A soldier of the Polisario Front holds her child and a rifle during training in the Western Sahara, December 1978. The Polisario are a Sahrawi liberation movement who fought against Moroccan control of the Western Sahara from the 1970s to early 1990s. Female soldiers were key to defending the the Tindouf refugee camps during the conflict and today the women’s wing of the Polisario contains around 10,000 members.
Fighting Is Long Over, but Western Sahara Still Lacks Peace
By Carlotta Gall, NY Times, Feb. 22, 2015
TIFARITI, Western Sahara–Ghalla Sid Ahmed and her mother
eke out a living in this isolated desert settlement, subsisting on five goats
and a war pension. For 40 years they have lived in exile, barred from their
land by a heavily patrolled sand berm that runs like a scar for 1,600 miles
through this remote corner of the Sahara.
They are the forgotten victims of one of the world’s last
conflicts left over from the Cold War. There has been no fighting here for 24
years, since a United Nations-monitored cease-fire between Morocco and the
Polisario Front, an anticolonial resistance movement that sought independence.
But there has been no peace, either, despite unfulfilled
promises of a referendum to settle the status of the Western Sahara. Today, as
change and conflict encroach from the wider region, the people here are once
again agitating for a solution, warning of the resumption of war, as patience
“We like it here,” said Ms. Ahmed, 51, gesturing at their
homestead and the desert beyond, “but it is very hard without independence and
the rest of our lands.”
“No one wants war,” she added, “but if there is no result
from peace, then I will give all my children to achieve independence.”
The Western Sahara stretches from Algeria and Mauritania in
the east to the coast of the Atlantic. Morocco occupies the territory, and
Moroccan soldiers guard the sand berm that was originally built to fortify the
front line in the conflict but that still divides the native Berber-Arabs, or
Sahrawis, a nomadic people of just a few hundred thousand.
A United Nations force monitors the cease-fire from half a
dozen camps dotted through the desert on either side of the divide.
To the east, the Polisario Front controls a sliver of
territory and a collection of refugee camps in Algeria. It remains the single
authority over the refugee community. Its message of solidarity in the struggle
for independence is unquestioned.
Polisario soldiers in fatigues mount patrols in the desert,
while civilians, many of them women, run education and social services.
Officials say they will introduce a multiparty democracy once independence is
The result is a tightly knit community that, despite the
length of the struggle, remains committed to its cause. In interviews during a
five-day tour of the camps and Polisario’s realm, the Sahrawis were adamant
that the only solution for them was independence.
“If there is no other option we have to fight,” says Zubeir
Mbarek, a Sahrawi herder and former guerrilla fighter. He lost three brothers
in the war, and his house here in Tifariti remains in ruins from a Moroccan
bombing raid 24 years ago. “We should prepare ourselves and be ready to defend
Once a Spanish protectorate, the Western Sahara was occupied
by Morocco, and Mauritania briefly, when the Spanish withdrew in 1975. The
Sahrawis had already begun an armed resistance against the Spanish and turned
to fight the Moroccan Army.
They formed the Polisario Front in 1973, a
Latin-American-style socialist guerrilla movement in the style of the Cold War,
which gained support from Cuba, Libya and Algeria and later post-apartheid
South Africa. Neighboring Algeria, which hosts the refugees, remains its most
The Polisario proved a resilient guerrilla force. It fought
the Moroccan Army for 16 years, and declared the region the Sahrawi Arab
Democratic Republic, winning recognition from dozens of the eastern-bloc,
developing countries and the African Union.
By the end of the war the Polisario had captured 4,000
Moroccan soldiers, shot down dozens of planes and seized a mass of military
equipment and weaponry.
A war museum in the refugee center of Ribouni displays the
evidence. Cabinets are filled with Moroccan military documents and hangars with
captured weaponry and military vehicles, including American military trucks,
and German, French and British field guns supplied to the Moroccan Army.
Even as generations are growing up never knowing their
homeland, the sentiment for independence is unabated. A group of young people,
walking from their tented homes to the center of Tifariti to visit the school and
the few shops, named only one problem in their lives. “Morocco,” they said in
The older people relate harsh tales of their flight under
Moroccan bombardment in 1975. Thousands died in the war and hundreds were
detained and disappeared by Moroccan authorities–400 remain unaccounted for to
this day, according to Abdeslam Omar, who runs an association that has
documented the disappearances.
Dekalla Mahmoud, a grandmother, recalled how, when she was
nine months pregnant, she lost her baby during a monthlong flight with other
women through the desert under Moroccan bombardment.
“We walked just at night, and during the day we hid,” she
said. A single man with a car ferried groups of the women at night, without
lights, from one hiding place to another. “Planes were moving over us, and we
heard tank and artillery fire,” she recalled.
In the camps, desolate and dusty in the winter, infernally
hot in the summer, the refugees will mark their 40th anniversary this year,
living in tents, or small boxy homes made from cement breeze blocks, and
dependent on assistance from the United Nations for food and water.
“Everybody hopes to go back home,” said Ms. Ahmed’s mother,
Selma Ahmed, 80, who was born in the town of Smara, in territory now under
Moroccan rule. “Everybody prefers to live in their own country.”
It is a common refrain, along with complaints that the
United Nations and Western powers have failed to enforce the terms of the 1991
cease-fire, which included agreement on a referendum for the Sahrawis to decide
on their own future, whether as part of Morocco or as an independent state.
“The reality is it has been a long time for our people,”
said Brahim Ghali, one of the founding members of the Polisario, who led the
guerrilla force throughout the war.
The younger Sahrawi leaders agree. “This region can do
better and should do better,” said Mohamed Yeslem Beisat, the Sahrawi
ambassador to the United States. “This all could be built around an honorable
and legal solution.”
But Morocco has long since backed away from the referendum
and insists the Sahrawis accept autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco.
It has reacted sharply to opposition, breaking up a Sahrawi
protest camp and imprisoning activists in 2010, and barring the United Nations
special envoy, Christopher Ross, and the head of the United Nations mission to
Western Sahara, Kim Bolduc, from visiting, causing a nine-month hiatus in
negotiations, which has only just been resolved.
The Moroccan government, meanwhile, has embarked on
large-scale development of the Western Sahara, and King Mohamed VI vowed in a
speech in November that Western Sahara would remain part of Morocco for
“That does not leave much room for negotiation,” said a
diplomat familiar with the region. He asked not to be named because of the
sensitivity of the dispute.
The members of the United Nations Security Council,
especially the United States and France, which have interest on both sides of
the issue with Morocco and Algeria, have little incentive to resolve the
problem, he added.
But that does not mean that the people here have forgotten
commitments made by outside nations in the past.
“I want you to carry a message to the United States of
America asking for help, help for us to get independence,” said another of the
Ahmed daughters, Tofa, 58. “We are a people and we were attacked in our land
and we were treated unfairly. We just want our land.”