By : Andrew McConnell

[This is one of seven pieces in Jadaliyya`s electronic roundtable on the Western Sahara. Moderated by Samia Errazzouki and Allison L. McManus, it features contributions from John P. EntelisStephen ZunesAboubakr Jamaï, Ali AnouzlaAllison L. McManusSamia Errazzouki, and Andrew McConnell.]

[The photos above were taken by Andrew McConnell, who also wrote the following text.]

The territory of Western Sahara is Africa`s last open file at the United Nations Decolonization Committee. The year 2010 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Moroccan invasion which forced former colonial power Spain to withdraw without holding a UN sanctioned referendum on the future of the state. With Franco on his deathbed Spain had little desire for confrontation and so divided the land between Morocco and Mauritania, ignoring the pleas of the indigenous Saharawi people and a ruling by the International Court of Justice which found neither country had any sovereignty over the territory.

A Saharawi rebel group, the Polisario Front, which had formed a few years earlier to fight the Spanish occupation, declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976 and began an all-out guerrilla war against the new occupiers. With heavy backing from Algeria the Polisario had many early successes and forced the withdrawal of Mauritania in 1979. Morocco then took control of the entire country and the war continued into the 1980s. Thousands of Saharawis fled the invasion and set up refugee camps across the border in neighboring Algeria where they remain to this day, their numbers having grown to some one hundred seventy thousand.

Polisario`s gains were hampered in the mid-1980s with the building of a heavily mined one thousand six hundred kilometer sand wall by Morocco, dividing Western Sahara in two and keeping the Polisario mostly confined to the inland desert. A ceasefire was signed in 1991 with the agreement that a referendum on self-determination would be held the following year. But, nineteen years later that referendum has yet to take place and for the Saharawi people a sense of injustice, hopelessness, and anger grows ever stronger.

Statements by the subjects seen in the photographs above:

1. Malainin Aomar, sixty-six, soldier of the Polisario Front, pictured watching the Moroccan wall near Auserd, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.

“I was born in Auserd in 1953. Since I was a little boy I studied the Quran and I learnt the difference between good and bad. I was taught by a Spanish soldier for a few years who my father hired. My father was a soldier in the Spanish army and we moved a lot. In August 1974 I joined the Polisario Front. I joined because they were an organization fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara which had been occupied by the Spanish for almost 100 years. I believed in the Polisario`s ideals. In September 1975 Spain began to leave all their bases and release the Saharawi soldiers. Polisario knew something was happening and began to prepare for a new kind of conflict. We never trusted Spain. There was a big meeting between all the countries and Algeria and Libya supported independence for Western Sahara, but something went wrong. Then we knew on 14 November 1975 Spain signed the Triple Agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to divide up our land. These days when I am watching the wall and I see the city of my birth on the other side it really injures me. Auserd is important to me and to be here and not be able to do anything is terribly hard. Sometimes it makes me cry. I am sixty-six years old, for me the future is different than for a young boy. For me the only future is the liberation of my country and my people. If we do not have independence there is no future, all is dark. We have to go back to war, we don`t like war but we have to finish this situation, we have been waiting for thirty-four years, it is enough.”

2. Djimi Elghalia, forty-eight, vice president of the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), near El Aaiún city, in Moroccan controlled Western Sahara.

“I was born in Agadir, Morocco in 1961. My family were among many who fled the climate and social conditions in Western Sahara to look for work in Morocco. A lot of Saharawis used to stay at our home and because of this my grandmother was arrested in 1984. She was sixty. We never saw her again. In 1986 I moved to El Aaiún for work after I graduated in agriculture. The next year I was arrested along with five hundred others for trying to organize a demonstration on independence before a big United Nations visit. They held eighty including nineteen women. They interrogated me and used physical and psychological torture. They would put chemicals in my hair which made me faint. I was electrocuted on the arms and back and was bitten by dogs. Later they would laugh and say that there are no dogs and I must be imagining things. It was the same thing you see in Iraq but here we have no media attention to show it. I was released in 1991 along with three hundred and twenty four people, some of whom had been held since the invasion, seventy eight were women. It was because of pressure from international organisations like Amnesty International. From 1994-98 we, the victims, tried to engage in the field of human rights but we faced a lot of harassment. In 2005 we established the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH). The Moroccan authorities prevent the association from working despite the court allowing us to work. We work from our homes using the internet and we host international visitors but still Morocco harasses us and now foreigners are not allowed to visit us. We have a conviction that we will achieve independence but it depends on international pressure, our case it very just and fair. It [pressure] will come from the allies of Morocco, like France, the United States and Spain. We have no direct contact with Polisario but we share the same goals. As a defender of human rights we are all about a peaceful solution. Whether the Polisario want to go back to war is up to them but as a civil society we are calling for a peaceful solution and this will come from international pressure.”

3. Lahbieb Embarek Ahmed, forty-seven, camel worker, in the desert near the Saharawi refugee camps, Algeria.

“I was born in Farsia in 1962. The only thing I know is camels. I have lived with camels and they have lived with me and that is all I know. I began to deal with camels when I was a very little child. I would look after them and take them to feed long distances. Sometimes if I wanted to milk them I had to take the bowl between my teeth and milk them. My father taught me under the camels. There are a lot of uses for the camels, we do not only drink their milk or eat the meat but we use it as a cure…we add oils from the camel to the milk and drink it for some diseases. And if they are sick I know how to treat them. If the camel does not want to eat I take a lizard and mix it with some plants and feed them it. We owned about one hundred camels. It is difficult to look after camels; we let them go in the summer because they will return after two days or so to the well and you are not worried about them. In the winter you have to keep them together because they have babies. The camel is a good friend to the human, when you are alone in the desert you have no friends but there you learn how to be friends with him. They can smell their owners and know their smells, when there is something between you and the camel he will come to you and you can touch him easily and he will seat down easily. In the mating season the male will get angry and he will fight with the other males and even as the owner you cannot go near him. I like the calm camels, the angry ones I beat all the time. A male camel is worth around eighty thousand dinars (seven hundred euros), for a female thirty or forty thousand dinars, there is more meat on the male. I am working with these camels for Ramadan, we will kill all of them for the Saharawi people to eat and celebrate the end of Ramadan. Not everybody can kill the camel but I can. I prefer to live in the countryside but when I had no camels I came here. I remember many good things from my childhood and I keep it with me all the time. The peace process is a good thing. My land is very beautiful but I am like the others; what will happen to them will happen to me. I am with the majority, if they chose war I am with them.”

4. Ali Salem Salma, forty-one, statistician for the Saharawi government, watching television at home with his wife, Nabba, and four year old son, Khadda, in Smara refugee camp, Algeria.

“I was born in El Aaiún in October 1968. In 1975 we built a house in Zemla, a neighborhood of the city. At the end of 1975 Morocco invaded our cities during the “Green March” and the Moroccan soldiers told us to leave our house. Moroccan civilians moved into all the homes. We spent six months traveling to Algeria to the refugee camps and we are still here. We still have a key to our house–we even have papers to prove it belongs to us. When we first came to Algeria there was nothing here and I remember many children dying. Many families sent their children away to study in different countries, even children who were only three years old. I went to Libya in 1976 with a lot of other boys and girls, about eight hundred. We took buses for many days and arrived in Tripoli. They were good to us and really helped us with food and clothes and educated us very well. I went to university in Algeria and in 1992 graduated with a degree in statistics and returned to the camps to work for the Saharawi government. Our lives here are simple, we know there are better ways to live but we must be very well organized in order to survive here. Now I send my children to school and maybe they can travel to study at a university but even if they get a degree they will return here and have nothing because there is no possibility of a job. I know we agreed to a ceasefire and the international circumstances have obliged us to respect it. But I believe, and I am not the only one, that the only way to get our freedom is by war. We know the United Nations cannot impose anything and are a weak organization. Most of their decisions are not applied or listened to. We are here in this land and it does not belong to the Saharawis and everybody knows we will not integrate or be part of Morocco. We believe the only organization is the Frente Polisario (Polisario Front) and we respect their decision to negotiate but in the end our patience is running out.”

5. Hamdi Jaafar Mohammed, forty-six. Soldier of the Polisario Front, in Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.

“I was born in 1963 in Wagcedhi. During the invasion I was a young boy but I remember what happened. I saw my neighbors being forced to leave, women and children walking and traveling in trucks. The Moroccans intervened in a barbaric way in occupying our cities. I fled with my brothers. My father was fighting to protect people as they were leaving the territory. It took more than one month of walking before we reached the camps. We traveled from place to place, people showed us the way, many many people died, there were a lot of scandals, a lot of harsh things. I joined the Polisario and became a fighter at the end of 1981. On my first day as a soldier in the war we came under attack from a Moroccan plane and we were all dispersed. Someone shot at the plane with a normal gun and it came down! The pilot came down in the parachute and we captured him. Everyday something happened. I did not believe I would die, I know the only one who can kill someone is God, not the Moroccan. I did not believe that they could kill me or do anything to me, only I have a strong belief in God and God is the only one I am afraid of. We were happy about the ceasefire, we did not know much about the United Nations and peacekeepers being deployed, but we were happy because we struggled since 1975 and if there was anything that could help us gain our independence we were ready for it. But nothing happened. Only some detainees were swapped and there were some confidence building measures. Our one goal has not happened yet and our patience has run out. All we want is a free state without interference; we want to be like Algeria or Mauritania, with institutions, policies, with our own constitution. Why not? We will not accept to be controlled by others, for me to fight is better than anything else.”

6. Azmah Laulad, eighteen, in Auserd refugee camp, Algeria, with the lights of Tindouf in the background.

“I have grown up in Auserd but I do not like it. When I was ten we were traveling in the desert and the truck broke down. We were stuck there for six days and had to drink water from the radiator. There was a pregnant woman with us and everyone thought she would lose the baby but it was lucky a car came along and we fixed the truck. Sometimes now I go into the desert with my friends to sleep, it is comfortable. I want to study in Spain, I have been there five times. I stay with a family in Madrid. They have very good houses there made of cement. The weather is good and the food and I have many friends but now I am too old to go back [with the Vacations in Peace program]. Now I am making bricks and soon me and my brother will build a shop. We will sell mobile phones because there are not enough phone shops here. It is a tragedy here, people need to go back [to Western Sahara]. If we can get our independence peacefully it is better but if we have to we should go to war. I am deprived of getting a job, my freedom, everything. It is God`s will. If there is a war I will join the military.”

7. Mariam Zaide Amar, twenty-four, deminer, pictured in Mehaires, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.

“I was born in the refugee camps in 1985. It was good, my family were there, of course the weather was harsh. I always wanted to be older, to grow up. I spent four years studying in Algeria. I heard an advertisement on Saharawi National Radio that Landmine Action needed women for demining. After hearing it a lot of times I asked my family could I do it, they said I could. I thought it would be a great way to help my people and to clean the land of all the bombs. I went for the interview and there were a lot of girls. When they told me I had got the job I felt very lucky. We wear special clothes and use metal detectors. When I find a mine I mark it and then put TNT around it and attached the detonator, then move back three hundred meters with a cable and blow it up. When I hear of people getting killed by mines I feel sick. We are working in Mehaires now in the liberated territory, there is a lot of ordnance here, at the moment we are clearing cluster munitions but there are also grenades, missiles, anti-tank mines, and anti-personal mines. It will take two years to clear what we have found but the bedouin are always telling us about other mines so our work is extended. It will take a very long time to clear all the land, maybe thirty years. The problem is we cannot work nearer than five kilometres to the wall. There are many mines there and under the ceasefire agreement we cannot go in that area. The Moroccans mined that whole area and they still put mines there today. They are like terrorists, they are killing civilians not soldiers. I hope the whole [peace] process will give a solution to Western Sahara because I would hate for war to start again. After all this waiting the United Nations must find a solution, I believe it will come soon.”

8. Salek Labieb Basher, twenty-three, “Friend of the Camel,” in the desert near Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.

“I was born in Smara in the occupied territory. In school we would fight with the Moroccan boys all the time. I had some Moroccan friends but they were boys who believed in a free Sahara. I heard on the radio one day that Moroccan soldiers had caught a lot of camels from across the wall and had taken them to Smara. Many of us went to see them and I felt bad when I saw women crying because the Moroccans were not giving them water or food and everyday one was dying. The camel is very important in our culture and is a friend of the Sahrawi since long ago. The Moroccans did this to hurt the Sahrawi people. After three months the camels were like skeletons so me and three friends decided to liberate them to stop this tragedy. We watched the routine of the Moroccans for one week then one night jumped over the wall into the yard where the camels were being held. We caught the guard but he did not have the keys so we had to lift the gate ourselves. We then led the biggest camel out and the rest of the camels followed, there were maybe one hundred and fifty. We were seen by two Moroccan men and became worried that soldiers would soon be coming after us so we split up into four groups and agreed to meet the next day. We wanted to send the camels back to the liberated territory so I took my group to a valley were the wall and the mines are washed away by the rains and sent the camels down into the valley so they could cross. I left them at four in the morning and returned to meet my friends. We stayed under the trees all the next day because we could hear a helicopter and vehicles. At night we meet bedouin who told us the Moroccans were searching for the people who freed the camels. It was then that we decided we must cross the wall the and go to the Polisario because if we were caught the Moroccans would put us in jail [for a long time]. We asked the bedouin to help us cross the wall and we walked for two days to a point were we could cross. We arrived at night, the wall is actually three walls and we crossed the first two easily but the at the third a Moroccan soldier came with a light and saw us. He shouted so we jumped the wall and barbed wire and ran for five or six minutes, we did not think of the mines. We had very little water and no idea how to find the Polisario. We saw a bedouin man but he ran away when he saw us because he thought we were Moroccan. We waved our shirts and went to his home and he agreed to take us to the Polisario. When we arrived in the camps everybody knew the story and we were like heros. We met the president and had a meal at his home. In the occupied territory all the news was about the children who had freed the camels. I was only seventeen at the time. Seventy camels made it across. The Moroccans sentenced us to ten years in jail (in our absence). I have been in the camps now for six years and I feel lucky I had the chance to come here. The first year I felt homeless, I missed my family but I found a lot of respect for the other Sahrawis. I am a journalist now, I work and get to meet people from many countries. For me politics will not get us anything, we should return to war. I would be the first to take a Kalasnikov and go to the front to fight the occupation. I have not seen my family in six years, this is the hardest part. I hope I can see my parents again before they die….. because…(voice fades)… I hope.”

9. Chrifa Mohammed Salem, six, outside her home in Auserd refugee camp, Algeria

“I go to school and then I come back and play with my sister. It is very hot, I want it to be cold. I want to be a teacher when I grow up. There is no water here.”

10. Name withheld, twenty-six, photographed at an undisclosed location in Moroccan controlled Western Sahara. The subject’s name and location have been withheld for fear of reprisals by the Moroccan government. Sahrawis living under Moroccan control continually suffer oppression and human rights abuses.