Western Sahara National Unity: #40yearsnotforgotten
National Unity Day
October 12th 2015 was the 40th anniversary of National Unity for the people of Western Sahara. As co-author of ‘Settled Wanderers’, a book of poetry – part in translation, part original compositions – from my time on the Saharawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, I was invited to the camps again to launch the book and take part in the celebrations.
Why are the refugee camps there?
The camps are home to around 140,000 people, refugees from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. In the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the European powers agreed on a carve-up of Africa. Spain was given a chunk of desert along the North West Atlantic coast, bordered by the French colonies of Morocco, Algeria and French West Africa. The Spanish divided the territory into two parts, which they called Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro- which together made up Spanish Sahara.
The people of the territory were from various confederations – Rgaybat, Dalim, Tiknah etc., but were generally Muslim Bedouins and spoke a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniyah. Largely, they were herders of sheep, camel and goats and lived nomadic lifestyles, following the routes of the rain and trading with settled cities. The Spanish interfered little with their lives until the 1960s discovery of phosphate reserves, a key component of industrial fertilisers and perhaps the second largest source in the world after those in Morocco. The economic incentive to develop the region combined with severe drought, settled the cities of Spanish Sahara and was also the spur for a Saharawi independence movement at a time when the other African nations were beginning to gain their own.
When the Spanish finally left with Franco on his death bed in November 1975, Morocco and Mauritania invaded, under an agreement struck in Madrid (with the connivance of USA and France) to split the territory between them. The Saharawi fought back. Mauritania withdrew their claim but the war against Morocco dragged on, reaching a ceasefire in 1991 with Morocco having completed a 2600km fortified wall across the territory and the UN promising to facilitate a referendum on independence. The next decade saw long-running arguments about who was eligible to vote and the referendum never happened. Morocco remains to this day the de facto ruler of Western Sahara (which it calls its ‘Southern Provinces’).
The initial Moroccan invasion led to nearly half the native population fleeing their homes. A report by the International Federation of Human Rights in February 1976 recorded,
“the soldiers of the two occupying countries have butchered hundreds and perhaps thousands of Saharawis, including children and old people who refused to publicly acknowledge the king of Morocco. Some have seen their children killed in front of them by way of intimidation. Women described to us how they have been tortured and how soldiers had cut off young men ‘s fingers to make them unable to fight … 80 percent of the inhabitants of [the capital city of[ Layoune have left and defenceless refugee camps have been bombarded.”
So the refugees were helped by the nascent Saharawi army (ELPS) over the border to Algeria and established four camps near the military town of Tindouf in the South-West. The Algerian government have granted them liberty to remain and to administer the camps themselves. Over the forty years of running this state-in-exile, they have built homes, schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructure, and systems of government. However, the land is arid, the climate harsh, there is little economic opportunity and they are reliant on international aid. The situation is still classified as an ‘emergency’ by the U.N.H.C.R
What is National Unity?
In 1962, Spain set up “a system of indirect control” by creating a council of elders from what the Spanish saw as the ‘tribal fractions’, the Jama’a.” Like most colonial-created governments, this institution was supposed to represent the ‘ethnic divisions’ of the population and was purposefully staffed by people the administering power believed to be collaborationist with the colonial project.
However, the 1960s saw the development of Saharawi nationalism and in 1971, El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed declared a new independence movement, the ‘Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro’, or more catchily, the Polisario Front. People in the territory began to hear word of this movement. A number of Saharawi soldiers serving in the Spanish army switched sides, taking prisoners and weapons with them, and generally a growing number of young people flocked to join them or took part in mass demonstrations in support. A report by the UN in May 1975 described them as the “dominant force in the Territory” although previously they had been “considered a clandestine movement.” (U.N General Assembly 1977). They were carrying out raids on the Spanish army, while trying to recruit support internally and financial aid from abroad.
On October 12th 1975, in what seems to me a move unprecedented in colonial history, two thirds of the Jama’a voted to abolish themselves and declared the Polisario the legitimate representatives of the Saharawi people. The Polisario immediately called on the people to unite across ethnic divisions and to work together for the liberation of the territory.
The Spanish, who had only just begun to exploit the natural resources of their colony and as such, not needing mass labour, had left the Saharawi culture largely uncolonised. They had built no schools for the native people, who were still mostly illiterate. Now they were negotiating a withdrawal. Thus, when Morocco and Mauritania attacked, the Polisario had the beginnings of an organisation and the overwhelming support of the people, making them able to organise the exodus of thousands of people and to mount a resistance to the twin invasions.
National Unity Day 2015
With my host family, I watched on the news images from another of North Korea’s appallingly humourous national celebrations. Perfectly formed squares of soldiers goose-stepped around a parade ground while the bowl cut himself, Kim Jong Un grinned delightedly at this grim display of totalitarianism.
Meanwhile on the camps, and not on the news (though there is little difficulty in journalists gaining access to the camps and no censorship on their content), the Polisario organised a series of events in celebration. There was a craft fair displaying traditional crafts and modern arts, a display of books published from the camps over the decades, music concerts, lots of speeches and some military parades. On Bojador camp, soldiers were marching, there was a brass band, but there were also a lot of smiles and peace signs for the smart phone cameras and posing with civilian friends. There were also 40 traditional camel-hair tents where elders sat, made tea and displayed camel saddles, goat-skin water holders and leather bowls. Unfortunately, the camel race was cancelled. The next day, 200km of bumpy desert ride away in the tract of undeveloped land east of the Berm that the Saharawi call, the ‘Liberated Territories’, the President made a speech and there were public performances of military exercises. A civil society group called Saharawi Campaign Against the Plunder of resources in the Occupied Territory (SCAP) organised a protest against a UK based, Irish registered energy company called San Leon, who have begun prospecting and have asked Morocco for a licence to drill for gas inside Western Sahara. Around 4000 people formed human lettering saying ‘San Leon Go Home’ which was filmed from the sky by a Norwegian volunteer from the Canary Islands with a drone camera. Polisario “were very supportive” of this independent protest, organiser Halihena told me. Generally the Polisario, the young man said, “they encourage these civil society initiatives and want them to show the possibilities in front of the Saharawi people”.
In the West, we might be suspicious of nationalist movements. However, in the Saharawi situation it is vital to the survival of their freedom. Half the population live under severe repression in the homeland with the ruling powers slowly organising a ‘Moroccanisation’ of the country, by moving in settlers, not allowing education in the local language and severely repressing expressions of nationalism. In the refugee camps, there is now no one under 45 who has any direct memories of their homeland. The daily grind of life without opportunity might encourage young people to seek jobs and new life elsewhere and many indeed do go to Algeria or Spain to work or to study. Yet, a remarkable number have chosen to stay or to return after graduating. My friend and translator from the first trip, Zorgan Larousi, (centre picture; translating a conversation with poet Beyibouh, 2012) told me what he thought about National Unity, for himself and for his children:
“The Saharawi learnt in exile that they are strong by their unity. This settlement of the camps for such a long time is good proof that people are not looking to split, disappear or to forget the cause.
“I hope for my children to live a normal life in their homeland. Of course they ask us ‘why are we staying here? Shall we stay the rest of our life here?’ There are lot of difficult questions for us as fathers and mothers to answer. We try to educate them that this is a generation war. You need to carry the flag after your father or after your grandfathers disappear. You need to feel strong as your fathers, as your brothers, as your mothers did. You cannot hand over the flag to Morocco. If the society is not strong, we cannot insulate our new generation from the ideas of terror coming from Mali, from Mauritania and here in Algeria. Thanks to our education and strong social network we keep them away from these influences. I think the world needs to do something for the question of Western Sahara otherwise things are not going to be like this forever. The young generation will say no and will go to war or do something different.”
So if you would like to do something in the UK for Western Sahara, there are series of events happening around London leading up to the 40th anniversary of Morocco’s invasion of November 6th. Check out Sandblast’s website for more details.
Nov 7 – Benefit Concert for the Saharawis @ Bolivar Hall (7.30pm)
My book of poems translated with Mohamed Sulaiman, ‘Settled Wanderers’ is available from Influx Press.
Unless otherwise stated all facts quoted from Western Sahara: War Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy (Syracuse University Press; 2010)