Intifada in Western Sahara

Morocco seals off the occupied territory

by Chris Brazier

New Internationalist magazine, August 2005


The capital of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, La'youn, has been effectively cut off from the outside world following weeks of protests and brutal repression by security forces in May and June.

Delegations of Spanish journalists and parliamentarians anxious to investigate the circumstances and scale of the clampdown have repeatedly been turned back by the Moroccan authorities.

The trouble started when, on 21 May, the authorities transferred Ahmed Mahmoud Hadi, known as 'Kainan' - whom the Moroccans say they are holding for drugs offences and for 'insulting the monarchy' but whom Saharawis see as a prisoner of conscience - from what is known as the Dark Prison in La'youn to a jail near Agadir in Morocco. Saharawi sources claim Kaman was tortured and forcibly anaesthetized and, in protest, his family and a group of human-rights activists staged a sit-in outside the Dark Prison.

Security forces violently broke up the sit-in, further escalating the protests as large crowds of Saharawis took to the streets, calling for the release of arrested demonstrators and shouting pro-independence slogans. Regular clashes followed over the next few days between demonstrators and paramilitary riot police. At night Saharawi neighbourhoods were surrounded by police: phone lines and street lights were cut off as security forces raided homes. The protests spread quickly to other Saharawi cities such as Smara and Dakhla, and to Moroccan cities with large Saharawi populations, such as Rabat, Marrakech and Agadir.

Saharawi sources are calling this an 'Intifada'. The echo of Palestinian resistance is deliberate. The Saharawi inhabitants of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara have known for years what Palestinians are now discovering: what it is like to live behind a wall that separates them from the rest of their country and even other members of their families. Whereas Israel's wall cutting off portions of the West Bank is still being erected, Morocco's fortified wall, protected throughout its 1,500-kilometre length by gun emplacements and minefields, has been in place since the late 1980s.

Between 1975, when Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony, and 1991, when a ceasefire took hold, guerrilla resistance to the occupation was led by the national liberation movement Polisario, which drew its soldiers from refugee settlements over the border in the Algerian desert. Now, however, after more than a decade of frustration and disappointment as UN attempts to hold a referendum on self-determination have been consistently stymied by Morocco, Saharawis in the occupied territory and in southern Morocco have increasingly been taking the lead role in resistance. This despite ferocious repression. Simply displaying the flag of independent Western Sahara is seen by Morocco as sufficient cause for detention without trial. Yet in June Kenya joined the increasing number of African countries that have formally recognized the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

On l7June security forces swooped on Saharawi human rights activists all over Morocco and the Occupied Territory in an attempt to stop reports about the repression leaking out. Instead, the clampdown has sparked further demonstrations and more arrests. Almost all the Saharawis released from detention so far claim to have been 'savagely tortured'. Saharawi activists are issuing increasingly urgent pleas for intervention by human rights organizations and for international pressure on the Moroccan Government.

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