Three quarters of Western Sahara have been occupied by Morocco since 1975. In blatant denial of international law, Morocco administers the territory and sells of its natural resources as its own. Meanwhile, the people of Western Sahara, the Saharawi people, are forced to live under the yoke of a brutal occupation, subjected to grave human rights violations in a climate of impunity. Around 160.000 of their relatives who fled during the war with Morocco, are today still living in refugee camps in the most inhospitable parts of the Algerian desert.
Saharawis have become a marginalised minority in their own country. Social and economic discrimination favouring a now majority of Moroccan settlers has relegated the Saharawi to the fringes of society in their own land under occupation.
In October 2010, groups of Saharawi citizens started pitching their tents in the desert a couple of miles outside of Western Sahara’s capital city El Aaiun, in a place called Gdeim Izik. Choosing to live as exiles in their own occupied homeland, their message was clear: no more. What started with a few tents, quickly turned into a mass protest camp, harbouring thousands of Saharawi coming from all over Western Sahara. This was their cry for help to the world, demanding respect for their most basic human, social and economic rights.
It wasn’t long before the Moroccan authorities started surveillancing the area. Since October 12, armed trucks, helicopters and army vehicles had been circulating the camp area, and constructing roadblocks and checkpoints around the camp. Footage of the surveillance and roadblocks is available here and here.
While the Moroccan military increasingly clamped down on the camp, the humanitarian situation of the Saharawi protesters grew ever more troubling. Several violent interventions by the Moroccan security forces had already been reported, when on 24 October the Moroccan army opened fire on a vehicle trying to enter the camp site with food supplies. The 14-year old Saharawi boy Nayem Elgarhi died on the spot. The boy is said to have been buried in secret by the Moroccan authorities, who did not allow the boy's family to see the body or to be present at the burial. The family still demands that the officers who shot Nayem be tried.
In spite of these occasional violent clashes, the protesters remained in dialogue with the Moroccan authorities. On 26 October, both parties agreed to hold a census of the protesters as a starting point. On 6 November, tents were put up near the camp with the purpose of commencing the census the following Monday, 8 November.
But the Moroccan authorities did not keep their promise. On 8 November, around 6:30 am, the Moroccan military attacked the Gdeim Izik camp and burned it to the ground. Camp residents reported the use of rubber bullets, real bullets, hot-water cannons, tear-gas, truncheons and stones. As panic took over, clashes between the army and the protesters ensued, leading to casualties and injuries on both sides. An exact figure on the number of victims does not exist, as independent observers were not allowed to access the area.
While the siege forced protesters to leave the camp-site, street riots broke out in several cities of Western Sahara. Demonstrators aimed their rage against symbols of the Moroccan occupation and the continuous plunder of Western Sahara, such as public buildings, banks and trucks transporting fish. Saharawis started barricading streets with concrete bricks, stones and rubber wheels which had been set on fire. Clashes with the Moroccan security forces and settlers erupted. Footage from El Aaiun can be viewed here, here and here.
In the days following the violent dismantlement, Morocco did not allow media, foreign observers or even the UN peace force for Western Sahara, MINURSO, to come near the camp site. In the weeks leading up to the 8 November break-down, Morocco has already refused foreign politicians, NGOs and media access to the camp, creating a full information black-out.
During and after the violence on 8 November 2010, Moroccan security officials proceeded to arrest hundreds of Saharawi in connection with the events. Many of those were held for much longer than 48 hours - the maximum amount of time someone can be held without being charged, according to Moroccan penal code. They would be be provisionally released over time, often after having spent months in jail without any official charges against them. A group of 25 men remained in jail however, and were transferred to Rabat for investigation by a military court.
Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
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