New Internationalist

Absolute friends

June 2009

The largest solidarity movement between two peoples offers hope in Western Sahara, writes Paul Rigg.

On 10 April 2009 Ibrahim Husein Labeid, 19, joined an international demonstration against the continued occupation of Western Sahara and had his leg blown off by one of the many millions of mines that are laid along the length of the 2,800-kilometre fortified wall that Morocco has erected around the occupied territories. I am taken to meet him by Daha Bulahi, a director at the Hospital for Victims of the War, who – in the humble way that characterizes the Saharawi people – says that his own injuries are his fault for ‘not having the proper means to clear the mines’. But on the way to visit Ibrahim we stop to visit Said Mohamed Fadel who, 26 years ago, stepped on an anti-vehicle mine and since that day has spent his life lying on his back in a sparse and undecorated hospital room being cared for by others. In some ways Fadel’s experience mirrors the situation of the Saharawi people as a whole – they too have spent the last 30 years in a state of limbo, being supported by aid and waiting peacefully but resolutely for the international community to honour a commitment made long ago to their self-determination.


The International Court of Justice ruled as long ago as 1975 that Western Sahara, until then a Spanish colony, should have the right to self-determination but Morocco invaded before the Spanish officially withdrew. A decade and a half of war ensued, with Saharawi movement Polisario conducting guerrilla campaigns against the occupying forces. The original UN Peace Plan between Morocco and the Saharawis was launched in 1991, and produced a ceasefire that has held to this day, but Morocco has stubbornly refused to accept any referendum with independence as an option. In recent years, moreover, the Western Sahara issue has slipped down – or completely off – the international agenda.

The International Court of Justice ruled as long ago as 1975 that Western Sahara, until then a Spanish colony, should have the right to self-determination but Morocco invaded before the Spanish officially withdrew

Shamefully, the position is even worse than that: in May 2008 the European Union finally admitted – under pressure from a handful of MEPs – that boats from European countries such as Spain, Lithuania and Britain continue to profit from the rich fishing grounds off the coast of the Western Sahara by exploiting a resource which they themselves have declared belongs to the Saharawis.

At the end of April 2009 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by another year – but failed to give MINURSO the teeth to safeguard human rights in the occupied territories. France, a consistent defender of Moroccan interests, vetoed the proposal, arguing that the situation in the occupied territories should be considered as having a ‘human dimension’ rather than being an issue about ‘human rights’ – despite the abuses of human rights regularly documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. ‘It is very sad that this country, with its motto of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” is not able to offer us its support,’ comments Mahfud Ali Beiba, Head of the Saharawi Parliament.

Political stalemate

So the broader political stalemate continues. Morocco continues to offer only limited autonomy, while Polisario still seeks a referendum, with independence as one of the choices. All the major parties to the negotiations recognize that the Moroccans do not want to give up their economic interests in the region and that is why the Saharawis would even be prepared to permit the continuing exploitation of those resources if they had sovereignty over the land. ‘If the referendum gave us autonomy we would guarantee their economic interests and respect the rights of the Moroccan citizens who live there,’ says Abdel Kader Taleb Aomar, the Saharawi Prime Minister. ‘We seek a peaceful solution, but if there are no signs of change soon then it is very probable that this will turn into a military conflict.’

Small signs of hope

Amid this bleak landscape, however, there are small signs of hope – though from the grassroots rather than from governments. Spaniards and Saharawis are linked by the colonial history and Spanish is the Saharawis’ second language (after Hassania, an Arabic dialect). As a result of these cultural ties, around 10,000 Spanish families welcome a Saharawi child from the longstanding refugee settlements in the desert near Tindouf, Algeria, into their homes for several months every year. This is thought to be the largest solidarity movement between two peoples anywhere in the world. Furthermore, anyone walking around the Dakhla refugee camp (like all the camps, named after a city in occupied Western Sahara) could not but be struck by the number of vehicles that have been donated by towns and cities from all over Spain.

It is very sad that France, with its motto of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” is not able to offer us its support

In addition, every year since 2004 an international film festival (known as FiSahara) has been held in these camps, which are located in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. ‘Over 400 people now travel here from Spain every year and the event is very well established,’ explains filmmaker and founder Javier Corcuera. ‘The event ensures that the Saharawis do not feel alone because the Spanish people show unconditional support for the Saharawi cause. There is no longer any correspondence at all between the Spanish Government and Spanish civil society on this issue.’

Last year the Festival was given an added boost by the attendance of international film star Javier Bardem, who launched a political movement to collect 500,000 signatures in support of Polisario’s being recognized diplomatically by the Spanish Government. ‘We are going to deliver these signatures to the Government shortly,’ explains Corcuera. In addition, a number of refugees in the camps talk with enthusiasm about the recently proposed University at Tifariti (in the liberated zone, between the Moroccan Wall and the refugee settlements). There are now 10 Spanish universities involved, along with other universities in England, Algeria and Cuba. This project seeks to capitalize on the educational transformation that has seen the Saharawis jump from one of the lowest levels of literacy in Africa to over 90-per-cent literacy, as well as thousands of Saharawis attending schools and universities in Algeria and many hundreds more in Cuba.

This project is a symbol of hope for the Saharawis in the refugee camps, because it will form part of the planning for the new infrastructure in liberated territory

‘This project is a symbol of hope for the Saharawis in the refugee camps, because it will form part of the planning for the new infrastructure in liberated territory,’ explains Bucharaya Buyen, Polisario’s representative in Spain. ‘The Saharawis as a people have invested heavily in education and consequently we have protected our society from extremism and terrorism. Westerners can walk through the refugee camps at any time without problems; you cannot say that about many other countries.’

It would be wrong to overestimate the possibilities of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the near future, but it would be equally mistaken to dismiss the determination and resolve of both the Saharawis and Spanish civil society to assert pressure – and force change. However, they now need the international community to come on board in increasing numbers.

Ibrahim Husein Labeid’s last words to me as I left his hospital room were: ‘I don’t know much about politics, but I believe in the United Nations to be able to do something.’

This feature was published in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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