Western Sahara: `We want to go back to our country. Nothing will stop us wanting our rights'

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Tagiyou Aslama. Photo by Alan Bain.

Tony Iltis interviews Tagiyou Aslama

March 20, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Western Sahara is the last country in Africa awaiting decolonisation. Invaded by Spain in the late 19th century, in the early 1970s mass mobilisations heralded the birth of the modern independence movement. In 1973, Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) was established to wage an armed independence struggle.

By 1975, the dying days of the Franco dictatorship, the Spain had been fought to a standstill. However, rather than allow independence, Spain made an agreement with neighbouring countries, Morocco and Mauritania, whereby these countries would occupy Western Sahara while Madrid would retain access to its maritime resources.

Many Saharawi fled to refugee camps on the border with Algeria. However, most of the men returned to fight for independence. On February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

By 1979 Polisario had defeated Mauritania, despite French military support of the latter. However, the war with Morocco continued. In the 1980s the Moroccans built a wall dividing the areas they occupied from the Polisario-controlled areas. The Moroccan-occupied area includes the coast and the main towns and cities, while the liberated zone is sparsely populated. The Moroccan government has encouraged Moroccan settlers to move to Western Sahara.

In 1991, the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire between the Polisario forces and Morocco. The basis for this was that a UN-supervised referendum would determine the country’s future. However, despite numerous promises and resolutions from the UN, the referendum has not taken place. This is largely due to support for Morocco from the Western powers, particularly France and the US.

Repression in the Moroccan occupied territories continues. On November 8, 2010, Moroccan forces violently attacked non-violent protesters camped at Gdeim Izik, outside the capital El Aaiun. In the aftermath, Moroccan soldiers and settlers attacked Saharawi homes and shops in El Aaiun. An estimated 36 Saharawi were killed and 723 wounded, and 163 were arrested and are currently facing Moroccan military courts.

The population of the occupied areas is about 500,000, while 165,000 people live in the refugee camps on the border. One of them is Tagiyou Aslama. He is not part of the camp leadership or the SADR administrative structure. However, like most Saharawi refugees of his generation — he was 18 at the time of the Moroccan invasion — his life has been tied up with his country’s struggle. He told Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal about his experience of the Moroccan invasion, his role in the independence war, about life in the camps and his perspectives on the current impasse.

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I was born in 1957 in the Awserd territory in the south of Western Sahara. Like any Saharawi, I was living in the desert with my family and we had animals, camels and goats. We were Bedouin people. In the last months of 1975, we heard the news from the Polisario Front that the Spanish colonialists were leaving, but that the Moroccans were occupying the north of Western Sahara.

We met some Saharawi soldiers from the Polisario Front who told us, “Please, you had better go because the Moroccans are coming.”

We started our travels but after just a little time the Moroccan occupation forces’ planes bombed the Umm Dreiga refugee camp [inside Western Sahara] with napalm and phosphorus. After that the Moroccan occupation forces bombed any territory of Western Sahara and any Saharawi. We understood the Moroccan army had instructions to kill any Saharawi.

The Moroccans entered Western Sahara through the Madrid Agreement between the governments of Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. The Moroccans invaded from the north and the Mauritanians from the south.

The Moroccans were killing everything and the Mauritanians were too. If the Mauritanian army found some Saharawi Bedouin families, they killed the men, the women and the animals. But the Moroccan forces were stronger. They had air power, unlike the Mauritanian army, and they were bombing and killing everything.

When the Saharawi people started their travels [to escape the killing], we did not have many cars, and the ones we had were small. So they just took the people who couldn’t walk. Some people carried those who couldn’t walk on their backs. Everyone — the women, the children, the men — went from their country to [the refugee camps in Algeria] by walking. It was very, very difficult.

We had big problems: can you imagine just walking, without a house, without tents, without hospitals, without anything? At night some women gave birth to new babies without any medication. And nobody could do anything.

It was a very difficult situation, but we continued. And the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies, if they found some water, killed some camels or donkeys and put it in the water to make it undrinkable.

We were walking and walking, and sometimes some planes would fly over and bomb everyone.

The war

When we reached Algeria, our families remained and every man went back to the war inside Western Sahara, to fight the Mauritanian and Moroccan armies, and we fought very strongly.

We concentrated many of our forces in Mauritania. The Mauritanian army was very weak and it needed protection from Morocco — the Moroccan army deployed troops to Nouakchott and other Mauritanian cities — and from France. French planes — air force Jaguars — bombed Saharawi soldiers. When we were fighting in Zouerate we caught some French civilian advisers.

In 1979, Mauritania made diplomatic representations to the SADR to stop the war. So we made peace with Mauritania.

After that all our power was directed against the Moroccan army. And any military operations we did in the south of Morocco and in Western Sahara, we would have more than 100 Saharawi willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. The Moroccan army needed the help of France and from many countries.

And they started building the [2700-kilometre] Moroccan wall in 1981. It’s six walls. They started work in 1981 and finished in 1987. It took six years to build this shameful project. This idea — this wall for their protection — couldn’t stop the Saharawi fighting. We entered into the side of the wall and captured some commanders and soldiers of the Moroccan army. In one operation we caught the most senior general of the Moroccan army in Western Sahara.

UN-brokered ceasefire

We continued the war until 1991. Then the United Nations came into Western Sahara and said: “We will organise a referendum for Western Sahara and we will make self-determination for the Saharawi people.”

I’m sorry to say, nothing happened from this promise. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force called the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO came into Western Sahara and stood between Polisario and the Moroccans, but they’re just bodyguards for the Moroccan army. We can’t do anything to Morocco but the United Nations didn’t do anything for us — that’s why we think the United Nations and the MINURSO army are just protection for the Moroccan army.

Of course we want peace. We didn’t like the war. But we want self-determination, to have a referendum.

The problem with this peace process is that the United Nations haven’t done anything and the Moroccans don’t care about the views of any other country in this world.

Of course, everybody knows that Moroccans have powerful friends. For example, what happened about the massacre at Gdeim Izik camp in the capital, El Aaiun? Although the European Union issued a report about Morocco’s massacre, the French cast a veto and said: “No! We won’t do anything for the human rights.”

Why did the French veto the United Nations being concerned about human rights in Western Sahara? Any Saharawi understands that if the United Nations didn’t come to us we would have continued fighting and would have won our independence or died trying.

Current situation

Of course we like peace. Our children like peace. Anyone who comes to the camps hasn’t have any problems. We are not like many Arab countries: we do not have Shi’as against Sunnis or any religious conflict. We are one people, we have one system of government … we have the Polisario Front, our government and our representatives in the United Nations.

The population based in the camps is making demands on the Polisario Front to go back to the war. We extend our hand in peace but if the United Nations can’t deliver our referendum, our self-determination, we will say: “Please get out of our country … We are ready to die for our country.”

I thank every organisation from any country that helps and shows solidarity with Western Sahara. I want to say to everyone: Please demand the Moroccan government stops oppressing the Saharawi people living in the occupied territories.

We have many people in Moroccan prisons, like the human rights activists who came and visited the refugee camps and were imprisoned by the Moroccans when they went back, including Brahim Dahane, Ahmed Alansari and Ali Salem Tamek. Nobody talks about them or does anything for them. No country, no organisation. So please, if you can do something for them. It is very important for us.

Humanitarian aid for the people in the refugee camps is very important for us too. The children’s situation here in the refugee camps is very difficult. When they want to play, they play but without any toys or materials for them, not like children in other places.

In summer, when it’s hot, the children go to school and they just have hot water to drink because they don’t have fridges.

Sometimes our children ask us about many things in our country, like fishing because they have never seen that. They ask, “How is the weather in our country?” because they have never felt that.

But we don’t ask for anything: we want just one thing. If all the world gave us everything in this life — houses, cars, everything — and if the Algerian government said: “This is your country, you can do anything”, we would not forget our country. We want to go back to our country. Nothing will stop us wanting our rights.

[Tony Iltis recently visited the Saharawi refugee camps as a representative of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]