For the past few weeks the Western Sahara has made several international headlines. Foreign journalists are banned from the territory and so this is rare. I first visited the refugee camps in Algeria in 2007 followed by a trip to Laayoune in the occupied territories in the Western Sahara. Since then, I have been keeping close track of events. The people I met in Laayoune, notably Brahim Sabar, left indelible impressions upon me. Despite the unending abuse, both physical and psychological, the Sahrawis continue to face down an unjust Moroccan authority with dignity and restraint. The following article draws on these encounters to speak of the hope and frustration which is the relentless pursuit of human rights on the frontline.
(Tindouf, Algeria 2007) In the Algerian desert, near the border to Morocco, Mahfud Ali Beibo leans back into a plush black leather chair. His demeanour is attentive: in jeans, his attire relaxed. The single fluorescent bulb above his head emits a low hum. Somehow, fine white sand has collected in a neat pile on top of a rattling air conditioner. Outside, the walls of the parliament are in ruins - washed away by flash floods in 2006. Mr. Beibo, along with two assistants is in one of the few remaining rooms of this ruin. In the courtyard, by a single palm tree, is a rusting white metal bed frame. At 50+ C°, the August heat is unbearable.
Mr. Beibo, former parliamentary president of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and chief Manhasset negotiator, also appears to remain defiant. His fingers dig into the soft leather as he speaks of the United Nation's failure to commit to its own rulebook. “We prefer a pacifist movement but until when can we keep asking our people to be abused? There will not be another 30 years,” he says as he relaxes his grip. An assistant pours a hot mint tea into several glasses. He is at home among his fellow Sahrawis, among the 160,000 refugees, the ruins of a parliament, the tired appeal of voices unheard, a people caught within the limbo of realpolitik where everything is said, where empty promises are made, where action simply blows aimlessly over the tops of dunes and into the thin crisp desert air.
Thirty-five years in and the Western Sahara remains occupied by an irredentist Moroccan authority that, supported by the European Union’s Advanced Status trade agreement, exploits the disputed region at the expense of the Sahrawis. European taxpayers give the Moroccan government EUR 144 million a year so that French, Portuguese and Spanish fishing fleets may trawl off a coast to which - according to the International Court of Justice - Morocco has no legal claim. The trade agreement expires in February 2011.
“Spanish fisherman need to work,” replied the Spanish MEP Iraxte Garcia Perez at a chance encounter at the Madrid-Barajas airport in 2007 when asked to comment on the pact. Ms Perez is a staunch supporter of Sahrawi human rights. But everyone has their limits and politicians have their constituency. Ms Perez was at the airport to return her unofficially adopted son, Mohamed Moulud, a 14-year old Sahrawi whom she was helping to reunite with his family in the Smara refugee camp. After lengthy administrative procedures, she managed to secure him an Algerian passport, bought him a ticket, and accompanied him to the terminal where the Air Algérie flight left three hours late. A week later, I met Moulud’s mother, Fatma-Alamin at her home in the desert. She hadn’t seen her son in four years.
Self-determination and human rights no longer has its place in the political stratosphere of Manhasset negotiations or in the annual European Conference of Coordination and Support to the Sahrawian People (EUCOCO) where international NGOs mingle with the Polisario elite. It no longer belongs to the Polisario, the political arm of the Sahrawis, some of whom paradoxically benefit from the status quo. “Our organisation [Polisario Front] needs to be more flexible and more transparent. We need a renaissance: if not it’s over for the Polisario,” Baba Sayed, a high-ranking Polisario, told me in 2007. Sayed’s brother co-founded the Polisario and was the first president of SADR. Nor does it belong to the international delegates and their declarations of solidarity that is so often lacking in substance.
At the EUCOCO 2008 conference, the Algerian delegate spoke of human rights. “We [Algeria] are in favour of basic human rights, of human rights. Algeria will not accept any other alternative other than self-determination. It is a moral position. It is an ethical position,” he said. He was then followed by a long round of applause. But later, in the lobby where the delegates and NGOs had gathered, I asked him if his statement was Algeria’s official position. He hesitated and then admitted that he was not officially representing Algeria at all. “I am here as a concerned citizen,” he said and then requested not to be quoted or even have his name mentioned. He left – rapidly.
No, the fight for human rights belongs in the streets of El-Ayoun, at university campuses in Agadir, Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat. It belongs to individuals, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who faced the Moroccan army boots and barrel at the peaceful demonstration in Gdeim Izik where even Moroccan civilians, according to Human Rights Watch, participated in the beatings. It belongs to Maafi Rahal and Faisal Ratimi who were tortured in Tan Tan by Moustapha Kamour. It belongs to Ennaâma Asfari, the co-president of Corelso who was once tied to a tree and beaten in Marrakech by Moroccan police.
“The question of human rights in the political context is the only instrument we have in our political combat in the occupied territories,” says Asfari. Today, Asfari along with eight other Sahrawis face a military court tribunal in El-Ayoun following the forced and violent eviction of Sahrawis from Gdeim Izik in early November. Gdeim Izik is a camp 18km outside Laayoune where thousands of Sahrawis had been settling since October.
Several days after the violent evictions, the United Nations decided to dispatch an international observer mission. Then as if on cue France vetoes the UN mission. In Brussels, Polisario representative Mohamed Salem Ould Salek calls France a proxy of Moroccan interest in the Security Council. Meanwhile, the United Nations mission in El-Ayoun, Minurso, does nothing; their limited mandate is the UN’s, only without a human rights directive. Instead, the blue helmets remain cloistered in their compound behind a 10-foot wall, surrounded by armed Moroccan guards, sipping sweet-minted teas or when boredom compels them, drive about town in their shiny white SUVs.
“Now is the time, more than ever, for Minurso to react to and control the human rights violations in Morocco. The UN needs to avoid another massacre so that the Sahrawis can fight for their rights,” Aminatou Haidar, a human rights defender from the Western Sahara, told me following her speech to the European Parliament on 16 November. She was being diplomatic. Exhausted, she then quietly asked to be excused. Her face, wan with fatigue, appeared to carry the weight of a people at a loss, already anticipating that the strong words of support from MEPs would come to naught. She was right. Instead, the gathered parliamentarians and assistants queued for a photo-op with Ms Haidar doing her best to maintain a pleasant composure. A week after Ms Haidar’s visit, the European Parliament passed a resolution in response to Gdeim Izik. But the resolution failed to echo the support Ms Haidar had heard in the European Parliament’s chamber. The resolution did not cite Moroccan repression and the need to liberate Sahrawi political prisoners. Nor did it call upon MEPs to send a contingent to investigate. Just as well. The Moroccan authorities would have stopped them at the border – again.
Instead, the struggle for human rights belongs to Aino Mohommed, a Sahrawi leader and law student in Agadir, who works tirelessly to resolve disputes between Moroccans and the Sahrawis. But even then, his role is limited when events spiral out of control as they did on December 2, 2008. His friend, Ahmed Salem Dohi, a history and civilization major at Agadir University had watched in horror as two other friends, 22-year old Baba Khaya and 20-year old Elhoucine Lektief, were crushed to death by a Supratours bus leaving for El-Ayoun the night before. Both were Sahrawis.
Baba Khaya was Sultana Khaya's cousin, a Sahrawi human rights activist documented by Amnesty International. Dohi, and forty other Sahrawi students, had staged a protest at the station because they were not allowed to board the bus. They stood in front to prevent it from leaving. The bus driver drove into the crowd and then fled the scene. The next morning, Aino organised a march because the chief of police claimed it was an accident. By 8.00 am, hundreds of Sahrawi students had gathered at the station. They walked, shouting slogans, to the university’s law school. Someone had padlocked the university gates shut.
“It is [Hajj] holiday and we wanted to return to our families,” says Dohi. “We went to the bus station and they told us there were no buses left,” adding they had given the bus station lists of Sahrawis students wanting to return in advance. “We then stood in front of the bus. The bus driver accelerated and ran over us. Afterwards the police came and they beat us, everyone.” Dohi pauses and then resumes. “We are suffering from the Moroccan authority in our homeland and here as students, we are suffering too.”
Twenty-year old Laarussi Abed-Allahi had had enough abuse. Born in El-Ayoun, he was politically active and engaged to defend Sahrawi rights. In secondary school he distributed leaflets calling for independence. He also handed out the banned Western Sahara flags. The police tracked him down. Laarussi eluded arrest but his friend was apprehended and thrown in jail. In hiding, Laarussi told his mother that he would leave the Western Sahara and walk to the refugee camps in Algeria. She told him to go and gave him some money. The following morning, Laarussi set out through the desert with the help of several locals. When he reached the frontier, he met some Bedouin who gave him food and shelter. “They live near the frontier and know everything about the region,” he says adding that he stayed with them for two days. On the third day, they led him to the Bern, a wall of sand 2000 km long, guarded by Moroccan soldiers. Laarussi would have to cross without being detected. At night, the Bedouin led him to a hole in the wall100 metres east of a checkpoint. “God blessed us,” he says. “The weather was bad, there was a lot of wind and the guards were in their shelters. Before I crossed, the Bedouin gave me a bottle of water and some dates.” Safely on the other side, Laarussi continued his journey until he met some Sahrawi nomads the next morning. The nomads alerted the Polisario who sent a soldier to meet Laarussi and escort him to the refugee camps where he now lives. “To the King of Morocco, I say to him, you can oppress the people, you can do everything to them, but you can never stop our ideas and our independence,” he says.
While back in El-Ayoun, 18-year old Hassanna Aalia no longer dares to approach the Seguiat al Hamra river bed located behind a city slum. He’s already been arrested nine times for taking photos of Moroccan police brutality and sending them to human rights organisations. Foreign journalists are banned from entering El-Ayoun unless escorted and veiled after by Moroccan government minders. One evening during Ramadan, Hassanna was caught by the police and dragged down to the water’s edge. He was forced to strip naked. The police took photos of him and threatened to send the images to pornographic web sites. “They beat me and left me there,” he says quietly. Brahim Sabar, a man who had spent ten years in secret detention, places his hand on Hassanna’s shoulder for comfort.
Outside, in the streets of El-Ayoun, another evening begins to settle. Across the street from Sabar’s apartment building, a line of sheep are strung upside down at a corner butcher. Tiny crimson pools of blood gather on the dirty sidewalk. In the distance is the sound of children’s voices at play. In their minds, flourish thoughts of independence, freedom and a united Western Sahara.
Pictures taken by Nicolaj Nielsen