Nov. 6 marks 43 years of Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara, which has forced the Saharawis to continue living in precarious conditions in the desert.
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On Nov. 6, 1975, a mass demonstration was held by Morocco to force Spain to hand over the disputed province of Spanish Sahara to Morocco.
During the infamous “Green March” 350,000 Moroccans crossed into the West Sahara. The civilian invasion was reinforced with an escort of 20,000 Moroccan soldiers.
In October 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected Morocco’s claim over sovereign Sahara. Ignoring the ICJ's ruling, King Hassan II of Morocco ordered the illegal invasion.
Prior to that, Spanish colonial forces controlled the territory disputed by both Morocco and Mauritania since 1884.
As Moroccan forces entered Western Sahara former Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco was in his deathbed. His colonial forces did not resist the invasion and instead signed the “Madrid Accord,” ceding territorial control to Morocco and Mauritania.
The Saharawi people were not represented in the negotiation of the Madrid Accord and they have resisted it since then. Even though Mauritania relinquished its claim later, Morocco has not given up the territory.
The Saharawi people resisted the invasion. The Frente POLISARIO (Popular Front of Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) is a rebel organization which waged a guerrilla war against the occupation.
In 1981, Moroccan forces started isolating the guerrillas east of the territory by building a 2,700 km wall. The wall, known among the Saharawis as the Wall of Shame, is half the size of the Great Wall of China and four times the length of Israel's separation (or annexation) wall in the West Bank. The wall is guarded by at least 100,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by more than five million landmines.
Emhamed Khadad, an adviser to the president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (a partially-recognized state that holds control over one-fifth of the total territory) and the Polisario Front’s coordinator with the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has criticized the use of landmines. “The landmines, in direct contravention of the Ottawa Treaty on anti-personnel mines, pose daily risks and dangers to the lives of the Saharawi population and their livestock in the liberated area of the territory,” he wrote in the Huffpost.
In 1991, the Organization of African Unity (currently, the African Union) and the United Nations jointly brokered a ceasefire between the Frente POLISARIO and Morocco. A referendum for Saharawis to exercise their right to self-determination was agreed upon but the people of Western Sahara are still waiting.
“For almost 25 years the U.N. Security Council has had the responsibility to facilitate a referendum on self-determination in accordance with the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, tellingly called the United Nations Mission on the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But France and other permanent members of the Security Council have failed to live up to this obligation by acquiescing to, or in some cases assisting with, Moroccan obstruction of the negotiating process,” wrote Khadad.
The people living under occupation are denied basic human rights and subjected to frequent arrest, intimidation, detention, and torture.
When the occupation started, scores of Saharawis fled to Algeria, where over 125,000 refugees still live in camps that were meant to be temporary. In 2015, a flood destroyed the camps and created a major humanitarian disaster.
The Saharawi resistance to Moroccan occupation is largely peaceful at present with people protesting through art, music, and film. Women activists like Aminatou Haidar are taking the resistance forward. Groups like the Union Nacional de Mujeres Saharauis, or National Union of Sahrawi Women, has become central to the movement and standing up against human rights abuses.
Toppling the Wall of Shame also became a strategy of the movement.
According to Khadad, due to Saharawis non-violent resistance, the world has ignored the plight of Western Sahara. But this status-quo is unacceptable as the new generation is getting restless to be freed from occupation.
The U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 2.240 this year to grant a six-month transitional period to hold a referendum in Western Sahara.