Western Sahara: ‘We only want our country’

Smara Saharawi refugee camp

Western Sahara is the last country in Africa awaiting decolonisation.

Invaded by Spain in the late 19th century, mass mobilisations in the early 1970s heralded the birth of the modern independence movement.

In 1973, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) was established to wage an armed independence struggle.

By 1975, Polisario had fought Spain to a standstill. Rather than grant independence, Spain made an agreement with neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania to occupy Western Sahara.

Spain was to retain access to its maritime resources.

Many Saharawi fled to refugee camps on the border with Algeria. However, most of the men returned to fight for independence.

On February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

By 1979, Polisario defeated Mauritania. However, the war with Morocco continued.

In the ’80s, Morocco built walls dividing the areas they occupied from the Polisario-controlled areas. The Moroccan-occupied area includes the coast and the main towns and cities, while the liberated zone is sparsely populated.

The Moroccan government has encouraged Moroccan settlers to move to occupied Western Sahara.

In 1991, the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire between Polisario and Morocco. It included an agreement for a UN-supervised referendum on independence.

However, despite many UN resolutions, the referendum has not been held. This is largely due to support for Morocco from the Western powers, particularly France and the US.

Repression in the Moroccan-occupied territories continues. On November 8, Moroccan forces violently attacked non-violent protesters camped at Gdeim Izik, outside the capital El Aaiun.

In the aftermath, Moroccan soldiers and settlers attacked Saharawi homes and shops in El Aaiun.

An estimated 36 Sahrawis were killed, 723 wounded and 163 arrested. Those arrested are facing Moroccan military courts.

The population of the occupied areas is about 500,000. About 165,000 people live in refugee camps in western Algeria, under control of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

One of those living in the refugee camps is Tagiyou Aslama. Like most Saharawi refugees of his generation — he was 18 at the time of the Moroccan invasion — his life has been tied up with his country’s struggle for independence.

He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Tony Iltis about the situation facing his people.

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I was born in the Awserd territory in the south of Western Sahara. Like any Saharawi, I was living in the desert with my family. We were Bedouin people. In the last months of 1975, we heard the news from the Polisario Front that the Spanish colonialists were leaving, but the Moroccans were occupying the north of Western Sahara.

We met some Saharawi soldiers from Polisario who told us: “Please, you had better go because the Moroccans are coming.”

We had just started our travels when the Moroccan occupation forces’ planes bombed the Umm Dreiga refugee camp [inside Western Sahara] with napalm and phosphorus.

The Moroccan occupation forces began bombing the territory of Western Sahara. We understood the Moroccan army had instructions to kill any Saharawi [it could].

The Moroccans were killing everyone and the Mauritanians [who invaded from the south] were too.

If the Mauritanian army found some Saharawi Bedouin families, they killed the men, the women and the animals.

But the Moroccan forces were stronger. They had air power, unlike the Mauritanian army.

When we started our travels, we did not have many cars. Some people carried those who couldn’t walk on their backs.

Everyone — the women, the children, the men — went from our country to [western Algeria] just by walking. It was very, very difficult.

We had big problems: can you imagine just walking, without a house, without tents, without hospitals, without anything?

At night, some women gave birth to new babies without any medication or anything. And nobody could do anything.

It was a very difficult situation. If the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies found some water, they killed camels or donkeys and put them in the water to make it undrinkable.

Sometimes, planes would fly over and bomb everyone.

When we came to Algeria, every man left their families and went back to fight the Mauritanian and Moroccan armies. And we fought very strongly.

We concentrated many of our forces in Mauritania. The Mauritanian army was very weak. The Moroccan army deployed troops to Nouakchott and other Mauritanian cities.

French planes bombed Saharawi soldiers. When we were fighting in Zouerate, we caught some French civilian advisers.

In 1979, Mauritania made a call to the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic to stop the war. So we made peace with Mauritania.

After that, all our power was directed against the Moroccan army. To continue the war, the Moroccan army needed help from France and many other countries.

They started building their six walls in 1981, finishing in their shameful project in 1987.

But the walls couldn’t stop the Saharawi fighting. We continued the war until 1991.

Then the United Nations came into Western Sahara and said: “We will organise a referendum for the self-determination for the Saharawi people.”

But, I’m sorry to say, nothing happened with this promise.

The UN sent a peacekeeping force called Minurso that came into Western Sahara and stood between us and the Moroccans. But they’re just bodyguards for the Moroccan army.

The UN didn’t do anything for us. Maybe the Moroccans think they’re above international law. We don’t understand why the UN won’t do anything.

Of course, we like peace. We did not like the war. But we want self-determination, to have a referendum.

The Moroccans have powerful friends. For example, what happened about the massacre at Gdeim Izik camp in El Aaiun [on November 8]?

The European Union issued a report about Morocco’s massacre, but the French cast a veto [in the United Nations Security Council] and said: “No! We won’t do anything for the human rights of Saharawis.”

All Saharawi understand that if the UN didn’t come to us, we would have continued fighting. We would have won our independence or died trying.

We like peace. Our children like peace. For example, anyone who comes to visit the camps from any country in theworld doesn’t face any problems. We are not like many Arab countries: we do not have Shi’as against Sunnis or any religious conflict.

We are one people, we have one system of government. We have the Polisario Front, our government and our representatives in the UN.

The population in the camps is making demands on the Polisario Front to go back to the war.

We extend our hand for peace, but if the UN can’t deliver our self-determination, we say: “Please get out of our country … We are ready to die for our country.”

I want to thank every organisation from around the world helping and showing solidarity with Western Sahara. I want to say to everyone: please demand the Moroccan government stops oppressing the Saharawi people in the occupied territories.

We have many people in Moroccan prisons. There are human rights activists who came and visited the refugee camps and were imprisoned by the Moroccans when they went back.

Humanitarian aid for the people in the refugee camps is very important for us too.

The situation for children in the refugee camps is very difficult. In summer, when it’s hot, the children go to school and they just have hot water to drink, there is no fridge to keep it cold.

Sometimes our children ask us about our country they have never seen. They ask, “How is the weather in our country?”

We want just one thing: to go back to our country. Nothing will stop us wanting our rights.