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.

Comment: Why Morocco must not be allowed to join the African Union

Sahrawi refugees in Laayoune.

“What does Morocco mean to an Englishman?” George Orwell asked in one of his finer essays. “Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits.” That was 1939. But whatever Morocco means to an Englishman today it probably isn’t “occupation, refugees, and landmines”.

Morocco is a standard tourist destination and is held up as a model for Arab and African development alike. It may, therefore, come as something of a shock to hear that Morocco is the only African country excluded from membership of the African Union (Madagascar, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau have all been “suspended” since 2009 and 2012 respectively).

This is not something that sits well with King Mohammed VI or his new Government, and on Wednesday a diplomatic team in Rabat started Morocco’s latest push for membership. Kindly voices from the AU have also started to exercise their larynxes on the matter, such as prominent Tanzanian MP, Edward Lowassa Ngayai, who backed bringing Morocco into the AU fold last month.

Morocco was elbowed out of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the organization finally recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the exiled government of Western Sahara, which Morocco invaded and occupied in 1976 and has held by force ever since.

Western Sahara represents one of international diplomacy’s greatest failures. When the Spanish left in 1975, Sahara was to be the last country on the continent to go through decolonisation; it would forever mark the end of the sanguinary history of empire in Africa. Instead it is Africa’s last colony.

The occupation has left hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi disenfranchised, and somewhere between 90,000 and 200,000 have fled as refugees, most of whom currently live in the Tindouf refugee camp in Southern Algeria, and in similar camps in Mauritania. The Moroccan army has established a segregation wall over 2000km long and surrounded by landmines, going through Western Sahara. Sahara’s resources are plundered, and its people continue to suffer.

The United Nations response to the occupation has been nothing short of a disgrace. Though the UN recognises the occupation is illegal, it has utterly failed to do anything about it. The UN has maintained a peacekeeping mission meant to hold a referendum on autonomy in Sahara (MINURSO) since 1991, but it has no mandate to monitor human rights abuses, a skeleton staff, and thanks to France’s Security Council veto has failed to produce a referendum for 21 years.

In spite of all this, it was in Western Sahara’s Gdeim Izik camp that the political protest movements in North Africa began, two months before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The Western Sahara protests received little recognition, let alone backing, in national newspapers, nor did anyone call for the end of the authoritarian regime that was its target. Moroccan security forces dismantled the 6000 tent camp, and the movement, by force.

The African Union is undoubtedly a corrupt and weak institution, and includes countries with even worse human rights records than Morocco. But the one break in over 35 years of international inertia on the occupation of Western Sahara has been the AU’s stand for independence, and refusal to admit the membership of Morocco.

If regional institutions are capable of having any impact at all on global justice (a question to which the answer may well be no), then it can only be by making membership for countries on the peripheries of regional blocks conditional on ending their abuses of human rights, something which has arguably been achieved to some extent with the European Union.

A Chatham House report once compared an AU human rights court to “whistling in the wind”, but its policy on Western Sahara and Moroccan membership is one success in a list so short that it could be inscribed on one of Orwell’s brass trays. If it abandons that stance now, the AU will have to say it is happy living with a colonial Africa.

This article was originally published with the New Statesman on June 6th 2012.

Image courtesy of the United Nations.

The Truth About the Moroccan Referendum

In a small hotel, within Marrakech’s Medina, I talk with my host and friend Yousuf. Over the past two days he has been, very patiently, helping me to refine my impoverished and diminutive knowledge of Arabic. We discuss pronunciation and, of course, dialect. Arabic is perhaps more diverse than any other major language, so much so that an Arabic speaker from Syria may struggle to understand Arabic dialect in Algeria. During the conversation Yousuf pauses to tell me that he has ‘his own language’, in addition to Arabic. His eyes change; he is unmistakeably proud. Berber, he says, contributes considerably to Moroccan dialect Arabic, but is also a language in its own right. Berber is Yousuf’s ‘own language’.

The next day I travel across Morocco by taxi. It is a long and fascinating journey, but its defining feature is the police checkpoints. Every 20 miles there are policemen stopping motorists. My first thought is that they must be monitoring long distance travel within Morocco, as part of a surveillance program aimed at keeping tabs on the Polisario. In 1975 Western Sahara was finally decolonized, and as soon as the Spanish left, Morocco and Mauritania immediately invaded. By 1979 Morocco had established administrative control of the country, but the Polisario – a Sahrawi resistance movement – were both strong and popular. I ask the driver why there are so many checkpoints, are they monitoring the Polisario? He replies only to tell me that he was ‘a policeman for five years’.


“That 98.5% of Moroccans agree on such a complex and important question is extremely unlikely.”

As we drive on another possibility presents itself. A convoy of about 20 cars is driving slowly down the main road, accompanied by the sound of honking horns. On this point, our driver is far more amenable. The cars are draped in hand written signs that are, he says, canvassing the ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming Referendum. In response to the wave of protests and popular political organization that has gripped Morocco just as strongly as the rest of the Arab world, King Muhammad VI had offered a referendum on a new constitution. The new regulations would involve the King renouncing a modest amount of power, make the prime minister the head of the government, grant women ‘social equality’ with men, and – strikingly – acknowledge Berber as an official state language along with Arabic. The ‘Yes’ convoy is unobstructed by the police. Is the referendum the reason for the quantity of checkpoints?

It is the 30th of June. Throughout my travels King Muhammad VI has been there. In every hotel, restaurant, shop, café, and even in the souks of Marrakech, there are portraits of the King. His ubiquity is a stark reminder of Egypt in 2009, when Hosni Mubarak’s face was plastered even onto the make-shift walls of Cairo’s shanty town. I am in the coastal town of Essaouira, and in the central square there is a large rally. A stage is erected, and the sky is strewn with ‘Yes’ fliers. The ‘Yes’ campaign is undoubtedly well funded. The town is, however, divided. The ‘Yes’ camp are louder, they dance, and their microphones ring through the streets. Their supporters clutch the same portraits of King Muhammad that have become so familiar. But there is a considerable group of protesters calling for a boycott of the referendum, and though there is no sign of any violence, they are completely contained within a police cordon. Is this Moroccan Kettling? Are the police merely pre-empting clashes, or are they sending a message?

Though they are not insignificant, the reforms are not those that the protest movements want. The February 20th movement has been vehemently arguing for a political system based on the separation of powers, foreign policy decided democratically, and for something to be done about Morocco’s increasing youth unemployment, which currently stands at nearly 40 percent. The referendum, it is widely agreed, is as much a vote on King Muhammad as it is on his minor reforms. If that is true, it follows that the referendum was not a vote the King could afford to lose.

The result comes in: 98.5% have voted yes. The UK government has decisively moved to support not only the new constitution but this result, and therefore there are some points that need to be made. The first is hardly necessary to emphasize; the proportion of support is scarcely believable. That 98.5% of Moroccans agree on such a complex and important question is extremely unlikely. The second is that the opposition and popular movements have pushed for boycott, rather than a ‘no’ vote; this alone at least partially invalidates the result. There are also questions that remain unanswered. What effect has the police presence and its noticeable yet measured action around the referendum had? And how many people, proud like Yousuf of a sense of distinct Berber identity, have supported the reforms because of the King’s addition of the official language change?

King Muhammad VI has been shrewd. His referendum is ostensibly a victory, and a weapon against those who will argue for more radical democratic changes. It is also an excuse for Western governments like our own to oppose Arab democracy, as they always do. Scratch the surface and you find the reality is more complicated. Though Morocco is not Libya, or Egypt, the protest movements will not be perturbed by this.

I learned much about language in Morocco. The truth about the referendum is that it was not a loud clear shout of support for the King’s continued power. The reform movements are alive and well, and will continue to voice their desire for a more democratic Morocco, in both Arabic and Berber.


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