The war that time forgot
The people of Western Sahara have fought their neighbours for an independent state since the early 1970S. A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in 1991 on the basis of a referendum that never materialised. So the soldiers and the people, many of whom languish in refugee camps, await a change that never comes. How long will their patience hold?
In a small whitewashed garrison deep in the Sahara desert, a dozen soldiers perform marching drills, their boots kicking up great khamsins of sand. Another group of men, most of whom are wearing replica football shirts, stand to attention as they salute the red, white and black Sahrawi flag of the Western Sahara people as it slowly climbs in the midday heat. All this pageantry has been staged in my honour, which is discomfiting because it’s 35C and everyone looks miserable on what should, as a Friday, be a day off. And also because these young men might be the most frustrated militia on Earth.
The soldiers belong to the Polisario Front, a Marxist guerrilla group formed in the early 1970s to establish an independent state in Western Sahara, a vast, blank space where the Saharan sands meet the Atlantic. Wedged between Morocco and Algeria to the north east and Mauritania to the east and south, these vast desert flatlands are home to just over half a million people. Since 1975 a war has raged and then waned for its control. Four decades ago the desert glowed with gunfire. Since a 1991 ceasefire, that war has remained frozen but the guerrillas are still training. And in this febrile, divided land, they’re desperate to fight again.
A Rusted Threat
With drills over for the day, I’m led to a tiny, fly-ridden room to snack on camel kebabs and dates. A flatscreen TV plays gooey US romance The Notebook, subtitled in Arabic. Everyone sits back to watch except my guide Bashir, a stout, middle-aged commander with a pepper-pot moustache, ill-fitting field cap and baggy, deep-green fatigues.
In the 1980s, when Bashir was a teenager, he left for Cuba to train in the military while the war for Western Sahara was still being fought, if only sporadically by this time. The conflict, along with pressure from the UN, had forced Spain to leave the colony it called the Spanish Sahara in 1975.
By then the Polisario, under founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, had already been fighting for two years. Its first raid in 1973 saw seven men bring back five prisoners and five camels. Talks between them and the departing colonists angered Morocco’s King Hassan II who wanted to claim the region. That anger was ramped up when, in October 1975, the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled that the Sahrawis were entitled to self-determination, and that neither Morocco nor Mauritania could claim sovereignty.
On November 6 of that year, Hassan acted. 350,000 Moroccan civilians, backed by 20,000 soldiers, advanced into Western Sahara. If there was to be a self-determination vote, his people would flood the polls. Bemused Spanish troops stood down, but the Green March, as it would become known, lit the touchpaper for a 16-year war.
Mauritania, under hard-left dictator Moktar Ould Daddah, also claimed Western Sahara. The Polisario was left with little choice but to fight both nations. Its 10,000 men were outnumbered 10-to-one, but with material and training from Soviet-allied Algeria, it fought a guerrilla war that defeated Mauritania, which pulled out in 1975, and kept Western-backed Morocco from outright victory in one of the Cold War’s smallest proxies. So effective were the Polisario’s tactics — which included tunnel networks and deadly ram-raids — that the US Army studied them in preparation for its first Gulf War Desert Storm campaign.
It was during those early years that the war’s violence peaked. Napalm was frequently used by Morocco and some 20,000 were killed on all sides. In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire that has held to this day. Morocco promised the Sahrawis a referendum on their future, but the question of who could vote, amid the former’s continuing cultural assimilation, ensured that it never happened. But by then, Bashir says, it was already too late for an independent Sahrawi state. Morocco had cleaved the Western Sahara in two with the Berm, a 2,700km-long sand wall built between 1980 and 1989. 120,000 Moroccan soldiers still guard this ramshackle edifice, securing a territory they call the ‘Southern Provinces’. “We didn’t have our land and we still don’t,” says Bashir, spitting pistachio shells across the floor as he recounts the story of his people’s loss.
On the coastal side of the Berm, Morocco governs 80 percent of the territory and rules over 350,000 ethnic Sahrawis. Human rights abuses and disappearances are commonplace — as are the territory’s lucrative minerals, fisheries and phosphates. To the other side of the wall lies a sliver of landlocked territory that the Polisario calls its ‘Liberated Territories’. This desolate area is littered with landmines. Beyond that lies Mauritania to the east and Algeria to the north. In the latter country there are six refugee camps, ruled by the Polisario under the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) that only 46 states recognise. Algeria’s support remains but has been reduced to little more than allowing the camps to exist.
“We want to fight but now peace is the aim. So we train for a war that may come tomorrow”
Morocco’s watchers on the wall are flanked by modern tanks, missile launchers and machine guns. Bashir’s men, who number barely 10,000, have little more than rusted weaponry from another age. The Polisario, hamstrung by this situation, has for the past two decades pursued a policy of peace. But this has divided the people, and the troops: “We want to fight but now peace is the aim,” Bashir says, hiding his anger badly. “So we train for a war that may come tomorrow.”
Outside the hut we are sitting in, the yells of hand-to-hand combat exercises drift across a dusty courtyard. Next door, newcomers sit in a classroom being taught Kalashnikov skills from diagrams scrawled on a blackboard. I ask Bashir where they keep the actual guns. “Another 23km into the desert,” he responds in an unusually precise reply. But we’re not allowed to see them, for reasons withheld. With such scant resources, a return to arms would surely spell suicide for the Polisario. But due to the frustration of the people and soldiers at the limbo they find themselves trapped in, it remains an ever-present threat.
This Isn’t Home
Smara refugee camp is a rough, sandblasted stretch of mud-brick houses and tents near the Algerian border outpost of Tindouf. The camp is the namesake of a town in Western Sahara that now falls under Moroccan rule. To get there from Algiers alone takes several flights and an hour-long 4×4 journey on the only tarmacked street in sight. My home for three weeks belongs to Masuda, a thick-set mother of four who was born to the south, in Mauritania, before moving to the camps to be with her much older husband Bilal, himself a veteran of the war.
Neither Masuda nor Bilal, like most of the camp’s 150,000 Sahrawis, have jobs. Their daily life revolves around a list of household chores, listening to the radio and seeing the kids to a nearby school that is paid for, like all municipal buildings, by foreign aid and charity. One night after prayers, when the jet-black Sahara sky envelops the desert, Masuda admits that the boredom can be stultifying. She hopes something will be done so they can move, find work and live ordinary lives.
Sahrawi landmine victim Ahmed Jatari moves his wheelchair on March 1, 2011 at the landmines victims center Martyr El Sherif, near the Western Sahara refugees camp of Rabuni.
Little is ordinary about the camps. The dry heat gives the appearance of hard-baked permanence but everything, or so the locals hope, is just a placeholder before Western Sahara is liberated and they can return home. The second that happens everyone will up and leave. I ask Mohamedsalem Werad, a local journalist, what will happen to Smara if that happens, as we stroll home one night. “I don’t know,” he says, shrugging at the houses around which he was born. “I don’t care either. Our home isn’t here.”
It could be argued that the refugees have it better than their compatriots across the Berm in the Moroccan-controlled territories. Beatings and police violence are regularly documented by human rights agencies. A 2010 uprising — which scholars including Noam Chomsky claimed was a forebear of the Arab Spring — was brutally oppressed, and Morocco makes it almost impossible for foreign media to work in that region. “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time,” said Moroccan King Mohammed VI last November.
Western Sahara has huge economic importance to Morocco. It gives Morocco command over 75 percent of the world’s phosphate production, while its fishing lanes are so abundant that even Chinese ships come to reap its rewards. Last year a Texan firm, Kosmos, and France’s Total were granted exploration licenses by Morocco to search for oil in the waters off Western Sahara — a move that the Saharawi people claim is illegal. Trade and lobbying has silenced opposition to Morocco, however; especially in Washington and Paris. Morocco has realised that, without action from the Polisario, it can hold tight and play a waiting game, ethnically assimilating Sahrawis in its territory and leaving inhabitants of the camps to linger, poor and unheard.
The UN isn’t much of a source of hope for the Sahrawis either. On April 28 it voted to retain its mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO [Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara], but it is one of only four UN missions without a mandate to monitor human rights violations, a move that has been widely criticised.
As for the African Union, it recently vowed to step up efforts to end the conflict but, says Jamal ElBachra, a prominent Sahrawi activist, “When you see your mother or father dragged, raped, beaten up, you wonder what non-violence is doing to your people.” He argues, as many of his people do, that the camps have become satrapies of inaction, and peace hasn’t changed anything.
No wonder locals, and experts, warn of impending violence.
Peace and Terror
Mohamed Abdelaziz became president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state proclaimed by the Polisario Front, in 1976. This was shortly after the death of Polisario founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed during battle in Mauritania. He has remained in power ever since. Abdelaziz’s wife, Khadija Hamdi, heads up the culture ministry. His son, Khalil, presents Spanish-language news on local station RASD TV (RASD is the Spanish acronym of SADR; the language remains an official tongue of Western Sahara, after the local Hassaniya dialect of Arabic).
“People do talk about terrorism but they are all scared of it. The kidnapping was a tragedy for us, but no one is about to wear a suicide vest for a cause”
SADR has grown from a rebel dream into a state-in-waiting since the war. A parliament of 53 representatives meets twice yearly, while 25 ministers cover everything from education to agriculture. But this setup is tainted by the nepotism and cronyism that are rife in both SADR and the Polisario. The destination of foreign aid has also become a source for concern. It is supposed to be given solely to civilians, but rumours persist that the military gets its hands on many supplies first. Likewise, most Polisario officials travel the world and see things their people will likely never see.
One official told me that each Sahrawi lives on 20 days of food each month. That the government feast we were attending at the time would have embarrassed a Roman emperor did not appear to be a source of irony. Rachel Grant, local division chief of USAID’s Food for Peace (FFP) programme, even admits “it’s possible” the army are getting to supplies. “In ’91 people were shouting, Viva Polisario!” says Agaila Abba-Ali, a local poet and writer. “Now nobody is saying it.”
“The Polisario has become complacent,” says Eurasia Group’s North Africa expert, Riccardo Fabiani. “There are so many incentives for them not to pursue a military avenue that they are stuck with the status quo. No-one supports them apart from the Algerians. No international powers have a stake. They have only one option, which is to stay put and wait.”
The worry is that this complacency and corruption could lead the Polisario’s subjects to take the conflict into their own hands and go against the regime. Every young local I speak with clamours for conflict. One evening, at dinner with the family of a local official, the old man’s sons describes in detail the “rape” of their nation. The boys, dressed in bomber jackets, become angry, their eyes wide and wild. “The Moroccans!” the younger one, Mohamed, says breathlessly. “They’re so strong and we don’t have much but we need to fight… We all feel the same.”
This is a view I hear on at least a dozen occasions. So strong is the urge for war that the Polsario has begun a propaganda campaign to keep it in check. Radio, television and, more recently, an official government website, pump pro-peace news to the people, while reporting on Moroccan calamities. At the production offices of RASD TV I ask director Mohamed Salem Laabeid about his editorial pursuit of the truth. “We are a government news service,” he says angrily. “If the government wants war, we want war. If it wants peace then we will show peace.”
Even Polisario defence minister Mohamed El-Bouhali, a stiff-jawed, army fatigue-wearing wonk who’s prone to doublespeak (“It was the Sahrawis who won the war. That’s why the Moroccans built the wall: to defend themselves”), admits it’s tough keeping men in line. He sits bolt upright as he limns a new, bellicose generation: “There are many who are militarily disposed, so they favour going to war.”
“People are fed up,” says Mohamedsalem Werad. “What they see on the ground is that waiting peacefully is not the best way to get independence and rights.” Such is the groundswell of discontent that local activists have begun shipping over experts in nonviolent resistance from Syria, Iran and farther afield, to teach Sahrawis how to fight without weapons.
If this generation was to buckle, however, the route from insurrection to war would be far from easy. As my day at the barracks suggests, weaponry is hard to come by. The guns, tanks and missile launchers used to fight Morocco in the previous war are proudly displayed in museums and monuments across the camps, but these are relics from another time. Even the AK47s Bashir told me were out in the desert are, I am later told, as much a mirage as the lakes and rivers seen by sun-stroked itinerants.
If war is to erupt in Western Sahara, it will likely have a different source. In the desert, that’s not hard to find.
A Growing Threat
Land borders in the Sahara are often little more than concepts. For centuries people have migrated across these chasmic voids, trading everything from spices and camels to, in more recent times, computer parts and phones. Even today the Sahara remains a borderless expanse in many places, despite the best efforts of its member states to impose order.
In this lawless environment Islamist terror is a huge threat.
Al-Qaeda shifts troops and weapons across the desert with little opposition. Almost every country in the Maghreb has played host to war, kidnappings, murders and suicide attacks in the past decade. Libya and Syria’s ongoing wars have reignited black-market trade routes across the Sahara, upon which bombs, drugs and combatants are bought and sold.
Western Sahara has not remained untouched. In 2011 three European aid workers were kidnapped from the camp of Rabouni by an al-Qaeda affiliate. They were later returned, but the shock was huge. The Polisario now has a counter-terror unit that patrols the region.
Since the kidnappings, Western commentators have spoken of a new frontier in the War on Terror. Neo-conservative columnists have seethed at the West’s non-intervention, which they say is brewing “a new al-Qaeda”. Morocco claims that Islamism has grown within the camps, exposing the Polisario’s lack of leadership and threatening the region.
It is a claim that has not gone unacknowledged by the Sahrawis. “People do talk about it,” admits Werad, “but they are all scared of it. The kidnapping was a tragedy but no-one is about to wear a suicide vest for the cause.”
My three weeks in the camps produce no evidence of an Islamist threat, despite having met several of the most eminent bloggers, dissidents and demagogues. Calls to fellow journalists are met with the same answer. David Conrad, a Foreign Policy writer who travelled to the region last year, says he didn’t uncover a wellspring of terrorists in the desert. “The clearest truth that we found, however, is that Western Sahara is a vastly misunderstood place.”
Part of that misunderstanding may be due to Morocco’s influence on Western governments — especially the US. Morocco is one of Washington’s biggest lobbyists, investing $4 million to influence the White House in 2014. That puts it sixth in the world behind the UAE, Germany, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Even Moroccan state media admits that much of the cash is spent discussing Western Sahara. The Clintons also have close ties to the country, having made multiple speeches there.
Another misinterpretation has grown around religion in the camps. The Sunni Islam I see here is practised far more loosely than in other parts of the Muslim world. Mosques, for example, are barely visible among the tents and government buildings of Smara and there are no minarets. The Polisario attempted to raise its political stature above religion in the early days. Today, locals say that is no longer the case. But Marxism, pan-Arabism and secularism still dominate politics.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar give a press conference following a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rabat on April 4, 2014.
Defence minister El-Bouhali bristles when I mention Sahrawi Islamism. “This territory is not secure,” he admits. “What Algeria is experiencing on its Moroccan border, so are we. All countries who share a border with Morocco have a problem with drugs, and the source is Morocco. We say drugs are coming but we also say terrorism.”
Neither is good news for the Sahrawis. And nowhere is their desperation felt so sharply as it is at the Berm.
A Line In The Sand
A trip to the Berm is long, painful and short on sights. It takes three hours from Rabouni refugee camp on the Algerian border to reach the giant wall, which was erected with help from the US and Israel. The construct peers out across a colossal, empty front line where time has stood still for almost a generation. Only the odd protester or nomad disturbs a quiet landscape that belies a deadly threat. Swirling sands have shifted an estimated 10 million landmines to locations unknown in the region. Since 1975 they have claimed over 2,500 lives.
A United Nations car drives past the Mechouar square on May 14, 2013 in Laayoune, the capital of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
We hurtle towards the wall in one of the Polisario’s beloved, ancient Land Rovers, my backside almost constantly airborne. As we bounce along, my driver, a young, grinning soldier who smokes an entire pack of tar-heavy Algerian cigarettes on the journey, is continually scolded for veering off the thin stretch of stony ground given the all-clear by anti-mine charities. Only last year, two filmmakers were maimed making the same journey.
Life in the Polisario Army is no vacation. Once training is completed, recruits can look forward to duties that include manning roadblocks, infrastructure repair work or standing lookout. The latter is dull at the best of times. In a frozen conflict in a featureless plain, it’s Sisyphean. Some men hide in trees anticipating raids that never come. Others spend days huddled in tiny tunnels built in the 1970s.
After two hours we reach two small border garrisons. The first, run by the Polisario, consists of a road barrier where young guards, only half of whom are armed, stare and smoke beneath shredded wooden parasols — it seems their biggest military overhead these days is tobacco. Having been waved through without incident, we meet another, far bigger, checkpoint, its concrete awash with the green and white colours of Algeria. Its patrolmen are armed but entirely apathetic and we pass by with virtually no words spoken.
Towards our destination the land flattens out, greenery pokes out and small herds of camels plod slowly across the sand. Then it appears, suddenly, raised only slightly above the shimmering, heat-hazed horizon. The wall’s parapet is lined with Moroccan soldiers who peer through binoculars and take photographs.
Seeing those faceless Moroccan heads in the distance, I feel almost as sorry for them as I do the Sahrawis. They too are trapped in this suspended conflict, exiled hundreds of miles from home to feed an economy ruled by a haughty monarch in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. Perhaps they too crave another war. They would surely win, after all — and the removal of these Sahrawi wanderers would also spell an end to their own luckless bind, guarding this desert wall.
Understandably, Moroccan soldiers are afforded little sympathy from the Sahrawis who are still refugees. Victory in battle might be impossible and the Sahrawis know it. But many of these men think violence would be the only possible catalyst for intervention by the international community, a view that is shared by experts. “Without changes in the near future it is hard to see how a people who have remained peaceful in the demonstrations against human rights abuses will not be forced into using more violent means,” says Beccy Allen, of the Western Sahara charity, Adala.
“We have to consider all paths, and in this sense I think that a resumption of hostilities is not to be ruled out at any moment,” Kathri Aduh, president of the Sahrawi Parliament, tells me. “We are still at war: we signed a ceasefire in order to organise a referendum; the referendum is yet to be organised, so the possibility of a return to hostilities persists.”
On the drive back from the Berm we stop to drink tea with some nomads. The Sahrawi tea-making ceremony is a slow, precise ritual that can take up to 45 minutes to brew just one tiny, sugary cup. It takes a lot of patience — a virtue for which the Sahrawis are famed. Now, though, with a contented enemy, narrowing options and autocratic leadership, patience is not something young Sahrawis can afford. “Time is running out,” my guide tells me, sipping in the hot afternoon sun. “Soon it may be too late for our dream.”