Morocco's military invasion and occupation of Western Sahara, which started on October 31st, 1975 got virtually no international attention. This contrasted dramatically with the news made by the massive 'Green March' on November 6, a few days later. Orchestrated by the then ruling monarch King Hassan II, it mobilised 350,000 unarmed foot soldiers to reclaim ‘ancestral lands’ while the territory was still under Spanish colonial rule.
This huge and bold PR stunt effectively ignored the ICJ
ruling of October 16 that same year, which had
reaffirmed Saharawi self-determination rights and
rejected the sovereignty claims over Western Sahara by
neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania. At the same time
it succeeded in pressuring a weakened Spain into
signing the Secret Madrid Accords on Nov 14th, which handed Morocco and Mauritania administrative
control over the territory. For the indigenous Saharawis, these events represented the equivalent of the
Palestinian Nakba and the pre-mature shattering of their collective dreams for independence and statehood.
Becoming Second-Class citizens
Under the Moroccan occupation, those Saharawis who had not fled the invasion soon became second-class citizens in their own homeland and were systematically deprived of their basic human rights. Between 1975 and 1991, some of the most glaring human rights violations took place: at least 500 Saharawis are known to have disappeared and many more suffered illegal detentions, imprisonment, torture and death, especially if suspected of having any pro-Polisario or pro-independence sentiments.
During these years the indigenous Saharawis lived in fear and terror of the Moroccan regime. The early days of its brutal occupation had beaten them into quiet submission.
But the generations growing up under the occupation were different.
The first major act of resistance took place in 1987 when many Saharawis went out en mass to protest against the disappearance, almost overnight, of thousands of students who had been dispersed to study in schools and universities inside of Morocco, far away from their families and community. Fearing the potentially destabilizing power of disaffected university-aged Saharawis, the Moroccan authorities had
taken this decision to mitigate their political impact.
But instead, it provoked an outraged reaction. Taking advantage of visit by a UN fact-finding team to the territory in 1987, the Saharawis broke their barrier of fear and came out to protest. The response was typically brutal: those who had protested were rounded up and were disappeared.
Life is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara | Escaping Moroccan Occupation
Their fate remained largely unknown until 4 years later when many of them were released in 1991 in an act of royal pardon. Amongst those who were disappeared in 1987 was Aminatou Haidar who since has become one of the most Western Sahara's prominent human rights activists.
The event that came to symbolise the first Saharawi intifada took place soon after Morocco’s invading monarch, King Hassan II died, in 1999. The referendum, at this point, had already been delayed for seven years. It seemed a perfect moment for the occupied Saharawis to address their grievances and frustrations. The new monarch furthermore was preaching modernity and change: he wanted to improve Morocco’s image and standing in the West.
Modern technology, in the guise of mobile phones and the internet also played its role. For the first time, images and stories from the occupied territory were leaked to the outside world. The new king, taken by surprise, initially hesitated, but then responded with force to crush the uprising.
But the barrier of fear had been truly broken because several years later another big uprising took place to mark 30 years of Morocco’s occupation. Street demonstrations and clashes went on for months. Despite their largely peaceful activities, hundreds of Saharawis were arrested, beaten and tortured.
This intifada of 2005 represented another a turning point. It signalled a shift in the political struggle: the refugee camps were no longer primarily shaping the course of events. New Saharawi activists and leaders, under the occupation, were emerging and directly facing their oppressors. Sources close to the action indicate that more than 50% of Saharawi youth became politicised during this uprising. Fourteen
to twenty-five year-olds were now becoming the most significant political force.
This is highlighted by the growing numbers of youths who have come to the camps to escape
persecution from the Moroccan authorities.
Javier Bardem's 2012 documentary 'Sons of the Clouds' shows how Western Sahara's colonization has effected the people forced to live in refugee camps.
Gdeim Izik - The original spark of the Arab Spring?
According to Noam Chomsky, the American theoretical linguist, the Arab Spring began in October 2010 when the people of Western Sahara revolted against their Moroccan occupiers. This opinion has been echoed by North Africa analysts, including Hicham Yezza, who commented:
“In October 2010 – a few weeks before that fateful December encounter in Sidi Bouzid (Tunisia) between Mohamed Bouazizi and a municipal official – thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up Gdeim Izik, a camp a few miles East of Layyoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, in an act of mass protest against their continuing marginalisation under the decades-long Moroccan occupation of their land...”
Gdeim Izik, as the protest began to be dubbed, succeeded in breaking the media embargo on Western Sahara. Images of a fiercely repressed peaceful protest were indeed reminiscent of those which were to follow in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and other Arab cities throughout the Middle East.
Thousands of Sahrawis moved out of the cities of Western Sahara and into about 6 500 tents in the area of Gdeim Izik, outside the capital El Aaiún, to protest the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the ongoing discrimination, poverty and human rights abuses against Sahrawi citizens. “In October 2010 – a few weeks before that fateful December encounter in Sidi Bouzid (Tunisia) between Mohamed Bouazizi and a municipal official – thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up Gdeim Izik, a camp a few miles East of Layyoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, in an act of mass protest against their continuing marginalisation under the decades-long Moroccan occupation of their land...”
Moroccan authorities dismantled the camps forcefully and blocked wounded Sahrawis from seeking medical treatment in fear of the bad publicity that its activities could engender, Morocco expelled the Al Jazeera journalist sent to cover the events and closed the channel’s office in the country.
The national airline, Royal Air Maroc, also impeded foreign correspondents from the Spanish television channels TVE and TV3, and from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, from boarding flights from Morocco to El Aaiún, cancelling their flights in advance or blocking them at the airport.7 It is therefore difficult to find exact numbers of the casualties at Gdeim Izik, but it is estimated that at least several dozen Sahrawis lost their lives and hundreds were arrested.
Among those detained were the ‘Gdeim Izik 25’ – 25 civilian Sahrawis who were convicted in a Moroccan military court on charges relating to violent resistance against security forces and forming criminal gangs. Nine of the men received life sentences, 14 received prison terms ranging between 20 and 30 years, and two were released after spending their two-year sentences in prison in court-ordered pre-trial detention.
Today, 19 of the 25 are still in prison. For a full account of each of the prisoners, click here
Saharawi women under occupation
Just as women have played a central role in the refugee side of the story, women under the occupation have been prominent in leading the non-violent resistance. No account of the Saharawi struggle would be complete or accurate without acknowledging their protagonism on both sides of the wall.
From the beginning of the Moroccan occupation til today, many of the prominent Saharawi activists have been women, Aminatou Haidar, Sultana Khaya and Naziha Elkhalidi of Equipe Media to mention only a few. In all the protests and demonstrations taking place under the occupation, the Saharawi women have been out in force on the streets, and have endured beatings, rape, imprisonment and torture as a result of their activism.
Aminatou Haidar, stands out for her enormous valour and convictions. A Nobel peace-prize nominee, she twice single-
handedly stood up to the Moroccan regime: first in 2005, when she refused to stop leading peaceful demonstrations calling for
self-determination. For this she was beaten within an inch of her life, and was imprisoned for 7 months. Then again at the
end of 2009, she staged a 34 day hunger strike at the Lanzarote airport to protest her expulsion from her homeland for refusing to write that she was a Moroccan in her landing card. An unprecedented build up of international pressure finally forced Morocco to take Aminatou back, an extraordinary victory for an extraordinary individual willing to go to the end for her people’s dignity and rights.
Sultana Khaya is one of the most prominent and outspoken Sahrawi woman activists and defenders of Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. She is the President of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and against Plunder of Natural Resources in Boujdour and she regularly participates in
demonstrations advocating for self-determination and denouncing violence against Saharawi women. Sultana has
travels internationally to participate in high-profile conferences and events, including the UN Human Rights Council, to speak about the the human rights situation in Western Sahara.
But Sultana has paid a heavy price for her activism. In February 2021, she lost her eye after she was severely beaten and hit with a rock by a Moroccan police officer. In November 2020, after the breakdown of the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, she was placed under de facto house arrest as a result of her activism. Khaya would ultimately spend more than 500 days living under 24/7 surveillance alongside her 84-year-old mother and sister. The Khaya family was denied visitors or medical treatment, and they faced repeated sexual assaults including rape. Several women activists who protested her arbitrary detainment were also beaten and threatened for expressing their solidarity with Sultana.
After 484 days, an American delegation of human rights activists arrived in Boujdour to break the blockade on the Khaya home. Finally, in June 2022, Khaya was temporarily released to seek medical treatment in Spain. She says she will return to Boujdour as soon as she is able.
Sultana Khaya Accepts Individual War Abolisher Award of 2023 - with English subtitles
Moroccanizing Western Sahara
Leading human rights organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Frontline, Robert F Kennedy Centre and others, have consistently reported the practice of torture, killings, illegal detention, harassment and lack of freedom of expression, association and movement under the Moroccan occupation. Any Saharawi expression of cultural identity is suppressed and through the educational system the Moroccan authorities impose another language and history on the native population.
The Plunder of Western Sahara's resources
“Western Sahara is a rich territory with natural resources abound where
people could live comfortably but we see that the Saharawis are living in
poverty and their poverty level is rising.”
- Activist Elghalia Djimi in the film 'Ocupacion SA'
The systematic plunder of Western Sahara's rich natural resources including phosphate began under Spanish colonialism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources continues today, and now includes fish, agriculture, sand, petroleum and natural gas.
The management of Western Sahara’s natural resources has been a major impediment to the establishment of a lasting and just solution to the conflict. According to the UN General Assembly: “Any administrating or occupying power that deprives the colonial peoples of the exercise of their legitimate rights over their natural resources ... violates the solemn obligations it has assumed under the Charter of the United Nations.” (UN General Assembly 1985). Still, a number of British, European and other international companies continue to
reap profits through the plunder of Western Sahara’s resources without the consent of the territory’s legal representatives, the Polisario.
Western Sahara Resource Watch researches and campaigns against the companies and governments that work for Moroccan interests in occupied Western Sahara.
Since 2005, WSRW has followed topics such as fisheries, agriculture, phosphate industry in the territory, as well as hydrocarbon exploration, and development of infrastructure and renewable energy projects on the territory.
Read more on their website.
The world's longest conveyor belt transports phosphate deposits from Western Sahara to the Atlantic coast. Photo: John Tordai