Morocco still provoking resistance in Western Sahara

Poster of Said Dambar Said Dambar died a year ago and his body is still in a hospital mortuary

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Like much in Western Sahara, the facts of Said Dambar's death are contested.

The 26-year-old was fatally shot by a policeman, who has now been sentenced to 15 years in prison. The authorities say it was an accident.

But the Dambar family suspect a cover-up. They say officials made a series of false claims: That he and the policeman were friends, that Mr Dambar had attacked him, and that he was drunk.

They also wonder why they found sand in Said's trousers if he was shot, as the authorities claim, in the policeman's flat.

A year after he died, his body is still in the mortuary. The family has refused to pick up the body, saying he was never given a proper autopsy.

They think he was targeted because of the family's role in a protest camp that led to the worst outbreak of violence in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara for years.

It is a case that shows how deep mistrust and anger between the authorities and indigenous Sahrawis can run, 35 years after Morocco seized control of this stretch of desert land.

"We are a family that just wants to live in peace," says Mattou Dambar, one of Said's sisters. "After [Said's] death and the attacks [on the family] we are really afraid. They told us: 'You won't get jobs unless you forget about the autopsy.'"

"We have to bury my brother," she adds. "It hurts me every day."

'Hatred and revenge'
Mattou Dambar Mattou Dambar says she is still trying to find out the truth about her brother's death

The fragile peace in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara was briefly shattered in November 2010.

Thousands of Sahrawis had pitched tents near the region's main city, Laayoune, to demonstrate over social and economic complaints, in what Sahrawi activists like to see as a precursor of the Arab Spring.

"We went like everyone else so we could have a job and some land," said Mattou Dambar.

"The demands were social - nothing more."

What happened next at the Gdeim Izik camp quickly became obscured in the fog of a propaganda war.

Officials said they forcefully dismantled it because dangerous political activists had taken control. They say 11 unarmed soldiers were killed and 17 injured.

According to activists, at least four Sahrawis were killed as the violence spread to Laayoune - though this number is far lower than initial estimates.

The climbdown shows that Sahrawi campaigners, desperate for attention, can be prone to exaggeration.

Western Sahara

Map
  • Seized by Morocco in 1975 after Spain and Mauritania withdrew
  • Polisario Front seeks independence but Morocco is only prepared to grant autonomy
  • Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Morocco but a ceasefire has been in place since 1991

Yet they also contend that the Moroccan intelligence services planted false claims to embarrass them.

And they complain that there followed a crackdown that fits with a long pattern of abuse. A military court is still holding 22 Sahrawi suspects in provisional detention at a prison in Sale, near the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

The events exposed an ill-concealed rancour that has periodically surfaced here, between much longer stretches of impasse.

"What worries me is the lack of confidence, and the hatred and revenge that emerged," says Ghalia Djimi of the Sahrawi human rights group ASVDH.

How far that sentiment might translate into full opposition to Moroccan rule is the question at the heart of the Western Sahara dispute.

But it is one that Morocco has always shied away from, repeatedly dodging a referendum that includes the option of self-determination.

"I can't say anything because we need a vote," says Ms Djimi when asked how many people want independence.

"The only thing I know is that nearly all Sahrawi families have been affected by cases of marginalisation, disappearances, or detention."

'Algerian agenda'

Morocco says it has brought peace and prosperity to the two-thirds of Western Sahara that it controls.

Start Quote

Compared with the desperate efforts to give South Sudan independence, the French and the US are very comfortable”

End Quote Jacob Mundy Colgate University

It staked its claim to the territory when more than 300,000 Moroccan civilians crossed the border in the "Green March" of 1975, as Spanish colonial forces were preparing to leave.

That followed a ruling by the International Court of Justice rejecting Moroccan and Mauritanian claims of sovereignty to Western Sahara.

While Mauritania withdrew from the southern part of the territory in 1979, Morocco continued to fight the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, until a ceasefire in 1991.

It has since held its ground behind a 1,500-mile sand wall, guarded by as many as 160,000 soldiers.

International efforts to resolve the dispute, the last case in the UN's African decolonisation dossier, have repeatedly failed.

The issue has poisoned relations between Morocco and its neighbour Algeria, which backs Polisario and continues to host the movement and tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees.

Most Sahrawis live in the area controlled by Morocco, but they are outnumbered by Moroccans from the north who have settled, attracted by heavy subsidies and higher salaries.

Moroccan officials claim Algeria is now propping up the independence movement, which they argue enjoys little real backing outside the refugee camps.

"There are groups of separatists, but how many?" asks Dkhil Khalil, the governor of Laayoune. "Perhaps 1%. So it means nothing. No-one can impose an Algerian agenda on us."

He accuses Mr Dambar's family of exploiting their case to advance the separatist cause.

Aminatou Haidar (left) and Ghalia Djimi Aminatou Haidar (left) says her teenage son's generation is committed to the independence cause

Some ethnically Sahrawi and pro-Moroccan officials in Laayoune express support for an autonomy plan that was offered by Morocco during recent talks at the UN. But Polisario, which says the pro-Moroccan officials have been bought off, continues to hold out for a referendum.

There seems little international political will to force an end to the deadlock.

"Compared with the desperate efforts to give South Sudan independence, the French and the US are very comfortable," says Jacob Mundy, a Western Sahara expert and assistant professor at Colgate University in the US.

He says that for there to be a solution, "there would have to be a significant change in the basic dynamics of the conflict... whether it was the collapse of the Moroccan regime, the collapse of the Algerian regime or the collapse of the Polisario".

The activists in Laayoune feel forgotten and neglected.

Aminatou Haidar, a campaigner who gained some rare attention two years ago when she staged a hunger strike in Lanzarote airport, says she is disappointed with an international community that stands by "with their arms folded - either indifferent or complicit".

Driving through the heavily patrolled streets of Laayoune, where activists are closely monitored by plain-clothes policemen, she says the pattern of repression and abuse is being passed on to younger Sahrawis.

Her 15-year-old son was recently threatened with rape and abuduction, she says, and other teenagers are also being targeted.

"The new generation - that of my son - is even more determined than those who came before," she says.

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