LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara — Though the United Nations’ peace mission in Western Sahara lies lifeless, the struggle of the Sahrawi people is very much alive.
As the indigenous Sahrawis strive for independence from Morocco, progress and setbacks are intertwined. In July came progress: Morocco’s highest appeals court ordered a new trial for 24 Sahrawi activists who had been arrested after a mass protest in 2010 at the Gdeim Izik camp. Yet on Aug. 21, political activist Sukain Jad Ahlu was leading a peaceful protest at the Fem El Oud beach when she was attacked by police and badly beaten.
Ahlu, the head of the Future Forum for Sahrawi Women, told Al-Monitor, “I was peacefully demonstrating and repeating slogans calling for an independent Western Sahara when the Moroccan gendarme forces intervened against me. They beat me very hard on my back. I was personally targeted and my flag was confiscated.”
Ahlu, who had spent 12 years behind bars as a political prisoner, said she still suffers from the recent beating. “I cannot even move to pray,” she said.
Despite a media blackout during the protest, Sahrawi journalist Nazha El Khalidi covered the peaceful event. But as soon as she started working, she said, she was attacked by Moroccan forces.
“I was taking pictures when Moroccan gendarme men began running toward me. I ran and threw my camera in a passing truck, but they stopped it,” Khalidi told Al-Monitor. The armed men, who were dressed in civilian clothes, told her to follow them if she wanted to get her camera back, but instead she was arrested and beaten, she said. “When I entered the office, or what Morocco’s state agents called an office, I found out that it was a place for torture and insult. I found four minors and six Sahrawi human rights activists.”
Khalidi says it is very difficult to assemble in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara.
Since 1975, an estimated 50,000-160,000 Sahrawi refugees have lived in the Tindouf area of southwestern Algeria. They were forced to flee to Algeria after Spain withdrew from the region and Morocco and Mauritania laid claim to the territory. In 1976, the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, declared the area the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and in 1979, Mauritania recognized it and retreated.
The Polisario and Morocco continued fighting over the mineral-rich region until they agreed on a UN-sponsored cease-fire in 1991 that was supposed to grant Sahrawis their right of self-determination in a referendum and to choose whether to become part of Morocco or opt for an independent state. But Morocco refused any vote that would include the option of independence. It still controls 75% of the territory, while the Sahrawi independence movement administers the remaining 25%. As a result, the Sahrawi people are either living in exile or behind the world’s longest minefield, seeded by Morocco during the 1980s.
Since the stalemate began, the people of Western Sahara have been peacefully fighting for their right to self-determination. In October 2010, Sahrawi independence supporters living in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara established the Gdeim Izik protest camp to demand their socio-economic rights.
Mohamed Mayara is a Sahrawi media activist who was present in the Gdeim Izik camp. He told Al-Monitor the protest started with dozens of unemployed, married Sahrawis who took their families to the southeast of Laayoune and lived in tents while they protested and demanded their right to work. The camp expanded little by little. Within weeks, an estimated 20,000-25,000 Sahrawis had joined the protest. As the camp grew, so did the protesters’ aspirations. Soon people began raising the issue of an independent Western Sahara.
Argeibi Yousef is one of the Sahrawi youth volunteers who helped run the Gdeim Izik camp. “There were young Sahrawi men and women who distributed food and water throughout the month,” Yousef told Al-Monitor. He said Sahrawi donors bought all the necessary supplies for people in the camp. Yousef described the protest as an “unforgettable experience.” American scholar and political activist Noam Chomsky cites the event as the start of the Arab Spring.
After a month, the protest was violently dispersed by the Moroccan army.
Afterward, the 24 Sahrawi political activists accused of killing Moroccan policemen were tried in a military court. Some received life sentences. However, on July 27, a Moroccan appeals court decided the political prisoners should be retried, this time in a civilian court.
The decision came after intense pressure from human rights organizations calling for a fair civil trial for the defendants. Human Rights Watch argued, “The bereaved families of those who lost their lives in November 2010 have a right to see justice done. However, justice is surely not done by locking up a group of Sahrawis following a guilty verdict by a military court, based on confessions allegedly obtained under coercion or torture, without any other evidence linking them to these killings.”