Laayoune, Western Sahara – “Duck down and put your head below the window,” says Hamid as we pass a military outpost in southern Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, on our way to the family home of dissident activists here.
Laayoune has no shortage of military outposts. The security forces are everywhere, on hand to disperse protests and public demonstrations. The latest incident was on December 10 – International Human Rights Day – when they broke up a protest in front of an office of Morocco’s Advisory Council on Human Rights with clubs.
Western Sahara has been ruled by Morocco since 1975 when, after Franco’s death, the Spanish left and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to enter. An International Court of Justice advisory opinion issued at the time did not find “any tie of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara, Morocco, and Mauritania, though it also noted the “difficulty of disentangling the various relationships existing in the Western Sahara region at the time of colonisation”.
By 1979, internal resistance had forced Mauritania out, but Morocco’s King Hassan II was committed to the Sahara as “bilad al-siba“, part of a “Greater Morocco” that would eventually cover all of Mauritania as well. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers were encouraged to enter Western Sahara with state-subsidised property and employment, under the army’s protection.
|Inside Story – Tensions in Western Sahara|
Morocco then fought a war against an indigenous Sahrawi group of fighters, the Frente Polisario, which ended in 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and pledged to hold an independence referendum within six months.
The referendum has still not been held. Morocco retains control of Western Sahara and its lucrative phosphate and fishing resources. The country is now the last United Nations-designated “non-self-governing territory” in Africa, and is home to between 100,000 and 140,000 Moroccan military personnel (despite a total population of just 500,000).
Morocco’s reigning King Muhammad VI has said that “the issue of our Saharan provinces is central” in order “to complete our territorial integrity”.
Life under Moroccan rule
The fighting drove much of the indigenous population of Western Sahara into refugee camps in Tindouf in southern Algeria, but some remain as a minority within the territory, west of the 2,600-kilometre separation wall that Morocco built during the war with the Polisario.
The UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, has limited jurisdiction: unusually for such missions, the UN Security Council has not given it a mandate to monitor rights abuses. Nor is it sufficiently staffed: the mission has only six police officers and 237 military personnel covering an area larger than Britain. MINURSO staff said they need an additional 10 civilian police just to monitor their own compound.
Media access in Western Sahara is extremely restricted: almost no foreign journalists are given permits to enter, and the occasional groups of journalists who are allowed in have their movement controlled by the state. Accordingly, little is known about the lives of the Sahrawi in the disputed territory.
“Our group is underground,” Fatima Tobarra, president of the Sahrawi Observatory for Women and Children, told Al Jazeera. “We tried to make an official organisation, but the authorities refused even to receive our application, so we can have no premises.”
Neither the Moroccan police nor the Moroccan government’s human rights department responded to requests for comment for this article.
Life expectancy is just 54 years in Western Sahara, tellingly lower than Morocco’s 72. The Observatory says discrimination and abuses against the local population are rampant.”The police here guard the schools, and intimidate the Sahrawi children, then inside they are discriminated against by the teachers who are almost always Moroccans, so attendance drops,” said Tobarra.
“Our children are not even allowed to join the activity groups that the Moroccan children have, so we run groups for them.”
Many of the families have had relatives killed or “disappeared”. Fatima’s own father and uncle were split up as refugees, and neither have been heard from since. Her grandfather and grandmother were both jailed in Agdz prison, and died there, she said.
“We cannot live like this, and we will not,” Fatima said. “We want our self-determination so that we can live good lives. The people in other countries, in Tunisia, in Yemen, they won their freedom – and we want that to happen here. It has to happen here.”
Despite the extensive security apparatus, the Sahrawi have been holding demonstrations against Moroccan rule, and what they see as their second-class citizenship, for years.
This peaked in October 2010, with the establishment of the Gdeim Izik protest camp: a tent city set up by activists south-east of Laayoune. The camp was forcibly dismantled by the Moroccan police, and between 11 and 36 Sahrawi were killed as well as eight members of the Moroccan security forces.
A group called Coordination Gdeim Izik played a key role in the protest camp, and continues to organise regular non-violent demonstrations in Laayoune, Smara, and Dakhla. Most recently, they organised a protest on International Human Rights Day in front of the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation (CCDH) office in Laayoune.
The protest was forcibly broken up, and many – like Salimah, a Sahrawi woman in her late twenties – were beaten. “I was very badly attacked. They smashed my teeth to pieces and I had to get them reconstructed,” she said, displaying the artificial replacements that now lie in place of her lower front six teeth. “The police came to the protest out of their uniforms and beat us with clubs.”
Another young member, Khalil, said that the security forces have become adept at pre-empting and breaking up protests, routinely using clubs and batons against anyone who attends. “They do not care if you are young, old, man, woman – if you come to the protests they will attack you,” he said.
Some demonstrators have lost their lives in the protests. Maryem Dambar says she watched her brother, Said Dambar, be shot in the head by police at a protest near his own house in Laayoune in December 2010.
“We live here always under the eyes, and under the clubs of the Moroccans. “
– Lahib Salhi, Coordination Gdeim Izik leader
Maryem says the Moroccan security forces then attacked the house, clubbing her and her mother after she fled inside. The police subsequently denied all responsibility for Said’s death, and to this day refuse to admit that the killing happened, or to investigate it.
“All our family wants is justice for Said,” Maryem said. “I saw him killed, and cannot understand how the Moroccans can deny that they murdered him. If there were any human rights in Western Sahara, Said’s death would not be denied, and his killers would be brought to justice.”
The case may not be unique. Human Rights Watch has complained that Moroccoan authorities failed to follow-up on the beating of the group’s research assistant in 2010, calling the attack a “case study of impunity for police violence”.
“If there is impunity for police who beat up a citizen who works for an international organization in broad daylight, in front of witnesses and despite formal complaints, it’s clear how vulnerable ordinary citizens are,” Sarah Lee Whitson, a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, said in a March 2012 statement.
In April, Amnesty International reported that: “Sahrawis advocating self-determination for the people of Western Sahara remained subject to restrictions on their freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and leading activists continued to face prosecution.”
Despite the danger of documenting unrest – anyone caught filming or taking pictures of protests in Western Sahara faces punishment, and usually the destruction of the camera equipment – Coordination Gdeim Izik say they have video evidence of the attacks on their protests.
In one video seen by this reporter, a 55-year-old woman is savagely beaten and kicked to the floor by two riot policemen; in another, uniformed military personnel beat a young girl so severely she had to be hospitalised, according to her friends. A senior member of the group, Sidi Muhammad Ramadiy, pointed to the screen and said: “This is human rights for Morocco.”
The group’s de facto leader, Lahib Salhi, said: “We live here always under the eyes, and under the clubs of the Moroccans. The world must do what it promised to do when the UN first came: hold the referendum, and give us the chance to live as we wish to live.”
Many Sahrawis in fact blame the international community. “The Moroccans make the claim on our land because they can, because they are strong and because they are supported by France, the United States, and Britain,” said Salhi. “But they know the claim is false. The Mauritanians once claimed Western Sahara for themselves. Where are they now? How much longer will the world permit this injustice?”
This story has been amended since first published on January 3.