Trojan Horse, by Rolando de la Rosa

December 16, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I visited the camps around Tindouf to talk about our achaeological work in the Free Zone at a Sahrawi cultural festival. While I was in the region I took the opportunity to spend a few days in Tifariti, where the ArTifariti event was taking place. This involved a host of international artists (mostly Catalan, Basque, and “mainstream” Spanish, but with a good smattering of other nationalities also represented) descending on Tifariti and being let loose to create various artworks. The work I liked most was this one by Mexican Artist Rolando de la Rosa. It consists of a horse whose body is made from oil drums, and whose head is constructed from a bomb detonated by Land Mine Action.

I saw Rolando in Auserd camp after the Tifariti event, and he told me that plans were afoot to install the horse near the Berm, where it could gaze accusingly at the occupying forces. I also like the work of the Algerian artists who were making a bombed-out building destroyed towards the end of the hostilities before the 1991 ceasefire a bit more cheerful and interesting.

More photos here.


We welcome your unreasonable comments

March 18, 2008

Magharebia, a news site sponsored by the United States Africa Command, recently ran a story about the postponement of a planned march on Tifariti by the Moroccan “NGO” the Association Sahara Marocaine (“Sahara tension mounts as Tifariti march postponed“). The Magharebia story made the common mistake of confusing the buffer zone, which extends for 5 km either side of the berm that partitions Western Sahara, with the Polisario-controlled areas east and south of the Berm. This reflects the usual Moroccan rhetoric, which presents the Polisario areas as an official buffer zone rather than areas of Western Sahara that Morocco has failed to occupy, in which Morocco has no presence, and which are firmly controlled by a government with a competing claim to the territory. The confusion about the nature and extent of the buffer zone is common among journalists, so I thought I’d give Magharebia the benefit of the doubt, and point out their mistake. The site says that it welcomes comments, so I duly sent off a clarification, with links to MINRUSO maps showing the buffer zone, the berm and the Moroccan and Polisario-controlled areas. I pointed out that the (often overlooked) existence of the Polisario controlled areas has important implications for the viability of the Moroccan autonomy plan as a “solution” to the conflict.

As of today my comment has not been published [Note: see below for update]. However, this one has:

“truth: west sahara is moroccans and was moroccans and remains moroccans, we hope that tifariti and surroundings in as soon as possible conquered and free become, there is no other solution. political agression of algerian generals against morocco is total unacceptable, we hope that they think well after because they have two keys in hands them can choose between peace and war, we hope that they choose for peace, because war means a large calamity in north africa and surroundings. peace!”

So has another opposing comment, so full of cut and paste anti-American bile that it appears to be from a wannabe Jihadi sitting in his bedroom watching Osama videos, rather than a nationalist Sahrawi. Or perhaps it’s a put up job (maybe in the interest of balance?. Maybe it’s real, and an early indication that this festering conflict and the West’s support for Morocco is pushing some Sahrawi into the familiar territory of angry fundamentalism.

Anyway, it seems that you’re allowed to comment on this US military sponsored website if you’re a belligerent, ranting, hate-filled fundamentalist of whatever persuasion, but not if you’re someone with a valid and reasonably worded comment that takes issue with a misleading factual inaccuracy in one of Magharebia’s articles. I know I can be quite verbose, but I did stick within the word limit. I wonder if there is a political agenda here (surely not!). Morocco certainly doesn’t want anyone to know that there is a significant chunk of Western Sahara outside of its control. Now that the US has come out firmly in favour of Morocco’s partition – sorry, autonomy – plan, perhaps US military-sponsored news sites have been instructed to keep quiet about this matter too.

UPDATE: After I published the above entry my blog saw much more activity than usual (about 8 times the normal number of hits, with plenty of time still to go before the day is out). I’ve just checked the article on the Magharebia website and my comment has now been published. The comment was submitted 5 days ago, and has been published some time after comments submitted 4 and 2 days ago. A number of other comments submitted 4 days ago have also been published today (18 March 2008). Anyway, whether these comments have been “released” in response to this post, or whether the delay was just due to a glitch or distracted moderator, it’s good to see them there.

Of all the 8 comments currently visible on the site, one is mine, one is a request for impartiality in the administration of the site, one is pro-Sahrawi, and the remaining 5 are pro-Moroccan. Interestingly, one of the pro-Moroccan comments accuses the Algerian authorities of “playing the game of the Zionists”. So Israel has been dragged into this by both sides in these comments (see also the one pro-Sahrawi comment, which is rather belligerent, but it is hardly alone in this respect). Neither of these (pro- nor anti-Moroccan) comments acknowledges the fact that, as part of a mutual back-scratching agreement between Morocco and Israel, there is an understanding that Israel will help to promote Moroccan interests. The author of the pro-Moroccan post who attacks Algeria for being like “the Zionists” might want to rethink his comments and take a more positive position regarding this new Moroccan ally.

An unfortunate choice of words

February 28, 2008

The Moroccan news (and propaganda) agency Maghreb Arabe Presse has run a story claiming that nearly 100 Sahrawi have fled the Polisario-run camps in Algeria in order “to enjoy dignified, united and stable life in Morocco” [sic]. This gives MAP an opportunity to slag off the Polisario and plug Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, under which the international community and a pro-Moroccan body of Sahrawi dignitaries would endorse the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in exchange for a measure of political devolution within the occupied areas of the territory (how big a measure is debatable, and the fate of the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara is conveniently ignored).

The article states that several of the alleged Sahrawi migrants participated in a meeting of Sahrawi dissidents held in Gjijimat near Tifariti in December 2007 “to voice adherence to Morocco’s autonomy proposal”. Apparently this was a sort of fringe meeting held at the same time as what MAP refers to as “the so-called 12th Congress of Polisario leadership in the buffer zone[1] of Tifariti” (“so-called” is a favourite turn of phrase of Morocan propagandists when it comes to all things Polisario-related, but at least they’ve resisted the temptation to put quotation marks around the word “Polisario” every time they type it).

The Polisario congress received wide (withing the context of Saharan affairs) coverage – I watched a lot of it on Al Jazeera while sitting in a Polisario base in the far south of the Free Zone (read into that what you will). A search for “Gjijimat” throws up a lot of pro-Moroccan websites reporting on the alleged dissidents’ meeting, but little else, so I can’t report on whether such a meeting took place or on anything that may have resulted from it (although this matter is alluded to on the excellent and relatively dispassionate Western Sahara Info blog, which suggests that, as with all Sahara coverage emanating from MAP, reports about the Gjijimat meeting should be treated with caution, if not buried in a large barrel of salt). If anyone can find Gjijimat on a map, please let me know.

Whether the meeting at Gjijimat was real or a fiction dreamed up by MAP, it was reportedly held under a sign reading “Autonomy as a Final Solution to Achieve Reconciliation and Dignified Return to the Homeland”.

Autonomy as a “Final Solution”? I always suspected as much.

By the way, today’s top MAP story (just beating the story about the alleged flight of the dissident Sahrawi) is titled “King is in Good Health, [according to] Ministry of Royal Household”. Apparently Mohammed VI went to Paris to “take some rest” and “not to receive any health care of undergo whatever surgery” [sic]. Always good to have one’s newspaper lead with an important story about the good health of one’s leader. It helps the democratisation process proceed smoothly, knowing that your absolute ruler isn’t about to cark it.

(For younger readers – not you Will – it might be worth explaining that the “Final Solution” was the name the Nazis gave to their programme of genocide against the Jews and other “undesirable” groups. I’ll resist the base urge to draw further comparisons).


[1] What the Moroccans call the “buffer zone” (or sometimes the “demilitarized zone”) is actually the zone controlled by the Polisario independence movement, a zone which Morocco has not occupied and in which Morocco has no presence (see earlier posts on the partition of Western Sahara). The Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to this zone as the “Free Zone”, and many Sahrawi living in exile in the camps in Algeria (and also in Mauritania) often enter the Free Zone, for example to graze camels when rains result in good pasture, or to attend political events organised by the Polisario. The Moroccan establishment prefers to play down the fact that there is a sizable part of Western Sahara that it doesn’t control, and which is run by a government that it refused to acknowledge. There is an actual buffer zone, or restricted area, extending for some distance either side of the “Berm“, the Moroccan-built wall (really a series of defensive earthworks exploiting the natural topography) that partitions Western Sahara. The restricted area, the limited extent of which leaves the Polisario plenty of space in the unoccupied areas east and south of the Berm, can be seen on this map showing the deployment of UN observers/peacekeepers from MINURSO.

Western Sahara – The Partition

July 13, 2007

Western Sahara Map

Western Sahara Map,
originally uploaded by Western Sahara Project.

Most of the media stories about Western Sahara and the arguments over Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan” give the impression that the entire territory of Western Sahara has been annexed by Morocco. The implication is that the question of limited “self government” as part of a greater Morocco, as opposed to independence, is really one of whether the rest of the world should accept the done deal of Morocco’s occupation and annexation of Western Sahara.

However, the reality on the ground is more complex. Western Sahara is in actual fact partitioned into a region occupied by Morocco (about two thirds of the territory), and one controlled by the Polisario independence movement. The latter is known locally as the “Free Zone” and consists of all the territory to the right (east and south) of the red line shown on this UN map. The areas to the left (west and north) of the red line are those occupied by Morocco.

The red line itself represents the line of defensive works that Morocco has built to seal off the occupied territories from the Free Zone. This line of earthworks, which exploits the natural topography, is known as “The Berm”. Although this map shows the Berm as being contained entirely within the territory of Western Sahara, it actually extends into Mauritania, where the official border between Western Sahara and Mauritania makes a sharp turn to the east (i.e. where the Berm is shown as just about touching the border where the latter forms a right angle). Presumably the Mauritanians don’t feel inclined or able to make a fuss about this Moroccan annexation of an admittedly very tiny and not especially useful part of their country, and the UN don’t want to embarrass them by making public the fact that Morocco has taken some of their territory and they aren’t doing anything about it.

The point of all this is that, even if Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara is “normalised” via international acceptance of its autonomy plan (as favoured by the United States and some other countries), the problem won’t be solved. A rump Western Sahara will still remain, controlled by the Polisario, which is under pressure from the 160,000 – 200,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to renew the conflict. The autonomy plan will solve nothing, and the conflict will still fester. It may even explode into violence as the exiled Sahrawi and the Polisario feel they have nothing to lose, the rest of the world having betrayed the UN’s promise to arrange a referendum on self-determination. Self determination might be compatible with annexation in the tortuous Byzantine arguments of Morocco and it’s supporters, but the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi (as well as many if not most of those living under Moroccan occupation) view it as meaning, well, the right to determine their own future and political status.

Unfortunately, most of the politicians tasked with deciding whether their countries should reward Morocco’s occupation and annexation of this disputed territory seem to be entirely unaware of the political and geographical realities on the ground. They seem to believe that by endorsing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara they will help to solve the problem of Western Sahara’s status. They are wrong. Endorsing an annexation is morally reprehensible. Endorsing a partial annexation is just stupid.

Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

February 27, 2007
The following is extracted and edited from a letter to Charles Clarke, my Member of Parliament. Morocco is being extremely active in promoting its new plan for the the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, and has had a number of “constructive” talks with European politicians in recent weeks. Morocco has been praised for its efforts by a number of individuals and bodies, including political representatives of the EU. It appears that the way is being smoothed for Morocco to implement its own, unilateral “solution” to the problem of Western Sahara.The Moroccan plan involves what Morocco calls “regional autonomy” for the territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco. This plan rejects any future negotiations with the Polisario Independence government regarding the region’s status, and excludes a referendum on independence, counter to the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, and the public position of the government of the United Kingdom, all of which claim to support the right of self-determination of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

Western Sahara is in reality partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone (the majority of the territory) and what the Sahrawi refer to as the “Free Zone”. The latter consists of most of the regions bordering Algeria and Mauritania in the east, and is of significant size. It is in the Free Zone that I and my colleagues conduct our field research, so I can speak on this matter on the basis of first hand experience.

If the international community supports Morocco’s plan to incorporate Western Sahara into a greater Morocco, the status of the Free Zone will be a key issue. Most commentators and politicians seem to be under the impression that Morocco occupies the entire territory of Western Sahara, and that support for its position would simply involve accepting the existing annexation, meaning nothing much would change. I suspect that if the reality of the situation (and the geography of the region) was understood better, there would be more concern about the security implications of the Moroccan approach.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position. Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

None of these scenarios is particularly optimistic, ranging from a festering of the conflict for decades to come to the possibility of actual genocide, with the emergence of new recruits to terrorism a possibility.

We can be certain that in its desire for the Sahrawi to disappear and in its repeated denial of the existence of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan state is on the road to genocide, at least of the cultural variety. Whether this translates into actual extermination remains to be seen and will depend on whether the physical conflict resumes.

While this is on the one hand a question of justice and human rights, it is also an issue of international security. No-one will benefit from renewed war in the Maghreb. The only options for ending this conflict are to allow Morocco effectively to exterminate the Sahrawi people and their culture (the likely consequence of “political realism” on the part of the West), or to exert pressure on Morocco to enter into real and meaningful negotiations on self determination aimed at restoring Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people. The latter has been the preferred approach (at least in principle) of the United Nations and the international community, but efforts to this end have failed because of the lack of pressure on Morocco from UN member states. Indeed, Morocco has used its considerable diplomatic weight to sabotage the peace process since it began in 1991. There is little to be gained by telling the Sahrawi and their political leaders in the Polisario that they should accept an illegal occupation of their land and return to live under the control of an oppressive occupying power which would not welcome them, and which routinely tortures and sometimes murders their kin who live in the occupied territories.

Political pressure from Western governments can make a real difference here, helping to deliver security to a region beset by conflict for decades, and justice to a people who have lived in exile for over thirty years, perhaps even saving them from a possible genocide.