Life is waiting – Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara
The forgotten Sahrawi resistance struggle in Africa’s last colony.
For decades, the Sahrawi have been fighting for political independence from Morocco. Faced with numerous expulsions and countless human rights violations at the hands of the Moroccan occupying power, the Sahrawi have fought for their rights, first militarily, and since the signing of a peace agreement in 1991, through peaceful resistance. The fact that this long-standing conflict over the last colony in Africa is so rarely given attention in the international media was a key motivation to highlight the issue for this fifth evening of 14km’s Film and Discussion Series. With her documentary, “Life is waiting – referendum and resistance in Western Sahara,” Brazilian film maker and political activist, Iara Lee, sheds light on the Sahrawi desert people and their almost forgotten struggle for national self-determination. The film explores over 40 years of history in north-west Africa, and highlights the living conditions of the people of Western Sahara along with their form of non-violent resistance. When Spain, after having ruled the territory as a colonial power, withdrew in 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania rushed in to occupy the resource rich country in violation of international law. A Sahrawi liberation and independence movement – the Polisario Front – soon emerged, calling and taking up arms for an independent “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.” Whereas Mauritania withdrew its troops in 1979, Morocco did not abandon its territorial claims. Moroccan napalm and phosphorous bombs saw tens of thousands of Sahrawi flee into exile in Algeria, where they remain to this day in refugee camps, separated from their homeland by over 2,700km of walls and minefields. Despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement in 1991, the conflict remains far from resolved. UN MINURSO, the international peacekeeping mission established to ensure the ceasefire held and pave the way for a referendum, has largely failed. So far, no referendum has been held. Instead, Moroccan troops have increased daily attacks on the Sahrawi, who have in turn fought back. The film gives a voice to many Sahrawi activists who express their opposition through art and political action. Take the young rapper, Flitoox Crazy, for example, who raps confidently about freedom and peace. Undeterred despite being severely tortured at the hands of the Moroccan police, he continues to fight for the rights of his people. Similarly, the film introduces us to Aminatou Haidar, perhaps the most well known Sahrawi rights activist. After being arrested during a demonstration, Haidar spent over four years in a Moroccan prison, suffering torture. “My children can grow up without parents, but not without dignity,” she says, explaining the struggle for justice and an independent homeland. The film is dedicated to the late Sahrawi singer, Marien Hassan – the “Voice of the Sahara.” For decades, her songs of resistance about everyday life in exile and Sahrawi identity touched close to the hearts of her people. She exemplified the power of art in expressing political resistance and highlighted the strong role Sahrawi women play in the struggle against the occupation of their homeland. The film makes it clear that the Sahrawi are a proud people, brought even closer together by a collective identity based on their common resistance against the occupiers. We witness a vivid description of Sahrawi resistance struggle in the film. The public discussion following the film gave rise to more important questions about the background and nature of the conflict, and the future of Western Sahara. The responsibility of Europe and the international community was a particularly salient topic. Saleh Mustapha is an activist from Western Sahara. Born in Smara refugee camp in Algeria, he is currently living as a student in Berlin. He stressed the fact that the United Nations has failed to fulfil its responsibilities in mediating a resolution to the conflict. For him, UNHCR’s support and WFP’s food assistance to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria should not obscure the fact that the Sahrawi’s fundamental rights continue to be denied. International human rights organisations have been consistently complaining of the Sahrawi’s mistreatment, torture and even death in detention, as well as the ever-present danger of landmines. Reports of arbitrary arrests of Sahrawi activists, and restrictions on freedoms of assembly, speech and movement are also frequent. Saleh Mustapha reminded the audience of the high numbers of missing persons and political prisoners locked up in Moroccan prisons. Without a mandate to monitor human rights violations, the MINURSO peacekeeping mission is impotent and the violations of Moroccan security forces will continue to go unpunished. Berlin artist, Bettina Semmer, who has come to know Western Sahara through multiple visits and art projects, emphasised the role of European economic interests, and in particular, the economic importance to France and Spain of maintaining good relationships with Morocco. The western areas occupied by Morocco are located along the fishing-rich Atlantic coast, and also boast important minerals, especially phosphate. France’s veto power on the UN Security Council was seen as a key reason as to why MINURSO’s mandate was watered down to remain silent on the issue of documenting human rights violations. Parallels with the Israeli occupation of the Palestine and the resistance struggle there are readily apparent. The independence struggle of the Sahrawi, however, has gained far less attention. One Sahrawi audience member explained that the lack of international interest comes from the West’s interest in a stable Morocco and containing the Sahrawi movement to one of non-violent resistance. Frustrated, she lamented: “So long as there are no bombs exploding and no fighting, nobody looks any further.” But she warned that patience among the youth of the occupied territories is wearing thin. Living conditions of the Sahrawi are poor. About 540,000 Sahrawi live in Western Sahara, with between 210,000 and 420,000 in exile (mainly in Morocco and Algeria). Around 60 per cent of the camps’ inhabitants are teenagers and young adults. Saleh Mustapha spoke of the poor conditions in the camps. Of the Sahrawi who study, most do so abroad like him, predominantly in Algeria, Cuba and Spain. Yet, on their return, there are no jobs. Faced with hopelessness and isolation in the camps, the inaction of the international community and the changing political climate in North Africa after the Arab Spring, many are thinking about returning to armed struggle. “The Sahrawi people must decide whether or not to return to war. Without war, another forty years may pass,” declares a Sahrawi activist in the film. Saleh Mustapha, however, warned against a radicalisation of the struggle, pointing to the Middle East and the civil war in Syria as an example of the dangers of armed conflict. There seems to be no obvious solution to the conflict in Africa’s last remaining colony. Uncertainty over the future of this disputed territory on the Atlantic coast has prevailed for years, and the international community appears to accept the Sahrawi’s situation as the price to pay for maintaining political stability and its economic interests in the region. Nonetheless, there are hopeful, optimistic voices. Saleh Mustapha, for example, stressed the importance of international support. “Without international solidarity, our voices cannot be heard throughout the world,” says Saleh. Only with non-violent resistance can the conflict be highlighted to the world’s public. But the question remains, how long can the Sahrawi persevere in their peaceful struggle? We thank our guests, Bettina Semmer and Saleh Mustapha, for sharing their exciting and personal impressions and for contributing to a very interesting event about the situation in Western Sahara. Event coordination and presentation: Silvia Limiñana and Andreas Fricke Coordination of the Film Series: Andreas Fricke Text: Carolin Bannorth Text translation: Alex Odlum Photos: Andreas Fricke and Carolin Bannorth Organisation: The 14km Volunteer Film Crew The 14km Film and Discussion Series 2015 gets sponsorship by budgetary funds of the Federal State of Berlin – Office for Development Cooperation. Further events are scheduled as followed: October 28th / November 18th / Dezember 9th The events are dedicatet to a single country or specific topic, in order to give an artistic-documentary impression . The ensuing audience discussion aims to include further informations by an affected person living in Berlin and by an scientific expert, always aiming to make links to North-South relationships. We express thanks for the support: