January 28, 2014 by Matthew Vickery
Western Sahara is the forgotten region of the world, its people the forgotten inhabitants, and its refugee population the forgotten homeless.
It is a nation crippled by an aggressive Moroccan military occupation supported, in essence, by the impotence of the international community. Moroccan settlers now outnumber native Saharawi inhabitants. Yet unlike the Palestinians’ or the Tibetans’, the Saharawis’ aspirations for self-determination are largely ignored. To many people, they are simply unknown.
This collective punishment of a whole nation – stretching not just to those who live in the territories occupied by Morocco but also to the extensive refugee population – ensures that Saharawis are unable to live as individuals with political and human rights in a nation of their own. Individuals who speak up against this injustice are brutally silenced. Aminatu Haidar, a human rights and self-determination activist, has over the years spent prolonged periods in prison, being systematically tortured and threatened with rape. The mass arrests and injuries carried out by the Moroccan security forces against individuals involved in the Gdeim Izik protest camp are another example of what individuals face when they refuse to stay silent. As Saharawi Agaila Abba told me:
‘Every attempted protest on the side of the Saharawis is crushed by a great brutality on the side of Morocco. Most Saharawi activists are now jailed, and those who led the protests last year were put on trial in a Moroccan military court and given a life sentence. The brutality of Morocco’s human rights violations against the Saharawi is not getting better; they have just started.’
Mohammed Wered describes the many techniques that Morocco uses to find and silence activists in the occupied territories:
‘There’s a wide and complicated network of security forces, military soldiers, secret agents, Moroccan civil informants… [Activists are subjected to] intimidation, beatings, imprisonment, torture, forced disappearance, fabrication of confessions, and the threat of rape, especially against male activists.’
The control that Morocco exercises in the resource-rich occupied Western Sahara is overwhelming. Imagine having to get approval from Moroccan authorities before you can name your child, or knowing that wearing traditional clothes could result in punishment. Imagine trying to stop yourself from speaking your own dialect, aware that if caught, this too is a punishable act, or being unable to raise the flag of your nation or participate in peaceful demonstrations for fear of being beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed. This is the reality of living in Western Sahara.
Activists around the world must start to foster an understanding of the situation in Western Sahara, learn and raise awareness about it. In particular, those already active in other self-determination movements and human rights issues, such as Palestine, should recognize the parallels and be vocal about them.
Those parallels do not just exist with regards to military occupation and its consequences, but also to the words, thoughts and desires of the individuals who bear the brunt of international impotence, and the colonial actions of an aggressive state. Echoing similar sentiments of freedom and hope around the world, Saharawi refugee Kamal Fadel writes:
‘I have a strong and constant longing to breathe the fresh air from the sea breeze of the Atlantic Ocean on the Western Sahara coast, and to walk barefoot on the dunes of a free Western Sahara.’
(First published by the New Internationalist on 13/01/14)