Youth hungry for independence fuel clashes in Western Sahara

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MAHBAS REGION, Western Sahara (PA) – As a bright sun set behind the sand barrier that crosses the disputed territory of Western Sahara, Sidati Ahmed’s battalion launched two missiles which sizzled through the air, then shot followed an artillery attack.

Within minutes, a barrage of mortar shells flew in the opposite direction from the Moroccan positions, landing with a thick column of smoke in the barren desert of what is known as Africa’s last colony.

“Low-intensity hostilities,” as a recent United Nations report described them, have raged over the past year along the 2,700-kilometer (1,700-mile) berm. – a barrier of shorter length than the Great Wall of China which separates the part of Western Sahara that Morocco governs from the shine held by the Polisario Front, which wants the territory to be independent. Both parties claim the area in its entirety.

For nearly 30 years, this strip of North African desert the size of Colorado – which rests on vast phosphate deposits, faces rich fishing grounds, and is said to have offshore oil reserves – has existed in limbo, while waiting for a referendum supposed to let the local Saharawi people decide their future. Instead, as negotiations over who to vote dragged on, Morocco tightened its control over the territory, which was a Spanish colony until 1975.

Last year, the Polisario Front announced that it would no longer respect the 1991 ceasefire that ended its 16-year guerrilla war with Morocco.

The decision was fueled by the frustration of young Sahrawis – many of whom were born in refugee camps in Algeria, have never lived in their ancestral homeland and are tired of waiting for the referendum promised by the UN.

“Everyone is ready for war,” said Ahmed, who spent more than half of his 32 years in Cuba before returning to enlist for the battle when the truce ended last year.

“We are fed up with it. The only thing that will bring us back to our homeland is this,” Ahmed said, pointing his AK-47 weapon, as he stood on the front line in Mahbas. at the crossroads of Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, is the place where most of the exchanges of fire take place.

Ahmed is typical of a generation of young Sahrawis, most of whom traveled abroad to study – from Spain to Libya – but returned to the camps to form families. And they told their elders that they didn’t want to die in exile, with no future for their own children.

“Life abroad can be tempting,” said Omar Deidih, a baby-faced soldier and cybersecurity student who, during a recent Polisario frontline visit, spoke to reporters foreigners in fluent English. “But the most important thing is that we have fresh blood in this new phase of the struggle.”

The possibility, remote as it is, that the clashes could escalate into all-out regional war may be the Polisario’s only hope of drawing attention to a conflict with few known casualties in a vast but forgotten corner of the desert. Many in the camps believe that efforts to finally settle the status of Western Sahara have languished since Morocco offered greater autonomy for the territory in 2004.

Hopes for independence from the front suffered a blow last year when the United States, at the end of the Trump administration, backed Morocco’s claim to the territory., as part of efforts to get Morocco to recognize Israel. Other countries, including Algeria, the Polisario’s main ally, recognize Western Sahara as independent, while further supporting UN efforts for a negotiated solution.

Rising tensions have caught the attention of the UN, whose ceasefire overseen by Minurso and whose secretary general recently appointed Staffan de Mistura, a seasoned Italian diplomat and former UN envoy to Syria. , to take charge of the negotiations.

Polisario leader Brahim Ghali warned last week that de Mistura must be given a clear mandate from the Security Council to hold a referendum. Western Sahara will be before the Council on October 28, when members vote on whether to extend the Minurso mission.

Advancing is also a question of legitimacy for the Polisario. After years of internal division, the new hostilities have rallied pro-independence supporters around its leadership, but many fear that the lack of results will lead to further radicalization.

In the camps, the live ammunition from the front line reverberates strongly among the refugees, who have been forced to face the precariousness of their existence when the humanitarian aid they rely on has been reduced to a trickle for a long time. the pandemic.

Medical missions were halted, medicine was scarce and the prices of camel, goat and chicken meat all rose, said Dahaba Chej Baha, 29, a refugee in Boujdour camp. One recent morning, the mother of a 3-year-old was sheltering in the shade during her third hour of waiting for an Algerian truck to deliver gas cylinders.

“Everything is so difficult here,” Chej Baha said, adding that those who would usually find ways to work abroad and send money back have found themselves trapped due to travel restrictions linked to the pandemic. “I don’t like war, but I feel like nothing will change without it.”

Meima Ali, another mother of three, said she was against war, but her voice was not heard in a male-dominated community.

“My husband has to choose between finding a job or being seen as a traitor for not going to the front,” she said. “How am I going to survive without him?” Here, we live as if we were dead.

Morocco denies that there is an armed conflict raging in what it calls its “southern provinces”, where around 90,000 Sahrawis are believed to be living alongside 350,000 Moroccans. Morocco told the UN mission that its troops only respond to direct threats and “always in proportion to the actions” of the Polisario.

In response to questions from the Associated Press, the Moroccan government said there had been “unilateral attacks” by the Polisario but no casualties on the Moroccan side.

He called any effort to present the conflict as something more important “pieces of propaganda for the media” and “desperate gestures for attention”.

Intissar Fakir, an expert on the region for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said a full-fledged conflict – which could pit Morocco and Algeria against each other – was not in anyone’s interest. But she said negotiating a durable solution wouldn’t be easy either.

“Maybe in terms of international law the Polisario has its place, but I think Morocco here is the strongest it has ever been with American recognition and de facto control over most of it. territory, ”she said. But the Polisario, she added, “is more anchored in its own position because it really has nothing to lose at this stage”.

Although many people interviewed by the PA in the camps or on the front line expressed frustration with the years of negotiations that the Polisario defended until last year, open criticism is hard to find in a so close community.

Baali Hamudi Nayim, a veteran of the 1970s and 1980s war against Mauritania and Morocco, said he was against the 1991 ceasefire.

“If it were up to me, the time for a political solution without any guarantees, through the UN or others, is over,” said Hamudi, who is back in guerrilla gear. to oversee the agitated Mahbas battalions. “For me, the solution is military.

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Associated Press journalists Bernat Armangué in Sahrawi refugee camps and Tarik El Barakah and Mosa’ab Elshamy in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.


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