The story of Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa, is one of flagrant violation of international law, and persistence of a four decades’ military occupation by an African country of another African nation. But it is also a story of systematic human rights violation, thousands stories of forcibly separated families, stolen lives and dreams, yet with a flavour of resistance and refusal to abdicate by the people of this territory.
Since the first days of the invasion of the territory in October 1975 by Morocco, thousands of Saharawis fled bombardment and massive killings, seeking refuge in the 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’. To make it even worse a situation, 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 was even consulted in war situations, because in the Saharawi traditional culture, everyone must be involved in the decision-making, including the children, who are motivated from a very young age to forge a strong and needed personality to face the hardships of the desert. After the invasion started, the Saharawi women and youth were the main targets of Moroccan oppression, but they were also the first to rise up and resist with the rigor of youth, attachment to the identity and refusal of foreign domination and aggression.
Saharawi women: same sufferings same fate
Elghalia Djimi and Mbarka Mehdi, two middle-aged ladies reflect the story of this conflict poorly covered in mainstream media. Mbarka fled the invasion with her family while a child to live in the refugee camps. She is a journalist in the Saharawi television. She lost sight of many members of her family who were left behind in the occupied city of Smara since 1975, and has been unable to see her homeland ever since.
On the other side of the military wall, Elghalia lives in the occupied capital of Western Sahara, El Aaiun. She was still 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 violations in her country becoming 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 lived similar humiliations with a lot of my Saharawi compatriots, men and women, in a secret detention camp in El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara back in 1987,” El Ghalia Djimi says, condemning what she described as a systematic use of torture and oppression by the Moroccan authorities in her territory since its occupation to this date.
“Nothing changed,” Elghalia says. “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!” she said.
All eminent international human rights organisations, such as HRW, Amnesty Internationa, Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, Front Line Defenders and many others, had in fact reported about these violations in the last 20 years, frequently with very strong evidences and proofs on abuses committed by Moroccan officials. Yet, the United Nations fails 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,” Elghalia adds, “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 she was arrested in the first place? The only thing I know is that the Moroccan Consultative Council for Human Rights, after years of denial of the State’s relation with her disappearance, suddenly put her name in 2010 in a list of more than 350 Saharawis who died in secret jails between 1975 and 1993. But, no international reaction occurred following this recognition of responsibility. None seems to care,” she said with slippery drops of tears on her cheek that she quickly swept away refusing to look weak.
Another side of the coin
The story of Mbarka Mehdi, is different. She was 6 years old when she had to run with some members of her family from Moroccan military attacks, in 1975, against the now occupied city of Smara, to live in the refugee camps in South-West Algeria, ever since.
Mrs. Mbarka Mehdi in the studios of RASD TV
The Saharawis built the only refugee camps in the world completely run and administrated by refugees themselves. They constituted their government in exile, the Saharawi Republic, in 1976, to self-organise small refugee towns, or camps, named after their left-behind occupied cities. They built schools, hospitals, ministries and administrations to provide the basics for some 200.000 refugees. And thus gave a unique example of determination and willingness to resist foreign occupation, not only at the political level, but on all levels that preserve their identity and culture as an authentic African nation struggling for freedom, refusing cultural and political domination or surrender to the strongly Western-supported Morocco.
“I was young, but I could see and feel a terror that still lives deep inside me. I particularly kept fade 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 had on, and a few other basics. And above it all, I still remember my cousins whom I lost of sight since then, and my childhood friends and neighbors, who passed away during the invasion, or years after that in prisons,” Mbarka says with her soft and firm voice.
She describes the first days in the refugee camps with a glow of nostalgia in her eyes, admitting that they were very hard days, because there were a lot of sufferings that accompanied the forced exodus of the refugees, but also days of a 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 poor camp, distributing the scarce food between the families, giving the 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 behind the fact that my generation was an exemplary one in everything, in studies, in productivity and voluntarism and in the determination to continue the fight, because we have seen it all: injustice, cruelty of the invader, death and denial of our most basic rights but also the will to rise up and fight,” Mbarka emphasizes.
El Ghalia has another angle of the story to tell about the life under occupation. She couldn’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 with 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? We were almost striped of our humanity if it wasn’t the rage to live and survive, and the will to resist their attempt to break our dignity.”
A deaf, dumb and blind international community
The worse is that the international community is inert in front of this four decades 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 first time ever, 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 as far as the human rights in Western Sahara were concerned.
The Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General to Western Sahara, Ambassador Christopher Ross,was alarmed about the persistent stalemate, and tried in his two last reports to the UN Security Council to draw the attention of the member States to the danger of “maintaining the status quo” in this last colony in Africa, especially after the explosion of conflicts, unrest and terrorism in the countries of the Sahel, such as Mali, but also in Libya, and the possible influence this situation can have on Western Sahara. He rightly said that it was a mistake to think that the stalemate will benefit anyone. He ended up resigning his post in 2015, having been 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. But again, he spent only one year in his post before coming out with the conclusion that the real problem relies in the reluctance by the so-called international community to implement 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 tried apparently to do something about the dire human rights situation, at least by pushing 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) in place since 1991, which is widely criticised by international human rights organisations because it failed so far to achieve its initial mandate. Köhler, resigned last May 22nd. The reasons given by Guterres to explain the resignation doesn’t matter, the situation speaks its own words.
“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 well lose patience, and opt for violence to free their country. They see no hopes ahead; they see no real reactions from the so-called international community, just talks 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 incredible 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 notes.
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 joined the refugee camps in 2005 fleeing police persecution in El Aaiun, said when he was asked to comment on the lack of attention the international community seems to give to his and his friends' 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 legitimate armed struggle may be the only option left to Saharawis by the international community, but they still hold this spirit out of discipline and engagement to the overall peaceful strategy of the Saharawi leadership.
No light at the end of the tunnel
The Moroccan attitude and position remains 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 that of October 9, 2009, when he stressed the determination of his country to maintain the occupation estimating 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 oppose the king’s will, Saharawis on top of the list.
The story of Western Sahara, and the individual stories of thousands of other Saharawis like Elghalia, Mbarka or Hamdi, will remain a dishonourable disgrace in the records of the UN and the international community. It is a challenge to the international law, indeed, but it is also a challenge to all those who think that the rule of law, democracy, social justice and human principles must prevail over the rules of the jungle big powers are always trying to impose on humanity.
But the “walk to freedom” has never been easy to take. “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 as our kids can recover their land and dignity in the future, for we may well die before enjoying freedom, if so, we will die standing”.