Stalemate in Western Sahara frustrates organizers

Demonstrators running away from occupation forces in Laayoune, the capital city of Western Sahara.(Flickr/Saharauiak)

Demonstrators running away from occupation forces in Laayoune, the capital city of Western Sahara.(Flickr/Saharauiak)

Elghalia sat cross-legged on the floor of her living room, fanning the small bed of charcoals until they glowed with an inner red light. She placed the metal teapot directly on the bed and turned back towards me. “The biggest problems facing the Sahrawi people,” she said, “are the forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and marginalization inflicted upon us by the Moroccan forces.”

Elghalia Djimi is the vice president of the Association Sahraoui des Victimes des Violations Graves des Droits du l’Homme Commisés par l’Etat du Maroc, or ASVDH, a Sahrawi civil society organization led by former political prisoners with the mission to protect victims of human rights abuses through nonviolent action. The organization, which has been denied official accreditation by the Moroccan government, is based in Laayoune, the Morocco-controlled capital city, military outpost and United Nations mission headquarters in the disputed territory Western Sahara.

Elghalia agreed to take the risk of meeting with me, an American college student spending a semester abroad in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss the role of civil society organizations in the resistance against Morocco. I traveled to the Western Sahara to learn about the November 2010 Gdeim Izik protest and left with a much more complicated and nuanced picture of the conflict, life under the occupation and the struggles facing proponents of nonviolent resistance.

In 1975, Morocco invaded the former Spanish Sahara colony. A resistance group established in 1973 to demand independence from the Spanish, known as the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y el Río de Oro, or the Frente Polisario, turned its attention to fighting against Morocco and Mauritania, who both made claims to the territory. In 1976, as nearly half of the Sahrawi population fled to refugee camps in Algeria, a rebel government known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared the Western Sahara to be an independent nation and themselves as its government in exile. Throughout the 1980s, Morocco fought an unacknowledged war against the Frente Polisario, supported financially and militarily by the United States and France.

The conflict over the Western Sahara is often portrayed as a regional struggle between Morocco and Algeria, while the side of the indigenous rebel movement has often been overlooked. Cold War rhetoric of regional stability and security still pervades conversations on the conflict. U.S. official support of the Moroccan occupation of the territory recalls the partnership between the United States, France and Morocco during the war against the Polisario as the means of protecting the region from the influence of Communist Algeria and the Russian bloc.

In 1991, the U.N. brokered a ceasefire agreement that included the establishment of MINURSO, a U.N. mission in Laayoune, to conduct a referendum that would allow the Sahrawi people to vote for independence, integration or autonomy from Morocco. The promised referendum has never taken place and the situation continues as a stalemate with the Sahrawi population divided between refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria and under Moroccan occupation in the cities of the Western Sahara. In the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan political and military control, vibrant protests against Moroccan occupation occur frequently. Sahrawi individuals and their families who are known to support independence or self-determination are targeted on a daily basis by surveillance, harassment and the threat of forced disappearance or arbitrary arrest by Moroccan security forces.

Adjusting the bright purple cloth of the melfa that gracefully covered her body and hair, Elghalia matter-of-factly informed me that she had been “disappeared” by the Moroccan security forces in 1987. She spent three years and seven months blindfolded and held in a secret “black” prison in Laayoune before being released in 1991 as part of the terms of the U.N.-sponsored ceasefire agreement.

Elghalia has become a mentor to a group of younger women, all activists for the Sahrawi cause, and all former political prisoners. She invited several of these women to join us for tea on an afternoon in late 2012. Saida, Fatima, Khadija and Maha, whose names have all been changed, ranged in age from 38 to 22, just a little older than myself. Elghalia tended the slowly boiling tea while she translated the young women’s answers from Hassaniya (the local dialect of Arabic) to French, often expanding on their answers to my questions with comments of her own. Bright, well-educated and well-read, this Sahrawi matriarch ran her household with the same calm and knowing patience with which she runs the so-called “subversive” political organization.

Fatima, whose bright eyes and plump cheeks exuded cheeriness and warmth from within her blue melfa, is 38 years old.  She was born in November 1975, the same month as the Green March “peaceful” invasion of the Western Sahara by Morocco and the subsequent exodus of half of the Sahrawi population to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Fatima’s family often teased her by calling her the “bearer of misfortune.” She began participating in anti-Moroccan activism when she was 14 years old. “We grew up with a cause that needed our support,” she explained. In 1990, Fatima was approached by a clandestine Polisario affiliate group. “It didn’t take more than one conversation to convince me to join. I felt the police intimidation strongly; the situation was desperate.” She worked as part of a clandestine cell, recruiting youth from her high school. In 1992, during a large protest, or “intifada,” that she helped organize to demand independence for the Sahrawi people, Fatima and her youth group were arrested.

Nowadays, Fatima is an active member of the ASVDH, a civil society organization that strives to follow the principles of nonviolence. She proclaims “the Sahrawi people are the only people in the world who defend their independence and liberty in a peaceful manner.”  While her claim is unfounded, her point is that principled nonviolence is rooted in Sahrawi culture.  However, she cautions, if the U.N. does not live up to its obligation to support the people of the Sahara, then “despite the natural tendency to pacifism, they will be forced to take up arms again.”

Protests against the Moroccan occupation are generally organized by coalitions of these civil society groups to coincide with current events, such as a visit from the U.N. Special Envoy, or to commemorate an important historical date of the conflict, such as the anniversary of the formation of the Polisario on May 10. Hunger strikes, most notably the efforts of Aminatou Haidar, president of Sahrawi human rights organization CODESA, are another commonly used nonviolent tactic.

Incidents of organized demonstrations in the streets of Laayoune are met with brutal repression from the Moroccan security forces. Shaky videos taken on discreet camera phones and uploaded to YouTube depict protesters being beaten, dragged on the ground, and sprayed with tear gas. While a core group of human rights defenders advocate for the use of strategic nonviolence, some, especially young men, respond to the provocation of security forces and Moroccan settlers with violence of their own, usually in the form of property damage.

Many activists of the older generation are concerned that the Saharan youth, who have grown up in a climate of fear and oppression, will increasingly resort to violence. The Western Sahara situation has remained in a stalemate for over 20 years, since the 1991 ceasefire. The promised referendum for independence has never taken place. Over the years, Sahrawi protests against the occupation have grown in scale, and their efforts to maintain nonviolent tactics have become more organized.  However, demonstrations, protests and encampments have faced violent responses from Moroccan security forces. The brutal dismantlement of the month-long protest camp known as Gdeim Izik in November 2010 is a significant example of the violence produced and incited by state repression. There is a fear that these bouts of violence are a sign that frustration produced by the long-simmering conflict may express itself in increasingly violent ways as time goes on.

The older leaders of the movement express their frustration at the Moroccan government, which blocks the work of their associations at every turn. “How are we supposed to educate the youth on the importance of nonviolent tactics if they do not allow us to organize ourselves?” they asked me. These older leaders hold out hope for a mostly peaceful resolution of this long-standing conflict. Elghalia said, “It is in the just causes that one finds the light.” She is one such luminary of the movement.

Elghalia took the sliver teapot off of the hot coals and peeked at the mint leaves inside. She poured the tea into several shot-sized glasses, raising the pot high so as to create more bubbles. She poured the glasses back into the top of the teapot to mix the tea, then poured again from on high. She passed the tray of tea and a platter of dates around the circle. The slow process of making tea is an example of the extreme patience of the Sahrawi people, a patience which has allowed them to carry on their lives for decades in an atmosphere of dispute and stalemate. A Hassani proverb states that “Saharan tea has three requirements; a group of people brought together to enjoy it, a long time to wait, and some charcoal.” This proverb exemplifies the heavy emphasis on community and family solidarity in the Sahara, a calm acceptance of the slow pace of the desert, and a keen awareness of the vitality of basic necessities.

There is a fiercely self-sufficient attitude that comes with desert life. Some have said that the political situation in this region has not been resolved because neither side will give up on their mutually exclusive positions, but that is not the whole story. There is more to this conflict and its irresolution than just two sides: Morocco against the Algerian-backed Polisario. The real story is of the Sahrawi people, trying to organize their lives in peace and freedom.

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