WESTERN SAHARA: The wall of shame

Wednesday, November 17, 1993

Ron Guy

A wall can take many forms. It can be the 2400 kilometres of earth — and estimated three million landmines — that separate the Western Saharan people from their homeland. Or it can be a wall of silence.

Recently, I joined a delegation to Western Sahara as a representative of the Australian Workers Union to report on the Muslim nation "in waiting".

There are four refugee camps, approximately 40,000 people in each. These refugees want to go home. They have been waiting for the last 30 years for a compliant world and the United Nations to pressure Morocco into meeting its commitment, and stop putting up obstacles to a proposed referendum, which was part of a UN-brokered cease-fire 12 years ago.

The time has not been wasted by the government-in-exile, which has built links with other countries, and put in place the infrastructure for a smooth transition to power.

Western Sahara is Europe's East Timor! The hope is that when Morocco withdraws from the occupied area it will not emulate the reprisals that were inflicted upon East Timor. There is a need for a democratic government in this troubled part of the world.

The Saharawi are a tolerant people. They are supportive of a multi-party system, and are against capital punishment. They are religiously tolerant and women enjoy equal rights. In fact, women hold more positions in government than do women in many Western governments.

Our delegation met Bouhoubeni Yahya, a representative of the Red Crescent, who highlighted the fact that the distribution of food to the camps was incredibly well-organised by the Polisario national liberation front. They have never had the trouble that is sometimes seen in other refugee camps where supplies are flown in by helicopters because of riots and food stores are looted by rival gangs. Here the supplies are distributed equally, and everyone goes without when there are shortfalls, as is expected in coming months.

At the moment there is an urgent need for sugar, flour and dried milk, products Australia could supply. There is poor nutrition; 10 year old children could pass as six.

The Saharawi are a proud people who do not want aid; they simply want back the country they were driven from when the Moroccans invaded in 1975.

Living in such harsh conditions in the desert, with 55 degree heat in the summer, would test anybody's mettle. There is concern that the young people will become restless every time the UN lets Morocco get away with its delaying tactics for the referendum on self-determination.

Morocco has been exploiting the natural resources of Western Saharan fishing and phosphates. It has also signed an oil reconnaissance licence with TotalFinElf and Kerr-McGee.

Alleged pressure brought to bear by EU-based ethical investment firms on the Norwegian company TGS-Nopec, which owns the ships doing the exploration, caused the exploration to cease.

The UN examination of the situation found that Morocco violated international law by failing to take into account the interests of local people.

Now a British company, Wessex exploration, has signed a contract with Moroccan oil company ONAREP. Wessex has no shareholders to lobby. Fusion Oil & Gas, a UK-listed Australian-based company, has entered into a technical cooperation agreement with the Western Saharan government, the rightful owners of the resource. It would be a crime if the most important wealth that the Western Saharawis have, namely tolerance, democracy and equality, should be lost and the Moroccan hereditary monarchy should be able to continue its oppression of these people.

There are many claims of human rights abuses against Morocco. Western Saharawis figure highly among the list of "disappeared". The Polisario has gone to great lengths to keep the personal records of the Moroccans who have been killed and captured during the period of war, so that they can be returned to the families of these soldiers when this conflict comes to an end. It is doubted that this will be reciprocated.

In El Ayoun, the second refugee camp we visited, we were shown an agricultural project designed to provide training and a positive distraction for the youth, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables for the elderly and infirm.

The mayor, Omar Masur, made the comment that the Polisario had an annual program in place that takes 9000 children from the camps before the extreme heat sets in and distributes them to volunteer families throughout Europe. These visits give the children much-needed relief and added nutrition. They also help break down stereotype images of Westerners.

It was moving to see the lack of animosity the Western Saharawi have towards other countries, even Morocco itself.

If ever there was the time and place for the "Free World" to prove that it is serious about democracy in North Africa, then this is the time.

[Ron Guy participated in the first Australian delegation to the Western Sahara as a representative of the AWU. For more information on the Western Sahara or to offer support, visit <http://www.awsa-westernsahara.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 9, 2004.

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