By Maxine Betteridge-Moes, MA Media in Development
Several Western Sahara human rights and media activists have gone into hiding from Moroccan forces, who they claim are targeting those involved in a border protest that sparked the end of a decades-long ceasefire and the outbreak of war on 14 November.
The homes of two Saharawi journalists from the Nushatta Foundation for Media and Human Rights were reported to have been raided. Other members say they fear retaliation for their work reporting on the conflict, documenting human rights abuses and campaigning for self-determination in what is known as ‘Africa’s Last Colony.’
‘I’m hiding … to avoid the launch of an aggressive campaign by Morocco, which targets those who document and report on what’s going on in Western Sahara,’ said twenty-seven-year-old activist Mansour, a member of the Nushatta Foundation. ‘This is not the first time. It’s something we have been experiencing for many years, and now it’s getting worse because of war.’
Since the outbreak of war, Mansour says he and at least 10 other members have been sharing footage of the violence using social media from their places of hiding, as well as reporting on the police raids and targeting of Saharawi protesters. ‘We have different correspondents on the front in the war right now and also in the city who tell us what’s happening. We are reporting everything,’ he said.
Nearly 30 years after the establishment of a UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and the disputed Western Sahara, the pro-independence Polisario Front declared a ‘return to the armed struggle’ after Moroccan troops launched an operation in the demilitarized buffer zone at the southern Guerguerat border. Rabat maintains that it is committed to the ceasefire, but that its army would respond with anti-tank weaponry in self-defence.
‘It had been coming,’ said British journalist Toby Shelley, author of Endgame in the Western Sahara. ‘Guerguerat ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.’
Western Sahara is an approximately 250,000 square kilometre swath of desert on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Rich in phosphate reserves and off-shore fisheries, Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. It became the site of brutal conflict between Morocco and the indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Polisario Front and backed by Algeria.
In 1991, the UN established the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) tasked with maintaining the ceasefire agreement and carrying out a vote to self-determination. But the referendum has been repeatedly postponed, and today most Saharawis are divided among refugee camps in Algeria, the Moroccan-occupied territory, and the liberated ‘Free Zone.’
Meanwhile, the human rights situation has gone largely unreported as human rights monitoring is not included in MINURSO’s mission. Human Rights Watch has said the situation is characterised by Morocco’s firm repression and use of violence against Saharawis expressing their opposition to Moroccan rule and favouring self-determination.
In October, the UN Security Council extended MINURSO’s mission, citing ‘the need for a realistic, practicable and enduring solution … based on compromise,’ but has yet to update the mission’s mandate or appoint a new personal envoy to the region.
A spokesperson for the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he ‘expresses grave concern regarding the possible consequences of the latest developments’ and ‘remains committed’ to avoiding the total collapse of the 1991 ceasefire.
But young activists like Mansour, frustrated by years of inaction, say they have no choice but to resort to violence.
‘Peaceful activism is not an option. That is what we’re understanding now.’
‘One of the biggest concerns that we raised as a civilian society is to enable MINURSO to monitor the human rights situation,’ said Mansour. ‘They didn’t do this in 30 years. So how can they do it in the time of war? Peaceful activism is not an option. That is what we’re understanding now.’
The conflict threatens to further destabilize the Maghreb region, which is grappling with insurgencies in Mali and Mauritania and the longstanding war in Libya. Shelley says that a lack of widespread media coverage has also contributed to the diplomatic, governmental and UN inattention to the situation in Western Sahara.
‘If there had been vigorous attempts to get something done [by] the Security Council … then we would have seen more coverage of the problem. It’s that lack of attention that underlies the return to conflict,’ Shelley said.
The Western Sahara Campaign, an advocacy group in the UK, works in solidarity with the Saharawi people to generate political support for self-determination and promote human rights. Shelley says the group is putting pressure on the Foreign Office as a Security Council member to push forward with the peace process and prevent a return to full scale conflict.
‘I have to maintain optimism buoyed by the confidence and determination of Saharawi activists in Western Sahara that have never shown any signs of giving up.’
But after days in hiding alone in Layoune, the future looks less hopeful for Mansour.
‘We are stuck. The Security Council didn’t do anything and will not do anything, and same for the United Nations,’ he said. ‘It’s a tragic ending and I feel so sorry for what’s happening.’
Photo Caption: Saharawi protesters block the road at Guerguerat, a demilitarised buffer-zone in the disputed territory (Credit: Nushatta Foundation for Human Rights).