Photo by Carlos Capote

Life inside Africa's last colony

On Saturday, The U.N. envoy for the disputed Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, visited refugee camps in Algeria housing those displaced by fighting decades ago, in a renewed effort to find a diplomatic solution for the territory. Within the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara, local Sahrawi activists have recently been targeted more and more by the Moroccan authorities. Discrimination, kidnapping and violence are rife in “the last African colony”. “We are treated like third-class citizens and the world does nothing.”

Sultana Khaya, the well-known Sahrawi human rights activist, has been under house arrest since November 2020 in Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara. Moroccan paramilitary police have cordoned off the surrounding streets and her home is a fortress under siege. Visits are strictly prohibited and disobedient relatives are attacked with clubs. The power has been cut, the cell phone taken and busted.

“Someday they will make me a martyr,” Khaya said in a video call. She doesn’t seem impressed by the muscle roll. As a student she lost her right eye during an anti-Moroccan demonstration and a few years ago she was taken and beaten by the police in a side street during a protest. In February 2021, while Khaya was trying to answer questions from an Algerian interviewer, she was hit in the head with a rock by an officer. In May, her house was sprayed with a poisonous substance, “to blind me in my good eye,” Khaya sneered. Still, she doesn’t think about giving up. “In what world is it normal to inject poison into people’s eyes? I’ve already given one eye, isn’t that enough? We just want freedom, that’s all.”

A fragile truce

Khaya is one of the many Sahrawis who peacefully resist the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. The region with huge phosphate reserves and rich fishing waters has been called the last African colony. The sparsely populated desert region was annexed by Morocco in 1975 at the end of Spanish colonial rule. After sixteen years of violence between the independence movement Polisario and Moroccan troops, a UN-negotiated ceasefire was reached in 1991. There would be an independence referendum in which the Sahrawi could choose between independence or joining Morocco. Thirty years later, that referendum is still not held. Rabat only wants to talk about limited autonomy, while the Polisario accepts nothing but complete self-determination. Meanwhile, Morocco continued to build walls in the desert to keep the independence fighters out of occupied territory. The barbed wire-reinforced line forms the largest minefield in the world.

On November 13, 2020, Moroccan troops captured a buffer strip patrolled by the United Nations, where the Polisario Front was blocking freight traffic, according to the defense ministry. The latter then opened fire on Moroccan border posts. After three decades, the fragile truce was broken. “Since the fighting, the situation has also become more violent in the occupied territory,” said Mansour of the Nushatta Foundation for Media and Human Rights. “Peaceful demonstrations for greater autonomy have often ended in police brutality in recent months.” Protesters are dispersed, isolated and beaten up. Plainclothes officers keep an eye on the houses around the demonstration. When local residents film the police brutality, the house number is noted. “The police raided some of my colleagues at night after filming the demonstration earlier that day.” Mansour says. “They had to flee across the rooftops in the middle of the night.”

“We are sick of it”

Journalists and human rights organizations have been banned from Western Sahara for years. Amnesty International already stated in 2019 that Sahrawi journalists and activists are constantly intimidated. A recent report from Human Rights Watch reports of activists being beaten and imprisoned in the streets, often followed by torture and unfair trials. In the spring of 2021, activists Ghali Bouhla and Nafaa Boutasoufra were sentenced to 1 year and 8 months in prison respectively. Boutasoufra was taken at a protest by masked officers. Armed police officers turned up at Bouhla’s house. While filming, Bouhla’s mother called out that her son was not at home. The officers demanded that she stop filming and open the door. The officers then broke into the house and, according to local organizations, severely beaten his mother and sister.

“We’re sick and tired of it”, Mansour sighs on the phone. “We are treated like third-class citizens and the world does nothing.” He is not surprised that, despite the police brutality, Sahrawi continue to take to the streets and do not hide their support for the Polisario. “We have no access to the labor market, despite all the natural resources around us. We are not allowed to use our own names and are assigned others. At school we only learn Moroccan history, not our own. We can’t even name our own country. For Morocco, we are part of their Sahara, also on the map.” There are no hospitals, universities or good roads, no future. In recent years, many acquaintances have left for the refugee camps in Algeria, where thousands of Sahrawis have lived for generations without ever having seen their country. “The downward spiral of violence and discrimination in Western Sahara is unsustainable.” Mansour himself does not think about leaving.

A quest for Recognition

Morocco debunks claims of human rights violations, allegedly fabricated by the Polisario Front. “The allegations of restrictions on freedom of movement in the Moroccan Sahara are completely unfounded,” Moroccan diplomat Omar Hilale wrote in a letter to the United Nations in February 2021. “The people of the Moroccan Sahara enjoy full freedom of movement as guaranteed by law, both inside and outside Morocco.”

In the meantime, Morocco is putting pressure on the kettle internationally. In recent years, the country has been actively seeking international recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara, the last major area on the UN’s list of non-colonized areas. And that seems to work. Several African and Arab countries have already opened consulates in Western Sahara. Then-US President Donald Trump tweeted in December that the United States supported Morocco in return for normalization of ties with Israel. Trump thus broke with decades of US diplomatic tradition of prudence in the region. When Germany convened a meeting of the UN Security Council, the Moroccan foreign minister warned all Moroccan officials to cut ties with Germany. “The tension with Germany is an attempt by Morocco to put pressure on the European Union, and in particular Spain as a former colonial power. The goal: to have the claim over Western Sahara recognized,” said analyst Ignacio Cembrero.

In September 2021, The European Union General Court annulled EU-Morocco agriculture and fishing trade deals, saying that the Polisario Front was ‘recognised internationally as a representative of the people of Western Sahara’, and that the bloc did not have the consent of the Saharawi people before securing the deals with Morocco. Morocco is expected to lose 52 million euros per year from the annulled fishing agreement alone. A big setback for the country.

Meanwhile, Sahrawi leader Khatri Addouh is calling for a more active role for the United Nations. “We ask the United Nations to fulfill its promise to liberate Western Sahara from colonization.” Addouh considers the international organization responsible for the political impasse and accuses them of being lax towards Morocco. Spain’s foreign minister also said in the spring of 2021 that Madrid is counting on the United Nations for an agreement. “Spain insists that the solution must be political, fair, sustainable and mutually acceptable, as enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions,” Arancha Gonzalez Laya said in a statement.

Old and new wounds

Mohamed Mayara shows an old photo of a bearded man. “My ancestors have always fought against the colonial ruler.” Mohamed’s grandfather was a leader in the armed resistance against the Spaniards, his father fought against the first Moroccan soldiers. “He was kidnapped just after the 1975 invasion, along with his three brothers.” says the media activist. “They were tortured and killed. To this day, we don’t know where his remains are.” Many Sahrawi families do not know where their relatives died or were buried. Morocco’s King Mohamed VI established a commission in 2003 to investigate enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. When the scheduled hearing in Laayoune was canceled without explanation, many local victims and families felt disadvantaged. However, the majority of the missing people that the commission would investigate were Sahrawi. This angered the local population. “Our old wounds cannot heal, and new wounds are added every day,” Mohammed says.

Activists say kidnapping and torture are commonplace. “People are still disappearing in prisons that no one has ever heard of.” says Mohammed. “They are often never seen again.” The former history teacher was fired a few years ago. The explanation: he had to try his luck in Algeria. “In this way, the Moroccan authorities want to put pressure on the Sahrawi to leave the country, while encouraging Moroccans to come and live in the occupied territory.” Mohamed stayed and joined a group of media activists. “I knew what I was getting into. I have had to explain to my eleven-year-old daughter that one day I will meet the same fate as my father. I await the harsh punishments and physical torture.” His colleague Mohamed al-Bambary wrote about Moroccan phosphate exploitation in Western Sahara in 2015 and was sentenced to six years in prison in a cell he shares with 45 other inmates.

When I ask him about the future, he has a hard time finding the words. “That is a difficult question. I’m 45 years old, and I’ve never known otherwise. We want a peaceful solution, but it may not work that way.” Since the resurgence of violence between the Polisario and Morocco, there is new hope, he says. “If Morocco continues to violate international law, if the UN continues to watch and do nothing, armed resistance may be the only way out. Soon there will be no more Sultana Khayas or no al-Bambaries.”

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