Between the truth and a lie there are only four fingers: those that separate your eye from your ear. Because whatever you are told may not be true, but no one can deny what you have seen with your own eyes.

Saharaui proverb


Short introduction to the conflict

In 1961, the United Nations created the Special Committee on Decolonization, or the Special Committee of the 24, with the objective of monitoring how Resolution 1514 of the General Assembly of the United Nations was being applied. The goal of the resolution was to encourage the process of decolonization of the non-autonomous territories that were still under the administration of colonial powers. One of these territories was that of Western Sahara which, at that time, was still a colonial territory under the administration of Spain.

Western Sahara is a territory situated in the northwest of the African continent which borders Algeria on the east, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Morocco on the north and Mauretania on the south. This territory became a colony of Spain in 1884 after the Berlin Conference in which the European states divided up the African colonies and defined their borders. In 1958, in order to avoid the process of decolonization, Spain declared Spanish Sahara to be a province. Despite that, the United Nations included Western Sahara in the list of non-autonomous territories and, therefore, it had to go through the process of decolonization. At that moment, Hassan II, the king of Morocco, tried to take advantage of the situation. Before the United Nations he called for the annexation of Western Sahara to his territory.

Years later, a Saharaui independence movement began to be organized that was opposed as much to the Spanish domination as to the Moroccan pretensions to annexation. In 1969 there was born the Vanguard Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara, the immediate predecessor of the Frente Polisario whose first congress was held on May 10, 1973. Today, the Frente Polisario is recognized as the only legitimate representative of the Saharaui people by the United Nations.

On November 6, 1975, with the death of Franco drawing ever closer, in the face of international pressure for the decolonization of Western Sahara and the pretensions of annexation by Morocco and Mauritania, the Kingdom of Morocco began an invasion of Western Sahara with what is called the “Green March”. Exactly a week later, November 14, 1975, the Franco government signed with Morocco and Mauritania the Tripartite Agreement of Madrid (lacking any sort of legal validity internationally) which ceded Western Sahara to these two countries. At that moment, war began between the Saharaui army of the Frente Polisario and the Moroccan army in the north and the Mauritanian army in the south. This outbreak of war caused thousands of Saharauis to flee into exile in southwest Algeria and they established there the refugee camps of Tinduf. It is estimated that some 175,000 Saharauis have lived there in extremely difficult conditions for more than 40 years.

In February of 1976, in Bir-Lehlu, the Saharauis proclaimed the Saharaui Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) and they named El Uali Mustafa Sayed as their first president. In the present, RASD is recognized by more than 80 countries and is a member of the Arab League.

Image courtesy of ACAPS.

In August of 1979, RASD and Mauritania signed a peace agreement in Alguer in which Mauritania came to recognize RASD and withdrew its troops from the war in Western Sahara. In November, 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations reaffirmed the right of the Saharaui people to self-determination. In the same resolution it deplored the gravity of the situation that the Saharaui people were suffering as a consequence of the Moroccan occupation.

During the 1980s Morocco began the raising of six walls that today total more than 2,700 km in length, thus constructing the second longest wall in the world, and surrounding it with more than seven million antipersonnel mines. It divides Western Sahara in two.

After years of war, on September 6, 1991, the Frente Polisario and the Government of Morocco accepted the Peace Plan of the United Nations and signed a cease-fire. This included the holding of a referendum of self-determination for the Saharaui people. At that moment there was created the MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara), the only mission of the United Nations that does not have as part of its mandate the monitoring of the violation of human rights.

For years Morocco set up all kinds of roadblocks for the holding of the referendum. They blocked any agreement to adopt a common strategy for conducting the vote, colonizing in a blatant way Western Sahara so that they could try to “Moroccan-ize” the zone. They repressed any manifestation of Saharaui identity.

The Saharaui population thus has lived divided for decades. More than 172,000 Saharauis live as refugees in the camps of Tindul, in the harsh conditions of the Algerian desert and with a great dependence on humanitarian aid. Thousands live in the diaspora, many as expatriates or without even knowing their own country. Another part lives in occupied Western Sahara, suffering repression every day and violations of their rights on the part of the occupying Moroccans. There they wait for the international community to act to guarantee the holding of the referendum of self-determination of the Saharaui people, the only way possible for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The resistance of the Saharaui people

The Saharaui people are an example of struggle and nonviolent resistance throughout the years, from the signing of the cease fire in 1991 until the breach in the agreements on the part of Morocco in November, 2020. One of the most outstanding episodes is that of the encampment of dignity, Gdeim Izik.

In October, 2010, a group of young Saharauis began a peaceful protest on the outskirts of Al-Aaiun in the Occupied Territories of Western Sahara. In a few days it brought together tens of thousands of Saharauis who set up their tents in the middle of the desert in what they called the encampment of Gdeim Izik.

The encampment of dignity began by calling for the ability of the Saharauis to have access to their natural resources and for the end of the marginalization and state of precariousness in which they had lived for decades under the Moroccan occupation. After a month during which the encampment did not stop growing, Morocco, with the illegal occupation of Western Sahara, sent an army and the police to make an intervention. They dismantled the encampment, using force with impunity and with complete brutality, giving way to one of the most violent episodes that occurred in the Saharaui conflict.

The uprooting was brutal: burned tents, people wounded, detained, disappeared. The repression on the part of the Kingdom of Morocco led to the persecution and detention of hundreds of Saharauis accused of participating in the protests, a legitimate right of all people.

Despite the imposing demonstration of force by the people and the example of nonviolent confrontation that was seen at Gdeim Izik, for more than 30 years the Saharaui people tried to claim its fundamental rights, as, for example, the legitimate right of self-determination and to the exploitation of its resources. Meanwhile, they live with a constant infringement of their rights on the part of the Moroccan occupation forces who act with total impunity in the face of the passivity of the international community and of the United Nations.

Another example of this resistance of the Saharaui civil society is the international campaign called “Western Sahara is not for Sale” which began in January, 2021, with more than 120 organizations from the Saharaui civil society and who want to denounce the spoliation of the natural resources of Western Salara. This campaign was born as fruit of the “Sahara Rise” conference at the beginning of 2018 in which the Saharaui civil society was organized to elaborate the strategy of nonviolent confrontation of their people to put an end to the Moroccan occupation.

Image courtesy of ACAPS.

The spoliation of natural resources

During all of these years of illegal occupation, Morocco has also been carrying on an illegal spoliation of the natural resources of Western Sahara: fish, phosphates, agriculture. They have benefitted from this without a guilty conscience, violating international resolutions which prohibit exploitation of the resources of a territory without the consent of the population.

Western Sahara has some of the largest reserves of phosphates of the best quality in the world. In addition, in the waters of Sahara there can be found great banks of fish whose potential it is estimated could generate sufficient renewable energy to supply the whole region of the Maghreb. The illegal spoliation by Morocco and the benefits it draws together with great transnational enterprises contribute to prolong the time of the conflict in Sahara and the suffering of the people.

Benefits are drawn from this trade by businesses in Spain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, among others, in connivance with the Kingdom of Morocco and its economic and political elites. This is done counter to humanitarian rights as well as several international resolutions that recognize the right of the Saharaui people to self-determination and sovereignty over their own resources.

In 2008 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 63/102 which recognizes that the natural resources of non-autonomous territories are the patrimony of their people, including the indigenous population. It points out that any activity which is oriented to exploiting the resources of the said territories should be done with the previous consent of the population and guaranteeing their humanitarian rights.

Paradoxically, the member states of the European Union, guided by the norms of international law and the resolutions of the UN, do not formally recognize the sovereignty of Morocco over the territory in any document, nor its jurisdiction over the Occupied Territories nor the Saharaui territorial waters. Nevertheless, for decades the agreements between the EU and Morocco include the exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara.

One of the routes used by Morocco to export the resources of Western Sahara is through the area of Guerguerat which is situated in the south of Western Sahara and near the border with Mauritania. This is a strategic territory where the Moroccan occupation forces have maintained an open illegal breach for years. Through here passes the transport of goods that are the result of the spoliation of Saharaui natural resources, violating international covenants and generating millions of dollars in earnings in an illegal way.

Breaking of the cease-fire and increase in repression

In October, 2020, a group of Saharaui civilians began a nonviolent protest in the illegal breach of Guerguerat. They set up a camp and raised Saharaui flags in front of this border crossing, cutting off the traffic of goods that usually crossed this area. They demanded its closure and called on the MINURSO to comply with its mandate and to organize a legitimate referendum for the self-determination of the Saharaui people.

On the morning of November 13, the Kingdom of Morocco crossed the illegal opening at Guerguerat in order to dislodge the Saharaui people who were protesting there, breaking all of the peace agreements that they had accepted. Faced with this situation, the Frente Polisario intervened in order to protect the civilians from the Moroccan aggressions. Meanwhile, the Moroccans tried to open another gate in the wall of shame to be able to continue the spoliation of resources of Western Sahara. The Frente Polisario responded to the attack with a military maneuver.

All of this led to the government of the RASD declaring a rupture of the cease-fire. That initiated a military escalation in Western Sahara that resulted in a war after a cease-fire of 29 years.

Since the rupture of the cease-fire, the Moroccan occupation forces increased their military and police deployment in different cities of occupied Western Sahara such as El-Aaiun, Boujador and Dajia. The arbitrary detentions, as well as aggressions, tortures, house searches, isolation and home stake outs, and the control of movement have become the daily routine in the Occupied Territories, violating the human rights and the international humanitarian rights of the Saharauis who live there.

During all this time Morocco has kept the territory closed and barred visits by international human rights organizations, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, NGOs, independent jurists and communications media, who have tried to document the situation that is being lived in occupied Western Sahara and to be witnesses to it.

Local communications media, like Equipe Medie, inform about the brutal systematic repression on the part of the Moroccan police against Saharaui civilians, activists and protestors in the different occupied cities.

In only the first months of 2021 dozens of Saharaui activists have suffered and continue to suffer the repression of the Moroccan occupiers. The politician and ex-prisoner Ghali Bouhala was detained in the Occupied Territories, his home was searched and the mobile telephones of all of his family were stolen. Agents of the Moroccan police kidnapped the Saharaui activist Mohamed Nafaa Boutasoufra when he was walking through the streets of occupied El-Aaiun. After having disappeared for several days, on February 15 a Moroccan court sentenced both of the activists to prison, accusing them falsely of the crime of drug possession, according to information by Equipe Medie.

Mohamed Lamin Haddi was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the nonviolent protest at Gdiem Izik. He has been in prison for ten years, three of them in isolation. He has been on an indefinite hunger strike since January in order to protest the abuses, the aggressions and the hard conditions of his incarceration. He cannot receive visits by his family and the condition of his health is not known. The last information about his case states that he is being fed by force and that he is in a state of extreme weakness.

The activist Sultana Khaya has been under illegal house arrest since November. Her house is surrounded by Moroccan police. Sultana and her sister have been the subject of physical aggression and sexual violence in their home, presumably by members of the occupying forces. For her part, the defender of human rights and member of the ISACOM (Saharaui Petition against the Moroccan Occupation) has been under house arrest since May and lives closely guarded by Moroccan police. She finds herself totally isolated, without electricity or any contact with the outside.

Image courtesy of ACAPS.

To these examples has to be added the attack on the investigator, activist and defender of human rights and of natural resources Lahcen Dalil. He was kidnapped, tortured and abandoned in the desert on May 10 by the Moroccan police. On the same day, the president of CODESA, Babouzaid Mohamed Saeed, and the activists Khalid Boufraywa and Salek Babir, who were at the home of Sultana Khaya monitoring the attacks and the systematic repression against her and her family, were detained, tortured, handcuffed and abandoned also in the open desert 120 km north of the city of Boujador by the occupation forces.

And now… what?

Arriving at this point, does the conflict in Western Sahara have any possible solution? Are there glimmers of hope in the current situation? Well, it depends, basically, on the will of the United Nations and of its member countries.

It is indubitable that the occupation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco and the abandonment by the government of Spain are completely illegal. So, therefore, the only possible solution is to go back to the beginning: finalize the process of decolonization of Western Sahara through a referendum of self-determination with which the Saharaui people can decide their own future.

Unfortunately, and as has happened in many places, the economic interests behind the exploitation of resources which the Kingdom of Morocco is carrying out in Western Sahara lead one to think that we will not obtain this solution any time in the near future. But, if there ever were a people who were convinced of the truth of their struggle, it would be the Saharui people. And it would not be possible to bury this for as many generations of Saharauis as might not be able to return to their home country.

[Cover image courtesy of ACAPS/Author:Pau Coll-Ruido Photo]

NGO’s working in the field

Federació ACAPS
SOS Sàhara

A virtual platform that gathers up the systematic violation of rights suffered by the Saharaui people in the occupied territories of Western Sahara. They are a product of the illegal occupation and permanent spoliation of natural resources, a situation that is combined with a permanent violation of the human rights of the group and of women and given more force today by the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is trying to promote a critical and informed Catalan population and to make visible the situation of occupied Western Sahara. This will be done through the development of tools for investigation, critical analysis, communication and incidence that bring about transparency to the impact and the repercussions of the extraction of natural resources and the violation of human rights on the occupied territories of Western Sahara.

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Coordinador de la Federació d’Associacions Catalanes Amigues del Poble Sahrauí (ACAPS); vinculado al movimiento de solidaridad con el pueblo saharaui desde el año 2006 a través de un intercambio de jóvenes catalanes y saharauis. Desde ese momento ha participado en la asociación Gràcia amb el Sàhara de Barcelona y con la Federació ACAPS, primero en la junta directiva y ahora trabajando como coordinador técnico. También es miembro del Consell Municipal de Cooperació Internacional de Barcelona como representante del Distrito de Gràcia.
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