Inside Occupied Western Sahara

“Duck down and put your head below the window,” says Hamid as we pass one of the smaller military outposts (housing an armoured vehicle) in southern Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. Bundled into a 15 year old Citroen with four Sahrawi human rights activists, I have to repeat the exercise multiple times before reaching the family home they use as headquarters and meeting place.

Military stations are one thing Laayoune has no shortage of. Western Sahara has been ruled by Morocco since 1975 when, after Franco’s death, the Spanish left and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to enter.An International Court of Justice advisory opinion issued at the time did not find “any tie of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara, Morocco, and Mauritania, though it also noted the “difficulty of disentangling the various relationships existing in the Western Sahara region at the time of colonisation”

By 1979 internal resistance had forced Mauritania out, but Morocco’s King Hassan II was committed to the Sahara as bilad al-siba, part of a “Greater Morocco” that would eventually cover all of Mauritania as well. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers were encouraged to enter Western Sahara with state subsidized property and employment, under the army’s protection.

Morocco then fought a war against an indigenous Sahrawi resistance group, the Frente Polisario, which ended in 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and pledged to hold an independence referendum within six months.

The referendum has still not been held. Morocco retains control of Western Sahara, and its lucrative phosphate and fishing resources. The country is now the last United Nations designated “non-self-governing territory” in Africa, and is home to between 100,000 and 140,000 Moroccan military personnel (despite a total population of just 500,000).

Morocco’s reigning King Muhammad VI has said that “the issue of our Saharan provinces is central” in order “to complete our territorial integrity”.


Life under the occupation

The fighting drove much of the indigenous population of Western Sahara into refugee camps in Tindouf, Southern Algeria, but some remain as a minority within the occupied territory, west of the 1,600 mile separation wall that Morocco built during the war with the Polisario between 1981 and 1986.

The UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, has limited jurisdiction: unusually for such missions, the UN Security Council has not given it a mandate to monitor rights abuses. Nor is it sufficiently staffed: the mission has only six police officers and 237 military personnel covering an area larger than Britain. MINURSO staff said they need an additional 10 civilian police just to monitor Laayoune.

Media access in Western Sahara is extremely restricted: almost no foreign journalists are given permits to enter, and the occasional groups of journalists who are allowed in have their movement controlled by the state. Accordingly, little is known about the lives of the Sahrawi in the disputed territory.

Our group is underground,” Fatima Tobarra, president of the Sahrawi Observatory for Women and Children, told me. “We tried to make an official organization, but the authorities refused even to receive our application, so we can have no premises.”

Neither the Moroccan police nor the Moroccan government’s human rights department responded to requests for comment for this article.

Life expectancy in Western Sahara is just 62, tellingly lower than Morocco’s 72. Fatima’s Observatory focuses on supporting vulnerable Sahrawi families, who feel the effects of the occupation keenly. “The police here guard the schools, and intimidate the Sahrawi children, then inside they are discriminated against by the teachers who are almost always Moroccans so attendance drops,” she told me.

Our children are not even allowed to join the activity groups that the Moroccan children have, so we run groups for them.”

Many of the families have had relatives killed or “disappeared”. Fatima’s own father and uncle were split up as refugees, and neither have been heard from since. Her grandfather and grandmother were both interred in Agdz prison, and died there.

We cannot live like this, and we will not,” Fatima said. “We want our self-determination so that we can live good lives. The people in other countries, in Tunis, in Yemen, they won their freedom – and we want that to happen here, it has to happen here.”


Repressing the internal resistance

Despite the extensive security apparatus, the Sahrawi have been holding demonstrations against Moroccan rule, and what they see as their second class citizenship, for years.

This peaked in October 2010, with the establishment of the Gdeim Izik protest camp: a tent city set up by activists south-east of Laayoune. The camp was forcibly dismantled by the Moroccan police, with between 11 and 36 Sahrawi killed.

I met members of a group called Coordination Gdeim Izik in a house that serves as their headquarters.

The group played a key part in the protest camp, and continue to organize regular non-violent demonstrations in Laayoune, Smara, and Dakhla. Most recently, they organized a protest on international human rights day, in front of the Moroccan human rights organization (CCDH) office in Laayoune.

The protest was forcibly broken up with beatings administered to the protesters, like Salimah, a Sahrawi woman in her late twenties.“I was very badly attacked, they smashed my teeth to pieces and I had to get them reconstructed,” she said, displaying the artificial replacements that now lie in place of her lower front six teeth. “The police came to the protest out of their uniforms and beat us with clubs.”

Another young member, Khalil, told me that the security forces have become adept at pre-empting and breaking up their protests, routinely using clubs and batons against anyone who attends.

They do not care if you are young, old, man, woman, if you come to the protests they will attack you”, he said, adding that most of the 40 to 50 people in the room have stories like Salimah’s.

In some cases the reprisals against demonstrators are more serious than assault. The next day I met with the family of a demonstrator who was killed by the police during a protest in Laayoune in December 2010.

Maryem Dambar explains how she watched as her brother, Said Dambar, was shot in the head by the police at a protest not far from his own house.

The Moroccan security forces then attacked the house, clubbing Maryem and her mother after she fled inside. The police subsequently denied all responsibility for Said’s death, and to this day refuse to admit that the killing happened, or to investigate it.

All our family wants is justice for Said,” Maryem said. “I saw him killed, and cannot understand how the Moroccans can deny that they murdered him. If there were any human rights in Western Sahara, Said’s death would not be denied, and his killers would be brought to justice.”

The case may not be unique. Human Rights Watch has complained that Moroccoan authorities failed to follow-up on the beating of the group’s research assistant in 2010, calling the attack a “case study of impunity for police violence”.

“If there is impunity for police who beat up a citizen who works for an international organization in broad daylight, in front of witnesses and despite formal complaints, it’s clear how vulnerable ordinary citizens are,” Sarah Lee Whitson, a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, said in a March 2012 statement.

Restricted Freedoms”

In April, Amnesty International reported that: “Sahrawis advocating self-determination for the people of Western Sahara remained subject to restrictions on their freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and leading activists continued to face prosecution.”

Despite the danger of documenting unrest – anyone caught filming or taking pictures of protests in Western Sahara faces punishment, and usually the destruction of the camera equipment – Coordination Gdeim Izik say they have video evidence of the attacks on their protests.

In one video seen by this reporter, a 55-year-old woman is savagely beaten and kicked to the floor by two riot policemen; in another, uniformed military personnel beat a young girl so severely she had to be hospitalised, according to her friends. A senior member of the group, Sidi Muhammad Ramadiy, pointed to the screen and said: “This is human rights for Morocco.”

The group’s de facto leader, Lahib Salhi, said: “We live here always under the eyes, and under the clubs of the Moroccans. The world must do what it promised to do when the UN first came: hold the referendum, and give us the chance to live as we wish to live.”

Many Sahrawis in fact blame the international community. “The Moroccans make the claim on our land because they can, because they are strong and because they are supported by France, the United States, and Britain,” said Salhi. “But they know the claim is false. The Mauritanians once claimed Western Sahara for themselves. Where are they now? How much longer will the world permit this injustice?”

A version of this report was published with Al Jazeera, on January 3rd 2013.