Western Sahara: What Really Happened At El-Aaiun?

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On the 24th of October, Moroccan forces in occupied Western Sahara, Africa’s last remaining colony, killed 14 year old Nayem El-Garhi, and injured seven others, near the Saharawi protest camp, outside of the main city of Western Sahara, El Aaiun. The victims had been shot in cold blood as they travelled to deliver food, water and medicine to friends and relatives among the thousands of Saharawi camped out for the last two weeks, 12kilometers east of the occupied capital of Western Sahara. In the days that followed the incident, about 36 more Saharawi citizens and members of the Moroccan forces, were also killed, while 700 were injured and the Moroccans detained 163 Saharawis. Reacting to the killings, the Sahara Press Service said “repeated calls by the Polisario Front and the Saharawi Government warning of imminent aggressive intervention by Moroccan forces against the protesters, have been confirmed by this cruel murder and attack on innocent young people who were trying to bring food to their families”. The Press Service statement further asserted that “the credibility of the UN is now being tested”.

The killings shocked people around the world. A delegation of peers and MPs in the British parliament issued a statement signed by Jonathan Evans, MP, describing the killing “a tragedy, but there are fears this is just beginning. The UK government can help by urgently raising  the issue with the Moroccan authorities to ensure the safety of those who peacefully protest the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara”. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara, said of the killings: “this is a tragedy and a disgrace”, vowing that “I’ll be asking that the UK government make the strongest possible reps to the Moroccans not only to allow safe passage but also, to end the political stalemate by allowing the people of Western Sahara the free choice to decide the future of their own land”. Mark Williams, MP, added that “we cannot continue to ignore the brutality of the Moroccan authorities against those who peacefully demonstrate for their right to independence. The first step is for the Security Council to implement human rights monitoring in Western Sahara”.

The chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health in the US Congress, Congressman Donald M. Payne, also issued a statement in the wake of the killings, stating that he was “deeply saddened by the death of Al-Nagem Al-qarhi, a young Sahrawi teenager who sought nothing but to join other Sahrawis in a peaceful demonstration calling for better living conditions for himself and the people of Western Sahara”. The congressman said he was sure that the voices of the Saharawi people will not be silenced by the threats of Moroccan violence “nor will the injustices perpetrated against their people by the Moroccan authorities forever go unpunished”. He similarly urged full investigations of the murder and asked the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the human rights situation in Western Sahara and report the incidents of killings and injuries to the UN Security Council. “Morocco must know that the international community will not accept the killing and repression of peaceful demonstrators. The people of western Sahara deserve freedom, peace and self-determination”, Congressman Donald M. Payne concluded.

The condemnations of the killings also reverberated within the African continent, as the South African government also expressed disappointment at what it described as “the heavy-handed manner” in which Moroccan security forces broke up the Saharawi protests. The statement by Pretoria’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation added that “it is unfortunate that  the clashes occured while the third informal talks between the representatives of Morocco and the POLISARIO in Manhasset, New York, were taking place. It further urged parties to hasten talks so that a solution to the Western Sahara conflict can be found, based on and in conformity with, the provisions of the United Nations Charter and the Constitutive Act of the African Union, especially the principle of the sanctity of colonial borders in Africa and the rights of peoples of colonial territories to self-determination. Pretoria said it supported the UN initiative which encourages direct negotiations between the parties wiith a view to achieving a “just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”. Similarly, in the UN Security Council, Nigeria lead Uganda, Mexico, Austria and Great Britain to condemn the killings in El-Aaiun.

Last weekend, thousands of people joined demonstrations against the killings in Western Sahara in Madrid, the Spanish capital. The demonstrations were organised by the National Coordination of Associations in Solidarity with Sahara. The protestors burnt Moroccan flags and chanted “Free Sahara Now”, as well as accusing the Spanish government of turning a blind eye to Moroccan crimes in the former Spanish colony. Leaders of the two main Spanish trade unions as well as the well known actor Javier Bardem, joined the protests. The demonstrators in Madrid demanded Morocco quit the Western Sahara which it annexed after Spanish settlers withdrew in 1975. And just last Thursday, Missionary International News Agency (MISNA) carried a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the continued police round ups and torture by Moroccan occupation forces in Western Sahara. The report said the expulsion of almost all foreign journalists has made it increasingly difficult to obtain any news from Western Sahara.

But sources quoted by HRW said dozens of people were arrested in  police operations and were loaded into buses headed north, into Moroccan territory. The police was reported to be making house-to-house arrests, pulling in an unknown number of people. There were reports of torture and mistreatment of the detained Saharawi. The report quoted Peter Bouckaert, correspondent of HRW in Western Sahara, who spoke to a Spanish radio station, of stating that  many Saharawi were “beaten until unconscious”, others were left without food for days, some were deprived of sleep by continuous water jets, men and women were threatened with abuse, while injured people were denied access to hospitals and were beaten by police on guard. El-Aaiun is a militarised city, just as the Saharawi people are forced to remain closed in their homes, are intimidated and terrorised. The report added that Saharawi people were unable to celebrate the Eid al-Adha with any happiness, given the losses of lives, injuries and detentions they have suffered on the eve of the festivities.

The 20,000 people in the protest camp, called Independence Camp, located east of El Aaiun, had been protesting against marginalisation, the lack of job opportunities, the poor living conditions, human rights abuse, racism, resource theft and the continuous arrival of Moroccan  settler-occupationists seen as aimed at implementing a final colonisation of the Western Sahara, while marginalising the Saharawi people in their land, by moving out of the regimented cities of the territory, such as El Aaiun, Smara, Bojador and Dakhla. The protesters came together from all the Saharawi provinces to join in the protest, building about 600 tents. But in recent weeks there has been an outcry that conditions were ‘concentration camp’ like, and camp occupants were placed on maximum alert following allegations that the Moroccan occupation was denying them of essentials like water, food and medicines. The Moroccans surrounded the camps and they did not deny restricting access to the camps. The action of the Moroccans, in the wake of the killing of the 14 year old escalated the situation and that resulted in the subsequent killings and injuries amongst the Saharawi people and the Moroccan forces.

At the heart of the problem which the killings of the last two weeks has underlined is the fact that Morocco has continued to occupy Western Sahara since 1975. It is a country of tremendous possibilities, with huge quntities of phosphate, off shore oil and gas and very rich fishing grounds. The territory has a population that is less than a million people, who however have a stubborn determination to achieve independence. The struggle to achieve that independence has been waged by the POLISARIO front which declared  the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR is a full member of the African Union, and in exile, it has continued to build and nurture the building blocks of nationhood, as I witnessed, when I traveled in the liberated zones and refugee camps in Southern Algeria, in March. Morocco’s intrasigence has largely been abetted by France and the intrasigence is built upon the exploitation of the riches of Western Sahara. But as Africa’s last colonial outpost, our continent cannot forever tolerate the aberration. The killings of the past few weeks have brought the Western Sahara issue back to the front burner of the international system. It is imperative for the UN to expedite action to actualise the dream of the Saharawi people for self determination.

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