New Internationalist

Stones in a minefield

Issue 407

Refugees’ rising frustration at UN impotence

On 23 August this year, nearly 1,000 young Saharawi refugees gather for their annual protest at the Berm, a 2,500-kilometre fortified wall guarded by 130,000 Moroccan soldiers. Approaching the Berm, the young people walk around landmines and begin to throw rocks at Moroccan soldiers who in turn brandish their weapons, threatening to shoot. Some demonstrators expose their chests and call upon the soldiers to fire.

The repression of Saharawi protesters by Moroccan authorities in occupied Western Sahara in 2005 launched an intifada that is now being felt in the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria. Demonstrations on the other side of the Berm calling for an end to human rights abuses by Moroccan authorities have reinvigorated the refugee Saharawi youth.

For Brahim Sid Ahmed Boudjemaa, a 28-year-old Saharawi who was born and still lives in the Smara refugee camp in western Algeria, the stoning at the Berm marks a turning-point in the 32-year struggle. ‘The Saharawi leaders couldn’t stop us. They were afraid something would happen. They wanted us to stop but we refused.’

Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony in 1975, forcing half the Saharawi population into exile. Their descendants, some 160,000 refugees, live in five camps in western Algeria, and many of them, like Brahim, have lived there all their lives. In Moroccan-held Western Sahara, meanwhile, numerous Saharawi live in ghetto-like conditions, often marginalized and without employment.

While UN Resolution 1514 explicitly affirms the rights of colonized peoples to self-determination, the Saharawi continue to wait for the Security Council to pressure Morocco into meeting its international legal obligations. Western Sahara is now the site of the UN’s longest-running mission.

The growing frustration among young people has the Polisario Front, the Saharawi government in-exile, on edge. Polisario fought a guerrilla war against the Moroccan occupiers until 1991 but has since then observed a ceasefire, trusting in the UN promise of a referendum on self-determination. According to parliament head Mahfud Ali Beiba: ‘This kind of protest has never happened before. The youth do not accept this situation any longer and might turn to extremes. We prefer a pacifist movement, but for how long can we keep asking our people to be abused?’

Morocco initially agreed to the 1991 Settlement Plan, under which a referendum on self-determination should have taken place, but then backed out. Since then, several attempts have been made to resolve the conflict, notably by UN Special Envoy James Baker. Peter Van Walsum, from the Netherlands, has since replaced Baker and managed to get the two sides together in June and August this year in Manhasset, New York, where Mahfud Ali Beiba was chief negotiator on the Polisario side. The talks, as expected, led nowhere, foundering on Morocco’s refusal to countenance anything other than limited Saharawi autonomy – and the unwillingness of Western governments to pressure them to do so. Polisario has already made huge compromises but is not prepared to surrender its dream of an independent Western Sahara.

Every three years Polisario organizes a congress in exile to discuss how best to resolve the conflict. The next one is this December. Pressure on a number of fronts – the growing frustration of its youth, decreasing amounts of food aid that are badly affecting the refugees’ nutrition, and failure of the UN to insist on a referendum – is forcing Polisario to rethink its strategies.

Everyone agrees that something fundamental has to change. For Baba Sayed, a Polisario leader, the change must come from within. ‘This congress must be a renaissance for us or it’s over for Polisario.’

Nikolaj Nielsen

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