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The Death of a Nomad

[Image from near Bir Lehlou, Western Sahara, April 2016. Image by author] [Image from near Bir Lehlou, Western Sahara, April 2016. Image by author]

In Western Sahara, any news item is also a potential item of propaganda. Words, like individuals, have ideological mass. Thus former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” in a speech following his March 2016 visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, was the subject of some diplomatic agitation. UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said of Mr. Ban, “His use of the word was not planned nor was it deliberate. It was a spontaneous, personal reaction. We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked.” There is much to unpack here—less so in Morocco’s response, which was to expel eighty-four UN personnel from the territory—but equally important were those things that did not receive attention. In his annual report to the Security Council on 19 April, Mr. Ban described his visit as follows:

The current crisis aside, the situation in Western Sahara, as it presents itself to MINURSO[i] has been generally stable since my last report. However, one potential violation of the ceasefire, as defined in Military Agreement No. 1, occurred. On the evening of 27 February 2016, the Polisario Front informed MINURSO of a shooting incident near Mijek in the demilitarised buffer strip east of the berm. On 29 February, following necessary mine clearance for access, MINURSO located the body of one individual and the remains of four camels. The Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) confirmed having fired 13 gunshots “in the direction of the camels.” MINURSO recovered the body, identified by the Polisario Front as a civilian Sahrawi cameleer, and handed it over to the family of the deceased. On 29 February, the Permanent Representative of Morocco, Mr. Omar Hilale, wrote to me providing details on the incident reiterating that, after warnings, shots had been fired in “conditions of very reduced visibility.” On 13 March, Mr. Abdelaziz wrote the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning what he considered “an assassination” and calling on the United Nations to investigate the incident.

The shooting of a Sahrawi civilian in Polisario territory presumably constitutes more than a “potential” violation of the ceasefire, and, as such, might be expected to receive more attention than a brief aside in a single UN report. But the civilian’s name did not appear in any Western media reports following the incident, nor in the subsequent machinations at the UN Security Council, which included a vote on 29 April to extend MINURSO’s mission for another year. This annual vote is standard practice, and the text of Security Council Resolution 2285 (2016), which formally extended the mission, made no specific mention of the ceasefire violation, instead limiting itself to “Expressing concern about the violations of existing agreements, and calling on the parties to respect their relevant obligations” (Italics in original). 

More attention was paid in August of 2016, when Moroccan military forces apparently crossed the wall in the Guerguerat region, about thirteen kilometers from the border with Mauritania. In this case, the United Nations did initially identify the incursion as a ceasefire violation, although subsequent diplomatic language was more reserved. The incursion at Guerguerat was likely made easier by MINURSO’s decreased functionality following the expulsion of many of its staff in March. Viewed as a sequence of events, from Mr. Ban’s contentious visit to the incursion at Guerguerat, it is easy to lose sight of the weight of individuals in the larger story of Western Sahara.

The man who died was named Shmad Bad July (pronounced “Joo-li”). He was forty-eight years old. When I interviewed his family in their tent in the Smara refugee camp[ii], they showed me a series of pictures of him. The first of these was a passport-sized photo in which Shmad stared unsmiling at the camera. The second showed him older, and smiling. A child whose arm was visible around Shmad’s neck had been cropped out of the photo. In the third picture, his face was covered by a blanket. Only his legs were visible, and they were caked with blood, and Shmad was dead. What I remember most from that interview is that the interior of the tent was lined with fabric displaying the words “I love you” in English, and that Shmad’s sister, Dagenah, was constantly massaging the rheumatic hands of Bad Hamadi July, Shmad’s father. Bad Hamadi was silent throughout the interview but posed at the end with the photo of his son smiling. This photo, along with the one of his body, had been enlarged and attached to a piece of cardboard. The one that showed Shmad’s body covered in blood and dust lay in the corner until Shmad’s two-year-old niece started playing with it.

Shmad was born to a nomadic Sahrawi family in the vicinity of El Aaiún in 1968, in what was then the colony of Spanish Sahara. In 1975, with the beginning of the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion, he fled with his family east across the desert to Tindouf Province, Algeria, where he settled in the Smara camp. During the war he was sent, along with many other Sahrawi children, to Ouargla, Algeria, where he attended primary and secondary school. He returned with his baccalaureate in 1988 to join his father Bad Hamadi as a camel herder in the Polisario-controlled Liberated Zone. In 1998, Shmad married his wife Elhaja, and in 1999 the first of Shmad's six children—five of whom are still alive—was born. Shmad continued to divide his time between herding camels in the Liberated Zone and visiting his extended family in the Smara camp until around 5:30pm on Saturday, 27 February, 2016, when he was shot thirteen times in both legs by Moroccan soldiers, somewhere between Guelta Zemmur and Oum Drega, and very close to the 2,700-kilometer wall that separates Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara from the Liberated Zone. Shmad called out for help to his friends, but they were prevented from approaching him by Moroccan soldiers firing warning shots from the wall, and by the proximity of unmarked landmines. Forty-eight hours later, when MINURSO peacekeepers arrived to recover him, Shmad had crawled two hundred meters over the gravel desert and died of blood loss. He was shot on the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which administrates the refugee camps and the Liberated Zone.

Mr. Ban’s visit, a month later, began in Rabouni, where the administrative headquarters of SADR are located, and involved a drive to Smara, about twenty minutes away by Land Cruiser. At the time of his visit, the road was lined with tens of thousands of Sahrawis protesting the United Nations' inaction and demanding a resolution to the conflict. Frustration with the situation’s apparent intractability and the unwillingness of major powers to enforce a solution is easy to understand. But the key, I was told by an Oxfam staffer in Rabouni, was that Shmad’s family surrounded Mr. Ban’s car in Smara and chanted slogans demanding justice for the dead man. They held up signs with his face on them and called for a return to war. The Oxfam staffer was certain that Mr. Ban “knew exactly what he was doing” when he described Morocco’s presence in the Sahara as an “occupation.” Mr. Ban, he believed, was trying to break the status quo.

A few weeks after I interviewed the July family, I had lunch in Algiers with an Algerian journalist who had been in Smara during Mr. Ban’s visit. He showed me a couple of videos he had taken of the July family protesting, and said that Christopher Ross, Mr. Ban’s personal envoy on the Western Sahara issue, had been in the car at the time. According to the journalist, Mr. Ross had explained to the protesters that he was aware of Shmad’s death and would be taking appropriate action. The killing did make it into Mr. Ban’s 19 April report on his visit, although Shmad’s nephew, Brahim Naama, summed up the whole incident to me by saying bitterly that Shmad was now “the same as the camels.” Brahim also expressed enormous frustration with the United Nations and MINURSO, telling me that a return to war was inevitable if no action was taken. But then, Sahrawis have been saying this for twenty-five years.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. Brahim Naama was born in 1987. The wall that separates the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara from the Liberated Zone was completed in the mid-1980s. Thus Brahim has never lived in a free and united homeland. And since the 1991 ceasefire, although many Sahrawi activists and protesters have been killed in the occupied territory, and many more have been killed by landmines on both sides of the wall, only Shmad has been shot by Moroccan soldiers in Polisario territory.

The timing was, at the very least, inauspicious: 27 February 2016 was the fortieth anniversary of the SADR’s founding, and occasioned large celebrations. Shmad was shot that day, and probably died that night. Many Sahrawis I spoke with were certain that this was not a coincidence. The fact that the first such death in twenty-five years happened on the fortieth anniversary is suspicious in and of itself, but the motivation, according to many people, was that Morocco intended to create a disturbance in the lead-up to the secretary-general’s visit. The logic of this can be debated—wouldn’t it be counterproductive to unilaterally violate a ceasefire by murdering a civilian at exactly the time when the UN would be most closely monitoring developments in Western Sahara? But if Morocco saw Mr. Ban’s visit to the Liberated Zone as the key offense, then triggering unrest and potentially deterring his visit might seem worth all the trouble. And in the end, the fallout did favor Morocco, with MINURSO losing most of its civilian staff and a real resolution to the conflict further away than ever.

Mr. Ban was the first UN Secretary-General to visit the Liberated Zone. Of this visit, Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN official who covered Western Sahara from 1994 to 2006, wrote, in an article broadly critical of Mr. Ban’s diplomatic adventures:

In another unprecedented move, the secretary-general also visited the eastern sliver of Western Sahara nominally controlled by Polisario, a no-mans-land created by Morocco’s massive defensive wall that divides the territory. Although ostensibly there to visit a UN peacekeeping site, the Secretary-General also visited the provisional capital of Polisario’s government-in-exile in Bir Lahlou, a move that could only further infuriate the Moroccans.

This passage in particular is riddled with partisan and misleading language that illuminates the ways in which the conflict has been framed. “Nominally” in this context probably means something like “cartographically, but not in any real sense” which is simply false; the Liberated Zone has border controls, administrative divisions, health care services, and most of the other trappings of a modern, sparsely populated state. “Sliver” is also incorrect; the Liberated Zone has a permanent population of around 40,000, and is larger than plenty of sovereign states. And it is difficult to see why a UN Secretary-General should schedule his visits to a territory based on what might or might not irritate another state that—as Ms. Theofilopoulou later notes—refused his plane clearance to land in Morocco. But perhaps the most revealing part of this passage is her use of the term “no-mans-land.”

Within the Liberated Zone, there is a five-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone extending east of the wall, which Polisario military personnel are not permitted to enter. It is possible that Ms. Theofilopoulou has confused this with the Liberated Zone in general, although Bir Lehlou is not in this zone. The demilitarized zone could indeed be characterized as a “sliver,” although, like the entire Liberated Zone and much of Northwest Africa, it is permeable to nomads. The Liberated Zone itself is home to thousands of nomads—it is not clear exactly how many at any given time, because nomads are notoriously difficult to count—and the story of how and why Shmad died is, notwithstanding its uncomfortable timing, tied up with the story of Sahrawi nomadism in general.

In the past, Sahrawi culture was almost universally nomadic; virtually all Sahrawis moved between patches of vegetative cover in the desert, herding their livestock across areas that are now divided by national borders. But since the war, Sahrawis living in the camps have received food aid from the World Food Program, and may head out to the badiya[iii] for only a few months a year at times of particularly favorable rainfall. All the Sahrawis I interviewed said that 2016 was the most fertile year in recent memory, at least in Tindouf, and that meant that more Sahrawis than usual had left the camps for at least a few months and gone out into the badiya. This sort of elective nomadism was relatively new to the population. The SADR Minister of the Liberated Territories estimated for me that somewhere between five and ten percent of Sahrawis are permanently nomadic, moving around Tindouf, the Liberated Zone, and Mauritania with their herds. Many more are nomadic only when climatic conditions are favorable. Although nomadism is an economic practice, and an economic choice, this sort of elective nomadism is also significantly an act of cultural preservation. 

One by-product of the new Sahrawi food economy is the division of some individual families into nomadic and sedentary members, with the nomads sometimes acting as breadwinners. Shmad was one of the breadwinners, sending the profits from his herding to his family in Smara or in the Moroccan-occupied city of El Aaiún. The July family is a wealthy one by refugee standards, and Shmad was a full-time nomad. The day after I spoke with the July family, I returned to interview Shmad’s nephew Brahim Naama alone. Brahim had been part of the group that recovered Shmad’s body with the MINURSO team on 29 February, and I wanted to get his story.

Brahim gave more background information. On the day he was shot, two friends, Abu and Shreef, accompanied Shmad. These two were itinerant shepherds, hired hands whom Shmad had enlisted to help with his herding. At lunchtime, Shmad left his camels and went with Abu and Shreef to visit some nomadic friends about thirty kilometers away. This was also standard practice; camels are often left to roam by themselves and recovered hours or days later. When Shmad and his friends returned, the camels had wandered off and approached the Moroccan wall. Because grazing animals are generally kept away from the wall (they may wander across, or into the minefields near the wall, and Moroccan soldiers shoot many Sahrawi animals each year), grass tends to accumulate there. This is not always disastrous. There are stories of Moroccan soldiers herding camels back across the wall, or even occasionally allowing Sahrawi shepherds to cross and recover their animals, as well as stories of Moroccan soldiers shooting Sahrawi animals and eating them. On this particular occasion, Shmad stayed with the car while Abu and Shreef went to recover the camels, but they were warned away by Moroccan soldiers on the wall. By this point—the order of events was not always precisely clear in Brahim’s narrative—some camels had been shot, and Shmad, seeing this, left the car to get them himself, bringing Abu with him. As they approached, the Moroccans opened fire. Abu fled; Shmad was shot in the leg and fell to the ground. He called out several times for Abu to help him, but was prevented from approaching by the Moroccan soldiers on the wall. After assessing that there was nothing they could do, Abu and Shreef left to get help.

The first thing Abu and Shreef did was drive back to the other nomadic group and inform them of what had happened. Together with a man from that group named Brahim Salim, they returned at night and searched for Shmad, but, fearing landmines, they dared not get too close. In the morning, Brahim Salim went with Abu and Shreef to the MINURSO outpost in nearby Mijek. The MINURSO officer in charge would not go; the area was outside of his control, he said, and he would need to call his supervisor in El Aaiún, in the occupied territory. Frustrated, they went to Polisario’s detachment in Mijek. Polisario proved more receptive. When Abu, Shreef, and Brahim Salim returned to MINURSO with Polisario officers, the UN official in charge finally relented and headed out with them to the site of the shooting. This group stopped about 300 meters from the body and confirmed that Shmad, who had by this point been exposed for perhaps twenty-four hours, was not moving. But the area was still too dangerous to approach; they could do little except wait for a mine-clearing team to clear a path.

Brahim Naama heard about the shooting around midday on the 28 February, in Smara. He and the rest of the July family were frantic with worry. That evening, Polisario provided an escort for Brahim and two friends. They drove all night, arriving at the site around four in the morning on the 29 February. When they arrived, the area was deserted except for Moroccan soldiers on the wall, searching the area for movement with flashlights. Brahim Naama and his group waited until about seven in the morning, when they saw the lights of cars approaching in the distance—this would be Brahim Salim, Abu, and Shreef, returning to wait for the mine-clearing team. The team finally arrived around noon, and immediately set to work. The process of clearing mines took about four hours; it was well into the afternoon of the 29 February by the time it was finally safe to approach Shmad, who was by this point long dead. Nearly forty-eight hours had elapsed since the shooting.  

Brahim Naama wanted a copy of the MINURSO report on the incident. The UN officials at the scene initially refused, and only after an hour of negotiation, during which Brahim Naama and the others refused to approach the body, did they finally relent and promise to pass on a copy of whatever report was to be produced. The body and the site were photographed, and an Egyptian MINURSO officer promised that the information would be turned over to the proper authority. Shmad’s body was then placed in Brahim Naama’s car and driven to Mijek, where he was buried on the evening of 29 February. The MINURSO official in charge, who spoke once again through his Egyptian colleague, attended the ceremony. It was a Leap Day.

When I asked to see this report, Brahim Naama promised that he would do all he could to obtain it. He was sure that it had been provided to the family, but he did not know what had happened to it after that. I was in the Sahara for a month, and I touched based with him periodically throughout my stay, but he was unable to find it. It was not until I spoke with Abdelaziz Hedani July, Shmad’s second cousin, who explained that Moroccan soldiers on the wall often warn Sahrawi nomads about mines, and that Shmad’s death was therefore even more suspicious, that I was able to find out what had happened to it. Abdelaziz Hedani told me that MINURSO had provided a report to the Polisario station in Mijek, who had in turn provided it to the family. That report had apparently omitted numerous details—including that MINURSO’s various delays in accessing the body may have allowed Shmad to bleed to death—which outraged the July family. They requested that the report be returned to MINURSO.

News travels fast in the camps: every Sahrawi I spoke with knew this story, at least in broad strokes. Thus Mr. Ban’s visit a month later came at a sensitive time, and, if the OXFAM staffer was to be believed, his use of the word “occupation” was a deliberate response to the signs of frustration and indignation in Smara. This was also, in part, a response to Shmad’s death. The cliché is that Shmad's death was a tragedy, but the larger story of Sahrawi refugees is primarily about geopolitics. Shmad's family cried when I interviewed them, and it was impossible not to be moved by this; but abstracted out into large numbers, the tragedy becomes difficult to apprehend in terms of personal experience. Viewed as a single case, Shmad’s death is a reminder that history is made of individuals. Even something as complex in its operation as the Security Council can turn on something as simple as the movements of a few camels, somewhere in the desert. But more often, believing in the importance of one story in this context requires a leap of faith.   


[i] MINURSO is the United Nations mission tasked with monitoring the ceasefire and organizing a referendum on self-determination.

[ii] The Smara refugee camp in Tindouf Province, Algeria, is named after the city of Smara in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. All of the Sahrawi refugee camps are named after Western Saharan cities, which can cause some confusion. For the purposes of this essay, “Smara” refers only to the refugee camp.

[iii] Badiya is an Arabic word that comes from the same root as badawi, or nomad, which makes it into English as “Bedouin.” In formal Arabic, badiya means something like “desert space.” Sahrawis use badiya to refer to land that is used by nomads, which can mean pretty much anything that isn’t an urban area—thus badiya can refer to virtually the entire Liberated Zone, or the areas outside of the refugee camps in Tindouf. There is no real direct English translation, so I simply used badiya here more or less as Sahrawis do, to refer to land in which nomads might move. 

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