From People's Voice
By Stephen Von Sychowski
The 17th World Festival of Youth and Students, hosted last month in Tshwane, South Africa, shone a spotlight on the struggle of Western Sahara, Africa's last colony. Delegates from the Polisario Front national liberation movement addressed the Festival's Anti‑Imperialist Court to denounce the crimes of Morocco, which has brutally occupied Western Sahara for decades.
The origins of the Polisario Front go back to 1971, when Sahrawi university students in Morocco organized The Embryonic Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el‑Hamra and Rio de Oro. In 1973, the group relocated to Spanish‑occupied Western Sahara and prepared for armed rebellion. On May 10 of that year, the Polisario Front was formed with the aim of forcing an end to Spanish colonialism through armed struggle.
In 1975, the fascist Spanish government of Francisco Franco began negotiations with Morocco and Mauritania to hand over its colonial subjects to its regional friends. By 1976, the Madrid Accords had been signed between the three countries. Spain departed Western Sahara while Morocco and Mauritania moved in.
The Polisario Front continued its guerilla war against the new occupiers, refusing to accept the notion that one set of occupiers is better than another. They also guarded fleeing refugees escaping occupied cities. The Polisario's strength grew immensely during this period, despite Morocco's bombing of refugee camps, and the assassination of Polisario leader El Ouali.
Meanwhile, Mauritania struggled to hold on to control. They received a helping hand from French imperialism in the form of air force attacks on Polisario columns. But Polisario attacks both within Western Sahara and Mauritania ultimately wore down military morale and crippled Mauritania's economy, leading to a coup d'état.
The coup leaders moved to sign a cease fire with the Polisario Front. By 1979, a peace treaty led to the departure of Mauritanian forces and recognition of the rights of the Sahrawi people. King Hassan II of Morocco then moved unilaterally to annex the territories previously occupied by his formed ally.
During the mid‑1980's, desperate to fend off Polisario attacks, Morocco erected a massive wall protecting the main economic centres of Western Sahara. The wall was then staffed by a military force nearly a large as the Sahrawi population itself. The wall separated families and physically closed the Sahrawi out of the economy of their own country. Despite this, the struggle for liberation continued and attacks against the occupying forces did not end.
In 1991, a UN sponsored cease‑fire came in to effect with the promise of a referendum the following year on the question of Western Sahara's independence from Morocco. But the referendum has never been held and the process remains stalled.
Meanwhile, the Polisario Front continues to carry out a campaign of peaceful struggle against the Moroccan occupation. More recently, the Moroccan government put forward a new proposal in 2007 that "self government" could be granted through its Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs governing the area with a degree of autonomy. Naturally this proposal quickly garnered the support of imperialist powers such as France and the United States, but has not won over the Polisario Front which continues to demand full independence.
Since 1979 the Polisario Front has been recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the people of Western Sahara, although Polisario's real legitimacy comes from the mass support of the Sahrawi people.
South Africa and over 50 other countries today recognize the legitimacy of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which exists across the areas of Western Sahara not behind Morocco's wall. Included in these countries are socialist Cuba, and all the socialist countries of the world.
Missing from the list is our own country, Canada, which shamefully claims neutrality on the issue.
Last October, thousands of Sahrawis left the occupied city of Laayoun and established the Gdaim Izik protest camp by setting up tents in the desert. The camp soon swelled to 25,000 people and quickly garnered international attention.
On October 30, Tiago Vieira, President of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, along with several journalists and elected representatives from Spain, was detained and expelled from Morocco upon attempting to visit the camp to witness the situation first hand. No journalists or independent observers have been allowed by Moroccan authorities to visit the camp. This is probably due to the fact that it has been subject to attacks by Moroccan forces which killed at least one and wounded hundreds. Eyewitnesses state that Moroccan security forces targeted women, children, and the elderly in particular. But despite violence and repression, the struggle continues.
Western Sahara has been relatively unknown to most people in Canada and many other countries. Perhaps its prominent place in a massive gathering of over 15,000 youth and students from around the world will help to change that and add more voices to the struggle for freedom in Western Sahara.