Earlier this year I flew to the Algerian military town of Tindouf, as part of a Vice News crew, to help make a documentary and write an article about the struggle for an independent Western Sahara. Tindouf sits outside a network of five camps housing Sahrawi refugees from the war between Morocco and Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement fighting for a referendum in the region. The war lasted from 1975 – when Spain, with Franco on his death bed, ceded one of Africa’s last colonies, the Spanish Sahara, to Morocco and Mauritania – to 1991, when the UN brokered a cease fire, confidently and erroneously predicting that they would bring about a referendum within six months.
Twenty-three years later, the Sahrawis are still waiting for that referendum and the UN doesn’t even monitor human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara. In fact, Spain’s ceding of the territory is not recognized by international law, making Western Sahara “the only non-self-governing territory on the African continent still awaiting the completion of its process of decolonization.” With Western Sahara, it’s easy to get bogged down in international legalese. On the ground, the life lived by the 100,000 or so refugees is one of desert exile, a limbo that prevents them from either putting down roots where they are or returning to their land, in which many of their fellow Sahrawis suffer under Moroccan rule.
The camps are run on aid. There are few jobs and fewer education programmes. People worry that if they spend too much time making their temporary home nice, it will become their permanent home. Depression is common in a place caught between a past defined by betrayal and a future that seems to promise only stasis. On an afternoon at the hospital for victims of the seven million landmines littering the desert, the air hung thick with the heat as we spoke to a man who had spent the past thirty years in the same bed, his legs destroyed. As I sat in a patch of shade in the courtyard, it was easy to see his existence as a metaphor for the whole situation.
From the refugee camps, we headed into the wide, barely inhabited stretch of desert given back to the Sahrawis by Mauritania in the late 1970s. We were joined, in our 20-year-old Land Cruiser, by a Polisario commander and six of his fighters. In an area increasingly used by Jihadist groups to smuggle drugs, the Polisario tell us they remain in charge, even guarding the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’s (MINURSO) desert base, which blinks multi-coloured in the night like an oil rig, a testament to human impotence. Warming his hands in front of a fire, the commander of one of Polisario’s nightly anti-smuggling patrols tells us that they believe Morocco control the drugs trade in the region.
The Kingdom of Morocco calls Polisario terrorists. They say Polisario have enslaved the Sahrawi people, keeping them in refugee camps (or “gulags”, as Moroccan spies refer to them) in order to profit from the conflict and the largesse of their main sponsors, Algeria. Polisario has had the same leader since the 1976, members of its high command are said to own large houses in Spain and the military regime in Algeria is using them as part of its proxy war with its hated rival Morocco, but the vast majority of people we spoke to in the camps see no differentiation between Polisario and the Sahrawi cause. Out at their desert bases, surrounded by ancient meteors and fossils, Polisario took us through their network of tunnels and showed us some of their military hardware, much of it dating from the Cold War. One commander showed me an Apartheid-made cannon: in the 1970s and 1980s the Polisario would capture South African-made weaponry from the Moroccans and send it down to their revolutionary brothers in the ANC.
Back at the refugee camps, I think of how Polisario relates to successful African liberation movements like the ANC. I think of those other movements that turned sour once they were realized, of Russia post-1917, ZANU in Zimbabwe and the EPLA in Eritrea, of South Sudan and its troubled birth. No-one could say that an independent Western Sahara, sitting in an unstable region, surrounded by rivals and hated by Morocco, might not suffer a similar fate to those places, but there is no good reason why Western Sahara shouldn’t be granted the same right to decide on its freedom that has been granted in East Timor, Kosovo, South Sudan and, later this summer, Scotland.
Right now, the people of Western Sahara feel betrayed, which could lead them to break the ceasefire. This is one of the reasons the film is called The Sahara’s Forgotten War: the international community has abandoned the Sahrawis. Countries across the world recognise Western Sahara’s right to exist in theory but in practice, they trade with Morocco or, as is the case with the United States, actively support them. The Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is full of phosphates, fisheries and potentially oil and gas.
The Polisario’s frustration at the failure to bring about a referendum is close to boiling over. They told us repeatedly that they were “ready for war” but they lack the resources and international support to mount a full scale offensive on Morocco. They are more likely to carry out IRA-style bombings in big Moroccan cities like Rabat and Casablanca. In the world’s last major colony, the affects of Europe’s scramble for Africa and Morocco’s imperial delusions are plain to see.