« This war can last another 10, 20 years. It only ends with the referendum and the complete liberation of the territories under Moroccan occupation. »
The prognosis of human rights activist Jamaa Baih reflects the distrust of those who have been following for years the attempts to pacify the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front – a movement that defends the independence of Western Sahara and the self-determination of its citizens, the Saharawis.
The referendum mentioned by the activist is precisely a consultation with the population on the independence of the territory, promised 29 years ago. “The Polisario Front no longer trusts the United Nations and will not end the war until its demands are fulfilled”, adds Baih, who is part of the Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders Collective (Codesa).
Independent from Spain since 1975, Western Sahara is in North Africa, facing the Atlantic Ocean, and borders Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south. Since 1960, it has been on the United Nations list of non-autonomous territories.
A Moroccan attack on the so-called « Guerguerat rift » region, in the southern portion of Western Sahara, last Friday (13) , broke the ceasefire agreement signed between the Polisario Front and Morocco in 1991. As there was no reaction of the United Nations (UN) to attack, the Sahrawi declared « state of war » and return to armed struggle after nearly 30 years.
At the time of the assaults, Saharawi civilians camped out protesting the Moroccan occupation of the « rift » region, considered by the independence movements as « an illegal corridor to plunder wealth. » In the face of the UN’s inertia, the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) immediately retaliated against the attacks and also bombed Moroccan bases. The numbers of dead and wounded are uncertain so far.
“The attack on Guerguerat is strategic for Morocco. Ensuring the occupation forever and imposing it as ‘a reality’ can be one of the intentions ”, analyzes Mahjoub Hussein Mleiha, who is part of Codesa’s administrative committee. “The analysis also cannot ignore the geopolitics of the surroundings. Western Sahara is a key to stability in the region and is yet another border from Algeria to be transformed into a war zone, after Mali and Libya, ”he adds.
In the last five days, clashes, aggressions and kidnappings have been recorded along the so-called Wall of Shame , which is 2,700 km long, was built with Israeli advice and is guarded by more than 150,000 Moroccan soldiers. A 12-year-old child was tortured by the Moroccan police.
“People are scared and want a peaceful solution. In the end, the biggest victims are civilians, ”laments Baih. « They are unarmed people, in an area of Moroccan occupation, who today take to the streets peacefully with flags from the Democratic Arab Saharawi Republic and the Polisario Front because they do not want their children to continue living in the midst of so much violence. »
“The only thing the Saharawi people want is an opportunity to live on their land, in peace. It is necessary to respect international law and for the United Nations and the Red Cross to protect Saharawi civilians in the occupied territories ”, adds the activist. Baih emphasizes the strategic importance of the region, which « has been used by Spain and Morocco for fishing and phosphate exploration. »
Adding the Saharawis who live in areas under Moroccan occupation, in “free” zones and in refugee camps, in southeastern Algeria, the population is approaching 600,000.
For Jamaa Baih, Spain is primarily responsible for the Moroccan occupation and the current conflict. In 1975, through the Madrid Agreement, the European country handed over the administration of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. The agreement contradicted an opinion of the UN International Court of Justice.
The Polisario Front immediately declared war on its neighbors. It took 16 years and more than 10,000 deaths until the ceasefire, on September 6, 1991.
One of the truce conditions with Morocco, brokered by the United Nations was convening the following year, a referendum – which never occurred.
The nearly 30 years of ceasefire did not mean an end to violations of the rights of the Saharawi people. “There are countless abuses,” says Isabel Lourenço, who represents families of political prisoners at the United Nations. « People are arbitrarily detained and taken to prisons within Morocco, which is a very clear violation of international law and the Geneva Convention. »
“In the occupied territories, there is a situation very similar to that of apartheid , with the forced impoverishment of the Saharawi population”, he compares. “There is segregation in schools. Saharawi children are not in different schools, as in South Africa, but they have no right to ask questions. They are called donkeys, inferiors, they hear that their mothers are prostitutes and their countries are murderers. ”
The number of “fixed” prisoners, according to Lourenço, is around 40, but varies constantly. « Those with the longest convictions belonged to a camp that was brutally destroyed in 2010, in which they claimed their social, economic and political rights, employment and housing. »
“There were hundreds of arrests, tortures. Some went three years without any kind of trial, and these were sentenced in a military court, 20 years to life imprisonment, accused of attacking Moroccan authorities, without any evidence, forensic evidence, nothing like that. ”
Lourenço is the only observer who was at the two trials of political prisoners, in 2013 and 2017. “Both in one and the other, the marks of torture of the accused were visible. One of them, even during the trial, was still bleeding, and his clothes were all stained with blood ”, he recalls.
Codesa member Jamaa Baih explains why the media have difficulty covering conflicts in Western Sahara: “The military forces of the occupation are at the capital’s airport [El Aiune]. In the occupied territory, they do not let international human rights organizations enter, they do not let foreign newspapers observe the situation ”, he denounces.
Itamaraty took a position on Wednesday (18) on the recent clashes in Western Sahara. The note does not mention the Moroccan attacks on the 13th, but calls for respect for the 1991 ceasefire.
“In the interest of peace and prosperity in the region, Brazil hopes that traffic and trade flows in the Guerguerat pass will be guaranteed in an unimpeded manner. In reiterating its support for the ongoing process within the United Nations with a view to a just and mutually acceptable solution for determining the final status of the territory of Western Sahara, the Brazilian Government rejects the use of violence and calls for respect for the ceasefire in force since 1991 ”, says the text.
Founded two years ago , the Association of Solidarity and For the Self-Determination of Western Sahara (ASAHARA) plans to hold demonstrations in front of the Embassy of Morocco in the coming days. “We are going to promote public acts, expressions of solidarity, to break the lack of knowledge about the subject”, explains former deputy Maria José Conceição, president of the Association.
Conceição met on Tuesday night (17) with the ambassador of the Polisario Front for Brazil, Emboirik Ahmed, and has received information in real time about the conflicts. The former deputy praises public demonstrations by authorities in Namibia , Zimbabwe and Algeria, in support of the Saharawi cause, and recalls that there are already movements of Algerian troops, allies of the Polisario Front in the region.
« The Polisario Front will not retreat from its position », he adds.
Mahjoub Hussein Mleiha points out that the resolution of conflicts does not depend only on the Saauarí people. « The holding of a free and fair referendum that allows the Saauarí people to exercise their right to self-determination is the only peaceful bridge for peaceful decolonization in Western Sahara », he reaffirms.
“The international community must act to see this implemented. The UN, the African Union and the European Union are all interested parties that need to act immediately to end the Moroccan occupation ”, concludes the activist.
Edition: Rodrigo Chagas