While the rest of the Arab world has been speaking out against unjust dictators the past few years, the Occupied Saharawi people of Western Sahara continue to suffer in silence due to the iron fist of the Moroccan government.
But no matter how tenaciously the authorities portray Morocco as an ideal vacation spot, just south of the Bedouin towns and tourist beaches you will find the troubled occupied territories of Western Sahara. The highly underreported conflict is still ongoing and the UN released a special report about the human rights abuses done by the Moroccan government towards the indigenous people. I went there during Christmas some years ago, eager to figure out more about the occupation.
Morocco annexed most of Western Sahara in 1975, when Spanish occupiers retreated during Franco’s last years. The Sahrawis fought the Moroccans until a truce was negotiated by the UN in 1991 under the conditions that a referendum would be held in which the Sahrawi people would be offered independence. That referendum never happened.
Human rights activists has been tortured and jailed without trial. Youngsters are frequently beaten up and arrested after demonstrations. Journalists and photographers have been refused entry or kicked out after arrival.
The Sahrawis still pray for fulfillment of their legitimate right to self-determination. While on a political level Marocco seems termined to empty Western Sahara for its resources, underlining that Western Sahra is Africas last colony, while France and the US normally veto against the Saharawi cause due to their political ties to Morocco.
How I got there:
I found a cheap flight down to Marakech and took a bus from there down to Agadir then further on to El Aaiun, The capital of Western Sahara.
The trip itself was pretty easy. But I had talked to human rights activists in Norway who told me I would definitely be registered with the authorities on my way down there. Photographers and journalists have been kicked out of Morocco for digging into the Western Sahara issue before, and I hadn’t even gotten there. On the bus from Morocco to Western Sahara the police stopped us and I covered my head with my jacket hood so they wouldn’t notice me, a foreigner. With the help of a woman sitting next to me, I arrived in El Laune later that night, a few days after Christmas.
I found a hotel and to my disappointment I had to register my name. The authorities would know where I was staying. The whole idea of being under surveillance really bothered me because I knew the human rights activists I was going to meet could get in trouble for seeing me.
Brahim has been an activist for years and was not scared anymore. After 4 years in prison without knowing why he had been locked up — two of which he spent blindfolded — talking to a western photographer wouldn’t change anything.
He insisted on meeting me at his place, especially if I was going to take pictures. Brahims face was hardened by years in jail. For months he was beaten and tortured, staying in jail cells so full of people there was not enough floorspace for everyone. He was blindfolded had no news about his family and was moved around from prison to prison. Why do the Americans veto against the Saharawis when they are being treated like this? But then again the US have themselves outsourced their torture to Morocco before, so wanting any help from there might be a bit too far out.
As they do in Western Sahara, like 7 times a day, we had tea. The Sahrawi’s have perfected the art of drinking tea. Afterwards we go to the rooftop so he can have a cigarette and tell me more stories.
Meeting up with the activists in Western Sahara was pretty hectic. They changed their phone numbers all the time and were constantly aware of being watched. Most of the young Sahrawis I meet had scars from being beaten by the police. And some of them had gotten their lives ruined.
The Saharawis are under constant surveillance in their own country and one of the guys I met told me that the police had seen his sister in a ‘Free Western Sahara’ demonstration in a foreign country. They had told her father she had to stop doing that or he would end up in jail. The same guy found a little shoe box from a secret spot in his house and showed me a picture of the Sahrawi President. well hidden to avoid problems with the authorities.
During my first days in the occupied terretories, I had no idea if I were under surveillance or not. But paranoia sure kicks in when that’s the norm. Later on the bus to Smara I was registered at the checkpoint. Straight after that I jumped into a taxi, walked a few streets, and jumped into another taxi before I was taken to a Saharawi contact. Tired of being scared of being followed, I did the smartest thing which seemed to be what the Saharawis love so much: go to the desert! There I hung out with the Saharawis, drunk ridiculous amounts of tea and stayed with some semi nomad sheep farmers for a few days. The mixture of listening to old Saharawi tales and the Sahrawi radio broadcasted from the Canary Islands while sleeping in tents made me remember my grandfather telling about how they listened to illegal radio from England while the Germans occupied Norway. Fortunately the desert was safe.
Once back in Smara I checked into the fashionable Hotel Paris and went for a little walk to check out the town. Suddenly I started recognizing the same faces over and over again. At least two or three of them. I tried to walk a bit faster and change streets, hiding my Camera under my jacket as best I could. I walked through a favela looking camp for Moroccan settlers who have ended up in Western Sahara because of the initiatives the Moroccan King has given them to settle the occupied country.
Having strange guys who seem to be following me has happened before, but at this point I freaked out. In lack of possibilities I started walking straight towards one of them. I nodded firmly to let him know I had blown his cover. Not much happened so I passed him and walked towards the hotel with my adrenalin pumping and wondering if he was a undercover agent or just a goofy dude who liked me. My stupid question was going to be answered bluntly when I found the Police waiting for me outside my hotel room.
They wanted to know where I had been and who I had seen. The good cop was speaking English and had western clothes on. He reassured me they where just questioning me for my own safety. What a relief I thought, in a country where everyone I had met had scars from the Police.
As a foreigner I would hopefully just be kicked out of the country if they decided I had done something wrong. Careful not to mention any names I told them I had been in the desert because I was interested in camping and stuff. The bad cop didn’t buy it and started getting more aggressive in Arabic, which already sounds like an aggressive language. He mentioned the name of one of the human rights activists I had talked to on the phone a few days earlier. When I got to my hotel room I realized I had written his phone number on my notepad (Rookie Mistake), and that must have been why they were asking me about him.
After a month in the occupied Western Sahara my nerves had been tested enough and I was on my way out of there. My Sahrawi friends stayed behind and continue to be surpressed by the Moroccan occupiers, while discussing ways of crossing over to the Canary Islands illegally. Truly shocked by what I experienced, I wish all of them the best of luck. Not many people need it more than they do!
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