When Libya’s Muammar Qadafi fell from power in October 2011, it was the leaders of France and Britain who were first to touchdown on the tarmac in Benghazi and herald the dawn of a new democracy. But as the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed a jubilant crowd, his words left more than a sense of irony on those watching across Western Sahara. Months earlier, a pro-democracy uprising there had been quashed by Moroccan security forces, and the French government - a close ally of Morocco - had remained silent.
Lying at a crossroads between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, Western Sahara is widely regarded as Africa’s last colony. It was a Spanish colony from the late 19th century up until 1975, when a people’s invasion orchestrated by Morocco’s King Hassan II saw Morocco take control. Following years of armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, representatives of the indigenous Sahrawi people, a UN-mediated ceasefire in 1991 saw sides agree to a referendum being held.
The heavy presence of armoured military vehicles and soldiers on the streets gives the sense of a city and people under siege
Disagreements over the terms of the vote have left the Sahrawi still waiting for the opportunity to decide their destiny. Over 200,000 Sahrawis remain cast adrift in refugee camps in Algeria, having fled there following Morocco’s invasion in 1975. For those that stayed behind and live under Moroccan rule, allegations of human rights abuses committed against them continue to surface.
The daily reality
At the end of last month, a delegation led by Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, visited the Moroccan controlled territories. They witnessed at first hand what Sahrawis claim is a daily reality for them. Soukainajed Ahlou, President of the Forum for Sahrawi Women was left badly injured and requiring hospital treatment after Moroccan police violently broke up a demonstration as the convoy carrying Kerry Kennedy drove by.
The heavy presence of armoured military vehicles and soldiers on the streets gives the sense of a city and people under siege. Such is the level of Moroccan sensitivity to the region that 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 labelled him ‘unbalanced and biased’ 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. Migrants from Morocco are arriving in huge numbers, drawn by the promise of cheap land and guaranteed work. The indigenous Sahrawi population are fast becoming outnumbered, and a growing sense of suffocation is giving rise to ethnic tension. In September 2011, running street battles between Moroccan settlers and Sahrawis in the southern city of Dakhla led to the deaths of seven people.
It was against a backdrop of growing discontent over decreasing job opportunities and rising discrimination that led Sahrawis in El-Aaiún to form a protest camp in the desert just outside the city in October 2010. Known as Gdeim Izik, the camp drew over 15,000 people of all ages in a mass act of civil resistance. It crucially failed to spark any sustained interest in the international media, and stood for little more than two weeks before Moroccan paramilitary police stormed it. Four Sahrawis and 11 members of the Moroccan security forces were killed. Dozens more were arrested, with 22 still in prison awaiting trial before a martial court.
The US government has given public backing to Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the region, and the Moroccan government is resolute in its stance that the region has historically always been an integral part of its territory. Morocco’s closest European ally, France, has been steadfast in its support too. The former colonial master remains a main trading partner, accounting for over 24 per cent of Moroccan exports and 15 per cent of imports in 2009. Military ties between the two nations are also close. A $2 billion deal signed in 2007 included the sale of 140 armoured vehicles, 25 Puma helicopters and surveillance equipment to Morocco. Sahrawis claim much of this military might is stationed in Western Sahara.
Western Sahara’s abundance of natural resources provides vital revenue to the Moroccan state. The largest global reserves of phosphates are found there, with over seven million tons exported each year for use in agricultural fertilizers. The territory also has huge fish stocks, but a €36 million ($46.4 million)-a-year deal with the EU was revoked last December following a ruling that stated it was a violation of international law and provided no benefit to the Sahrawi people. Morocco has also courted controversy in awarding oil and gas exploration contracts for the region. With so much at stake, the prospect of them agreeing to hold a referendum that includes the option of independence appears as distant as ever.
Tears rolling down her face, the mother explained the family had been met with a wall of silence when trying to discover the father’s whereabouts
Before leaving Western Sahara, I was taken to a safe house in El-Aaiún where Sahrawi families had gathered to share stories of life under Moroccan rule. In the corner a young boy sat silently, wrapped in his mother’s arms and holding a frayed photograph of his father. He hadn’t been seen since being detained by Moroccan police during the breakup of the Gdeim Izik protest camp in 2010. With tears rolling down her face, the mother explained the family had been met with a wall of silence when trying to discover the father’s whereabouts. As with the rest of the Sahrawi, his destiny appears out of their hands. They too must play a waiting game.
Dominic Brown is an independent filmmaker and writer. His latest film, La Badil (No Other Choice), was filmed undercover in Western Sahara.