The forgotten war

The intractable tragedy in Western Sahara

Dakhla, Western Sahara. Photo: Yotut/Flickr

Can you name the location of the third longest-operating refugee camp in the world? The oldest is sheltering people who fled the Partition of India in 1947. The second oldest – and much larger network of camps – provides refuge for Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948. Both of those human calamities have shaped the canon of twentieth century history. This third tragedy, like its refugees, has been almost entirely erased: the war in Western Sahara.

Like many old conflicts, Western Sahara has not simply been frozen in substance but frozen out of memory. Many people have never even heard of it. They might be vaguely aware of a war fought by Morocco in the 1970s and 80s. Perhaps they have noticed the strange, perforated line on maps separating that country from the territory almost the same size to the south, while remaining unaware of what it means. And yet the Sahrawi refugee camps have existed in the south-western corner of Algeria since 1976. Like so many others, they are the product of chaotic European imperialism.

Western Sahara was for many years a Spanish colony. In 1975, when Franco and his empire both reached their deathbed, Spain divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania as it fled the scene. This final, arrogant flourish did not take into account the views of Western Sahara’s people, or their independence movement, the Polisario Front. Moroccan forces quickly invaded and began a sixteen-year war with Polisario. (Polisario’s separate war with Mauritania ended after four years.) The initial bloody period of fighting – in which Morocco bombed refugees with napalm and white phosphorus – displaced over 100,000 people across the border into Algeria. Polisario established its political base in the camps, just outside the Algerian desert city of Tindouf. From there, it declared the independence of Western Sahara as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and formed a government in exile.

As a guerrilla war dragged on through the 1980s, both sides agreed in principle to a referendum, which would settle Western Sahara’s status as either a part of Morocco or an independent state. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and launched its peacekeeping mission – the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). That referendum has never taken place. Which suits one side well. Morocco treats the entire territory as its own, calling it the “Southern Provinces”. It governs all the main towns and villages and the King has insisted that sovereignty over Western Sahara is non-negotiable. Moroccan officials no longer discuss a referendum, but a plan for “autonomy” – a notional compromise that has earned international support.

Certainly, a referendum no longer seems possible. In the three decades since the ceasefire the Moroccan government has encouraged the mass settlement of its citizens into the territory, to consolidate its position both politically and socially. Votes on self-determination become harder to organise when one party imports the electorate. Another part of the electorate, of course, continues to live outside the territory altogether. Although Polisario controls around twenty per cent of Western Sahara, in the east the vast majority of its people continue to live in the camps near Tindouf. Both sides dispute the numbers, but the Algerian government estimates the population to number around 165,000. After over 45 years, the camps are effectively small cities: no longer places of temporary shelter but home to a population with little expectation of leaving.

I visited Tindouf in 2013. I worked for a member of the European Parliament at the time and was researching and drafting a report on human rights in Western Sahara. A few months earlier I’d never even heard of the camps. There I experienced the first, central reality of frozen conflicts. It is never simply the fighting that is suspended: so are the lives of the people trapped within it. My Polisario hosts introduced me to various people around the camps – doctors, teachers, community activists. They wanted to showcase their success and aspiration, but simultaneously reiterate that only Western Sahara would ever be home. They all felt they had been forgotten.

In one meeting I asked a group of middle-aged women if they would ever consider returning. The Moroccan government maintains that all refugees are welcome to do so. Their answer was unequivocal: they would never return to a Western Sahara with Moroccan sovereignty – even under the proposed autonomy. Independence mattered more than hardship, even if measured by a flag alone. But here was the trap, too. The longer these women remained in the camps, the longer they had to stay. If they suddenly decided to return to the territory, it would not only constitute defeat by their mortal enemy, but existential failure. For them, the camps represented suffering in the pursuit of justice. If they abandoned that ideal, how would any of the suffering or waiting have been worthwhile?

It is not just the Sahrawis in the camps who live out the war’s consequences. Shortly after my trip to Algeria I visited Western Sahara itself. I arranged an open meeting in the capital, Laayoune, for anyone who wished to give evidence for the report. I expected a handful of interlocutors. To my astonishment, hundreds came. Some wanted to tell me that they were proud to be both Sahrawi and Moroccan; most wished to document their oppression from the Moroccan authorities. Beneath the frozen conflict, misery and rage boiled. These people knew that I was powerless to help and that a European Parliament report wouldn’t change their conditions – but they wanted someone in the outside world to hear them.

All frozen conflicts share common elements. There is always something unresolved, and always people not resolving it – both the parties themselves and the international community. In Western Sahara, as elsewhere, the warring actors have calculated that it is not in their interest to unbalance the current equilibrium. But that is also the calculation of an international community that maintains the status quo. Key forces exercise their power over this conflict. The UN does not use the word “occupation”, but considers Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory. Until Donald Trump’s end-of-premiership recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, breaking decades of US policy, no country in the world had accepted Morocco’s fundamental claim. As a quid pro quo, Morocco fully recognised the State of Israel.

Morocco, of course, is a major ally of the US and Europe in North Africa. Its government has largely escaped the post-Arab Spring political turmoil and its dual Mediterranean and Atlantic location attracts strategic partnership. The EU has been eager to sign trade and fishing deals. Last year the European Court of Justice overruled an EU decision to include Western Sahara in those agreements – a significant step, given that over 90 per cent of the EU’s fishing catches under the deal were coming from the territory’s waters.

The judgement is a reminder that Polisario, too, has influence. The SADR is recognised by dozens of states worldwide and has full membership of the African Union. Unsurprisingly, Algeria is its most important ally. Algeria was itself formed in the fire of anti-colonial resistance and many of its elites support Polisario sincerely. But it is, of course, in the country’s political interest too. Western Sahara forms a lever in its decades-long power struggle with Morocco. If the territory ever were to become independent, it would be heavily dependent on Algeria – and offer that country vital access to the Atlantic.

The international community finds some conflicts too distant, murky or non-white to help resolve, and finds others too convenient. Western Sahara seems to be both. And yet the other common truth about frozen conflicts is that they sometimes defrost. The world is unpredictable and nothing guarantees a permanent status quo. The ceasefire in Western Sahara has mostly held, and a heavily-mined sand wall separates the two sides. But in recent times it has appeared fragile. In November 2020 Polisario declared an end to the ceasefire, and launched some minor skirmishes.

Many in Polisario feel that they have kept to their side of the bargain with nothing to show for it. The international community may only be interested when something affects its interests, but it should not grow complacent. As a Polisario official in the camps told me: “Our young people want to fight and we tell them, no, have faith in the political process. But when the process gives them nothing, they cannot hold on forever.” 

Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio

Current Affairs

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