Tecber Ahmed Saleh, a health worker for the Ministry of Health of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), is touring Australia, advocating for international recognition of her country.
That often means explaining that her country and people actually exist. “Whenever I go overseas I hope everybody knows about Western Sahara but I always get: ‘Where is that? What is this country? Aren’t you part of Morocco?’,” Tecber told Green Left Weekly.
“I end up trying to explain where I come from. Part of my responsibility is to advocate for the Saharawi people everywhere I go.”
Western Sahara’s fight for existence is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, beginning in the early 1970s when the Polisario Front began struggling for independence from Spain.
“Western Sahara used to be a Spanish colony and when Spain left the region [in 1975], they didn’t give us a decolonisation agreement,” Tecber explained.
“They had an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to split the country: north to Morocco and south to Mauritania.”
Spain got the resources back under the deal.
“Polisario fought the double occupation. Mauritania left the country three years later, but Morocco continued the war”.
It continued until 1991 when the United Nations intervened with a ceasefire proposal.
The agreement stipulated a referendum be held to ask the Saharawi what they want: to join Morocco or have their land. Morocco and Polisario both agreed and MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) was established. “But the referendum never happened,” Saleh said.
“The Moroccans have been blocking it since they agreed to it.”
They were able to, Tecber said, because of France’s role in the UN Security Council. France “always blocks any resolution to solve the problem because they are 100% behind the occupation”.
Since then, there have been many UN envoys “appointed to solve the problem”, said Saleh. “They work on the issue for some years, then resign saying they cannot solve it.
“People are suffering under the occupation and in the refugee camps. The international community is silent.”
Most people do not know that Western companies are involved in trading Western Sahara’s stolen natural resources — mainly phosphate and fisheries.
“Western Sahara’s coast includes one of the world’s richest fisheries and European Union countries — particularly Spain and France — use the agreement with Morocco to exploit the fisheries.
“People don’t know that companies from their country are using resources from a conflict area.”
Australian companies stopped importing phosphate from occupied Western Sahara “two to three years ago” but Tecber said one company still has not made a clear statement it will not continue doing it in the future.
In contrast to the EU’s steadfast support for Morocco, the African Union supports Western Sahara.
“Western Sahara is one of the founders of the African Union and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity,” Tecber said. “Because of this, Morocco left the organisation but came back in 2016 and since then the Moroccan King and the Saharawi Polisario President have been under the same roof. They are supposed to recognise us as a country because we are an African Union member state.
“The African Union supports our cause … and we are recognised by most African countries and South American countries.”
Following the Moroccan invasion, half the population fled to refugee camps on the remote desert border with Algeria. They and their descendants still live there.
“We are one of the longest existing refugee camps in the world — more than four decades — waiting for the right to self-determination until now,” Tecber said.
“One of the main issues for people in the camps now is that all the humanitarian aid is based on the assumption that they are only there for a short stay.
“But the refugee camps have been there for over four decades; generations have been born in the refugee camps. I was born and raised there.
“Recent cuts in humanitarian aid directly affects the health of the population — malnutrition and anaemia. When you talk to the UN about this they always say the refugee camps are supposed to only be for a short period.
“They forget that they are the ones who stopped the promised referendum in the ceasefire agreement. So it’s their responsibility. It’s not our responsibility as refugees.
Tecber said she is very concerned about the health of the younger generation and elderly people. “We receive food aid that makes you feel full, but does not have the nutrients needed to maintain health.
“We get water from the desert soil, and it has a high iodine concentration and other minerals need to be filtered to be fit for consumption. But we don’t have the technology and it can affect the health of children and pregnant women.
“If there are any aid cuts, the first people affected are the Saharawi refugee camps.”
The situation in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara is even worse.
The Moroccans’ treatment of the Saharawi indigenous people in the Occupied Territories is not widely known about, Tecber said. Morocco claims to be treating people but “we see Morocco is brutally torturing, imprisoning, killing Saharawi people even for small demonstrations”.
“Recently, people were celebrating Algeria’s win in the African Cup of Nations and one girl was killed and others were imprisoned and tortured.”
Morocco can claim it is not doing anything wrong, Tecber said, because nobody knows what it is doing there, due to a media blackout.
“For example when companies ask Morocco about whether they are using the money to develop Western Sahara, they always claim they are.
“But we don’t see any development: you don’t find any university in the Occupied Territories. People have to travel to Morocco to finish their education. There, they are taught false information about their culture and they cannot protest or they will be expelled or jailed.
“Imagine how torturing it is to see your own history being distorted and you have to shut up and not say anything.
“Also, we don’t have any hospitals. If you are sick, you have to go to Morocco and often you don’t get the treatment you need. If you are found reporting these sorts of things, your family will be jailed, or you will be threatened with rape.”
Youth and resistance
Activists in the Occupied Territories now use social media to publicise their dissent and protests. “It’s peaceful,” Tecber said. “You can see people holding flags, not even being nationalist, but just protesting for better pay or getting employment. And they get beaten up by the police.
“A group of Saharawi journalists who try to get the news out are always being threatened. They are ready to get beaten or imprisoned. They manage to create small videos, but sometimes they have to deactivate their accounts.”
The UN’s failure to implement the referendum has led to growing numbers of people in the camps questioning the ceasefire’s utility.
“The SADR government, and most older people, would still rather solve the issue as they’ve been promised – peacefully,” Tecber said. “But since that is not happening lots of people feel, like me, it’s just not going to happen.”
Since the UN process has failed, she said a lot of people, particularly the youth, are starting to say “let’s try war” since we’ve waited in vain for more than 20 years. They think if they fight, the international community will take notice.
But, Tecber said, while the “younger generation think one thing and the older generation think something else” the leadership will not abandon the peace process.
“On the streets, people are just fed up. They think that the UN and the international community are not doing their job. So war is an option that we discuss. We are not breaking the ceasefire, but Morocco has broken it all along and the UN has not done anything.”
Having the opportunity to travel brings with it “the responsibility for bringing the voice of the Saharawi people in the camps,” Tecber said.
“As I work for the Ministry of Health, I also have to work with the African Union countries. I have been to a lot of African countries and represented Western Sahara in meetings with Moroccans. They always object to my presence, asking why I should be in the meeting when [the country I represent] is not a country. Even in technical health meetings, I have to prove our country’s existence, even knowing that we are a founding member of the African Union and Morocco just joined in 2016. That’s an ironic experience.”
“I hope that my tour of Australia results in more people knowing about our cause and supporting the Australian committee for Western Sahara,” Tecber concluded.
[Tecber will visit Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra during September. For a full calendar of tour events, visit Facebook.com/Western.Sahara.Down.Under.]