The forgotten conflict in Western Sahara

In the past year, the Sahrawi separatists from the Polisario Front have resumed their military operations against the Moroccan army after nearly three decades of ceasefire. An asymmetric conflict, which they hope will resume negotiations on this territory with a disputed status, at the heart of the diplomatic tension between Morocco and Algeria.

From our Special Envoy to the Sahrawi refugee camps and in the territories controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic,

6 km in front of us rise smoke flags. Located on top of a dune of sand and small black pebbles burning by the sun, we observe, in the company of fighters from the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (APLS), the armed wing of the Polisario Front, the result of the heavy weapon on the Moroccan positions.

The target is the wall of sand, this Moroccan defense device, whose construction began in 1980 to avoid the invasion of separatist militias, and whose expansion and improvement has not ceased since. More than 2,700 km of fortifications run through the Sahara, from the Atlantic coast to the border Algeria. Several separate ditches, surrounded by mines, residential bunkers, protected by radar, drones and, if necessary, helicopter units and Royal Air Force fighter jets.

On this fortification, which divides the territory of the former Spanish colony into two Western Sahara, the fighter jets fire heavy machine guns, fire a pair of Grad rockets installed on the back of pick-ups whose cabins have been sawn off with a grinder. Most SPLA equipment originates from the first phase of the conflict, which began in late 1975 and ended with the 1991 ceasefire.

That “ shame wall »

The heads of the various SPLA units are all veterans of that era. They use the only available strategy: strikes fast to night and day so as not to leave the Moroccans alone explains Abba Ali Hamoudi, the leader of the Sixth Military Region closest to their Algerian backbase. Wounded seven times, operated on in France, this tall sex eater is still there to crawl with his men and follow the progress of the operation he launched.

Sahrawi warriors are volunteers and for them this is “ shame wall represents a tear, a separation: When I see him, I think of my grandparents, who stayed on the other side and who I never saw Said Said, Sahrawi TV cameraman who follows and films the operations. ” Half of my family is on the other side. It obviously hurts me a lot. We must return to our countries, there is no other resort “, he testifies.

Sometimes, as before our eyes, the Moroccan defense responds. Other times, she does not bother. The time to identify the origin of these shots, and the Sahrawi warriors are already back on board, across the rain, this rocky desert, on their vehicles. This is the very definition of asymmetric, low-intensity conflict. In one year, the SPLA, which says it fires rockets every day, has lost about 15 men in combat. Morocco has never communicated a balance on its part.

A “non-autonomous territory”

For Morocco, leverage is not desirable. The status quo allows the kingdom to consolidate its grip on what it calls ” southern provinces It controls 80% of the area of ​​the former Spanish colony and all the natural resources: phosphate, fisheries, agriculture and tourism.

Seen from Rabat, the Moroccan Sahara has been associated with the monarchy since pre-colonial times. While acknowledging this historical proximity by the International Court of Justice in 1975, it concluded that the people’s right to self-determination prevailed. It is on this basis that Western Sahara is still considered by the UN as a “non-autonomous territory”, the last in Africa, and that the European Court of Justice recently ruled that products from this region could not be equated with Moroccan products.

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Morocco, for its part, proposes autonomy for these provinces under the king’s sovereignty and subregional negotiations involving Algeria, sponsoring the Polisario, which Algiers rejects.

For the Sahrawis, the perspective is quite different. The ceasefire in 1991 opened the door to a referendum. But the years have passed and the situation has not changed. The Polisario Front, the backbone of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a protostat in exile in the refugee camps of the Tindouf region of Algeria, has lost many of its supporters. Muammar Gaddafi is no longer there, nor is Fidel Castro, and the revolution is no longer selling diplomatically. Neither Algeria nor the countries of southern Africa prevented Morocco’s return to the African Union in 2017.

Revolution is not an option, but our responsibility »

The immutability of the positions blocked all the diplomatic work of the various UN representatives, who threw in the towel one after the other. The last named Staffan of Misturajoined on 1eh November, after two years’ vacancy in the post.

As much as in Rabat, the targets of the wrath of the Sahrawis in Paris or Washington are Morocco’s steadfast allies. ” which prevents the deployment of a genuine UN mission and the application of international law », Says a young soldier. The Biden administration has not reversed Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. ” Our freedom, no one will give it to us recorded another fighter, revolution is not an option but our responsibility adds Omar Deidh.

This 23-year-old young man embodies what the leadership of the Polisario Front absolutely wants to advance: he is passionate about political science and digital technology, he has studied in several foreign countries, speaks perfect English and Spanish, but has just been in the service. of the SPLA, of which he intends to become an officer, while rereading the copy The art of war of Sun Tzu, which he has in his jacket pocket.

“These young, trained leaders, with a modern discourse but also capable of igniting to defend their cause, are opponents of the Moroccan soldiers on guard against the wall.” who are only there for small change, and will move up as soon as their lives are really at stake Says Omar Deidh.

A few hours’ walk from the wall stretches the refugee camps, which since 1976 have received Sahrawis in exile. According to the UN, there were 173,600 at the end of 2017, spread across five wilayas. These municipalities took the name of cities located in what is called here ” occupied territories »: Laayoune, Aousserd, Smara and Boujdour frame the administrative site of Rabouni. Further south is Dakhla.

The people survive there thanks to international humanitarian aid and material support from Algeria, which has built the roads, supplies the power plants with hydrocarbons and takes care of the sick, who cannot be treated by Sahrawi hospitals.

In the camps, it is difficult for us to move around without a translator attached to the Polisario front. While the Sahrawi movement is not known for suppressing dissenting voices, those who agree to speak to us know the context in which they speak, as it strikes at all facets of life here.

Nevertheless, the return to the state of war seems popular. It makes it possible to mobilize a youth who has only known exile, families cut in two and fait accompli. Perhaps also to channel certain candidates into a more radical approach, which has seen former refugees from the camps join jihadist groups in the Sahel, such as Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, leader of the Islamic State group killed by the French in mid-August.

“What we want is to find our country”

Behind a mosque in the Boujdour camp, the least populated of the five wilayas, a group of young people presenting themselves as soldiers on leave assure their enthusiasm: ” What we want is to find our country. For that we must fight. I studied in a gym here, but in November, when the war resumed, I enlisted in the Army. That is the decision we have been waiting for. »

Fighters from the 80s have taken on their fatigue and others have joined the Polisario front training camps. In the department that followed us to the front, Ahmed was on his first outing as a soldier. This father of two young children is barely out of training. However, he is 40 years old: I worked from right to left, in stores and then in construction. And then, in November, I enlisted in the Army and the volunteer camps. There are many people there, many young people who were waiting for this day, who were frustrated, and besides, our centers do not have enough space for so many volunteers. he assures us, knowing that we will not have the means to confirm this assertion.

Is not this enthusiasm in vain for Moroccan technical superiority? ” Our grandfathers had simple weapons, and they fought anyway. Now we hope Polisario will find a way to get us more sophisticated weapons “, Relativizes a young man from Boujdour.

Some argue, however, that the independence movement had to break the ceasefire reluctantly, forced to respond to the events in Guerguerat. At this border post to Mauritania, which was considered a buffer zone in the 1991 ceasefire agreement, activists organized sit-ins in November 2020 to protest Morocco’s paving of the road, which works to facilitate truck traffic. en ” provocation for these volunteers, some of whom did not hesitate to drive six days with trails and 1,500 km to get from the refugee camps.

Among them, Fatoumata Ment Moyssa welcomes us for tea in her living room in the Aousserd camp. She left a 68-year-old mother and grandmother in a convoy of about sixty people without consulting the Sahrawi authorities: ” It is people from here, camps, who have organized themselves. We talked about what Morocco was doing in Guerguerat and we decided to go there. We can not stay in this situation forever, so we decided to do something to demonstrate. We did not ask the government’s opinion. We were not helped, but we were not prevented from leaving. We did not think that this would lead to a return to hostilities, but that it would create international awareness of our situation. »

In mid-October, school children on the streets, in party clothes, sing slogans in favor of independence. It’s Unity Day, SADR’s national day. The opportunity to highlight and bring to life the Sahrawi cultural uniqueness, the Hassaniya language, local costumes and music.

We are a minority people in North Africa “, explains Ahmed-Nah, student in France and young leader of Polisario in the diaspora, returned to the apartment,” but we are stronger than ever. We do not have the same culture as Moroccans or Algerians, so this moment of transfer is crucial for us. “.

He will also believe in the mornings that sing: hope is here from the beginning until now. Our grandparents may have died without seeing independence, but we or our children will see that day, and I’m sure. “.

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