A Return to War
On October 21, scores of Saharawi civilians engaged in a peaceful sit-in blocking a major highway in the Guerguerat buffer zone along the Mauritanian border. This left two hundred trucks stranded — most of which were carrying fisheries and agricultural products. “Saharawi people see this road as a route through which the natural resources of Western Sahara are plundered, so blocking it is blocking the plunder,” Sidahmed tells Jacobin. As food prices soured in neighboring Mauritania as a result of the trade stoppage, the Moroccan army entered the buffer zone to violently disperse the protesters — thus violating the terms of the twenty-nine-year-old cease-fire.
In response Polisario forces engaged the Moroccan troops, ferrying the civilians out of the area, before declaring the cease-fire null and void. The Polisario Front is recognized by the UN as the political representative of the Saharawi people and is affiliated to the social-democratic Socialist International. From its base in neighboring Algeria, it has launched a series of attacks on fortified Moroccan positions along the sand berm in recent weeks, but Morocco’s wall, the longest defensive barrier in the world, makes any meaningful military gains highly unlikely — not to mention Morocco’s technological and numerical advantage.
Yet both Ettanji and Sidahmed underscore how the cease-fire status quo had long become unsustainable for the Saharawi people. “Regarding whether armed struggle is a viable option for gaining independence: the UN (and now the US), have made it clear that peaceful means will definitely not work,” claims Sidahmed. “After twenty-nine years of peaceful struggle, and winning legal cases in various courts stating Morocco has no right to Western Sahara, the international community has only emboldened Rabat. Meanwhile, the world forgets that the Saharawi people still exists.”
The end to the sixteen-year war in 1991 had been negotiated on the basis of a joint commitment from Morocco and the Polisario Front to hold an independence referendum within one year. Yet attempts to organize such a vote have been systematically sabotaged by Morocco, which has also continued to populate the region with Moroccan settlers. A wave of nonviolent protests in 2010 (which Noam Chomsky posits as the start of the Arab Spring) ended with deadly violence at the Gdeim Izik protest camp as Moroccan security forces stormed the site in the middle of the night, leaving eleven Saharawi dead and hundreds injured. Nineteen leading figures in the movement have been handed twenty-year and life prison sentences — with their convictions largely based on testimony extracted under police torture.
“We are living in an open-air prison. It has been many years since the Sahara has known peace, and so most of us have welcomed the return to war — which might at least change something,” Ettanji explains in a phone interview from the Saharawi capital El Aaiún. He and his wife Nazha El Khalidi, who is also a journalist, had been placed under house arrest for a number of weeks in November. He tells Jacobin that “we [journalists and activists] are under constant watch. Surveillance has increased considerably since the end of the cease-fire and if you walk around the city you can see a large police and military presence everywhere.”
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