I am embarrassed to admit that I knew remarkably little about Western Sahara until recently. I knew it was occupied by Morocco, against the wishes of the native Saharawi people, the majority of whom now live in exile in refugee camps. However I didn’t know anything about the historical context of the occupation or the reasons why for decades there has been a political stalemate meaning that for the foreseeable future at least, Western Sahara will remain ‘Africa’s last colony.’
I find it interesting that most middle class lefties (I include myself in this group) have a basic understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and have probably attended a talk or a demo, shared an article or given a donation in a small gesture of solidarity with Palestinian people, but how many could say that about the Saharawi’s? It’s a conflict which has a lot of parallels with that between Israel and Palestine, but which occupies a very different place in public consciousness. It is for this reason that I wanted to start this bog post by sharing some of the things I have recently learnt. This is by no means at all a full account of the history or issues facing this troubled region or the opinion of an expert, for that I recommend ‘Western Sahara, The Refugee Nation’ by Pablo San Martin, which is where much of this information comes from. I also read Silent Territory – ‘Seven Stories on Western Sahara,’ by Frederick Lauren and Lars Schmidt which is interesting, if a little hard to follow in places.
If you just want to know what me and Leon have been up to, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs, but I think that it’s foolish to travel a country like Western Sahara without at least trying to understand the history because it informs every experience and interaction you have. Talking about ‘history’ often implies something that is resigned to the past and is no longer relevant, but this is not the case in Western Sahara where it is the constantly present background noise of day to day life.
Somewhat unusually for a decades long international dispute the position in law is very straightforward; the Saharawi people who occupied Western Sahara prior to colonialism have the right to their land and only they can chose to give up this right through a referendum on self determination. This was established by the International Court of Justice in 1975 after Morocco and Mauritania posed the question. It has also been the position taken by the United Nations for decades.
Western Sahara ceased to be Spanish Province number 53 on 16 November 1975, General Franco was in hospital, just days away from death and the colony was abandoned in haste, without Spain organising the self determination referendum that the United Nations had been demanding and which Spain had promised and had already taken a census in preparation for. Morrocco and Mauritania took advantage of this situation and sent their armies to this virtually deserted desert territory, where only a few hundred thousand Saharawi people lived, but which had plentiful natural resources. On 6 November 1975 Morrocco launched the so called ‘green march’ in which some 350,000 Moroccan citizens, escorted by 30,000 to 40,000 troops entered Western Sahara. Sahrawi refugees were driven into Algeria, towards Tindouf, where they remain to this day. At present, more than half the Saharawi population lives across the border in refugee camps in Algeria. Generations of families have grown up separated from one another.
Thereafter began a new and intensely frustrating chapter in the history of the region. During the Green March, Morrocco had deliberately flooded the territory of Western Sahara with Moroccan citizens who have remained there ever since. A question therefore arose as to whether they should have the right to vote in the referendum on independence (Rabat claimed they should, Polisario claimed they should not, referring instead to the original Spanish census taken in 1974). Finally after exhaustive process, (during which more than 198,469 candidates were interviewed), in January 2000 the UN published a definite list of 86,381 persons eligible to vote. However Morrocco rejected the list and lodged more than 120,000 appeals thereby derailing the entire process and leading to a stalemate which has still not been resolved. A new plan aimed at unlocking the process was proposed by the UN in 2003, this plan gave enormous gains to Rabat since it allowed for a transitional period of up to 5 years of autonomy under Morrocco administration (so conferring on Morrocco the legal title of ‘administrator’ a degree of legitimacy it arguably should not have) followed by a watered down referendum in which number of settlers entitled to vote would outnumber Sahrawi’s. In spite of the scales being tipped hugely in their favour Rabat rejected the plan, arguing in a complete about turn that the inclusion of independence in the final referendum (around which the ceasefire and 13 subsequent years of negotiation has revolved) threatened their ‘territorial integrity.’ Polisario meanwhile refused to accept any referendum in which the option of independence was not at least on the table (since the Saharawi’s have the right to their land and only they can chose to give this up) and so the whole process ground to a halt.
The position today is that Morocco occupies 75% of Western Sahara, including all the main cities and towns and the areas of immense natural resources; the entire coast with its very rich fishing waters and the phosphate mines. There is little sign of the promised referendum or a political solution to the stalemate, despite decades of United Nations involvement. In part this is due to Morrocco’s powerful allies; France and America. The ‘war on terror’ has also not helped the Saharawi’s cause, in the international community there seems to be a consensus that given the situation in Mali and Mauritania, the region cannot afford another failed state.
Morrocco continues to flood Western Sahara with settlers by offering generous tax breaks and other incentives, whilst brutally suppressing any dissent from the Saharawi people. The United Nations mission in Western Sahara is one of the only missions not to have the power to monitor human rights (a proposal to extend the mission’s rights was fought against by Morrocco, who were backed by France). Morrocco’s penal code currently provides for prison sentences as punishment for anyone who ‘incites against’ Morocco’s ‘territorial integrity,’ in 2013 and 2017, around 23 people were convicted in trials Human Right Watch has described as unfair, for participating in protests in Gdeim Izik. Sentences ranged from prison terms of 30 years to life imprisonment. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report ‘Moroccan authorities systematically prevent gatherings in Western Sahara supporting Saharawi self determination, obstruct the work of some local human right’s NGO’s including blocking their legal registration, and on occasion beat activities and journalists in their custody and on the streets.’
If you didn’t know this history, it would be very easy to overlook it at first. Like the irritating hum of background noise, it can go unnoticed until someone points it out and then you can’t un-hear it. The few tourists who make it to Western Sahara are largely either overlanders, speeding through on their way to Mauritania or kite surfers, who head straight to the campsites and resorts in Dakhla and rarely set foot in the adjacent town. Morrocco has done such an effective job of occupying Western Sahara that the majority of people you meet are Moroccan settlers and to the outsider Saharawi culture is largely invisible. Elsewhere in Morrocco I have seen protests against the treatment of Saharawi’s but in Western Sahara there were no such signs of dissent. Even graffiti, usually the most visible form of political protest in any country, was notably absent. The Bern, perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence of adverse occupation sits behind 30km of minefield and cannot therefore be seen. For tourists like us, the most notable difference between Western Sahara and Morrocco was the check points. In Morrocco there a numerous such checkpoints, manned by bored looking police or national security officers, but foreigners are always waved through without issue. In Western Sahara this was definitely not the case. At each checkpoint the officer would direct us over to the side of the road, where we would sit, sweltering in our motorbike gear as they copied down our full passport details, vehicle registration and type, date of entry, allocated police number and profession. The officers were without exception friendly and polite, but there is something very disquieting about being asked on average more than 5 times each day ‘where are we coming from?’ and ‘where are we going to?’ So frequent are these checks that everyone, including locals, carries a printed ‘fiche’ containing all of their personal details to save time.
Given the levels of surveillance and repression, it is unsurprising that despite meeting many Saharawi’s I found few opportunities to talk to people about what life was like under occupation. During the two weeks we spent in Western Sahara I only had one such conversation. The person asked if talking to me would cause any trouble for them and I promised it would not. I also promised that I would not put anything on the internet which would lead to them being identified. It is for this reason that I am not going to give many details about who this person was, or when or where we met. I am just going to tell you what they said.
We had been talking for quite some time when I explained that I had been reading a lot about the history of Western Sahara and had some questions. They looked at me and said more with curiosity then impatience, “there is 64 years of history, maybe you can be more specific?” I said that I wanted to know what it was like now, to be a Saharawi living under Moroccan occupation. I had not finished my sentence, when they began looking nervously around. It was very late at night. The restaurants and tea parlours had emptied and the street was completely deserted, but they appeared scared. “It is a very sensitive subject…” They paused for a long time and I thought that was the end of the conversation, but then they began to speak again. “You must speak quietly. There are Moroccan spies everywhere. If I was heard talking to you I would get into a lot of trouble.” They looked directly at me, clearly trying to asses whether I was someone who could be trusted. I explained that I was a refugee lawyer and often represented people who fled government persecution and this seemed to put them more at ease. “Moroccans, they put a lot of pressure on us. If we criticise the occupation or say anything we will be fired from our jobs and will be unable to find a new one and much worse…It is hard to find a job if you are Saharawi, there is a lot of discrimination.” Like many Saharawi’s the person I spoke to had attended university in Cuba (Cuba was one of the first countries to offer scholarships to Saharawi’s and since the 1970’s more than 4000 Saharawi refugee’s have graduated from Cuban universities). Despite being highly educated, they worked in a low paid, menial job. They continued “The Moroccan government gives a lot of assistance to Moroccans who come to Western Sahara, but they give very little to Saharawi’s. Many Saharawi’s are living in 60 year old houses and cannot afford to modernise them. Meanwhile the Moroccans get government help. Morrocco also takes the natural resources, the phosphates and the fish and it does not benefit the Saharawi’s. Some Saharawi politicians go on TV and say everything is fine but they lie. They say things things to benefit themselves and their careers only. I have given up hope of a referendum.” As I prepared to leave they asked me about my job as a refugee lawyer, “what should I do if I am in danger?” I asked if they thought that they were. “No, but you never know what tomorrow will bring, it can happen any time here.” I thought back to this conversation a lot during our time in Western Sahara. What stayed with me the most, was not was had been said, powerful as that was. It was the way that the person had looked fearfully around a dark and empty street as if anyone could be listening in, and the level of fear and control that implies.
Our first stop in Western Sahara was the city of Smara. Instead of sticking to the costal road the entire way, we decided to head inland to the far North East of the country. I wanted to visit Smara because it is the only city in Western Sahara which was founded by Saharawi people. In 1973 the Polisario resistance movement was founded there, it is also the closest city to the Bern, which is around 40km away. I thought it would be our best chance of seeing Saharawi culture and understanding something about life under occupation.
The Sahara proper begins after TanTan in Morrocco. Talking about the Sahara desert often conjures romantic images of towering sandunes peppered with lush oases through which caravans of camels meander. This part of the Sahara at least, did not look like that. The drive there took us through mile after mile of flat sandy plains with some green scrubby bushes, then mile after mile of flat sandy planes without green scrub by bushes, then mile after mile of flat sandy plains with the occasional tree. At one point I found myself imaging camels, I think my brain could not cope with so much empty and barren desert. In Morrocco our drives had been punctuated by regular stops, you never had to look very far for a tea parlour or restaurant. On the way to Smara, we drove for nearly 2 hours without seeing anything other than checkpoints and a few houses that seemed to grow up around them. The few vehicles we passed were mostly military trucks or lorries ferrying enormous pieces of construction equipment. There are, I am sure more remote places in the world, but the contrast between the levels of habitation in southern Morrocco, where we had just left and Western Sahara was very striking. When we finally reached Smara it felt strange to see so many people and buildings, they seemed to have sprung up from nowhere. We realised how few tourists make it there (and how closely the police monitor those who do) when we were asked at a checkpoint if we were the biologists from Sweden who arrived 3 days ago?
The most notable thing about Smara was the enormous military presence. It is a small town, but the entire first half of it is given over to huge military and Air Force bases. Every second building seemed to be the headquarters of some branch or other of the police, army or national security. Brightly painted with military insignias, they dwarfed the buildings in rest of the town, even the officers mess hall was palatial. Many of the buildings were emblazoned with the motto ‘God, Homeland, King.’ Past the military bases, there was the part of town where most ordinary people lived, a main street with a few hotels, restaurant and cafe’s, a small market area, and quiet residential side streets. When I walked through this area during the day, most of the stalls were closed, the restaurant and tea parlours were empty and it felt almost like it had been abandoned. At night however it came alive, the tea parlours were all packed full with additional tables spilling out onto the streets, a bustling market sprung up, selling everything from enormous live turkeys, to knock off Armani belts. Most people did not seem to be there to shop, but rather to mingle and chat and soak up the lively atmosphere. It was the first time in Western Sahara we had seen large numbers of women, many of them wearing the mefhla, the headscarf traditionally worn by Saharawi women. Past the main part of town was an area full of regional and government buildings and the headquarters of some NGO’s. The buildings were all heavily guarded and there were numerous armoured national security vans full of officers, waiting for an emergency than never seemed to come.
From Smara we took a different road to that we had come in on, heading West towards Laayoune. On the way we passed the worlds longest conveyor belt, which is used to transport phosphate (a natural resource which is essential to producing synthetic fertilisers) 61 miles from the Bou Craa mine to the coast where it is loaded onto ships and transported across the globe. Morrocco is the world’s second largest producer of phosphate and (if you include Western Sahara as part of their territory) then it contains about 75% of the world’s phosphate reserves, the next closest country, China, has just 6%. Western Sahara’s rich supply of phosphate (a valuable and finite resource, the availability of which has major implications for future food production), is one of the major reasons why Morrocco refuses to acknowledge the Saharawi’s right to their land. The UN has stated that it is a contravention of International law for the natural resources of Western Sahara to be sold by Morrocco, unless the proceeds are for the benefit of the Saharawi people, but Morrocco continues to sell phosphate from Western Sahara and the rest of the world continues to buy it. Watching the enormous whirring conveyer belt which stretched for as far as the eye could see in either direction I was struck by the scale and blatantness of the theft.
It is not just phosphate that is plundered as we neared Laayoune the smell of dried fish was everywhere, a sign of the fishing industry which is Western Sahara’s biggest export (the fishing waters off Western Sahara are some of the richest in the world). I read a lot about the fishing industry; the vast numbers of unlicensed trawlers, the use of EU subsidies to refurbish boats which now fish in occupied waters, shady deals granting fishing rights to Russia in exchange for not selling anti aircraft missiles to Morrocco’s arch energy Algeria. One statistic in particular stood out for me. Africa’s biggest Sardine stock is found off Dakhla, in Western Sahara. As the crow flies it is 650km from Dakhla to the refugee camps in Tindouf, where many of the Saharawi refugees suffer from undernourishment that’s a result of 130,000 people living off the UN’s acute relief packages for 3 generations. In an effort to combat this, once a month every refugee receives a tin of fish to mix with the cooking oil and rice which has been their staple diet for more than 35 years. The cans of fish are donated by a Swedish organisation, who imports them from Thailand. Between 2006 – 2011, 5 million cans have been distributed at a cost to the Swedish tax payer of 35 million Kroner. That is about the same amount of edible fish that two foreign fishing vessels pull out of the sea in one week of trawling off Dakhla. (These facts come from Silent Territory – Seven Stories on Western Sahara).
Laayoune itself was a strange town, it is the capital of Western Sahara more than 40% percent of people live there. The majority of them are recent settlers drawn by tax breaks and subsidised housing which is part of a deliberate policy to make Western Sahara ‘Moroccan.’ Knowing this, makes the signs of rapid expansion, the neatly planned streets and parks which look like a town you might create in a game of the Sims (completely different the sprawling haphazard towns in the rest of Morrocco and Western Sahara) seem strangely sinister. We passed through only briefly. From Layounne we begin the long drive South, towards Mauritania.