On 13 November 2020, war returned to Western Sahara after a 29 year ceasefire. Morocco and the Western Saharan Polisario Front exchanged fire after the Moroccan army entered Guerguerat, a ‘buffer zone’ just south of the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, to divert Saharawi peaceful protesters blocking Morocco’s “plunder corridor” to Mauritania. According to the ceasefire agreement, no military personnel are permitted to enter the buffer zone.
Sidi Breika, Polisario representative to the UK, says “Polisario Front have withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement in response to the Moroccan army’s military aggression against Saharawi civilians who were legally and peacefully protesting against the Guergarat illegal breach and the continuous plundering of their natural resources.” Polisario evacuated the protesters and has since been targeting Moroccan military positions.
In 2016, the UN promised to send a technical commission to Guerguerat after Saharawis protested against Moroccan moves to tarmac an illegal road and formalise an unofficial border crossing into Mauritania. Four years on, the UN had done nothing. Meanwhile, Morocco increased traffic through the crossing, exporting resources stolen from Western Sahara.
Abdelhay Layachi* is a young Saharawi who helped create the roadblock. “Our purpose was to close down the illegal breach at Guerguerat […][it’s] a gate through which Morocco passes our plundered natural resources to Mauritania and other countries.” He claims that, before Polisario evacuated him and his fellow protesters, “Morocco recruited paid and armed thugs to attack [us]. […] Later, a group of plain-clothes soldiers of the Royal Army were brought to attack us and there were about 200 soldiers.” On the morning of 13th November, Layachi witnessed Moroccan military vehicles emerging from new breaches in the military wall to open fire on the protesters. Polisario returned fire, says Larachi, and evacuated him and his friends to Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria.
The past of the present
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, by which time Spain was under considerable pressure to give the indigenous Saharawi population independence. However, instead of decolonising, Spain sold ‘Spanish Sahara’ to neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania in return for continued rights over the country’s fisheries and a share of profits from the phosphates mine. Morocco claimed that, before Spanish colonisation, ‘Spanish Sahara’ had belonged to the Kingdom of Morocco, a claim refuted by Saharawis and by a 1975 International Court of Justice ruling. As Moroccan troops invaded, indigenous Saharawi civilians fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, where the Saharawi liberation movement the Polisario Front set up a state-in-exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Some 180,000 Saharawi refugees remain there to this day.
Saharawis that could not flee in 1975 have spent the last 45 years under a Moroccan occupation, widely considered by human rights NGOs as among the worst places in the worlds in terms of political freedoms. They are separated from Saharawis in the refugee camps by a Moroccan-built berm, which is the longest active military wall in the world.
Polisario and Morocco were at war until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire, promising a referendum on independence for the Saharawis. Polisario has put its faith in the UN for the last 29 years, only for Morocco to continuously block the referendum with no retribution from the UN. At its last meeting, the Security Council resolution failed to even mention the referendum. The post of UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara has remained vacant for 18 months, meaning no negotiations have taken place. Very unusually for a peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission to Western Sahara has never monitored human rights violations. Hamza Lakhal, a doctoral student currently living in the occupied zone, is writing poetry in response to the unfolding war. His epigram below speaks of the Saharawi-perceived indifference on the part of the UN:
The Global Positioning System (or UNSC)
To the UNSC who threw us in a long peace process with no solution!
Do not… Do not stop!
Go east… Go west
And go north, then go south
Until you become a see-through ghost!
Sail and walk
Go down, go up
Until you dry up!
Take a right, then take a left
Have you found your homeland yet?
– No! I have not!
Oh! Ok, no way out
There is no residence for you
Go back and wander
Be satisfied and obey
There is nothing else within your grasp
You are held hostage to travel!!
Since the 1991 ceasefire, in contravention of the Geneva Convention, Morocco has taken advantage of the diplomatic stalemate by moving hundreds of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara and looting the country’s natural resources.
British companies have participated in this looting. Irvine-based company Windhoist has provided mills for Siemens windfarms built on occupied land. Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy was one of the first companies to drill for oil in Western Sahara’s waters, and London-based San Leon was the first oil company to drill onshore. Kent-based company GeoEx, aided in data analysis by Oxfordshire-based Subsurface Resource Consulting and Milton Keynes-based data processing company Bridgeporth, is trying to flog seismic data and market oil opportunities in occupied Western Sahara’s waters. In March 2015, Western Sahara Campaign UK successfully took the British government to court over imports of plundered agricultural produce and fish from occupied Western Sahara. It is not yet clear, however, if Boris Johnson’s administration will abide by law and preclude produce from occupied Western Sahara in its post-brexit trade agreements with Morocco. Saharawi’s have used nonviolent methods to struggle against resource exploitation since the Spanish era . However, since 2010, the presidents of Saharawi voluntary organisations that protest against this plunder are currently serving life sentences in Moroccan prisons in retribution for their work.
Since the outbreak of war, the occupied zone has seen an increased presence of Moroccan military, gendarmerie, police and intelligence forces. Saharawi journalists report that these armed units are terrorising Saharawi civilians, including young children, via nights raids of homes, the mass arrest of young activists, beatings and other forms of abuse. Ahmed Mohammed* is Saharawi student that runs a voluntary media organisation seeking to expose human rights abuses. One of his colleagues has already been abducted by Moroccan authorities. He and the rest of his colleagues are in hiding. Says Ahmed, “if I have to engage in this war, I will not kill anyone but I will destroy all facilities of foreign companies in my country.”
Najla Mohammed, who was born and lives in the refugees camps, says, “Nobody knows what ‘peaceful’ means more than us. I have lived my entire life in peaceful resistance waiting for the international community to help us exercise our right to self-determination. The world does not understand peace. They listen when bullets are shot. I am ready to give my life if need be so that the oppression of my people is over.”
Joanna Allan is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University. She is the author of a book about women’s nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea entitled Silenced Resistance: Women, Dictatorships and Genderwashing in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea.
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