A Saharawi fighter on May 20, 2008, at a parade
to mark 35th anniversary of the Polisario Front. Photo by EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA.
[Read more on the Western Saharan people's struggle HERE.]
colonised Western Sahara and its mostly nomadic people in 1884 claiming it as a protectorate of the
Spanish Crown. Spanish rule over Western
Sahara was codified in Berlin in 1885, where Africa was carved up among the European powers. The period of Spanish rule was marked
by ongoing resistance, revolts and armed clashes with the indigenous
population, with its liberation movements being brutally repressed by the Spanish
A 1966 UN resolution called for Saharawi people’s right to
self-determination to be exercised via a referendum which never eventuated. The
lack of political developments led to the formation of Popular Front for the
Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de
Oro (the Polisario Front) in 1973. Polisario was
conceived as a nationalist front with the aim of achieving independence, and
encompassed all Saharawi political trends.
Polisario launched a guerrilla war against Spanish rule, fought Mauritania’s
occupation of part of Western Sahara (from 1975 to 1979) and Morocco’s
occupation from its invasion in 1975 until 1991.
In 1975 Spain relinquished its control of Western
Sahara and, contrary to 1966 UN resolution for
self-determination, handed Western Sahara over to Mauritania and Morocco (the Madrid Accords). The same year, the Morocco regime organised the
``Green March’’, in which 350,000 Moroccans, brandishing flags and pictures of
King Hassan II, invaded Western Sahara in order to settle and ``reclaim the
territory’’. This strategic march was supported by 20,000 Moroccan troops, who
were met with some armed resistance from Polisario. November 6, the day of the
“Green March”, has become a national holiday in Morocco.
Morocco and Mauritania’s war against Polisario was financially supported by the US, France and Spain to the
tune of billions of dollars.
Apart from engaging in aerial bombardment, which included napalm and
cluster bombs, Morocco started to build a 2500-kilometre-long, heavily mined wall through Western Sahara, dividing almost every Saharawi
family. (For a detailed map of Western
Sahara and the Moroccan wall, visit http://awsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2006/12/wsahara.pdf.)
27, 1976, Polisario proclaimed the Saharawi Arab
Democratic Republic (SADR), which is a full member state of the African Union.
occupation is not officially recognised by any other country in the world,
around 50 governments
recognise the SADR and its government-in-exile, led by the Polisario Front; 13
have suspended relations with Morocco and 22 have cancelled recognition.
The SADR was the first country to establish relations with East Timor. The SADR and Polisario currently
control 32% of Western Sahara’s territory; the remaining 68% are resource rich and
occupied by Morocco.
referendum and international abandonment
ceasefire, overseen by a UN peacekeeping mission, ended the armed conflict but
the Saharawi people are still waiting for a UN-sponsored
referendum on self-determination that was supposed to take place in 1992. The
frustration at the lack of progress and lack of support from the international
community for a political solution to the conflict is palpable, especially
among Saharawi youth. As SADR health minister Sid'Ahmed Tayeb told the
Australian delegation to the October 2008 International Trade Union
Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers (see
http://links.org.au/node/750), “we are living between existence
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The Saharawi people have been left to their own
devices, due to the fact that Morocco
has very powerful allies, such as the US,
The Spanish king regularly spends his vacations with the Moroccan king. A landmark advisory ruling by the International Court of
Justice in 1975, recognising the right of self-determination by the
Saharawi people, was
rendered useless because France and the United States blocked the Security Council from
enforcing its resolutions. Both governments sought to undermine growing
communist and radical Arab nationalist movements during the Cold War by
strengthening the reactionary Moroccan monarchy.
recent years Morocco has become the darling of the West
and is friends with Israel, due to its status as a ``moderate
Muslim nation’’ and an important ally in the struggle against Islamist
In 2006 Morocco proposed an autonomy plan for Western Sahara based on the assumption that Western Sahara was part of Morocco, an assertion that has been
rejected on numerous occasions by the UN, the World Court and the African Union (see http://www.gees.org/articulo/2772).
European Union is currently in negotiations with Morocco on granting it ``Advanced Status’’
relations with its 27-member bloc. Western Sahara has
appealed to the European Union not to grant Advanced Status to Morocco unless the
occupied part of Western Sahara is
excluded from cooperation agreement (see http://www.wsrw.org/index.php?parse_news=single&cat=105&art=924).
Granting such status to Morocco while it continues to occupy Western Sahara will give legitimacy to the
Moroccan military occupation and its claims over the territory.
Theft of Saharawi natural
Many Western governments and companies, including Australia’s, are
knowingly engaged in the theft of the Saharawi people’s natural resources,
through lucrative trade deals with Morocco. Western Sahara has high-grade phosphate mineral
rock, excellent fishing grounds and offshore oil exploration is being
conducted (for more information see www.awsa.org
As a matter of fact, under the 1975 Madrid Accords, Spain was
given a 35 per cent stake in the Western Saharan Bu Craa phosphate mine, which
is continuing to deliver a profit bonanza to the former colonial power until
In the game of ``Realpolitik’’ it is of no relevance to Western
governments that Morocco has been condemned many times for its torture,
disappearance and arrest of Saharawis in Morocco proper and in the occupied
territories, as well as for its repression against its own population and trade
half the Saharawi people live in refugee camps, which have now existed for 33
years, in the Hamada desert near the Algerian military town of Tindouf.
Nearly all Saharawi men participated in the resistance war. Apart from some
women who joined their menfolk in armed combat, most Saharawi women walked
hundreds of kilometres with their children through the desert to escape Morocco’s
bombardment and napalm, to reach safe haven in south-west Algeria.
There the women miraculously built refugee camps with social institutions out
of virtually nothing. The mainly nomadic Saharawi society had to undergo a
rapid and massive transformation to adapt to incredibly inhumane conditions and
to develop new ways of organising their society in order to survive (for more
detailed information, visit http://www.arso.org/05-0.htm#Anchore).
Saharawi refugees have lived on emergency food and
humanitarian aid for 33 years, which has resulted in high levels of
malnutrition and anaemia. A 2007 UN-funded report found that more than 76% of pregnant women
and 68% of children under the age of five suffered from anemia. The 2003
report, Forgotten People: The Saharawis
of Western Sahara, by Refugees International states that nearly half of
Saharawi kids suffer from anemia, many have stunted growth with 13 per cent are
acutely malnourished (http://www.arso.org/01-e03-07.htm).
Due to the harsh terrain of the camp locations,
combined with shrinking financial support from donor governments and
organisations, supplementing the current food aid with necessary nutrition for
a balanced diet is nearly impossible.
At the same time the situation in Saharawi camps is
uniquely positive and a testimony to human capabilities in the face of
adversity. The Saharawi government, together with foreign specialists, is
trying to address these problems to the best of its ability. The SADR government and Polisario
run the camps through social and political institutions, giving control,
cohesiveness, dignity and hope to its people. The four camps are organised into
districts (wilayas) named after towns
Aaiun, Smara, Dahkla and Aousserd. Each camp is further divided into villages (daira). There are also two
administrative camps (Rabouni and 27 February) that house the government in
exile, with police stations, courts and schools.
education are the top priority in the camps, achieving amazing results. There
is a national hospital in the 27 February camp; Saharawis have not suffered a
major health epidemic for more than 20 years. The literacy rate is over 90 per
cent, a complete turnaround from 1975 when 95% of Saharawis could neither read
nor write. At the same time, the director the national hospital told us during
our visit, they still have not received the allocation of medications for 2008,
which has dangerously depleting important stocks. There was no anti-diarrhea
medication available at the time for children under five years of age.
temperatures can reach a searing 58 degrees Celsius in summer and fall to minus
6 degrees C in winter, there is no mass exodus from the camps to migrate to Europe, instead an incredibly strong
sentiment is expressed about being able to return to their occupied country.
Every week young people arrive in the camps, fleeing Morocco’s repression in the occupied
territories. Saharawis are excluded from many jobs and educational
opportunities and face relentless discrimination and harassment by the Moroccan
state. Morocco’s security forces especially target
young people, who are spearheading the resistance (intifada). Torture and detention, even of 14-year-old women, is
common, as is the disappearance of journalists and other activists. It is just
about impossible to be granted entry to the occupied territories, unless you
pretend to be a tourist, keen to do a bit of surfing (see http://www.upes.org).
The Saharawi people in the camps, their brothers and
sisters in the occupied territories and in the diaspora are desperately hoping
for an end to the conflict so they can return to their beloved homeland. Our
solidarity is crucial for their right to live as a nation and continue their
existence as a distinct people with thousands of years of history.
[This backgrounder was complied thanks to resources
provided by ARSO (http://www.arso.org), the Australia Western
Sahara Association (http://awsa.org.au) and
Western Sahara Resource Watch (http://www.wsrw.org).
Margarita Windisch was a member the
three-person delegation of Australian trade unionists who attended the 6th
Congress of the Western Sahara General Union of Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro
Workers (UGTSARIO) and the International
Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, in October
2008, in El Aaiun, one of four Saharawi refugee camps in the
Hamada desert in south-west Algeria. Windisch
is also a leading member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist
organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]