Letter From Western Sahara, a Land Under Occupation


Teachers escort children as they walk by the main administration
building in Dakhla refugee camp. All images by Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Dakhla refugee camp, southwestern Algeria —Tchlaz Bchere has visited Western
Sahara, the land she calls her rightful home, only once. Born and raised in a
refugee camp in the remote desert expanse of southwestern Algeria, the
30-year-old activist has always clung to the promise of an independent
homeland, free from Moroccan control. Yet in the entwined contradictions of
hope and despair that have shaped her life as a Sahrawi refugee, Bchere never
wants to have children—to have them grow up like her, in a state of permanent
displacement and consigned to a life of waiting in the harsh desert.

“My hope has no limits,” she says. “But
I don’t want to raise a child in this situation.”

Bchere is a refugee of Africa’s last colony, the site of one of the world’s
longest-running conflicts and one of its most invisible.

Western Sahara has been occupied by
Morocco since 1975, when Spain, the former colonial power, signed an agreement
handing over control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing the
two countries to invade. The United States and France supported the forced

The Moroccan army carried out brutal
attacks against civilians, including bombing, strafing and dropping napalm on
those trying to escape the fighting. The violence prompted nearly half the
Sahrawi population to flee on foot and cross into Algeria, where they were
allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.

For close to four decades, nearly half
the native population of Western Sahara has lived as refugees in Algeria; the
other half lives as a minority population under foreign rule. Two parallel
societies, one living in exile, the other under occupation.

“The refugee camps are not ours, we are
guests, and yet we feel more free here, ” Bchere says. Her only visit to
occupied Western Sahara came in 2007 for five days as part of a United Nations
family exchange program. “I cried when I got there. I don’t know my homeland, I
only know what my parents told me. But what I saw was that, for Sahrawis,
everything there is affected by occupation, all aspects of life.”

With Algeria’s support, the
anti-colonial movement that had fought to oust Spain, known as the Polisario
Front, went to war with Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew.
The war ended in 1991 with a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that included a
promise of a referendum on self-determination and the return of the refugee
population. Twenty-two years later, the referendum has yet to take place.

“The war didn’t end in 1991. It is still
ongoing—maybe not with weapons, but with other means, ” says Bchere. “But they
cannot eradicate our rights.”

Polisario established a
government-in-exile in 1976 from its base near Tindouf known as the Sahrawi
Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With the support of Algeria and international
aid, the refugees built four camps in the desert and named them after cities in
the Western Sahara.

While most of the men left to fight the
war against Morocco, Sahrawi women played a central role in building the basic
structures to house schools, clinics and community centers. “In all fronts you
will find women leading the process, whether in the refugee camps or in the
occupied territories, ” says Fatma al-Mehdi, president of the National Union of
Sahrawi Women. “As Sahrawi women we are working not only to liberate our
country but also to have an equal society.”

Dakhla, the most remote of the camps,
lies some 100 miles from Tindouf, where the nearest airport is located, and
lacks sanitation, running water and electricity. Residents live in traditional
nomad tents and small mud-brick dwellings, their color blending in with the
surrounding landscape of sand and rock. Several sparse clusters of trees are
the only vegetation in the barren stretch of desert, courtesy of an underground
water source that families pump from wells for domestic use.

The Dakhla refugee camp resembles its
namesake, the city of Dakhla in occupied Western Sahara, in name only. While
the camp is surrounded by parched desert, the latter is situated on a narrow
peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic, with blue ocean waters on every

“It’s the difference between heaven and hell,”  says Mohammed Louali Akik, the
59-year-old minister of the occupied territories and diaspora in SADR. He
recalls the last time he was in Dakhla proper, as a 21-year-old, before he fled
amid the growing violence in the mid-1970s. “The weather, the breeze, the
water—there is no comparison. It is only the steadfastness of people that has
kept them here for nearly forty years in the furious heat and extremely
difficult circumstances.”

One of the most inhospitable places on
earth, temperatures in summertime often climb above 120F in the Dakhla camp,
and there is little respite from the roasting sun. Shade is sanctuary, and
people outdoors cluster closely together wherever it is offered.

During the daytime, the monochrome
panorama of sandy brown is punctuated by vivid splashes of color as Sahrawi
women walk through the campgrounds wrapped in traditional, brightly patterned  melfas. Men wrap their heads in
scarves, which they often use to shield their noses and mouths from sand-laden
gusts of wind.

Electricity is scarce, with families
using solar panels that charge car batteries to store power. At night, the camp
plunges into an enveloping darkness that adults and children alike appear
acclimated to, finding their way around with ease; the blackness giving bloom
to a thick canopy of stars overhead.

While the Sahrawi camps are heavily
dependent on international aid for survival—with a starch-heavy diet provided
by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—they are different from
other refugee camps in that they are entirely self-managed. Most affairs and
camp life organization is run by the refugees themselves, with little outside

The camps boast one of the highest
literacy rates in Africa, and many Sahrawi refugees are also fluent in Spanish,
which is taught as a second language in schools, while thousands of Sahrawi
children spend their summers with families in Spain as part of an exchange

“We built a state with full institutions
while in exile,” says Akik. “We are fighting poverty, illiteracy and

Dakhla is also home to an extraordinary
annual film festival known as FiSahara. It was founded by Sahrawi exiles and
the Spanish filmmaking community to bring cinema to thousands of refugees in
the desert and to hold workshops that help Sahrawis learn the art of filmmaking
to tell their own stories.

“My country colonized Western Sahara and
it neglected its responsibilities when it decolonized,” says Maria Carrion, the
executive director of FiSahara. “As a Spaniard, along with many other
Spaniards, I feel responsible to let my government know that they finally need
to take responsibility for what they did.” Carrion says a big component of the
film festival is also about raising international awareness. “Slowly the wall
of silence is being pierced. I won’t say broken altogether yet. It’s a very
slow process.”

Hidi Wahid’s hands still bear the
physical scars of his interrogation by Moroccan security forces. In 2009, the
27-year-old Sahrawi activist was arrested in Smara, a city in occupied Western
Sahara, while taking part in a pro-independence protest. He was taken to a
police station, where he says he was stripped naked, threatened with rape and
repeatedly beaten and burned with lit cigarettes that were stubbed out on his
hands and arms.

After three days of questioning, he was
thrown into an overcrowded cell with 120 other prisoners, where he spent the
next seven months in incommunicado pretrial detention—his family not knowing if
he was dead or alive—before being sentenced to three years in prison on a
sweeping set of charges including incitement to violence and drug-related
offenses. After his release in 2012, he remained undeterred, taking up work as
an adviser to Freedom Sun, an organization advocating for human rights
defenders in Western Sahara.

“In the occupied territories you can’t
speak about anything, they oppress you,” Wahid says during a visit to Dakhla,
his first time to see the refugee camps in Algeria. “You don’t feel the
occupation here, you can say what you want, but they are living as refugees. My
joy will be complete when we transfer it all to Western Sahara, when everyone
can come to the homeland and we live, unoccupied, under our own flag.”

Moroccan security forces continue to
commit widespread human rights abuses in Western Sahara, yet there is little
international media coverage due to tight restrictions by Moroccan authorities
and the reluctance of news outlets to cover a story that is far removed from
the international spotlight.

“We are in front of a forgotten
conflict,” says Luis De Vega, a 42-year-old Spanish journalist for ABC, a Madrid-based
daily, who has closely covered the issue for a decade and visited occupied
Western Sahara and the refugee camps a dozen times each. “Ninety-five percent
of the time there are no journalists on the ground.”

In April, the Robert F. Kennedy Center
for Justice and Human Rights released a report detailing cases of summary
execution, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and torture in Western
Sahara after conducting a visit to the region in August 2012.

“There is near-absolute impunity for
human rights violations against the Sahrawi people, who live in a state of fear
and oppression under the impassive watch of the UN peacekeeping mission,” the
report states.

The UN Security Council established the
United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its
French acronym, MINURSO) in 1991, with a mandate that included monitoring the
cease-fire agreement and the administration of the referendum, but did not
include a human rights mandate. MINURSO remains the only contemporary UN
peacekeeping mission in the world that cannot monitor human rights.

“I’ve seen UN forces sit by and watch as
the Moroccans beat and arrest us, and they do nothing,” says Ahmed el-Mehdi, a
27-year-old activist who fled his home in al-Ayun, the capital of occupied
Western Sahara, a decade ago. El-Mehdi says he was being closely monitored by
Moroccan security forces and decided to go into self-imposed exile in the
refugee camps after his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to ten years in
prison. “I left in order to expose the gross human rights violations that are
happening there,” he says.

Earlier this year, the United
States—which has long supported Morocco’s position—took the unprecedented step
of proposing a draft resolution to task the UN peacekeeping force with human
rights monitoring, but the proposal was shot down after aggressive
international lobbying by Rabat.

Meanwhile, UN special envoy Christopher
Ross—whom Morocco tried unsuccessfully to have replaced last year, accusing him
of bias—arrived in the region in October to intensify efforts to break the
deadlock over the disputed territory. Bloody clashes erupted in al-Ayun between
police and pro-independence protesters as Ross wrapped up his visit.

A variety of factors have contributed to
the conflict’s intractability, including powerful economic and strategic
interests for Morocco that include Western Sahara’s rich natural resources:
phosphates, rich fishing waters and the promise of offshore oil. Yet concepts
pervasive within Moroccan nationalism that claim the territory as part of a
“Greater Morocco” have also played a key part in sustaining it.

“Within Moroccan discourse, we see that
it is an article of faith, a cornerstone of the nationalist canon, that Western
Sahara is part of the ‘real’ (i.e. precolonial) territory,” write Stepehn Zunes
and Jacob Mundy in their book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism,
and Conflict Irresolution.

Foreign powers, particularly France and
the United States, have played a large role in bolstering the Moroccan
occupation, whether through direct material support during the war or indirect
support at the UN Security Council. Washington’s ties to Morocco were further
strengthened after the September 11 attacks and during the so-called “war on
terror,” in which the United States viewed the Moroccan regime as an important
strategic ally.

“Polisario have the law and a UN
resolution on their side, but in reality this amounts to nothing,” De Vega
says. “Most superpowers don’t want a new country in the region, especially with
the growth of Al Qaeda in the Sahel, so they actively organize against
international law.”

The setting sun casts a long shadow on
dozens of brightly colored tents nestled on a sand dune overlooking the Dakhla
refugee camp. Scores of families sit idly, listening to nationalist Sahrawi
music blaring from a set of nearby loudspeakers while children scamper around
their parents. At the foot of the hill, half a dozen men dressed in fatigues
and holding batons stand together in a tight cluster.

The crowd slowly begins to approach the
soldiers, carrying flags and posters bearing slogans for independence and
pictures of Sahrawi martyrs and political prisoners. After a brief standoff,
the men in fatigues suddenly charge. They run up the hill, batons held high
while they tear down the tents, yet they are smiling, as are many in the crowd
who yell and shriek in mock panic, turning the scene into one of playful chaos.
The “soldiers” are eventually forced to retreat and the crowd march
triumphantly past them chanting for a free Western Sahara.

The scene is an annual reenactment in
the Dakhla refugee camp of the forcible breakup of a protest encampment set up
in 2010 in occupied Western Sahara, several miles from al-Ayun, known as Gdeim
Izik. The camp, which began with a group of Sahrawis setting up several tents
in the area to protest poor economic and social conditions, grew to as many as
15,000 people calling for independence.

“For Sahrawis, the tent is a symbol of a
nation,” says Salah Ameidan, a 30-year-old Sahrawi long distance runner who
took part in the Gdei Izik protest. “We went outside of the city to refuse life
under occupation. I felt free there.”

Moroccan security forces stormed the camp a month later, using tear gas and
water cannons to force people out of tents, which were then set alight or
bulldozed. Polisario reported eleven civilian deaths, while Moroccan
authorities say ten police officers were killed. Scores were arrested. A
military tribunal condemned twenty-three Sahrawis to sentences ranging from
twenty years to life in prison. According to the RFK Center report, those
identified as human rights defenders received the harshest sentences.

Gdeim Izik was the culmination of what
the Polisario leadership have hailed as a new nonviolent protest movement in
the fight for a Western Saharan nation, one that grew out of the failure of the
formal UN-led negotiation process.

In the years following the 1991
cease-fire, the promised referendum was repeatedly postponed over fierce
disagreements on who had the right to vote. Initially, Polisario wanted to use
a 1974 Spanish census of Sahrawis in the territory, while Morocco, which had
begun moving large numbers of its citizens into Western Sahara, wanted to
include a much higher number, a move viewed by Polisario as an attempt by Rabat
to stack the vote in its favor.

In 2003, the peace process all but broke
down following the failure of the Baker Plan, spearheaded by then–UN Special
Envoy James Baker. It proposed a limited four-year period of autonomy for
Western Sahara followed by a referendum polling both native Western Saharans
and Moroccan settlers on the choice of continued autonomy, integration or

Even though Polisario, along with
Algeria, made the unprecedented concession of agreeing to allow the majority
Moroccan settlers to participate in the self-determination process, Morocco
flatly rejected the proposal.

With the failure of the talks, occupied
Western Sahara eventually erupted in 2005 in the most intense and massive
pro-independence demonstrations to date. The protests, known as the “Uprising
of Independence,” were quickly repressed by Moroccan security forces but have
continued in smaller, less-centralized acts of disobedience against the
Moroccan administration.

“We are in the fourth stage of our struggle,” says Mohammed Abdelaziz, the head
of Polisario for the past thirty-seven years and the president of SADR. The
66-year-old former guerrilla leader delineates the first two stages involving
armed conflict, first against Spain until 1976 and then against Mauritania and
Morocco until 1991. He says the third stage of the postwar peace process broke
down in 2003.

“We are now in the stage of peaceful
resistance through an uprising, coupled with ongoing talks with the UN and
Morocco,” he says. “We are in a just struggle for liberation. Like previous
struggles in Algeria, East Timor and elsewhere, the logic of history always
ends with justice.”

Yet there are growing fears of a return
to arms.

“The possibility of picking up weapons
again is always there,” says Akik, the SADR minister. “There are youth who have
lost hope in the negotiation process and they are putting pressure on
They want to fight.”

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