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North African Dispatches Camping for freedom

A few weeks ago, hundreds of men, women and children, all inhabitants of the Western Saharan capital, Layoune, walked out of the city and established a camp in the desert. Their act of defiance against Moroccan occupation culminated, a few days ago, in savage repression and violence. Kateb Salim reports.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 0:00 - 5 Comments

Gdeim Izik

By Kateb Salim

The picture above might suggest it, but this is not Darfur. You are, in fact, in Layoune, the capital of the occupied Western Sahara. Over the past few weeks, the town witnessed a return to violence unmatched since the end of the Polisario-Moroccan war in 1991. What follows is a summary of how the events of the past few days unfolded.

First, we have to go back several weeks ago to the days when large sections of the Sahrawi population of Layoune (estimated at 12 000) set up Gdeim Izik, a makeshift camp outside the city itself, as a means of showing the International Community their rejection of the Moroccan occupation.

Although the Moroccan authorities contest this claiming the camp was merely a demonstration against poor living standards, nothing could be further from the truth. Various eyewitness accounts by Spanish journalists have described the unity and determination displayed by entire families, who have chosen to move from the city to its desert outskirts, to show they had enough.

Anyone with any knowledge of Arabic and access to YouTube can witness for themselves powerful scenes from the camp recorded on rudimentary phone cameras. The camp hosted rallies where the mélange of powerful speeches and chanted slogans for independence make for inspirational viewing.

In this respect, the internet has been a powerful tool for the Sahrawis, helping expose realities on the ground to their Diaspora as well as to human rights organizations, and debunking the Moroccan version of events (which Western mainstream media sadly seem to accept at face value).

The camp was quickly surrounded by Moroccan armed forces and scuffles at one checkpoint resulted in the first casualty since the revival of tensions. The death of fourteen-year old Al-Nagem Al- Qarhi, now a martyr of the Sahrawi cause, was a sign of things to come.

On November 8th, Moroccan forces entered the camp and forcefully dismantled the tents, thus forcing the thousands of men, women and children sheltering there to flee. An initial estimate of the human cost is contested by both protagonists, each claiming to have lost many in the operation. The old saying that violence only breeds more violence is applicable here.

Indeed, the violence did spread to the city of Layoune itself where street clashes saw Moroccan police confront Sahrawi militants. The human costs of these events are particularly damaging for the Moroccan kingdom, as they seem to be fuelling a noticeably growing trend of radicalization in the ranks of the Sahrawi youth.

The numbers of those arrested, tortured and disappeared during the dismantling and ensuing events, whether you use the Guardian’s or the Polisario’s figures, are startling: a total of between 100 and 200 activists in a matter of days.

The dismantling of the camp, it must be said, can only be seen as a remarkable strategic blunder by the Moroccan Monarchy in this conflict. For me, several conclusions can be extracted from it which highlight coming transformations in the conflict’s political landscape.

Firstly, the timing of this show of force is not coincidental. If anything, the date set for the camp’s destruction, the very day when talks were meant to begin between representatives of the Polisario and Moroccan officials in Manhasset, New York can only be seen as a calculated attempt to put the Moroccan delegation in a position of strength at the start of negotiations. The Polisario, however, deliberately stayed the course by attending the planned talks thereby isolating Morocco as the only belligerent party.

This isolation has come in the form of condemnations from some of Morocco’s most loyal supporters, who have been unable to hide their embarrassment at the poor handling of the situation. Spain and the United Kingdom have been the most vocal of the European states in calling for an investigation into the repression.

In the immediate aftermath to the violence, protests supporting the Sahrawis spread throughout Europe with Madrid hosting the biggest one ever since the start of the conflict in 1975. Thousands of participants marched alongside international film star Javier Bardem and key figures, from politicians to celebrities (with both government and opposition parties present), to support the Sahrawi cause. In London, France and Italy, sympathizers protested at Moroccan embassies and called for a free Western Sahara.

Additionally, the Gdeim Izik fiasco has finally, as a powerfully symbolic gesture, discredited the undisputed official line that all is well in His Majesty’s “southern provinces”. For decades, Morocco has sought to convince the international community that Sahrawis are happy subjects of the King and that they enjoyed the same rights and economic privileges that Moroccans have, despite overwhelming evidence to the opposite.

Finally, the most noteworthy success in the Camp’s short lived experience is that the attention it has drawn has made the Sahrawi issue a priority for the international community. For instance, it was announced several days ago that the issue would be brought up and discussed at the United Nations Security Council and placed as a high priority on the UN’s to-do list.

Regardless, despite many observers rejoicing at the fact that the conflict is finally getting the attention it desperately needs, many have nonetheless expressed their fear that discussions will yet again fade away, as happened before, into endless discussions by backroom committees, whilst the Sahrawi population continues to face the oppressive arsenal of Mohamed VI.

Kateb Salim writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC.

His column appears every Wednesday.


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Nov 17, 2010 15:36

Great article. Unfortunately, many Moroccans are ignorant about the plight of the Sahrawi – including social justice activists. There seems to be a carefully cultivated blind spot regarding the “Western Sahara question”.

Nov 23, 2010 10:22

I like very much your articles and hope that more people will be informed about the question of western sahara.

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