Fighting Is Long Over, but Western Sahara Still Lacks Peace

Tasalm Albachir Hachim, 48, lives in Tifariti. She has not seen relatives in the occupied part of Western Sahara since 1975. CreditJohan Persson 

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 runs out.

“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 most of 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 Socialist 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 achieved.

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 ourselves.”

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 stalwart supporter.

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 unison.

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.

“When Morocco presented the proposal for large autonomy, this proposal has been described as serious and credible,” Mustapha Khalfi, communications minister of Morocco, said in an interview.

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 eternity.

“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.”



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