The story of Western Sahara, “the last colony in Africa”, is one of flagrant international law violation, and four decades of persistent military occupation by an African country of another African nation. But it is also a story of systematic human rights violation, thousands of stories of forcibly separated families, stolen lives and dreams, yet with resistance and refusal to abdicate by the people of this territory.
Since October 1975, the beginning of the invasion of the territory by Morocco, thousands of Saharawis fled bombardment and massive killings, seeking refuge in neighbouring Algeria under the protection and organization of the Saharawi liberation movement, POLISARIO Front. They are still there, living in the second oldest political refugee camps in the world after the Palestinians. Making the situation more precarious, the Moroccan army built a 2700 Km long military wall filled with millions of landmines and thousands of soldiers, deepening the separation of families.
The Saharawi woman has always been a strong pillar of the Saharawi nomadic and Bedouin culture, not only at the social level but also in the political participation to the life of the group. She is even consulted in war situations; it is customary in Saharawi culture that everyone must be involved in the decision-making, including the children who are motivated from a very young age to forge a strong personality to face hardships encountered in the desert. After the invasion started, the Saharawi women and youth were, not only the main targets of Moroccan oppression but they were also the first to rise and resist with youthful rigor, attachment to their identity and refusal of foreign domination and aggression.
Saharawi women: same sufferings same fate
Elghalia Djimi and Mbarka Mehdi, two middle-aged ladies reflect on the story of this conflict poorly covered in mainstream media. Mbarka, fled the invasion with her family to live in the refugee camps. She is a journalist in the Saharawi television. She lost many family members left behind in the occupied city of Smara. She has not been to her homeland since the occupation in 1975.
On the other side of the military wall, Elghalia lives in the occupied capital of Western Sahara, El Aaiun. She was young when she became a victim of forced disappearance in a Moroccan secret jail for 4 years, from 1987 to 1991. After her release, she started a long and courageous struggle against human rights violation in her country. She became the Vice-President of a Saharawi human rights association operating under the Moroccan colonial domination.
Mrs. Elghalia Djimi, giving her testimony in a conference on human rights. Photo by Amaia Carracedo Arana)
“When I have seen the shameful photos of Iraqi prisoners in Abou Ghraib in 2004, I was not really shocked because I have lived similar humiliations similar to many of my Saharawi compatriots, men and women, in a secret detention camp in 1987, in El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara,” El Ghalia Djimi says, condemning what she describes as a systematic use of torture and oppression by the Moroccan authorities in her territory, from the beginning of occupation to-date.
“Nothing has changed,” Elghalia explains. “The same old attitude of denial of all rights, the same old arrogance and cruelty is still exercised against any Saharawi who dares to protest against the Moroccan occupation. And this is happening every day, but none speaks about it, except the few organisations, international observers or journalists who succeed to visit the territory then and now. Still, they are seldom listened to, if at all!”
The globally recognized international human rights organisations such as HRW, Amnesty International, Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, Front Line Defenders and many others have in the last 20 years reported about these violations, frequently with very strong evidence and proof on abuses committed by Moroccan officials. Yet, the United Nations has failed to protect the people of Western Sahara, which is still on the list of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee on Decolonization.
“I know many civilians who were killed under torture or because of inhumane detention conditions just because they are Saharawis. My own 60 years old grand-mother passed away in a Moroccan secret detention camp in the mid-1980s, and I still don’t know how she died. Who is accountable for that? And why was she arrested in the first place? The only thing I know is that the Moroccan Consultative Council for Human Rights, in 2010, after years of denial of the state’s connection with her disappearance, suddenly, put her name on a list of more than 350 Saharawis who died in secret jails between 1975 and 1993. But, no international reaction occurred following the state accepted its responsibility. None seem to care,” Elghalia declares, quickly wiping the tears running down her cheek, refusing to look weak.
Another side of the coin
Mbarka Mehdi’s story is different. She was 6 years old when she, with some of her family members escaped the 1975 Moroccan military attacks against the now occupied city of Smara. Since, she has been living in the refugee camps in South-West Algeria.
Mrs. Mbarka Mehdi in the studios of RASD TV
The Saharawis have built the only refugee camp in the world completely run and administrated by the refugees themselves. In 1976, they constituted their government in exile, the Saharawi Republic, to self-organise small refugee towns, or camps named after the occupied cities they have been uprooted from. They built schools, hospitals, ministries and administrations to provide the basic needs for some 200,000 refugees. They thus give a unique example of determination and willingness to resist foreign occupation, not only at the political level but on all levels to preserve their identity and culture as an authentic African nation struggling for freedom, refusing cultural and political domination or surrender to the strongly Western-backed Morocco.
“I was young, but I could see and feel a terror that still lives deep inside me. I particularly kept faded memories of the atmosphere of panic, cries and long nights of fear that I couldn’t understand, and I mainly remember how we had to flee our home, leaving everything behind, taking only the clothes we were wearing and a few other basics. And above all, I still remember my cousins whom I lost sight of since, and my childhood friends and neighbors who passed away during the invasion, or years after that in prison,” Mbarka recalls, in a soft yet firm voice.
She describes the first days in the refugee camps with nostalgia in her eyes, admitting that they were very hard days. The forced exodus of the refugees was accompanied with tremendous suffering, but there were also days of high spirit of resistance, inter-dependence and humanity.
“It was November and December in 1975. The desert was cruel and cold, and we really had nothing to eat or drink or wear. Yet, I mostly remember those proud and generous young men and women who volunteered to organize our deprived camps, distributing scarce food between families, giving priority to the elderly and kids and at the same time protecting us from Moroccan military attacks. They were the heroes and heroines of Saharawi POLISARIO liberation movement. They became my inspiration. And I think that their attitude was born of the fact that my generation was an exemplary one in everything: in studies, productivity, voluntarism and the determination to continue the fight. We have seen it all, the injustice, cruelty of the invader, death and denial of our most basic rights, but we have also seen the will to rise up and fight,” Mbarka emphasizes.
El Ghalia tells the familiar story of life under occupation from a different perspective. She can’t forget how she was tortured and “treated like an animal” in Moroccan secret jail of PC-CM, in the capital of Western Sahara. “Can you imagine young men and women living for 4 long years in the same clothes and underwear, blind-folded and hand-cuffed in small and dirty cells that were used during the Spanish era as a barn to keep pigs, without any sort of decent food, medicine or hygienic needs? Had it not been for the emphatic force to live and survive, and the will to resist their attempt to break our dignity, we would have been stripped of our humanity.”
A deaf, dumb and blind international community
Through and through, shamefully, the international community has been silent in the face of four decades of persistent human suffering. In April 2013, France and Spain joined forces in the UN Security Council to oppose a draft resolution proposed by the US, in which Washington, for the very first time supported the internationally demanded claim of including a permanent, independent and exhaustive human rights monitoring mandate to the UN mission in Western Sahara. France, which plays the role of the “champion” of democracy and human rights in many other conflicts and crisis such as in Libya or Mali, has always been openly and fiercely hostile to these same principles of human rights in Western Sahara.
The Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General to Western Sahara, Ambassador Christopher Ross, was alarmed by the persistent stalemate and tried in his last two reports to the UN Security Council to draw the attention of the member States to the dangers of “maintaining the status quo” in the “last colony in Africa”. The danger is further highlighted, given the conflicts, unrest and “terrorism” in the countries of the Sahel, such as in Mali, but also in Libya, and the possible influence this situation may have on Western Sahara. He rightly said that it was a mistake to think that the stalemate will benefit anyone. He resigned from his post in 2015, after being boycotted by Morocco and not really backed by the UN or the (main) permanent members of the Security Council.
The new Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, appointed former German President, Hans Köhler, as his Personal Envoy. The European politician succeeded to organize two direct talks between the two parties to the conflict: the Moroccan Kingdom and the SADR with the participation of the two neighboring countries, Algeria and Mauritania. Köhler spent only one year in his post before coming out with the conclusion that the real problem rests in the reluctance by the so-called international community to implement and enforce the international law. Guterres clearly said in his last report to the Security Council in April 2019 that: “A solution to the conflict is possible. Finding a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, however, will require strong political will not just from the parties and the neighbouring States, but also from the international community”. (S/2019/282. Para: 73) Both Guterres and Köhler apparently tried to do something about the dire human rights situation, even pushed the Council to include the monitoring and protection of human rights in the mandate of the UN Mission for the referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). It should be noted that international human rights organisations have widely criticized the UN Mission because it has failed, so far, to achieve its initial mandate. Köhler resigned last May on the 22nd. The reasons for his resignation provided by Guterres do not matter, since the situation can speak for itself.
“They don’t see us because we don’t blow bombs!”
“It is dangerous to play with the fate, feelings and patience of the people,” Mbarka agrees. She thinks that the Saharawi youngsters may very well lose patience and opt for violence to free their country. They see no hopes ahead; they see no real action from the so-called international community, just talk and empty words and resolutions that resolve nothing”.
Hamdi Toubali (left) preparing a youth event with a friend
In the occupied zones, in the western side of the Moroccan military wall, Elghalia shares the same opinion and believes that the Moroccan outrageous oppression and violence against Saharawi peaceful demonstrators is, in a way, aimed to push the young generation to violence. “This is how I understand it, otherwise it is incomprehensible,” she says.
This possibility is especially dangerous because the whole region of North Africa is in ebullition. “Tunis and Egypt are examples that the youth look at,” Hamdi Toubali, a 27-years-old Saharawi who in 2005, after fleeing police persecution joined the refugee camp in El Aaiun said, when he was asked to comment on the lack of attention the international community is giving the Saharawi’s peaceful struggle and activities.
“They just don’t see us, they just don’t care. Maybe it is because we are peacefully protesting against the Moroccan wall and the Moroccan occupation instead of blowing bombs or shedding blood in Moroccan streets. And this is really pitiful,” Hamdi deplores, stressing that the majority of young Saharawis believe that resuming to legitimate armed struggle may be the only option the international community is leaving them with. Even still, they hold this spirit out of discipline, engagement and faith in the overall peaceful strategy of the Saharawi leadership.
No light at the end of the tunnel
The Moroccan attitude and position remain unchanged: a complete refusal to accept any sort of solution that may give the Saharawi people a chance to independence. The Moroccan King himself never stops stressing in all his speeches, especially on October 9, 2009, underscoring the determination of his country to maintain the occupation, stating that “one is either a patriot or a traitor. There is no halfway house. One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland.” Of course, his Majesty’s statements are immediately recuperated by the different Moroccan authorities and translated into acts of violence, discrimination and oppression against anyone who dares to oppose the king’s will. Saharawis make the top of this list.
The story of Western Sahara, and the individual stories of thousands of Saharawis like Elghalia, Mbarka or Hamdi will remain a dishonorable disgrace in the UN records and the international community. Indeed, it is a challenge to international law, but it is also a test to all those who think that the rule of law, democracy, social justice and human rights principles must prevail over the orders of the big powers who are always trying to impose their muscle on humanity.
But the “walk to freedom” has never been easy. “It requires bitter struggles and sacrifices, especially from African nations that have always been despised and under-estimated by their oppressors,” Elghalia confirms, adding that her generation has no other option but “to keep the fight so our children can, in the future recover their land and dignity, for we may die well before enjoying freedom. And if so, we will die standing”.
*The views of the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Africa Speaks 4 Africa or its editorial team.