[Note from the Maghreb Page Editors: In coverage of the Western Sahara, the preferred adjective describing the conflict is “forgotten.” The Sahrawi are a forgotten people, their struggle for justice framed as a relic of a bygone age of liberation movements and decolonization. Such nostalgic portrayals impress the anachronistic nature of the subject; the forty-year virtual impasse in negotiations suggests that world leaders are content to relegate the Western Sahara issue to the history books. Realpolitik dictates a preservation of the status quo, while the rare news headline prompts the necessary handwringing (either over human rights abuses in the region or ambiguous allegations of Al Qaeda presence.)
International law on the Western Sahara conflict is clear. Spain, which had been a colonial presence since 1884, has been responsible vis-à-vis a 1965 United Nations mandate for ensuring a referendum on self-determination. Although Spain began preparations for such a referendum based on the 1973 census, political interest prevailed as Morocco asserted pressure, claiming the land as part of an imagined pre-colonial nation. Despite an International Court of Justice ruling stating unequivocally that “… the Court has not found legal ties of such nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization (sic) of Western Sahara,” Morocco entered the territory in 1975. Many of the Sahrawi living in the region were violently dispersed to refugee camps across the border in neighboring Algeria, which supported the liberation movement (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario) both politically and financially.
The Sahrawi people are still waiting for a referendum.
While the international community may choose to ignore this, Morocco and Algeria regularly remind the world in their heated contestations over sovereignty in the territory. The Polisario regularly and repeatedly make overtures to the legitimacy of their struggle on the international stage. And the tens of thousands of Sahrawi living either as refugees or under the illegal Moroccan occupation remember with daily clarity the promises made and broken.
In fact, the conflict is far from “forgotten.” Rather, in addition to its marginalization by political interest, sound and reliable reporting is extremely difficult. In the Moroccan occupied territories, journalists are regularly harassed and threatened, and the state of free press in Morocco (particularly on the Western Sahara) is poor. In the Tindouf camps where most Sahrawi refugees have relocated following their displacement, the Polisario tightly monitor movement in and out of the camps, and have previously detained journalists reporting there.
Nadir Bouhmouch, a Moroccan filmmaker and human rights activist, had the opportunity to visit the camps when he was invited to take part in the FiSahara film festival. The film festival is held yearly in the Tindouf refugee camps and Bouhmouch was invited to show his debut film My Makhzen and Me, which explored the significance of the 2011 popular demonstrations known as Morocco’s 20 February protests. Bouhmouch also produced a feature length documentary, 475, investigating the ramifications of the recently abolished article 475 from the Moroccan penal code that allowed for a rapist to be acquitted when he marries his victim.
In the following essay, Bouhmouch describes his observations as an attendee of the festival and measures these against the predominant narrative of “territorial integrity” so vigorously promoted by his home country, Morocco. Below the essay is a collection of footage Bouhmouch recorded during his visit in the camps.]
Recently, I travelled to the Tindouf refugee camps to take a part in the FiSahara International Film Festival. As a Moroccan, the decision to go was difficult, and I weighed several potential repercussions. During the Moroccan invasion of the Western Sahara region in 1975, one half of the Sahrawi population fled to these refugee camps in Algeria. The camps became the home of the exiled Sahrawi government, the República Árabe Sahraui Democrática (SADR or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic). While the Moroccan government claims sovereignty of the Western Sahara region, Algeria and the African Union recognize SADR as the legitimate governing body of the entire territory. This creates intense political tension that is tightly managed by the Moroccan regime. After leading Moroccan editor Ali Anouzla published articles critical of the regime’s actions vis-à-vis the Saharan issue, Moroccan authorities arrested him on trumped up charges of terrorism. I not only considered potential attacks from the regime, but also from my fellow citizens, as Moroccan ultra-nationalists physically attacked Sahrawi activist and marathon runner Salah Amaidan. Moroccan satirist and journalist Ali Lmbrabet faced outrageously expensive fines after he had exposed information which contradicted the Moroccan government’s position on the Sahrawi refugee camps.
As a human rights activist and artist, my visit to the camps was the first by a Moroccan not a prisoner of war, a journalist, or a member of a political party.
My participation in the FiSahara film festival was extremely controversial in Morocco and resulted in inaccurate press coverage, including claims that I was paid by the Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) to attend the festival. Some articles (like one by LeMag) claimed that my film would participate alongside other “anti-Morocco films, financed by Algeria... in a manifestation of filmic propaganda.” H24 called the festival the Polisario’s “cultural showcase...organized by the Polisario.”
The reality is that FiSahara is funded by European civil society organizations including the Dimes Foundation out of Washington DC, Movies that Matter (an Amnesty International initiative), Gavamon Human Rights Film Fest and Artistas Intérpretes Sociedad de Gestión (Spain’s progressive artists’ union and authors’ rights organization). The festival also relies heavily on volunteers (primarily of Spanish human rights activists, artists, journalists and lawyers) who help organize and coordinate it.
This year FiSahara was attended by activists and filmmakers from South Africa, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Brazil and the United States. In addition to the entertainment for children and video/film workshops for Sahrawi activists and filmmakers, the festival included films that treated a variety of issues from around the world. In 2013 these included the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Syrian uprising against Assad, girls’ education, women’s rights and the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Of course, the festival also featured some films on the Western Sahara and films made by Sahrawis.
During my stay in the refugee camps I interviewed refugees from both genders ranging from seven to seventy years old. Through these interviews and throughout my stay at the camps, I was able to observe the functioning of the camps and characteristics of SADR governance.
As part of its management of public perception of the Western Sahara conflict, the Moroccan regime promotes various claims about history, politics and society in the region. One of the most widely-known of these regards the status of the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, stating that they are “trapped” there by the Polisario, unable to return to the Western Sahara to willingly live under Moroccan rule. This claim is primarily made through the press, but it is also known to be the official position of the Moroccan government. Since any information that would prove otherwise is not made available, and Moroccans do not regularly visit the camps, this argument is accepted as public opinion.
My experience in the Tindouf camps indicated that this claim is false. Freedom of travel is not limited whatsoever by the SADR government, but is in fact encouraged. Almost every refugee testified that they have left the camps to visit various destinations within Algeria, as well as abroad in Spain, Libya, France, Cuba and the United States. It is very easy to contradict the claim based on the fact that many Sahrawis from the Western Saharan territories under Moroccan control have visited the camps and have returned to Morocco with no constraints by the SADR. In fact, the only constraints on Sahrawi freedom of travel are the ones imposed by the Moroccan government that obstructs refugees from visiting their families in the Western Sahara. These constraints are permanent, evidenced by a wall that divides the Western Sahara in half, as well as by ten million landmines which prevent Sahrawis from accessing a large part of the land. The arrest of Sahrawis at Moroccan airports has also accomplished such restriction of mobility, as Amnesty International has confirmed in several of its reports.
[Image of the Spanish circus during the FiSahara film festival. Image from Josephine Douet, FiSahara 2013.]
Polisario: A Dictatorship?
Another point that the Moroccan state often highlights in its lobbying efforts abroad and its propaganda efforts at home is that the SADR government does not allow for any freedom of expression in the camps. They frame the forty year rule of the SADR President, Mohammed Abdelaziz, as a dictatorship that manipulates the Sahrawi people into fighting against the Moroccan state. They argue that this authoritarian regime, existing within the refugee camps, proves that an independent Western Sahara will be devoid of human rights and democratic rule.
This claim is partially true. The SADR government controls the only television channel in the camps, preventing oppositional voices from surfacing in this media form. However, the extent of freedom of expression cannot be determined by examining this expensive and very inaccessible medium alone. (In the camps many can barely afford electricity, let alone finance a private television channel to compete with SADR TV). I found that Sahrawis have indeed managed to carve out spaces for expression. For example, a group of youth has started an independent radio channel which talks relatively freely. The recently founded film school also works with little constraint. I also discovered that a group of Sahrawis based in the camps have started their own online newspaper called Futuro Saharaui, which according to Sahrawi activists “is an opposing voice to the mainstream SADR media outlets.” In fact, many of the youth are very expressive against the SADR government. Many, for example, have become frustrated with peaceful efforts and disagree with the SADR’s choice to embark on a non-violent path. Young women criticize SADR’s lack of action in dealing with a problem of rape, and others criticize it for not allowing youth to rise up in the ranks to replace older members of government.
Besides Sahrawi expression, foreign journalists enjoy an ample amount of freedom in the refugee camps. American journalist and contributor to the New York Times Kristen McTighe asserted that she “did not feel constrained nor that information was being hidden.” She added: “I was able to walk around; people were open to speaking with me.” In addition to Kristen, other journalists I spoke to at the camps reported feeling completely free to roam and write and did not encounter any surveillance or guidance on the part of the SADR authorities. This is a great difference from the occupied territories of the Western Sahara where a ban on journalists exists and from Morocco itself where the state engages in the surveillance of foreign journalists. McTighe describes the treatment she faced in Morocco, where she was “under constant surveillance, followed by plain clothed police and [her] hotel room searched daily.”
However, despite this relative freedom, it seems that there is a certain amount of self-censorship amongst Sahrawis. Many are unwilling to speak up against Mohammed Abdelaziz’s forty year rule, or in support of investigations into the alleged human rights violations against Moroccan prisoners of war in the 1970s and 80s. The most explicit constraint on freedom of expression in the camps is on any opinion which supports Moroccan rule over the Western Sahara. This is very problematic and is equivalent to the Moroccan regime’s constraint on opinions which advocate for Western Saharan independence. This appears to be a result of a mixture of societal and governmental pressures. The consensus and justification for these limitations amongst Sahrawis is that they must refrain from criticizing their government in a way that will divide them in the face of a much more powerful Moroccan regime.
As for Mohammed Abdelaziz and his forty year rule, it can be argued that he has been in power for too long and this is not healthy for Sahrawi governance. This lengthy rule sets a dangerous precedent that can potentially be carried over into the governance of the Western Sahara if it ever becomes independent. Although many Sahrawis claim they vote for him time and time again because he is simply the “most experienced” and “most capable of defending their interests,” it is a fact that there is no limitation of terms on all elected officials.
However, it is unfortunate that this point is used to undermine the legitimacy of the Sahrawi struggle. Framing governmental weakness within the context of the Moroccan occupation neglects the full account of the Sahrawi struggle. (This is equivalent to the de-legitimization of Palestinian resistance as a whole by alleging that Fatah and Hamas are undemocratic entities).
[Image of an outdoor screening of a film. Image from Josephine Douet, FiSahara 2013.]
A Peaceful Unification?
Moroccan history has also been rewritten in history textbooks and other sources in order to justify the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. It is very common to find that Moroccans believe the 1975 annexation of the Western Sahara to have been a peaceful event accomplished through largely civilian efforts. From the official Moroccan perspective, the Green March was an event in which 300,000 Moroccans peacefully marched into the Western Sahara after a decree from King Hassan II. The image of non-violent Moroccan citizens entering the Western Sahara carrying Moroccan flags and pictures of the king represents the most widely accepted narrative on Morocco’s annexation.
This narrative, however, is a false one, not because the “Green March” did not happen, but because the narrative omits other more significant events which were happening simultaneously. Interviews with camp seniors verified that Morocco’s takeover in the Western Sahara was far from being a peaceful event. Calling the Moroccan invasion “the Black March,” testimonies from camp seniors reinforced claims made by scholars in describing the violence that was used against Sahrawis by Moroccan military forces. According to witnesses, napalm and white phosphorus rained down on Sahrawis as they fled. To bolster this claim, Spanish anthropologists recently found mass graves in the Western Sahara. This violence against the Sahrawi people by the Moroccan regime is ongoing as evidenced during the severe repression in Gdeim Izik and the many cases of torture, police brutality and arbitrary arrest in what Sahrawis call the “occupied territories.” The unceasing violence by the Moroccan state against Sahrawis is best exemplified by the ten million mines which litter the Western Sahara to the east of the wall built by Morocco during the war. These mines have resulted in the ongoing mutilation and death of Sahrawis as well as their precious livestock.
Algerian Governance of the Camps?
The Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara came at a time when Morocco and Algeria were pitted in a rivalry. As a result, the Algerian endorsement of the Polisario’s armed struggle against the Moroccan invasion was used by Moroccan propagandists to create another myth regarding the conflict. This myth holds that the Western Sahara conflict was created by the Algerian state in order to weaken and surround Morocco. Moroccans are taught to think of Algeria as an enemy state; some believe that the Polisario was the creation of the Algerian government. Hence, there is a widespread belief that Algeria governs the Tindouf refugee camps.
This belief is also unfounded. During my visit to the camps with other film festival guests, I noticed a clear demarcation between Algerian jurisdiction and SADR jurisdiction. From the airport in Tindouf, we were escorted by an Algerian military vehicle to a checkpoint which marked the border of the camps. From there, we were escorted by SADR military forces. After that point, I did not see a single Algerian official or vehicle. Even the license plates changed from Algerian ones to Western Saharan ones with Western Saharan flags on the left corner. Of course, the camps are on Algerian territory and Algerian authorities have ultimate control, yet they choose to give the SADR government autonomy to govern with their own legislative, judicial and security systems.
My experiences growing up with Moroccan propaganda, my visit to the occupied Western Saharan territories, and my visit to the refugee camps have made evident for me that the great majority of the claims made by the Moroccan press are baseless. This is a natural result of a decades-long history of imprisonment, repression, censorship and high fines against journalists. In order to bring to light more accurate information in the face of such limited press freedom, Moroccan civil society should begin visiting the refugee camps regularly and forming dialogue groups with Sahrawis.
Average Moroccans should refrain from relying on the press which tends to be controlled by the state. Moroccan journalists, on the other hand, should begin playing a more active role in questioning the basic tenets of the Moroccan narrative on the Western Sahara. Finally, Moroccan historians should be encouraged to visit the camps and seek sources outside of the ones provided to them by the Moroccan state. It is only through this three-pronged approach, which involves civil society, the press, and academia that Moroccans can begin having a new and more honest discussion of the Western Sahara.