Mohamed screws his face as I mention ‘Western Sahara’,
‘It is Moroccan Sahara’ he proclaims with his hand in the air, dismayed at my ignorance.
‘Well yes, I understand the Moroccan-Polisario problems and the occupation…’
‘No, it is not an occupation. How could we occupy our own territory?’
Mohameds view is not unusual, most Moroccans beleive they share a historical connection with the desert and its people. But like it or not, the will for independance in this region is very much alive.
Rachid is Saharwi, born and raised close to the Algerian border.
‘This problem was the making of the Spanish colonisers, now the Moroccans control us, but this is wrong, the Saharawis’ people deserve and want freedom’.
Formerly a Spanish colony the region was subject to something of a scramble for its resources at de-colinisation with both Mauritania and Morocco making claims for the territory. In 1975 the International Court of Justice ruled to reject these claims and recognised the Saharwis’ right to independence. However, this right remains a distant promise to more than 100,000 refugees who remain displaced.
I shake the hand of Rachid, ‘You support Polisario. Its good to meet someone who supports Polisario’. He accepts the handshake and holds my hand as he continues to explain, ‘It is not easy to talk about these things.’ Rachid is not wrong, here in Western Sahara Polisario are outlawed, just to fly their flag is a criminal offense.
‘But you see Polisario are not terrorists, they are the army of the Saharwis people. They fight for our freedom.’
Whilst the guerilla war faught by Polisario has been brought to cease fire since 1991 the progress of the United Nations mission here (Minurso) can only be described as at a stalemate. For years they have attempted to find a method to identify eligible voters in the region so as to carry out a referendum which in theory would end the conflict, giving the people the choice between independence or Moroccan integration.
But Morocco know that they have done little to win hearts and minds in the Sahara and given the wealth of natural resources at stake (including possible off-shore oil reserves), its no suprise that they have done their best to sabotage the referendums proceedings and increase the strength of their 35 year occupation here.
Mohamed may tell you that this territory rightfully belongs to Morocco, that their is a special relationship and that Morocco is providing valuable economic prospects to the region and its people. But ask a Saharwis and he will speak of another story, one of human rights abuses, riddled with bully tactics, an oppressive regime led by a suffocating military presence and a powerful neighbour willing to go to any length to gain valuable resources.
The desire for independence is in the eye of the Saharwi as he passes the military checkpoint and embrace of the Polisario supporter who holds my hand in his,
‘Inshallah, one day we will have our freedom’.