After two decades of political deadlock, Africa’s oldest refugee population is losing faith in UN mandated peace negotiations.
“No one will give us our freedom — we must take it!,” Sahrawi journalist Embarka Elmehdi Said told Green Left Weekly.
Said sees little hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis that has gripped Western Sahara since its independence from Spain in the 1970s.
A child when her family fled the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in 1975, Said has spent most of her life in the Polisario run refugee camps on the Western Sahar-Algeria border.
Her two sons, aged 12 and three, have spent all their lives in the camps.
Said fears that if no dramatic change occurs, her children may spend their entire lives as refugees: “Our children ...will stay on this hamada [desert wasteland] forever.”
She believes that the Polisario must return to war against Morocco, or forsake future generations of Sahrawi to lives of poverty in the camps.
Said is not alone. Over the past few years public opinion in the refugee camps has shifted dramatically as Sahrawi have lost confidence in stalled United Nations-led negotiations.
Since the UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect in 1991, the Sahrawi people have waited for a referendum on self-determination that was guaranteed under the peace settlement with Morocco.
Prior to the ceasefire, the nationalist Polisario front fought a guerrilla war against Morocco, both of which invaded Western Sahara after colonial ruler Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975.
The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) mandate has been extended 39 times without being fulfilled, largely due to international disinterest and the interference of Moroccan authorities.
The mission has drawn increased criticism over its failure to make headway, including from its former deputy chairperson Frank Ruddy. In 2005 he said: “Morocco dictated the where and when of the voting registration, controlled entry to the UN registration facilities, and even decided which Western Saharans got to register …
“Morocco's abuse of the people of Western Sahara and its manipulation of the UN mission in Western Sahara was open and notorious.”
After working with the Polisario negotiating team, human rights advisor Radhi Bachir also believes the UN “mission has failed”. Nevertheless, Polisario continues to support peace talks despite the popular frustration.
Bachir told GLW: “They [Morocco] got the ceasefire...but they don’t want to go through with the referendum.
“We are still negotiating, but there is no political will [and] no end in sight.”
This fact is obvious to many Sahrawi people, who Bachir says were “sold out” under the last failed MINURSO initiative, the Baker Plan.
Sahrawi Journalists and Writers Union (UPES) secretary general Malainin Lakhal told GLW: “We are running against time, people are fed up [but] there is no political will in the security council. If all the cooperation that the Sahrawi gave to the UN doesn’t work ...what are we supposed to do?”
The situation almost reached a tipping point in late 2010 after the violent dismantling of the Gdeim Izik protest camp near Moroccan-occupied Laayoune.
In a November 26 report, Human Rights Watch said that Moroccan security forces used excessive force, and engaged in “retaliatory” attacks on ethnic Sahrawi citizens.
Among the casualties at Gdeim Izik was 14-year-old Nayem Elgarhi, shot by Moroccan security forces near the protest camp.
Like thousands of other refugees that protested near the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Polisario offices in the Rabuni camp, Said told GLW she was deeply distressed when Moroccan security forces tore down Gdeim Izik. She said: “We saw the Sahrawi suffering in the occupied territories and the UN couldn’t do anything.”
Since then, support for UN negotiations has waned considerably.
Anami Hamodi Mohamedali is the president of Ajedayeriya Dayera, a section of the largest Western Saharan refugee camp, Smara.
He said that he knows the refugees living in Smara camp well and understands their dissatisfaction.
“You can ask someone [in the camp] what do you think about war or peace — he will tell you we must go to war,” he told GLW.
Learosi Abdalahi Salec, a volunteer at Afapredesa (a human rights organisation based in Rabuni camp), said he could also see anger in the younger refugees.
He told GLW: “They say this situation is unacceptable, especially for us ... they told the leaders if you didn’t want to [return to] war, you can go away ... we want new leaders, who take us to war.”
He believes the demand for war amongst youth will continue to rise, though he personally still believes a viable peace settlement could be negotiated.
“The victims are young people ... if there is no solution, let us go back to war. I am against the war ... because I know that the Moroccan citizens, and the Sahrawi nation, will be [its] victims.”
When three aid workers were kidnapped from Rabuni camp last October, the Polisario blamed a group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Immediately following the kidnapping, there were allegations that al Qaeda may have garnered support among the refugees or Polisario personnel.
Polisario fervently denies that Sahrawi would aid a terrorist group like AQIM, yet questions remain over how and why insurgents infiltrated the camp.
Salec told GLW that he agrees with Polisario that AQIM has been kept out of the camps. But he said that the growing “frustration”, particularly among Sahrawi youth, meant things could change.
He said there is no evidence that Sahrawi are turning to extremist groups like AQIM, but agreed that if nothing changes soon, radicalisation “is very possible”.
Lakhal, however, has more faith in the Sahrawi. He said: “In our case, I think that what [saves] us from ... serious extremist problems is that we have a national goal ... a battle that is not finished.
“Most of the youth see themselves as continuing this struggle [and] do not need [Islamic fundamentalism].”
Lakhal may be right, but all over the refugee camps there are young Sahrawi with no memories of their homeland.
When asked why they want war, many around the camps point to the poverty, purposelessness and boredom that pervade their lives. Some young men sleep until midday, waking only to perform a few menial tasks. Others whittle away days on end just making tea.
It’s easy to understand why Mohamedali said: “Some say it’s better to die than live this life.”
For now, the Polisario still has the support of most Sahrawi refugees. But this may not last.
Mohamedali told GLW: “People are now angry with the Sahrawi leadership. I think they [the Polisario] have one year to give hope to the Sahrawis otherwise they will be forced to do something. What exactly, I don’t know.”
Everyone we spoke to in the camps seemed to agree that a peaceful settlement could succeed only with international support.
Australia must take a more proactive role in ensuring the ongoing crisis in Western Sahara is resolved.
This would mean an end to the illegal and unethical import of Western Saharan phosphate sold by Moroccan company Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP).
Australian companies Impact Fertilisers, Incitec Pivot and CSBP/Wesfarmers support the Moroccan occupation of Sahrawi lands by working with OCP.
Corporate involvement helps legitimise the unlawful military occupation and impedes the genuine peace process.
Without greater international solidarity and support, Said’s children are likely to live and die as refugees.
The inhumane status quo is unstable and unsustainable. Australian corporate complicity in the illegal occupation of Western Sahara must end.