Western Sahara must wait

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Western Sahara must wait

The struggle of the Sahrawi people of Africa’s last colony is long – and not many are really interested, writes filmmaker Dominic Brown.


Sahrawi refugees EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protectionunder a CC Licence

When Muammar Qadafi of Libya fell from power in October 2011, it was the leaders of France and Britain who were the first to fly to Benghazi and welcome the beginning of a new democracy. But as the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to a happy crowd, his words did not please the people watching from Western Sahara. Months earlier, a pro-democracy rebellion there was beaten by Moroccan police. The French government - a close friend of Morocco - was silent. Western Sahara lies at a crossroads between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Many people see Western Sahara as Africa’s last colony. It was a Spanish colony from the late 19th century to 1975, when a people’s invasion organized by Morocco’s King Hassan II took control. There were years of fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front - representatives of the native Sahrawi people. Then the UN helped to organize a ceasefire in 1991 and both sides agreed to a referendum.

There have been disagreements over the referendum and the Sahrawi are still waiting for the opportunity to decide their future. Over 200,000 Sahrawis are now in refugee camps in Algeria, after escaping there following Morocco’s invasion in 1975. For those that stayed behind and live under Moroccan rule, allegations of human rights abuses against them continue.

The daily reality

At the end of last month, a group led by Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, visited the Moroccan controlled areas. They saw for themselves what Sahrawis say is a daily reality for them. Soukainajed Ahlou, President of the Forum for Sahrawi Women was badly injured and needed hospital treatment after Moroccan police violently stopped a demonstration as the cars carrying Kerry Kennedy drove by.

The armoured military vehicles and soldiers on the streets give the feeling of a city and people in trouble. The Moroccan government is very sensitive to the situation in the region. The UN envoy for Western Sahara, the American diplomat Christopher Ross, was forced to cancel a visit in May this year after the Moroccan government called him ‘unbalanced and unfair’ in his dealings with the region.

Battle for the streets

Millions of dollars have been spent developing cities in Western Sahara such as El-Aaiún and Dakhla. Many migrants from Morocco are arriving with the hope of cheap land and guaranteed work. As a result, the native Sahrawi population is quickly becoming a minority and this is creating problems. In September 2011 seven people died in street fights between Moroccan migrants and Sahrawis in the southern city of Dakhla.


The city of Dakhla YouTuT under a CC Licence

Because of the growing problems over finding jobs and discrimination the Sahrawis in El-Aaiún formed a protest camp in the desert just outside the city in October 2010. It is called Gdeim Izik and the camp attracted over 15,000 people of all ages in an act of civil resistance. But international reporters showed no real interest, and the camp lasted little more than two weeks. Then Moroccan police attacked it. Four Sahrawis and eleven Moroccan police were killed. Dozens more were arrested, and 22 are still in prison and are waiting for a trial in a military court.

The US government has given public support to Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the region. And the Moroccan government strongly believes that the region has historically always been a part of its territory. Morocco’s closest European friend, France, has also been strong in its support. France, the former colonial master is still a main trading partner with over 24 per cent of Moroccan exports and 15 per cent of imports in 2009. Military links between the two countries are also close. A $2 billion agreement signed in 2007 included the sale of 140 armoured vehicles, 25 Puma helicopters and surveillance equipment to Morocco. Sahrawis say much of this military power is in Western Sahara.

Rich resources

Western Sahara’s great natural resources give very important economic support to the Moroccan state. The largest reserves of phosphates in the world are there, with over seven million tons exported each year for use in agricultural fertilizers. The territory also has a lot of fish. But a €36 million ($46.4 million)-a-year deal with the EU was cancelled last December after a ruling that it was against international law and gave nothing to the Sahrawi people. It is also surprising to some people, that Morocco has also given oil and gas exploration contracts for the region. There is so much to win or lose. And so for Morocco to agree to a referendum that includes the possibility of independence seems very distant.

Before leaving Western Sahara, I was taken to a safe house in El-Aaiún. Sahrawi families had come here to tell stories of life under the Moroccan government. In the corner, a young boy sat silent in his mother’s arms and held an old photograph of his father. No one has seen his father since he was arrested by Moroccan police during the breakup of the Gdeim Izik protest camp in 2010. Tears rolled down the mother’s face as she explained that the family had been met with silence when trying to find the father. As with the rest of the Sahrawi, his future appears out of their hands. They too must wait.

Dominic Brown is an independent filmmaker and writer. His latest film, La Badil (No Other Choice), was filmed secretly in Western Sahara.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://www.newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2012/09/13/western-sahara-waiting-game/