Western Sahara: winning the “war on words” and avoiding war

“People will easily be able to sympathize with our issues, but they need the information first.” Senia Bachir Abderahman is talking about the situation in the refugee camp that she grew up in and the frustration that her family and most of her fellow Saharawis (Western Sahara’s indigenous population) cannot escape from this refugee camp because their country is colonised by Morocco.

The Saharawis in occupied Western Sahara are brutally repressed and the youth there are increasingly disillusioned at the lack of progress. They are therefore turning away from peaceful means to solve the conflict.

Senia is in Denmark, invited by Danish NGO Africa Contact, to tell about the little-known predicament of the refugees in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, and their struggle for independence for their country, Western Sahara, from Moroccan colonisation so that they can return to their native land after 35 years of involuntary exile.

Senia has clearly told her story many times. Her perseverance and dedication to the Saharawi cause has seen her appear before the UN Fourth Committee on several occasions and before the United States Congress, and she has met with politicians and NGOs in the UK, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This dedication is clearly the result of Senia’s and her family’s experiences.

Senia’s mother fled from her hometown in 1975 as Moroccan troops invaded Western Sahara, until then a Spanish colony. Her mother travelled on foot across the dessert together with her family, eventually ending up in Smara refugee camp in Algeria near the border to Western Sahara. Here her mother gave birth to Senia in a tent, and Senia’s family has lived here ever since together with 165.000 of their compatriots.

The refugees in the camps live in tents and huts in one of the most inhospitable and arid areas in the world, the so-called “devil’s garden”, where temperatures reach 50 degrees in the summer and fall below freezing in the night during winter, where malnutrition is commonplace, where water has to be driven in by truck, and where people totally rely on the foreign aid that is distributed by the World Food Programme. And according to Senia, the situation for the refugees is not improving. “The humanitarian situation is really getting worse in the last couple of years, for instance the food aid has decreased.”

The situation is not much better for the Saharawis that live in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. “Since 2005 it has been very bad. Hundreds have been tortured and imprisoned. I have friends who have experienced such abuse on a daily basis,” Senia says.

Even though the Saharawis have created a whole state apparatus – the Saharawi Arab Democratic Rebublic (SADR) that is a member of the African Union and recognised by over 80 countries – with a constitution, parliament, a legal system and an education system in the refugee camps, the situation in the camps is still agonizing for the Saharawis living in the camps. For instance, they still have to go abroad for their secondary and tertiary education.

A successful student herself, Senia soon won a scholarship to United World College in Norway, and has studied Biology at Mount Holyoke College in the USA. This is a testament to SADR having made education a priority from the onset, and subsequently seeing the literacy level in the camps improve from below 10% when the refugees arrived to over 90% today, way above the regional average. This is important because a well-educated Saharawi youth is a virtual pre-condition for both the winning of independence and a successful Western Saharan society after independence has been won.

But like many other young Saharawis, Senia is unhappy with the lack of action taken by the international community. “It is really disappointing that all the international players, who on the one hand advocate democracy and human rights, on the other hand put their economic interests above these things in regard to Western Sahara.” She is particularly disappointed with the UN. “The UN, which we refer to as the United Nothing, has been very silent. The reason for this is that Morocco is protected by its strong allies, the USA and France, who use their veto in the Security Council to stop any progress in Western Sahara.”

This disappointment might prove explosive if the Western Sahara conflict continues to be unsolved and the Saharawis continue to remain subjugated to Moroccan rule and abuse. “People, especially in the occupied territories in Western Sahara, are becoming increasingly frustrated. This frustration was clearly seen in the [October 2010] Gdeim Izik protest camp [in occupied Western Sahara],” Senia says. ”No one really knows how many were killed or injured in Gdeim Izik, as no one properly investigated it, although Amnesty International did report that three were killed and many others injured.”

“People became very frustrated after Gdeim Izik,” says Senia. “Their peaceful protests were met with violence. Many young people therefore demanded that [the Western Saharan liberation movement] Polisario went back to war after this. Even my younger brother wants to go to war. My mother, on the other hand, has experienced war first-hand and really hopes for a more peaceful solution. I can understand both sides. I understand the frustration that the international community hasn’t acted more, but I believe that war is definitely not the solution.”

But even though Senia does not believe in restarting the war with Morocco, that ended in a negotiated cease-fire in 1991, she in uncompromising in regard to the status on Western Sahara. “The solution is a referendum on independence of Western Sahara. Anything else is a violation of international law. The negotiations between Polisario and Morocco are therefore somewhat pointless because the right to a referendum is, and should be, non-negotionable. Minurso [the peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara] even has a list of eligible voters who would vote in such a referendum,” she says.

According to Senia, one of the problems in getting the world to become interested in the Western Sahara conflict and the desperate situation of the Saharawis is that Morocco are winning the “war of words” in the media. “Polisario has been trying very hard to find a solution through diplomatic means. They have not succeeded so far, also because the Moroccans are using many resources on lobbying. It is now a war on words fought through the media, and the Moroccans are winning it.”

For Senia, one of the ways of winning this “war on words” is for civil society in the West and elsewhere to rally behind the Saharawis in their fight for self-determination and human rights, and thereby hopefully pressurize their respective governments into acting to ensure independence for Africa’s last colony. “I strongly believe in the power of civil society. We need such organisations to pressurize their governments. There is a lot of awareness work to be done,” she insists.


Read the article in Danish here

See video from the conference

See video about Western Sahara and the EU

Conference on Western Sahara in Denmark, Sahara Press Service, 6 May 2011

Saharawi women and their struggle for independence, by Senia Bachir Abderahman, Global Affairs, 14 April 2008

The case for Western Saharan independence

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