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The Occupation We Choose to Ignore’

Do you know who I am? I am a Sahrawi. The land to which I refer is what is known today as the non-self-governing territory ofWestern Sahara. My country was colonized by the Spanish and the French between 1884 and 1975, divided in two and occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian forces thereafter, and has been ruled exclusively by the Kingdom of Morocco from 1979 until the present.

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King of Morocco to be biggest benefactor of EU trade agreement - Telegraph

it has emerged that the single biggest beneficiary of the deal will be the King of Morocco, who is head of one of the three largest agricultural producers in the north African country and lays claim to 12,000 hectares of the nation's most fertile farmland.

North African Dispatches Africa’s Forgotten Colony

Oblivion it seems is the current reality for the arid North African territory of Western Sahara; often referred to as Africa’s ‘Last Colony’. In my opinion, it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘Africa’s Forgotten Colony’.

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Oct 29, 2013

Voices from a refugee camp: Should Sahrawis return to war with Morocco?


A man looks over the Dakhla refugee camp. Photos by Larisa Epatko

DAKHLA CAMP, Algeria | For decades, the Western Sahara liberation movement, known as the Polisario Front, has been locked in a struggle for independence from Morocco. It's not a battle of guns but of wills, Polisario officials say.

Read more about life in the refugee camps.

Every four years, a group of 2,000 elected people, including civilians, military members, Sahrawis from the refugee camps and from Western Sahara, and members of the diaspora, meets to vote on the president of the Polisario -- and on whether they should return to war with Morocco.

The vote to return to war generally falls along generational lines: Older Sahrawis, who experienced the fighting in the 1970s and 1980s, tend to want to wait for the diplomatic efforts to run their course, while the younger Sahrawis, some of whom were born after the 1991 U.N. ceasefire agreement, are itching to return to war.

They shared some of their opinions, through translators:

Omar Hassena Ahreyem, 31, director of the youth council at the Boujdour refugee camp:

"We know that no one wishes to go back to war, and we know that life is very precious. But it is like we are already buried alive. I think we have to break this whole cycle. What do we have left to lose? I have a university degree. What about my ambitions?"

Goambara Abdou, 25, a high school teacher in the Smara refugee camp:

"History has shown there are countries that have obtained their independence, like South Sudan. We have hope, and we're ready to relaunch the armed conflict and draw the attention of the world to our cause."

Abba Mohamad Lamin, 29, a hospital worker in the Laayoune refugee camp:

"We might be accused of having violent leanings, but that's not correct. We think that the international community was given more than enough time and we gave them our trust. We blame the Polisario for the failures of the negotiations (with the United Nations in 1991)."

Khadad Emhamed, Polisario diplomat and negotiator to the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, acknowledged the frustration. "As a human being, as a refugee and as a Sahrawi, I accept their comment. I cannot say it is rational or 100 percent right, but I accept their comment."

Emhamed said it would be difficult to return to war, but that Morocco wasn't doing much to win over the Sahrawis in the disputed territory of Western Sahara by clamping down on protests and jailing demonstrators for long terms.

"Morocco has been unable to make it accepting to the population in Western Sahara that they are in good hands."

Tatah Lehbib, 25, a student at the Dakhla refugee camp:

"If the international community and United Nations are serious and genuine about resolving the issue, let's give it a chance. I wouldn't mind."

Western Sahara: Occupied and Exploited - Taking Western Sahara's Resources


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International action is needed if Sahrawis are to benefit from their own minerals, oil and fishing resources.

Laayoune, Western Sahara - Yesterday, a freighter called the Ultra Bellambi docked in Vancouver, on Canada's west coast, carrying a $10 million shipment of phosphate. It will have carried the load all the way from the Western Sahara's Bou Craa mines, where it was extracted by the Moroccan company OCP, before being purchased by the Canadian firm Agrium. Agrium completed a major deal for the phosphate earlier this month, and such exports are set to continue until at least 2020.

"We believe this agreement signifies the start of a significant partnership between Agrium and OCP, offering clear benefits to both parties," president and CEO of Agrium, Mike Watson, said in a statement on the transaction.

Morocco is also set to benefit, with phosphate mining representing around a quarter of the value of the nation's exports.

However, not everyone is happy with the deal. The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement campaigning for independence for Western Sahara, claims the agreement is illegal and that Agrium is helping to prop up Morocco's control of the region.

"The Sahrawi people emphatically do not consent to the development and export of their natural resources from the occupied part of their territory," said representatives. "We do not have the benefit of those resources, the revenues from which go to sustain the occupation."

The occupied desert

The marginalisation of Western Sahara stretches back several decades. It was once a Spanish colony called Spanish Sahara and became the site of one of the United Nation's failed decolonisation plans. Long after its neighbours Morocco and Mauritania gained independence in 1956 and 1960 respectively, the territory remained under colonial administration.

It was only by the 1970s that Spain was finally realising its days of controlling a large slice of the Sahara were numbered. Spain recognised the value of Western Sahara's phosphate resources and the lucrative fishing potential of its long Atlantic coastline, but pressure was building for independence.

In November 1975, Spain convened a meeting of Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Spanish officials in Madrid, which concluded in the Madrid Accords. The agreement saw Western Sahara divided between Morocco and Mauritania, with the former receiving the majority of the land and resources. In exchange, Spain retained some economic interests and the rights to fish the territory's waters.

Spain formally exited Western Sahara in 1976, and internal resistance forced Mauritania out by 1979, but Morocco had no intention of submitting to the Sahrawi independence movement. A 16-year guerrilla war ensued between the Polisario Front, which declared an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and the Moroccan armed forces backed by France and the United States.

By the time a ceasefire was reached in 1991, one million landmines had been laid and Morocco had constructed a 2,700 km separation wall dividing Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where the majority of the resources are, from Polisario territory. The Sahrawi were divided too; most fled to refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria, but some remained in occupied territory.

A UN peacekeeping mission was charged with monitoring the ceasefire and organising a self-determination referendum to be held in 1992. Due to constant Moroccan diplomatic pressure and time-consuming (and mostly invalid) challenges to the voter registration process, that referendum has never happened. Moroccan control of the territory, in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions, persists. Repression remains severe. And resource exploitation continues.

(Not) enforcing international law

The Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as a 'non-self-governing territory', and the Polisario Front has gained formal recognition for the SADR from 82 states around the world. According to international legal institutions, the Sahrawi are entitled to self-determination, and "sovereignty over natural wealth and resources [is] a basic constituent of the right to self-determination."

Yet Moroccan exploration, production, and export of resources from Western Sahara have taken place for decades, as have international oil exploration, phosphate production, and fishing, in violation of this principle.

Hundreds of millions in Western Saharan resources are traded each year with few successful attempts to curb the practice, and Agrium's deal is simply the latest in a long line of agreements made without the Sahrawi's consent. Agrium has defended the deal, saying that it had sought appropriate legal guidance and that the company is committed to improving quality of life in all communities that it does business. But criticism has continued.

"Such activities would be illegal if failing to take into account the wishes and the interests of the Saharawi as the original people of the territory," said Western Sahara Research Watch (WSRW), a group which lobbies against transactions between companies and governments that make use of Western Saharan resources. The organisation estimates almost $300 million in phosphate has been exported from Western Sahara in 44 shiploads so far this year.

WSRW also campaigns against Moroccan, European, and Russian exploitation of Western Sahara's lucrative fishing industry. UN reports suggest the combined value of Moroccan and Western Saharan fishing rights comes to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

WSRW claims Morocco's occupation is subsidised to support the industry at the expense of the Sahrawi, and that agreements such as the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement and similar arrangements with Russia are illegal. The EU partnership has granted licenses to European companies (a majority Spanish) for Western Saharan waters, providing a modern expression of the fishing rights Spanish planners incorporated into the Madrid Accords. The accord was not renewed in December 2011 partly due to a dispute over Western Saharan waters, and a new protocol was put forwards in summer 2013 which the EU claims is in accordance with international law, but WSRW insists it still fails to exclude the waters of the Western Sahara.

Ending resource exploitation

Some efforts at ending the trade of Western Saharan resources without Sahrawi have been successful. On 30 September, for example, four of Sweden's state pension funds decided to sell their stakes in Incitec Pivot and Potash Corp due to the companies' continued import of Western Saharan phosphate.

"Both companies [are] purchasers of phosphate from a Moroccan supplier that mines its product in Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is on the United Nations' list of non-self-governing territories that should be decolonised," said the fund.

The move followed a similar decision by Norwegian state pension funds in 2010.

However, for the most part, there remain real difficulties in persuading companies not to engage in the trade of conflict resources. Despite questions of the legality of doing so, many companies continue to buy phosphates, conduct oil exploration, and engage in the fishing trade. According to Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group which works with Polisario, this is likely go on so long as international law is not enforced and policy is expressed vaguely at national level.

"Responsible governments need to provide legal clarity by providing guidelines to all private companies that any exploration or exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources must respect international law," a representative told Think Africa Press. "In failing to provide this clarity, governments will indirectly be allowing companies to violate the sovereign rights of Western Sahara's people to control their own resources."

Indeed, Agrium seems to be well aware of Western Sahara's non-self governing status. In its company reports, it classifies Western Sahara separately from Morocco - and not only nationally but also by region, listing Western Sahara as part of sub-Saharan Africa and Morocco as part of North Africa. Yet there does not seem to be the pressure or awareness to stop Agrium trading in exploited resources.

When it comes to the Western Sahara's minerals, oil, and fishing resources, ethical concerns clearly compete with the need for profit. And without enforcement of international law, through the policies of the European Union and major advanced economies, evidence suggests there is little chance of fully curtailing the trade.

Tom Stevenson is a reporter primarily focused on North Africa. He was previously employed by the Financial Times, and works with a variety of media outlets from Al Jazeera and Financial Times: ThisIsAfrica, to Le Monde Diplomatique and the New Statesman. Follow him on Twitter @TomStevenson_

Western Sahara
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Read the original of this report on the ThinkAfricaPress site.

The 37-year-old refugee situation you know nothing about

By Larisa Epatko

Sahrawis, a group of different tribes from the western part of the African Sahara desert, set up refugee camps in western Algeria in the mid-1970s. There, they have established schools, hospitals, even a government as they wait for a diplomatic solution to their conflict. But patience is running out among some. Photos by Larisa Epatko

POLISARIO CAMPS, Algeria -- Rabab Deid has lived most of her life in an isolated camp in the windy, moonscape desert of western Algeria, alongside 150,000 other refugees.

The 43-year-old teacher is involved in one of the least-known, longest-running conflicts involving refugees, part of a decades-long dispute over a Colorado-sized strip of land in northern Africa called Western Sahara. On one side are the Sahrawi refugees led by a group known as the Polisario Front. On the other, the Moroccan government, which annexed Western Sahara after Spain's colonial forces withdrew in 1976.

In the decades since, five Sahrawi refugee camps have sprouted up in Western Algeria's barren Tindouf province. With their mud-brick and concrete buildings, and nomadic tents known as khaimas, they look more like towns. Pens hold goats and camels for meat and skins. Water is pumped from the ground.

Deid vividly remembers arriving in the region at age 9, after a harrowing journey across the desert, having fled the violence between Moroccans and Sahrawis in the mid-1970s. She was separated from her mother and sisters when they encountered Moroccan forces. The others were turned back, but she managed to slip away to Algeria with her grandmother.

"I felt like I lost everything," she said recently through a translator. "My mother was gone. My father was killed in the fighting. Later, my grandmother passed away, and I was all alone."

But Deid carried on. She studied and became a teacher of primary school and then of secondary school. She married, had four children, and later divorced. She now lives with her three daughters and son in the newest camp, Boujdour. And even after 37 years, she still clings to the hope that she'll one day return to her homeland.

"That was my strength -- to see that future generations do not have to live like me," she said.

Rabab Deid is one of many Sahrawi women in the camps who took on leadership roles while men were fighting in Western Sahara in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, the women have retained their independent way of life.

Deid tells her students about the life she remembers as a child. "We had the sea and beaches and many different places," she tells them, adding, "'This is not our homeland. You must do whatever it takes to go there."

During the fighting, both Moroccan and Polisario forces committed abuses, such as torturing opponents and jailing dissenters without trials, according to Human Rights Watch. (Read HRW's 2008 report on the Polisario camps.)

The armed conflict ended in 1991 with a U.N.-brokered ceasefire. The agreement also directed a referendum in a few months' time, under which Sahrawis would vote either for independence or to integrate with Morocco, but 22 years later that vote has yet to take place.

As more Moroccans move into Western Sahara, the referendum has stalled over issues such as who would be allowed to vote. (Read more about thelong-standing conflict between Western Sahara and Morocco.)

Deid's resolve to remain in the camps until Western Sahara's "liberation" is shared by many other refugees. Even though Morocco considers Western Sahara historically part of its own country, it allows locally elected governments, for which Sahrawis can run for seats, and pours money into developing the area's infrastructure and resources.

Until the Sahrawis in the Algerian refugee camps return to their homeland of Western Sahara, a U.N.-sponsored program flies family members back and forth for temporary visits. Deid has seen her mother twice this way since their separation, in 2001 and 2010. Being with her was overwhelming, she said.

"We felt the same way -- as if they had killed a part of us," she said.

Life in the refugee camps

Click on map for a larger version.

The refugee camps, each named after a city in Western Sahara, have schools, hospitals and administrative offices. The Polisario Front runs the camps, serving as their government and security.

The temperature swings as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and drops to freezing during winter nights. It doesn't rain often, but when it does -- mostly in August, the rain falls in torrents for a week straight, causing homes to erode if not reinforced by concrete blocks.

The refugees are dependent on international assistance for food, which is supplied mainly by the World Food Program and distributed by the Sahrawi Red Crescent. Tons of wheat flour, rice, vegetable oil, lentils and sometimes fresh produce, such as onions, tomatoes and bananas from Ecuador, are trucked into the camps and distributed monthly to families.

About 158,000 refugees in the camps receive food assistance, said Buhobeini Yahia, president of the Sahrawi Red Crescent. Some don't qualify, including the military, police and other workers earning a salary. Most working Sahrawi refugees don't get salaries, but rather a small monthly stipend from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to work in the hospitals and schools.

The main health problems in the camps are malnutrition and the blood disorder anemia, a lack of red blood cells likely caused by a lack of iron-rich foods.

Discarded truck containers ring the food storage site. Buhobeini Yahia, president of the Sahrawi Red Crescent, came to the camps from Western Sahara at age 10.

The determination of the refugees to stay in Algeria until Western Sahara becomes independent is one of the ways this cluster of camps is different than other refugee camps -- and more challenging, Yahia said. Instead of looking to integrate into the host country, the refugees want to stand their ground. What's resulted is an isolated desert community at the mercy of international aid.

The camps could use about $130 million per year in aid, but this year received less than $70 million, Yahia said.

"That makes the situation very difficult because we can't satisfy the needs of the population here," he said. Absent a humanitarian solution, he added, the refugees need a political one.

But a political solution has been tough to come by so far. Most Sahrawis want full implementation of the U.N. ceasefire agreement, which included the referendum for self-determination that never happened.

Younger Sahrawis in particular are getting more and more impatient and are pressuring their elders to return to war with Morocco.

Polisario President Mohamed Abdelaziz -- who has constitutional power to declare a return to the conflict with Morocco -- said the pressure is becoming fierce and "almost unbearable." But for 40 years, he said, the Polisario has invested in the Sahrawi people, their education and wellness, and until now they have been able to wait and understand that they need to stick together.

"But until when?" he asks. "I don't believe it can be an eternity. Patience has its limits."

New security threats

A man wrapped in a Sahrawi flag walks toward a Polisario checkpoint on the road between the camps.

Meanwhile, the Polisario is now confronted by another growing threat -- extremist groups.

In North Africa, militant Islamist groups have carried out a number of attacks, including the siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, and the January 2013 hostage-taking at the gas plant in Tiguentourine, Algeria.

The threat hit even closer to home in October 2011, when suspected Islamist militants abducted two Spaniards and an Italian aid worker in Rabouni, the government center of the Algerian refugee camps. The aid workers were released nine months later in Mali and the suspected kidnappers are in custody.

The kidnapping took the Polisario by surprise and forced it to face a new threat: terrorism, said Brahim Mohamed Mahmud, secretary of state for security. His position was created after the incident to assist the minister of defense.

The Polisario itself is a target of extremist groups, because of its vastly different views of religion and democracy, Polisario President Mohamed Abdelaziz said from his compound in Rabouni. Most of the Sahrawi refugees are Muslim, but they can practice any faith.

The extremists "don't consider us a Muslim movement," Abdelaziz told a group of visiting reporters earlier this month. "They will not forgive us for being a democratic movement. They will not forgive us for having equality for men and women."

Since the kidnapping, Polisario security forces are more visible when foreigners are visiting, and vehicles of armed guards accompany convoys driving between the camps.

The Polisario shares intelligence with Algeria, Mahmud said, adding: "Our dream is to become a state and have security cooperation" with other countries as well.

What's next?

The region is drawing more attention these days because of the activity of extremist groups, but the Sahrawis themselves get little notice because there's not much spillover outside of Western Sahara and it's not an area with abundant natural resources, said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle Eastern and North African Division.

"The implications for the United States are less important than the implications of Iran, Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Persian Gulf countries," he said.

The Sahrawi refugees are doing OK now because of international handouts, said Goldstein. "But if the international community reduced the rations, there would be panic there."

Workers tend to a water main under a mural of a Sahrawi man squinting at the sun. Some of the refugees said the painting represents their painful struggle.

Significant developments in the Sahrawi situation don't come about that often. U.N. envoy to Western Sahara Christopher Ross, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Syria, continues to meet with the parties separately. A decolonization committee is discussing the case in the United Nations. The U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, orMINURSO, has offices in Western Sahara and Tindouf, Algeria, and is helping keep the peace.

Most Polisario officials say they will continue to wait for a diplomatic solution, though they are quick to add that it would be within their right to return to an armed conflict with Morocco to try to bring independence to Western Sahara.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure a solution is found through peaceful means," said Abdelaziz, the Polisario president. "But if the United Nations and all the other efforts fail to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, the only other option for us is to go back to the armed struggle, which is our legitimate right. We hope it doesn't come to that."

In the meantime, the Sahrawis in the camps keep waiting.

The refugees continued the tradition of making strong, frothy Sahrawi tea.

"It seems to be very difficult (to outsiders), but we get used to it," said Bayn Abdeti, a 38-year-old mother of three. She spends her time taking care of her children and husband, who works as one of the camp's administrators. "With time, if you do something on a daily basis for years, you get used to it."