I am sad to have deserted this blog in recent months. Lately, all of my writing energy has been expended in my PhD thesis, leaving little left over to dedicate to other projects. Nevertheless, I hope here to combine my PhD research with feminism, albeit feminist nationalism (although I am, for this post, temporarily abandoning my sarcasm).
My PhD focuses on the resistance of Saharawi women (and how feminism can further the mobilisation of mass resistance to dictatorships), who (along with Saharawi men) resist the occupation of their country, Western Sahara, and campaign for independence, at great personal risk.
Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony. Since 1975, when the colonial power Spain effectively sold off its former colony to the highest bidder, the majority of the North African territory has been occupied by neighbouring Morocco in flagrant violation of international law. The latter nation claims that before being colonized in the late nineteenth century by the Spanish, Western Sahara was part of a Greater Morocco (which also includes, according to Morocco, parts of Mauretania, Algeria and Mali). Nevertheless, the International Court of Justice has rejected such claims and called for the territory’s decolonization and a self-determination referendum for the people of the territory: the Saharawis. Hundreds of UN Resolutions back this view, and, since 1991, when it brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the POLISARIO (the Saharawi guerrilla front and now government of the Saharawi state-in-exile) the UN has attempted to oversee a self-determination referendum for the Saharawi people. But Morocco won’t let this referendum take place, and the UN, restrained by Morocco’s powerful allies (US and France), is unwilling to impose sanctions.
While the diplomatic stalemate continues, the Saharawi people suffer. Since escaping the Moroccan bombs of napalm and white phosphorus in 1975, up to 165,000 Saharawi refugees have lived in camps of tents and adobe constructions in the driest corner of the Algerian Sahara. These camps also form the headquarters of the POLISARIO Front, the representatives of the Saharawi people vis-à-vis UN negotiations. Meanwhile, on the other side of a military wall built by Morocco during its war with the POLISARIO, a Saharawi minority lives amongst Moroccan settlers under a violent occupation. Here, repression of pro-independence Saharawis is brutal. Indeed, Freedom House has listed the territory as amongst “the worst of the worst” in terms of political rights and civil liberties, whilst Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN have all noted the use of sexual violence, torture, beatings and arbitrary imprisonment of those that fight peacefully for Saharawi rights. Nevertheless, every April, thanks to the power of veto wielded by Morocco’s close ally, France, the UN votes against the inclusion of human rights monitoring in the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission (called MINURSO) stationed in Western Sahara’s capital, El Aaiún. As such, MINURSO is the only peacekeeping mission in the world not to monitor human rights. Its staff are paid to do literally nothing, even when Saharawis are beaten in plain view in the square in front of the UN building. I’m not sure how they sleep at night.
Saharawi women who you might have read about in the British press
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Aminatou Haidar is the unofficial leader of the Saharawi non-violent resistance movement. She was first disappeared, along with hundreds of other Saharawis, in 1987. She spent four years blindfolded in a cell, subject to the usual kinds of Moroccan torture (these include the release of savage dogs into prisoners’ cells, electrocution, rape – which is used on Saharawi men as well as women – being tied up and suspended from poles for beatings, throwing acid in faces, insertion of bleach-soaked cloths into mouths etc.). She was disappeared for a second time in 2005 for seven months. In 2009 she attracted international media attention when she initiated a hunger strike in Lanzarote airport.
Mariam Hassan was born in Western Sahara, but fled to the refugee camps in Algeria during the Moroccan invasion. She worked there as a nurse before becoming a revolutionary singer. Her latest album, El Aaiun on Fire, is dedicated to the non-violent uprisings of Saharawis in Western Sahara’s capital. Here she is giving grief to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their complicity in Morocco’s destruction of a 18,000-strong Saharawi protest camp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRAVVRViDhg
Aziza is a musician born in the refugee camps of Algeria. She spent most of her formative years in Cuba, after winning a scholarship to study there. Her music lyrics are often inspired by the work of her grandmother, Al Khadra, who is one of the great Saharawi revolutionary poets. Aziza recently appeared on Jools Holland.
There is one main reason why Morocco continues to occupy Western Sahara: money.
Western Sahara is the biggest source of phosphates (needed in agricultural fertilizers) in the world. It has incredibly rich fisheries, huge greenhouses for fruit and vegetables, is a kite-surfing hotspot for unscrupulous tourists and a source of solar and wind energy (thanks SIEMENS). Of course, it’s illegal for Morocco to be taking advantage of these resources. Doing so constitutes the war crime of plunder. But no one stops it. Corporations and governments that buy these resources are also committing plunder, but they do so anyway. If these governments and corporations stopped buying stolen resources from Morocco, Morocco would be much more likely to negotiate an end to the conflict and the Saharawis’ misery. Nevertheless, it’s almost too late to stop them. In October, even though the UN has expressedly declared this illegal, two foreign oil companies – American Kosmos and UK Cairn – will drill for oil. If they strike lucky, the result will be so unbelievably lucrative for Morocco that it might never give up its occupation.
Saharawis who protest against these corporations and governments are punished violently for doing so. My friend Shaykh has been imprisoned and tortured several times and his sister was beaten in the street for protesting against Kosmos. Sultana Khaya, the founder of a Saharawi NGO for protection of the Sahara’s natural resources, had her eye removed and is currently in a specialist hospital in Barcelona following significant injuries to her stomach inflicted during a torture session. Sidahmed Lemjayed, my organisation’s (Western Sahara Resource Watch) key contact, has been imprisoned for life in relation to his work against the likes of Cairn and Kosmos. Sidi Mohamed Aloat, a disabled headmaster of a special school, was sliced with razor blades whilst protesting in the street against Kosmos.
Western Sahara Resource Watch works with Saharawis like Shaykh, Sultana, Sidahmed and Sidi to fight the corporations that fund the Moroccan occupation. We have had significant successes: over the last decade with regards to oil companies alone, we have forced the divestment of Total, TGS-Nopes, Fugro, Wessex Exploration, Thor offshore, Kerr McGee and Pioneer Natural Resources. With your help, we hope to do the same with Cairn and Kosmos.
I have been volunteering with Saharawi solidarity organisations for about seven years now and I am currently Treasurer of Western Sahara Resource Watch. We campaign against organisations that plunder Western Sahara and show complicity in human rights violations against the Saharawi people. Since our work is political, we can’t register as a charity. This severely limits the funding pots that we are eligible to apply for. Hence, public donations are all the more important.
You can donate safely and easily on the Western Sahara Resource Watch webpage and pay through the PayPal mechanism: donate here.
Friends, I appreciate your right to not give money to a cause that may not be your first choice. I understand that you may not be financially able to donate for everyone, or indeed, anyone, who asks, that you may give quietly and anonymously to your own chosen causes, that you may spend a significant amount of your free time working voluntarily for other causes, or indeed that you may find the whole guilt-trip innuendo and self-promotion of this blogpost (and other “please sponsor me” messages from people doing various activities for charities) plain annoying. In any case, thank you for taking the time to read this.
Perhaps you might consider boycotting plundered products (in the UK, the Co-op is the only major supermarket chain that now – post a campaign by Western Sahara Campaign UK [WSC] – refuses to sell stolen Saharawi goods. In other supermarkets, look out for tinned fish and tomatoes labelled as “Morocco” – they aren’t Moroccan, they are Saharawi, and WSC is currently working on forcing a change in how these are labelled) or writing to the likes of Cairn Energy and SIEMENS to remind them that plunder is a war crime. You could also raise this issue with your MP, and ask them to consider joining the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Western Sahara. Or find out more about what is happening in Western Sahara, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, as it is hard for journalists (and activists – last time I tried, I was deported within one hour) to enter the territory and therefore it is never in the media. I recommend the documentary “El Problema,” subtitled in English. You can see the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVVViujjRaA