This is a country occupied by a murderous foreign power for decades. A country split apart by a 1,600 mile series of fortified walls backed by soldiers, heavy weaponry and millions of landmines.
A country with 160,000 people living in refugee camps and yearning to return to their homeland.
It is a country where young and old have declared an intifada against their rulers — and where hundreds of UN resolutions which call for justice have been contemptuously ignored.
It could be Palestine. But this is Western Sahara in north Africa where, 30 years ago this month, the latest phase of its people’s torment began.
“For three decades Moroccan rule has meant that the Saharawi people have suffered total lack of democracy, seen their culture crushed, their young people repressed and imprisoned and their resources stolen,” says Sidi Omar.
“Phosphates, fish and oil rights have all been plundered — they’re even taking the sand now!”
The roots of this suffering began in an earlier phase of imperialism. As part of the European powers’ scramble for Africa in the 19th century, Spain grabbed Western Sahara.
“But in 1975 the Spanish occupation was collapsing,” says Omar. “Spain had ruled for nearly 100 years in a very brutal way, but by the 1970s, with a rising guerilla movement and the growing unpopularity of colonialism, the Spanish state agreed self-determination for Western Sahara.
“There was agreement for a referendum among its people to decide for full independence or continued attachment to Spain.
“Morocco and Mauritania, who wanted the territory themselves, did not support a referendum, which they knew would vote for independence. So they took the case to the International Court of Justice to delay the vote.
“The court considered Morocco’s claims and rejected them. It found Morocco had no genuine sovereignty ties to Western Sahara and should accept a referendum.
“So Spain did a secret deal with Morocco and Mauritania. It gave them a free hand in exchange for control of a third of the profitable phosphate mines and its guaranteed continued possession of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.
“Spain thereby renounced its historical responsibility to return the territory to the people and ceded it to Morocco and Mauritania.”
The Moroccan king ordered 350,000 of his subjects into Western Sahara on 6 November 1975 to “restore” Moroccan control.
They stayed only briefly, but it was enough to create “facts on the ground”.
Morocco and Mauritania then divided Western Sahara between themselves.
“Over 150,000 Saharawi fled the invading armies,” says Omar, “They were driven over the border into Algeria.
“These people, and their descendants, are the ones who still live today in refugee camps situated in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth.”
The majority of those in the camps are women and children. Women have played an essential role in running the camps from the beginning.
They have developed committees and systems for healthcare, education, day care, social affairs, resource distribution. They play an active role in the political process.
But for all their initiative, the camps are still wholly dependent on international aid. They are seen as no more than a respite area before returning home.
“In 1973 the Polisario Front had been created by the Saharawi to take up armed struggle against the Spanish,” says Omar.
“These fighters, their ranks filled by people from the new round of oppression, now faced two armies. Polisario recognised that Mauritania was the weaker opponent and focused its attacks on these forces.
“By 1979 Mauritania was forced to sue for peace, but Morocco — backed by French and US weaponry — kept up its war on us and occupied the area that Mauritania had vacated.
“Western Sahara became a battleground with Polisario securing a liberated zone of some 25-30 percent of the country.
“From the mid-1980s Morocco began building the berms, the fortified walls which now divide up the territory. This changed the landscape and made it harder to carry out military operations. It became clear that neither Polisario nor Morocco could win militarily.
“A peace plan was put forward by the Organisation of African Unity which was then taken up by the UN security council in 1990. It called for a referendum, and on this basis Polisario called a ceasefire.
“The referendum was supposed to take place in January 1992, but there was immediately a question over who should be allowed to vote.
“The Moroccans began a series of obstructions and excuses to prevent an updating of the electoral roll (the last census had been in 1974). It took until 1999 for a provisional voters’ roll to be produced and as soon as it was published Morocco began complaining that a referendum was unworkable as it would produce a winner and a loser!
Determine their future
“Polisario is clear that the only winner must be the Saharawi people, who must be allowed the right to determine their own future. They must choose between independence and the continued rule by Morocco.
“Whoever fears such a referendum fears the truth. To this day the referendum has not been held, 15 years after the UN called for it, 30 years since the UN condemned the Moroccan invasion.
“Western Sahara is a prime example of the great powers’ policy of double standards. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. This saw the mobilisation of a huge military force to end the occupation and expel Iraq.
“Why? Because certain of the powers had vital interests in the areas, so this became a matter of pressing concern.
“People speak of ‘the UN’ carrying out acts, but remember that it is an assemblage of states. Their acts have sent the wrong message to Morocco, a clear indication that it can keep obstructing the peace plan, keep violating the human rights of the Saharawi people, keep plundering the natural resources.
“Far from implementing the call for a referendum, there have been signs that sections of the EU and the US are making moves towards normalising Morocco’s occupation.
“The EU is negotiating a fisheries deal which includes Morocco.
“It would mean that the distribution of the catch from the very rich fishing grounds off Western Sahara were decided on the basis of talks with Morocco, a de facto recognition of its control over the area, which the EU countries formally oppose.
“And oil companies are also seeking to exploit Saharawi resources.”
Oil and gas reserves
In 2002 Morocco contracted oil companies Kerr-McGee and the French Total Group (then known as TotalFinaElf) to survey the waters off Western Sahara for potential oil and natural gas reserves.
That same year, UN legal experts confirmed that Morocco did not hold territorial sovereignty or status of administering power over Western Sahara and that “if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law”.
But the surveying continued, despite the UN’s findings. After two years of negative press and public outcry, Total allowed its contract with Morocco to expire in 2004.
US-based Kerr-McGee is still willing to work in the occupied territories and has renewed its contract with Morocco at every opportunity over the past three years despite large scale opposition from shareholders.
“Thirty years is a long time to wait for freedom,” says Omar. The slow pace of change meant that on 21 May this year the Saharawi intifada began.
“People took to the streets saying, ‘We are not Moroccans,’ and raising the Saharawi flag. This was the referendum of the streets, the clear expression of the people’s will. The intifada continues despite repression and torture.”
The recent death under torture of activist Lembarki Hamdi Salek Mahayub has become a further rallying point for local and international resistance.
And two weeks ago 30,000 people marched in Madrid in solidarity with the Saharawi people.
“Polisario seeks a peaceful solution, but self-determination is not negotiable. We have been very patient, but we cannot wait for ever. We do not rule out a return to armed struggle,” says Omar.
Polisario demand end to landmines
Western Sahara has one of the heaviest concentrations of landmines anywhere on the planet.
Millions remain around the fortified walls and in areas where battles have taken place. Morocco mined roads and watering places used by Polisario.
In addition many areas have unexploded cluster bombs. These weapons, supplied by the US in the 1980s, each shower 680 bomblets across a wide area. Nearly every day someone is killed or horribly injured by a mine or cluster munition.
This month Polisario leaders committed themselves to banning the use of anti-personnel mines and urged Morocco to follow suit.
“This step is a clear sign of our desire and aspiration for peace. We hope that this courageous initiative finds its echo and the desired effect on the other side,” said Polisario’s Mohamed Lamine Bouhali.
Morocco, which has not signed the 1997 Ottawa Convention that bans anti-personnel mines, is believed to have sown about seven million mines in the region.
Polisario has promised to destroy its stocks of land mines, stop deploying the weapons and help demining operations.