There’s been a fair bit of coverage of the Burmese elections in the UK media over the past few days, including the displacement of some 20,000 people as a result of election-related violence. However, there’s been barely a whisper about a comparable eruption of violence much closer to home, on Europe’s doorstep.
Over the past month or so, many thousands of Sahrawi, protesting against the ongoing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, set up a camp – Gdaim Izik – outside Western Sahara’s principal city, El Aaiun (Laayoune). Over the past week reports from Western Sahara indicated that Moroccan forces were gathering to “disperse” the camp. Reports of clashes were filtering out of the region as early as 24 October, and on 25 October EL Pais reported the death of a 14 year old boy at the hands of Moroccan security forces. Yesterday (8 November) reports were coming thick and fast from activists, Sahrawi support groups and some international media indicating that such a dispersal was underway (check the ever-informative Sahara Occidental website for links to daily news reports on Western Sahara in several languages).
Morocco appears to have implemented a media blackout – a representative of a major foreign media organisation told me that they hadn’t been able to contact anyone in Western Sahara, or their staff reporter in Rabat, by phone. Nonetheless, plenty of reports have been getting out, including a number in the form of short videos of the confrontation between Sahrawi protestors and Moroccan security forces in the camp and in El Aaiun itself, posted on YouTube. Today the BBC posted an article on its website in which it reported that the setting up of the camp “was the biggest protest against Moroccan rule in 35 years” (mainstream coverage is there, but you have to look for it – most people haven’t heard anything about what’s going on in Western Sahara, and remain unaware of the territory’s existence). Unusually for a mainstream media organisation, the BBC included in its article a map showing the partition of Western Sahara. Usually Western Sahara is reported simply as having been “annexed” by Morocco, when in reality a sizable portion of this disputed, non-self governing territory is actually controlled by the Polisario independence movement (the BBC repeated this cut and paste simplification in the main text of the article). This “Free Zone” is separated from the occupied areas by the “Berm”, a “wall” or series of defensive earthworks build by Morocco.
In a communication issued today, the Polisario claimed that 11 Sahrawi had been killed and 723 injured in clashes with Moroccan security forces, and that 159 people were missing. The Polisario also suggested that the timing of the raid on the camp was chosen to coincide with, and to sabotage, UN sponsored talks between Morocco and the Polisario. After arranging a ceasefire between the two parties in 1991, the UN promised a referendum on self determination for Western Sahara. The referendum has never happened. While the Polisario has softened their line on the conditions of such a referendum, indicating that the vote could include the options of independence, limited autonomy within Morocco, or full integration within Morocco, Morocco has refused to countenance any vote that offers independence. Instead it is offering limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, a solution its apologists have referred to as an “advanced form of autonomy”, apparently without irony.
While the mainstream domestic media in the UK is keeping silent on the clashes at Gdaim Izik, there is more coverage in ex-colonial power Spain. El Pais today warned that Rabat was risking “civil war” in Western Sahara. Web news services are also carrying stories about the clashes.
How all this will play in the rest of the EU (if at all) remains to be seen. Unfortunately, and based on recent performance, the EU is likely to ignore the violence, or at best make some limp statement of general concern, as it continues to collaborate with the new colonial power, Morocco, in the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara’s resources, principally fisheries, which its granting of Advanced Status to Morocco was meant to lubricate.