[This is the second article in a two-part series that seeks to reflect on the ways in which social mobilization, creation of space, and new modes of resistance intersect within the Sahrawi community. Between these grooves are nuanced conceptions of Sahrawi identity that are colored by varied experiences but also a shared memory of external domination and displacement. The series is informed by research conducted during a weeklong stay in the Dakhla refugee camp, located about one hundred miles southeast of Tindouf. A week is nowhere near sufficient to fully grasp the over forty years Sahrawi refugees have lived in these conditions and away from their land. A week, however, is sufficient to dispel dominant political and historical narratives that have dominated knowledge production on the Western Saharan conflict. Jadaliyya has begun tackling these narratives on the conflict, most notably through the publication of roundtable entitled “Beyond the Dominant Narratives on the Western Sahara” and a survey conducted with Sahrawis experiencing different living conditions. Building on these earlier contributions, this series is an attempt to contribute to the conversation on the Western Saharan conflict in a meaningful manner. Note: Names of interviewed Sahrawis have been changed.]
The first part of this series examined Morocco’s use of space and architecture to exert force and reify the regime’s conception of the national borders in the south. The 1,600-mile sand berm Morocco constructed in the 1980s initially served to curtail the expansion and activities of the Polisario Front. While the armed conflict between the Moroccan army and the Polisario Front came to an end in 1991 after the signing of a treaty, the berm continued to exist and not only remains today, but is also reinforced with the presence of soldiers and an estimated seven million landmines. The berm serves as a constant material reminder of Morocco’s dominance over the Sahrawi population that remains split between those living under Moroccan control (west of the berm) and those living in refuge (east of the berm). For Sahrawis in the refugee camps outside of the Algerian city of Tindouf, resisting the berm is resisting Morocco’s dominance. Sahrawis regularly stage protests in front of the wall, which are organized through groups such as The Scream Against the Wall (Al-Sarkh Ded Al-Jidar) and For Every Mine a Flower (Por Cada Mina Una Flor). Since Moroccan soldiers are always present at various posts along the berm, staging these protests is an opportunity to directly confront Morocco and challenge its actions and policies, which resulted in the forced displacement of tens of thousands Sahrawis.
For the Sahrawis that remained on their land, facing Moroccan domination is a part of daily life. Protests calling for the right to self-determination are frequently and violently dispersed, activists face constant harassment from police and intelligence agents, and both arbitrary arrests as well as torture are rampant. Though just as Morocco seeks to exert its power through space and architecture, Sahrawis responded to this exertion of power by resisting it through the creation of their own space and architecture. The most notable example of this resistance was the creation of the Gdeim Izik protest camp on 9 October 2010, just southeast of Laayoune, Morocco’s administrative capital in the territory.
Beginning in October 2010, a group of Sahrawis established the Gdeim Izik protest camp to reject Morocco’s treatment of Sahrawis, poor economic conditions, and the general living situation under Moroccan control. Over the span of a few weeks, by the beginning of November, Gdeim Izik hosted an estimated fifteen thousand Sahrawis. Ahmed al-Hassani, a young Sahrawi who was involved with the creation and sustenance of Gdeim Izik, explained how at its height, Gdeim Izik was entirely self-sufficient. “There was a medical facility, a stable supply line that allowed for the constant flow of goods into the camp, schools, and even a prison,” al-Hassani described.
Gdeim Izik did not last longer than a month before Moroccan authorities essentially leveled the camp to the dust and sand it was initially built upon on 8 November 2010. While numbers of deaths and injuries from both sides remain largely contested, the scenes of Moroccan authorities moving in and violently dismantling Gdeim Izik are irrefutable. The Sahrawis placed the number of causalities at over thirty, with upwards of seven hundred injured. Morocco acknowledged the death of only two civilians, claiming they were used “as human shields.” A number of Sahrawis responded to Morocco’s violent means through resistance, resulting in eleven deaths from the Moroccan side. Hundreds of Sahrawis were rounded up and arrested, including twenty-five who were tried and sentenced in a Moroccan military court. Human Rights Watch produced a report of the twenty-five Sahrawis arrested following Gdeim Izik, recounting the torture Sahrawis endured under military custody. Most of the twenty-five Sahrawis were found guilty of belonging to a “criminal gang,” and sentences varied from twenty years in prison to life.
Gdeim Izik marked a critical turning point in Sahrawi resistance and the beginnings of new modes of resistance. Peaceful protests in the Moroccan-controlled territory were a regular occurrence. The violent response to these protests was just as regular. Whereas protests and demonstrations would happen then end, Gdeim Izik lasted for weeks. Setting up the Gdeim Izik protest camp had an air of permanence in lieu of the frequent protests and demonstrations in the territory. Moreover, the use of the khaima (tent) in Gdeim Izik was an exertion of Sahrawi identity in the face of Morocco’s attempt to impose a way of living in the territory that deviated from traditional Sahrawi lifestyles. The expansion of Moroccan settlements in the form of heaping apartment buildings and the infrastructure that comes with them stands in great contrast to the Sahrawi’s more vernacular way of life inherited from generations past. Sahrawi writer Agaila Abba explains the significance of khaimas in Gdeim Izik: “To go outside of the city and build those tents was not only to resist socioeconomic discrimination, but also to set themselves self apart from the Moroccan settlers and Moroccan culture. It was a way to find the purity of the Saharawi culture without any influence from Morocco.” During the month that Gdeim Izik was established and throughout its duration, it proved to Moroccan authorities that Sahrawis under its control are fully capable of independence and self-sufficiency. This subversive form of protest shook the core of Moroccan power, which has aimed to portray itself as an entity that Sahrawis are “in need of.” Within that month, the Sahrawis involved in the Gdeim Izik protest camp rejected any semblance of Moroccan authority. Gdeim Izik forced Moroccan authorities to confront a taste of Western Saharan independence. It was for this reason that the Moroccan response to Gdeim Izik was as violent as it was.
Gdeim Izik also revealed the tensions between Sahrawi activists in the territory and the Polisario Front based outside of Tindouf. Sahrawi activist with connections to those involved in Gdeim Izik, Brahim Embarek, explained to me that many Sahrawis in the territory became disenchanted with the Polisario Front after Gdeim Izik: “While the camps were being built,” Embarak recounted, “Sahrawi activists were in contact with the Polisario. The Polisario reassured them that if anything happened, they would help. But when the raid happened, the Polisario did nothing to protect the Sahrawis. A lot of activists felt they were used and betrayed by the Polisario who knew fully well the danger they were in. Many Sahrawis in the territory no longer trust the Polisario, especially human rights activists.”
Though just as Gdeim Izik marked a turning point in the Sahrawi resistance and its internal dynamics, it too marked a turning point in the oppressive and violent tactics of Moroccan authorities used toward silencing and marginalizing Sahrawi voices. This also included the increased activity of Moroccan intelligence services. Ahmed al-Hassani fled the territories to the refugee camps outside of Tindouf in fear of his safety after authorities began targeting Sahrawis whom they suspected of being involved with Gdeim Izik. Not long after his arrival to the camps, where he has been living in displacement for three years, al-Hassani received word that he had been tried in absentia in Morocco; he was charged of being a spy. Cabinet member of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR; Spanish acronym known as RASD) government, Mohamed Louali Hocene, Minister of the Occupied Territories, also told me that since Gdeim Izik, Moroccan authorities have clamped down more aggressively on Sahrawis in the territories. As a result, the camps have seen a greater influx of refugees from the territories fleeing in fear of their safety.
The tragedy of Gdeim Izik was that it took place just weeks before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, after which uprisings swept the region, rendering the Sahrawi resistance marginalized once again. As international focus honed in on the uprisings in Tunisia, then Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and the mobilizations that shook regimes in Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, the Sahrawis’ call for dignity and self-determination was drowned out. For the international community, it was as if Gdeim Izik never happened. There were attempts to include the events of Gdeim Izik within the timeline of what has now been coined as the “Arab Spring,” most notably from Noam Chomsky. During an appearance on Democracy Now! Chomsky asserted that the “Arab Spring” began in the Western Sahara, not Tunisia. As I previously argued in response to such an assertion, such an attempt to temporally place Gdeim Izik as the marker of the “Arab Spring” dismisses a long history of resistance and struggle. While Chomsky seeks to thoughtfully include the Western Sahara within our understanding of the “Arab Spring,” claiming the Gdeim Izik protest camp was the beginning of a broader regional trend dismisses many key factors. Most notably that the Sahrawis since under Spanish colonization until 1975, followed by the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion facilitated by the Madrid Accords, and until today under Moroccan control, have been denied their self-determination. Of course the Sahrawis who protested during Gdeim Izik shared the same grievances as their regional neighbors, such as lack of economic opportunities and dire living conditions under oppressive authoritarian regimes whose leaders have held onto power for decades, among other grievances. Though just as the Palestinian struggle is understood as one that transcends the “Arab Spring” due to its long history entangled with daily realities other populations in the region do not necessarily face, so should the Sahrawi struggle be understood. Decades of occupation, displacement, and restrictions on citizenship and mobility structure the Sahrawi struggle—all factors that the term “Arab Spring” fails to reflect.
Nearly four years have passed since Gdeim Izik stood as a testament of Sahrawi perseverance, and it already holds a significant place in the Sahrawi collective memory. The names of the victims are evoked as martyrs, and the anniversary of the camp’s destruction is annually remembered. Award-winning Sahrawi singer Mariam Hassan released a song in remembrance of Gdeim Izik, whose lyrics demonstrate the significance of Gdeim Izik in the Sahrawi collective memory, despite its recentness: “The enemy continues and every year it gets worse/But during these days the Gdeim Izik camps made a clear stand/Long live the camps of independence/Each day it stood its ground without fear, representing the strength of resistance." The remembrance of Gdeim Izik coincides with the anniversary of another tragic even Sahrawis remember annually: Morocco’s 6 November 1975 “Green March,” what Sahrawis refer to as the “Black March.” The event of 6 November 1975 marked the beginning of Morocco’s invasion of the territory, setting off the conflict that remains unresolved up until today, and resulting in the death of tens of thousands Sahrawis and hundreds of thousands others displaced. At the heart of these tragic and remembered events, the same space used to exert power is the same space used to resist it. What emerges is the memory—and its spatial, cultural, and political materialization—through which Sahrawi identity is banded extending from the territories to the refugee camps to abroad. As Agaila Abba aptly points out following the events of Gdeim Izik, “There was a lot more compassion and unity between the Sahrawis in the refugee camps and in the Western Sahara. It created a stronger bond between the populations.”