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Ceasefire Ends in Occupied Western Sahara After U.S.-Backed Moroccan Military Launches Operation

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A nearly three-decade-old ceasefire has ended in occupied Western Sahara — what many consider to be Africa’s last colony. Fighting has broken out in several areas between the Moroccan military and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement seeking independence, after the Moroccan military broke into a no-go buffer zone in southern Western Sahara. For the past three weeks, Sahrawi civilian protesters had blocked a Morocco-built road in the area that Sahrawis consider to be illegal. The peaceful blockade backed up traffic for miles and cut off trade between Morocco and Mauritania to the south. The Polisario Front says it is now mobilizing thousands of volunteers to join for the fight for independence. “We have not seen fighting like this in Western Sahara since 1991,” says Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University. “We’ve seen tensions on the rise, but to have open warfare like this is very significant.”

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StoryJan 01, 2019Four Days in Occupied Western Sahara—A Rare Look Inside Africa’s Last Colony
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A nearly three-decade-old ceasefire has ended in occupied Western Sahara. Morocco has occupied the territory since 1975 in defiance of the United Nations and the international community. Western Sahara is widely considered to be Africa’s last colony. Over the weekend, fighting broke out in several areas between the Moroccan military and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement seeking independence. Meanwhile, Morocco has intensified its repression in occupied Western Sahara, raiding the homes of independence activists, cracking down on protests. Moroccan military drones were reportedly spotted in the city of Dakhla.

The ceasefire ended Friday after the Moroccan military broke into a no-go buffer zone in southern Western Sahara and exchanged fire with the Polisario Front. For the past three weeks, Sahrawi civilian protesters had blocked a Morocco-built road in the area that Sahrawis consider to be illegal. The peaceful blockade backed up traffic for miles and cut off trade between Morocco and Mauritania to the south. The Moroccan military entered the buffer zone on Friday morning to disperse the civilians, who were evacuated to safety by the Polisario Front. Morocco took military action just hours after U.S. Major General Andrew Rohling met in Morocco with the commander of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces Southern Zone, which includes occupied Western Sahara. At the United Nations, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned against further violations of the ceasefire.

STÉPHANE DUJARRIC: The secretary-general remains committed to doing his utmost to avoid the collapse of the ceasefire that has been in place since 6 September, 1991. And he is determined to do everything possible to remove all obstacles to the resumption of the political process.

AMY GOODMAN: The Polisario Front says hundreds of Sahrawi volunteers have signed up and left for the front over the weekend from Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. Sidi Omar, the Polisario Front’s representative to the United Nations, said, quote, “For us, it is an open war,” unquote. In the streets of Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, Sahrawi protesters took to the streets in a nighttime demonstration for independence.

PROTESTERS: [chanting]

AMY GOODMAN: Sahrawis also demonstrated over the weekend in other cities, including occupied Dakhla.

PROTESTERS: [chanting]

AMY GOODMAN: Protests in solidarity with Sahrawi independence also occurred over the weekend in Spain and in New Zealand, where activists with Extinction Rebellion and other groups protested at a fertilizer company which buys phosphate from occupied Western Sahara.

In a moment, we’ll speak to professor Jacob Mundy at Colgate University about the end of the ceasefire, but first let’s take a look at the roots of the crisis. In 2016, Democracy Now! broke the media blockade imposed by Morocco and reported from inside occupied Western Sahara. We were the first international news team to report from the occupied territory in years. This is an excerpt from our documentary, Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.

AMY GOODMAN: Western Sahara, where peaceful protesters, led by women, are beaten in the streets. Thousands have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the Moroccan occupation.

SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] He jabbed right at my eye with his baton. I was yelling at him, “Hey, you Moroccan! You pulled out my eye!”

AMY GOODMAN: Where natural resources are plundered, from phosphates to fish.

HMAD HAMMAD: [translated] I say that our damnation comes from the natural resources we have here. If it wasn’t for these natural resources, Morocco never would have invaded Western Sahara.

AMY GOODMAN: Where a massive wall divides a people, the Sahrawi, the native population, denied a vote for self-determination.

ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] If we don’t speak out, especially us, as victims who have suffered all of this, if we don’t speak out and defend our cause, this problem will remain.

AMY GOODMAN: Western Sahara — the center of a four-decades-long struggle for independence from Morocco, its neighbor to the north. Morocco has occupied the territory since 1975 in defiance of the United Nations and the international community.

The story of Western Sahara is one of colonialism, plunder and resistance. It’s also a story rarely told in the international media.

And it’s here in Western Sahara where the scholar Noam Chomsky says the Arab Spring first began in late 2010, before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The Moroccan forces came in, destroyed tent cities, a lot of killed and wounded and so on. And then it spread.

AMY GOODMAN: But the struggle in Western Sahara dates back much longer. For nearly a century, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain. But the Spanish occupation ended in 1975, setting off a regional fight. On October 31st, 1975, both Morocco from the north and Mauritania from the south invaded Western Sahara as Spain withdrew.

Days after Moroccan troops invaded, King Hassan II ordered hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens to enter Western Sahara in what became known as the Green March. Mauritania would withdraw less than four years later, but Morocco has remained to this day.

Just days after the Moroccan invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately told President Gerald Ford he hoped for a, quote, “rigged UN vote” at the Security Council to confirm Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara.

About half of the Sahrawi population fled the invasion to neighboring Algeria, where they settled in refugee camps in the middle of the desert. The Moroccan invasion set off a 16-year-long war with the Sahrawi liberation movement known as the Polisario Front. Morocco’s army, with the help of U.S. military aid, drove the Polisario to Western Sahara’s Eastern Desert. Morocco then created the world’s longest minefield and built the second-longest wall on Earth, with the help of U.S. weapons companies Northrop and Westinghouse.

The nearly 1,700-mile wall divides Sahrawis who remain under occupation from those who fled into exile.

The Moroccan government began decades of torture, disappearances, killings and repression against pro-independence Sahrawis living in the occupied territory.

In 1991, the U.N. sponsored a ceasefire and promised Sahrawis a referendum on self-determination, organized by its peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO. Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize the vote, and the U.N. Security Council has refused to implement its own referendum plan or allow MINURSO to monitor the human rights situation in the territory.

Today, no country recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, one of the most inaccessible places in the world. And the international media has largely ignored the occupation, in part because Morocco has routinely blocked journalists from entering Western Sahara.

But in late 2016, Democracy Now! successfully broke the news blockade. We were in Marrakech, Morocco, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. With U.N. credentials and U.S. passports, we decided to take a chance and attempt to do what no foreign television crew has done in years: report from Africa’s last colony.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Democracy Now!'s documentary, _Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa's Last Colony_. Special thanks to Mike Burke, John Hamilton, Denis Moynihan and Laura Gottesdiener. You can watch the full documentary at democracynow.org.

On Friday, a nearly three-decade-old ceasefire has ended in occupied Western Sahara after Morocco launched a military operation.

We’re now joined by Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University. He co-authored the book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

Professor Mundy, it’s great to have you on Democracy Now! We just went deep dive into the history of what’s happening in Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, because so few people understand what’s happening there. But this critical moment that took place last week when Morocco violated the no buffer zone, explain the significance of breaking this 29-year ceasefire.

JACOB MUNDY: Yeah, we haven’t seen fighting like this in Western Sahara since 1991. There have been periods where, due to increasing tensions and the lack of progress toward self-determination, we’ve seen tensions on the rise, but to have open warfare like this is very significant.

The civilians that were blockading the road, being really the only paved road that connects West Africa to Europe, was a significant tactical victory by Polisario, and clearly it aggravated Morocco enough that they launched a military incursion. And Morocco has said explicitly that this was a military operation. So, what we have is Moroccan forces crossing into a restricted area that’s technically under Polisario sovereignty, so this is a clear violation of the ceasefire. And we’ve heard nothing from the Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what the stakes are right now. And also, what do you understand is U.S. involvement? We saw this tweet from Saharawi Voice: “On the same day the Moroccan army launched its operation in Guerguerat yesterday, US Army Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling was meeting with Moroccan Gen. Belkhir El Farouk, who’s in charge of the Moroccan army’s operations in Western Sahara.”

JACOB MUNDY: Well, the significance is that if this spirals out of control, you could see a very, very significant war between Morocco and Polisario forces. Were Morocco to chase Polisario forces all the way into Algeria, then you could see a third party enter, which is Algeria, which is also on high alert right now and very, very concerned about this in terms of what it does for security across the Sahara region, which we’ve seen in recent years has been a zone that’s seen a lot of conflict and terrorism and unfortunate things like that.

The connections between the Moroccan military and the U.S. military have grown in recent years, largely due to Morocco’s cooperation with the construction of AFRICOM as the U.S. military command in Africa. Morocco hosts one of the largest training exercises organized by AFRICOM. It’s called the African Lion annual exercise, where countries from all over Africa participate. And it’s usually held — provocatively, I think — in southern Morocco not too far from Western Sahara. So, it certainly is not good optics that Morocco chose to launch this military incursion in violation of the U.N. ceasefire on the same day that military commanders were in Morocco preparing for their annual African Lion exercise.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what happened when the United States was pushing for Arab nations to recognize Israel — you know, UAE, among others, Jared Kushner making a massive weapons deal with UAE? And then we heard that Morocco would be one of the countries that would do this, as well. Now, in 2019, in the Trump administration, major weapons sales to Morocco, and then we heard that perhaps Morocco would also recognize Israel, perhaps in exchange for U.S. recognizing de facto Morocco’s occupation, de facto occupation of, annexation of Western Sahara.

JACOB MUNDY: Yeah, we’ve heard this reported in several locations. It hasn’t happened yet, thankfully. The State Department has actually, in some ways, been, historically, as an institution, one of the more sober voices when it comes to these efforts within various U.S. administrations to push for recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. We saw this in the W. Bush administration with Elliott Abrams seeking to get U.S. recognition, and the State Department poured cold water over it. And recently the State Department has said that this isn’t on the table, in terms of Morocco recognizing Israel in exchange for U.S. recognition over its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

So, the bigger picture, though, is that, yes, Morocco is using arms purchases as a way of signaling its allegiance to U.S. interests in the region. Not having had good relations with the Trump administration so far, having really bet on Clinton winning the elections in 2016, Morocco has had to find other ways to try to communicate to the White House its interest in strengthening their partnership, and so one of the ways they did this was through massive arm purchases, that Morocco in 2019 eclipsed Egypt as the number one arms purchaser for U.S. weaponry. And that’s their way of signaling to an administration that’s been quite aggressive in terms of pushing U.S. weapons abroad, and Morocco has tried to get on that train so as to improve relations with the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2019, something like $1 billion the U.S. sold in missiles and other weaponry to Morocco. What do you think it will take for another ceasefire right now, Professor Mundy? What can the United Nations do? One of the leaders of the Sahrawi people, Aminatou Haidar, many of these activists are in Laayoune — they are essentially, virtually, under house arrest, being monitored nonstop — has appealed to the U.N. Security Council. And significantly, South Africa is now on the Security Council, that has long been an ally of the Sahrawi people.

JACOB MUNDY: Well, it will take a major diplomatic initiative from the U.N. The Sahrawis are generally very tired of the empty promises of the Security Council and the U.N. Secretariat. The previous personal envoy who led the negotiations between Morocco and Polisario left in 2019 and hasn’t been replaced in over a year and a half. And that just shows you that the Security Council is willing to let this issue drift. And it’s drifted back into open warfare.

So, it’s difficult to say what it will take to pull Polisario back. The Sahrawis, especially those who lived in exile since 1975, about 180,000 of them in the refugee camps in Tindouf, are incredibly frustrated. They’ve been frustrated for decades. They almost returned to war in 2001. And hundreds of Sahrawis from the diaspora voluntarily returned to Algeria unprompted to join the fight. So you can imagine, what, you know, 20 years later, how many Sahrawis are really willing to go to war. And there’s really no reason for them to respect the words of the U.N., because the U.N. has been on the ground since 1991 promising a referendum and has done nothing to push forward with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about Tindouf, Tindouf in Algeria, where so many Sahrawis are living in refugee camps for years, now it’s from these refugee camps that young men, hundreds of them, are leaving to go to this buffer zone to fight?

JACOB MUNDY: Exactly. There’s a large youth population in the refugee camps, especially young men. There’s not a lot of economic activities, opportunities for them. Military service is required. And the reserves are being called up. Polisario already has advance placements inside what they call the liberated territories, the about a fifth of Western Sahara that’s under their control. And they’ve already mobilized attacks against Moroccan positions along the separation wall inside Western Sahara. More troops are heading to the area to reinforce them and to continue the fight. Morocco is pretending like nothing’s happening in its media — not surprising. They fairly were caught very unprepared, and some positions were easily overrun by Polisario forces.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back, to give a little more history to what is happening here, to Democracy Now!'s documentary, _Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa's Last Colony_. While we were in Western Sahara in 2016, Moroccan authorities violently broke up an independence protest led by Sahrawi women. This was not unusual. We traveled to meet with the women shortly after the protest ended.

AMY GOODMAN: Inside, we find a number of women tending to an activist named Aziza Biza, who’s retching and vomiting from her injuries.

AMY GOODMAN: Should she go to a hospital?

JAMAL: She said she can’t go to a hospital, because they will not admit her, and she’s also too scared to go there.

AMY GOODMAN: The activists have recorded video of their protest — and the subsequent beatings by Moroccan forces — on cellphones and camcorders.

What our cameras couldn’t capture, citizen journalists’ could.

We begin downloading their footage, as activist Mina Bali describes what happened.

MINA BALI: [translated] Because of your presence here, we wanted to have a protest and show you how things are here — and how we are treated.

It’s been about two years since any journalists have accessed the territory.

We came chanting slogans, making peace signs with our fingers, as usual. And then they intervened against us in the street.

They were a large group. They pushed us into a narrow street. They took me. One of them grabbed my hair, and he started beating me. He wounded me here, under my nose. He grabbed my breast and continued beating me against the wall.

Aziza was with me, and he struck her in the kidney and hit her head against the wall. And then she fell on the ground at my feet.

And Ghalia Yimani was being dragged there. And Sultana Khaya.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to go with the women to see their bruises. They’re going to show me. And then we’ll see what we can show the camera.

AMY GOODMAN: We follow Sultana Khaya into a small bedroom. She pulls back her melhfa — her traditional Sahrawi robe — and shows me fresh bruises on her leg, both arms and on her breast.

AMY GOODMAN: Sultana, describe what happened to you?

SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] All of us were participating as Sahrawis in the peaceful demonstrations for our right to self-determination. I was trying to gather my sisters for the protest at 5:00. And the whole area was besieged.

They were insulting us, beating us, dragging us and using violence, to let us know that we weren’t going to be able to protest.

They tried to single us out, and pushed us into narrow streets where they could beat us without anyone observing.

What you saw today is nothing compared to what we’ve witnessed, over and over, since 1975. But the news never gets out.

As Sahrawi women, we’re not backing off until we get our final victory and liberate our homeland. The beatings will not deter us from continuing the fight. And even if we die, it will be a sacrifice, so that our sons and future generations can live in the freedom that we’ve been denied.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s an excerpt from from our Democracy Now! documentary, and we’re going to post the whole thing at democracynow.org, Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony. Professor Jacob Mundy, as we wrap up here, if you can talk — I mean, the women we talked to — for example, Mina Bali, who had just been beaten very badly — Aminatou Haidar was not there, but Mina and Aminatou, they are under house siege right now in Laayoune. Elghalia Djimi ran the Human Rights Center. Sultana Khaya had her eye poked out by Moroccan police 10 years before, and she was being beaten once again. Where do you see this resistance going at this time? And could you see this becoming an outright major confrontation? And what chance does the Polisario have when it comes to military competition as opposed to solving this diplomatically?

JACOB MUNDY: Yeah, those are good questions. The concern is, and we’re seeing evidence, that Morocco is using this new context as a pretext to crack down on Sahrawi civil society. We’re actually at the 10-year anniversary of the events that — in the documentary, you noted that Noam Chomsky called the protest at Gdeim Izik the first uprising of the Arab uprisings of 2011. We’re also at the anniversary of the accords whereby Madrid agreed to hand over Western Sahara to Mauritania and Morocco in 1975. So it’s a very strange situation we’re in right now with these anniversaries.

And the significance is that Sahrawi civil society has been under incredible pressure by Morocco since 2010, since the uprising then, and we haven’t seen anything significant in terms of popular manifestations. So, the blockade at Guerguerat was one of the most significant acts of civil disobedience we’ve seen from Sahrawis in about a decade. And it was significant enough to trigger a Moroccan military incursion, that in turn triggered a Polisario response that has now led to war.

Now, Polisario, it will be very difficult for them to regain territory inside the occupied Western Sahara, but they can do significant damage to Moroccan forces along the defensive barrier, where most of Morocco’s thousands, tens of thousands of troops are positioned. And so, what we’ll see is whether or not this turns into a war of attrition or if it’s just kind of a tit-for-tat exchange and then, hopefully, cooler heads from the U.N. will come in and make the usual promises. And hopefully, out of this, we can get something more meaningful in terms of a peace process and something that can actually lead to self-determination.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jacob Mundy, I want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University, co-author of the book called Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

When we come back, 44 years. That’s how long an African American man in North Carolina was held for a crime he did not commit. He recently got out of jail and voted for the first time. Stay with us.

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