘build a Saharawi modern society’, and who have ‘attained great achievements in the political, diplomatic, military and social fields, as well as in vital domains such as education, health and the like.’ Other speeches, including those of representatives from the Algerian parliament and the African Union, made similar points.

The delegates speaking later during an evening programme that also included musical performances, theatre, the reading of Saharawi nationalist poems and other cultural events, spoke of their support for independence for Western Sahara. Speeches from South African ambassador to Algeria, Ashraf Suliman, who promised to ‘continue to work with our brothers and sisters in Western Sahara’ and the Cuban ambassador Eumelio Caballero, who stated that there is ‘no option but independence for Western Sahara’, summed up the many pledges of support. The evening’s entertainment was also a welcome diversion from the seriousness of the subject in the speeches, both for the delegates and for the thousands of Saharawi soldiers that had marched in the parade and who whose makeshift open-air camps scattered the landscape.

The following days of the anniversary also focused on Saharawi culture, including a huge cultural parade in the Smara camp, but also on more urgent material matters such as natural resources. SADR Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanisation Salek Baba spoke of the lack of water in SADR-controlled Western Sahara as one of the main resource problems. ‘The Saharawi people want to stay in the liberated zones,’ he said, ‘but they need water to do so.’ A programme for reconstruction of the SADR-controlled Western Sahara is therefore underway, with Tifariti being the area that will initially benefit mostly from this. ‘But Morocco wants to deliberately impoverish the citizens of liberated Western Sahara,’ Salek Baba continued, and is doing so by ‘putting great pressure on the organisations that are trying to help in this reconstruction.’ Solar and wind energy especially were seen as promising energy sources that could also power water extraction by the delegates. Conventional power sources are expensive and ill-suited to servicing the many remote and scattered areas of Western Sahara, but solar and wind power are perfect because Western Sahara has an ample and continuous supply of both these resources.

It was thus clear to those who attended the SADR anniversary celebrations that both the solidarity of a large part of the world and constructive solutions to specific problems, such as access to vital resources such as water, were there. The problem was not so much the governments, organisations and people who were at the celebrations however, but those who were absent. Even though the many issues I have presented here make the Western Saharan conflict seem complex and difficult to solve, it is really a straightforward case of decolonisation that has some relatively straightforward solutions.

Firstly, it is obvious that any solution to the Western Sahara conflict should include the permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially the USA and France who have strategic and real political interests that have caused them to veto any UN action on Western Sahara.

Secondly, it is also obvious that the governments and companies of the European Union and Western Sahara’s former colonial power, Spain (Western Sahara’s de jure administrative power according to international law), must play a part – among other things because of the huge but illegal presence of mostly Spanish fishing vessels in the waters of occupied Western Sahara, the large illegal selling of other Western Saharan resources such as phosphates, and the important role that the selling of these resources plays in enabling Morocco to continue to fund its colonisation of Western Sahara.

Thirdly, and finally, it is equally obvious that a solution must include some sort of change within Morocco itself, as the current Moroccan regime has issues of both self-preservation and finance at stake with regards to Western Sahara. In plain language, the present Moroccan regime and its army use Western Sahara as both a diversion from its internal problems and the dissatisfaction within the Moroccan population with the regime, and as a source of considerable income.

But as the SADR Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanisation Salek Baba said during the anniversary celebrations as an analogy to the recent pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, ‘policies such as those of Morocco will not last forever.’ And as SADR President Mohamed Abdelaziz also insisted in his speech, Polisario’s fight is not with the Moroccan population but with its undemocratic and brutal regime.


* Peter Kenworthy is Africa Contact's communication and project officer.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.