A row of Moroccan flags, firmly embedded in a concrete wall too tall to scale, align a compound that has no political will and surround a United Nations mission that has no human rights mandate. Minurso, the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara, is a sad spectacle where the single blue flag appears to reach tall into the brisk December sky. But it hangs limp as the dozens of red draped green stars flutter in the slight breeze; defiant and dominant.
In front of the mission's gate are two armed Moroccan soldiers. They stare out onto an empty lot where some brave individuals once staged a peaceful protest. Their demands for the fundamental rights of assembly, of freedom of expression and thought, were quickly kicked into the dirt by the black boots of the Moroccan security forces and their notorious DST. The blue helmets of the mission were passive, behind their barricade sipping sweet minted teas. Their silence underlines the terrible cost of human suffering and injustice that has gone unchecked for over 34 years. As I walk by the compound, one of the soldiers approaches and asks if I work for the mission. He then tells me to leave.
This is Laayoune. A former Spanish outpost turned administrative centre where Moroccan soldiers, police, and security details are as common as the lowly soul attempting to carve out a life in the middle of this vast desert, whose relative size is comparable to that of the entire UK. Laayoune houses some 200,000 (this figure is in dispute) individuals. In its margins, in the Eraki neighbourhood and elsewhere, the Saharawi live in bland block apartments, some in slums, some in relatively decent housing. All under the tyranny of indifference and a media blackout.
Minurso was established in 1991 with a mandate to oversee a referendum for the self-determination of the Sahrawi and to keep the peace between Morocco and the Polisario. But years of deadlock, of missed opportunities, and a lack of political will in the Security Council has forced the blue helmets into a corner where comfort and complacency have replaced international law and rigour.
Boredom erodes the soldiers' minds. Their SUVs are shiny and brilliantly white, the tires a perfect black. Everything they have appears new and when they are parked in the asphalt of lots of expensive hotels like the Nagir, the ordinary Sahrawi woman can do nothing but walk by, her head turned low as the bustle of Africa's longest territorial conflict and the UN's last decolonisation procedure continues unabated, unchecked and discredited. She is alone with her thoughts, but a recurrent phrase - shared by so many just like her - runs through her head like ticker tape: Independence, independence now.
On 28 April, Amnesty International sent a letter to the UN Security Council calling on members to include a human rights monitoring component in Minurso's mandate. Two days later, that request was denied. One can only speculate as to why. Permanent Security Council member France has long been an advocate of Morocco's autonomy plan and their commercial and political interests in the kingdom far outweigh any human rights mandate. French banks Credit Agricole and Société Général dot the city's main boulevards Hassan II and Mohammed V. Then two years ago France blocked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from publishing the following in a report on the conflict: The right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara must be ensured and implemented without any further delay. According to Reuters, France did not offer any immediate comment when questioned.
Several hundred kilometres away in the refugee camps in Algeria, Khadad Mhamed, the Polisario member in charge of the referendum with Minurso, fumes. 'The United Nations is morally responsible for this delay. It is a scandal that we are still suffering after all these years. Minurso is unable to organise a referendum because there is no political will.'
Worse, according to some Sahrawi, Minsuro witnessed the physical abuse by the Moroccan police on fellow Sahrawi and did nothing. In January 2008, the UN peacekeepers defaced and vandalised prehistoric art in the occupied territories Agence France Presse reported. Several of the soldiers had sprayed paint onto rock art that depicts human and animal figures dating back 6000 years. And then there are rumours of sexual abuse. But these belong to other articles, and other proper and thorough investigations.
What the Minsuro are doing is providing the logistical support along with the coordinated efforts of the UNHCR: To fly Sahrawi from Laayoune to visit distant relatives in the refugee camps in Algeria. According to the UNCHR, between March 2004 and April of this year, some 8,000 Sahrawi have benefitted from the program which was established under the wing of what is disingenuously called the Confidence Building Measures Programme (CBM).
Christopher Ross, the new UN Secretary General's Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara, is seeking to promote more such measures in order to see a definitive end to the conflict. His predecessor, Peter van Walsum, failed miserably. In August 2008, Mr Walsum wrote an op-ed in El Pais where he advanced a solution 'short of full independence'. It was an astonishing admission that flew in the face of dozens of UN resolutions, including Resolution 1514 that guarantees a people's right to self-determination. The resolution is a pillar in the UN Charter and no person has the right to determine a people's destiny except the people. So much for neutrality, though some are now voicing hope in Mr Ross and a US administration headed by President Barack Obama.
'Mr Ross is an exceptional figure, he speaks fluent Arabic and understands the conflict,' says Pedro Pinto Leite, secretary of the International Platform of Jurists for East Timor (IPJET). The IPJET, instrumental in shaping the referendum for self-determination in East Timor, has for years also supported the Saharawi. Mr Leite then said Obama had sent a letter to King Mohammed VI expressing his views on the conflict, though no record or publication has yet brought this into the public domain.
Not only the UN, but also the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favour of the Sahrawi - over thirty years ago. But where international justice continues to fail the oppressed, the fight continues in Laayoune's alleys and streets, where the idea of independence from Rabat is rooted in the lives of the 160,000 refugees, as well as families torn apart. The walls on these neighbourhoods are tagged 'Morocco, Morocco out!' along with other slogans, written in Spanish and in Arabic. Driving through the neighbourhood one late evening to meet the activists, I spotted four terrified young boys lined up against the wall as Moroccan police yelled in their faces. A wall near them was also tagged but the cab driver casually said it was drugs.
For Brahim Sabbar, a Saharawi human rights defender who lives in Laayoune, the struggle for independence is one that can only be won through peaceful protest and through the recourse of international law. 'Our relationship with the Moroccan civilian is good, it's the state we have a problem with,' he says.
Mr Sabbar is probably now in his late fifties or early sixties, but he spent at least ten years of his life locked up in the secret detention Kaalat Megouna. His family thought he was dead, his mother had refused to talk and remained silent until finally one day he arrived at her doorstep, frail but alive. His story is one that continues under remarkably similar parallels by those much, much younger than him. He had been apprehended by plainclothes policemen near Dakhla, a port town off the coast of the Western Sahara, where he had been celebrating Mauritania's defeat and withdrawal from the territory. For the first four years, he and eight other Sahrawi were isolated from the rest of the prison population.
'We kept ourselves entertained by creating theatre as a vehicle. We became both audience and actor.' As the years went by, the Saharawi at Kaalat formed committees until finally there emerged the start of a human rights organisation. Today, the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH) remains banned but the material it produces and the testimonies it supplies to other organisations like Frontline Defenders and Human Rights Watch is a demonstration of its commitment.
Since Minurso has no human rights mandate, it is up to the Sahrawi to organise and document abuse. Mr Sabbar is a central figure among those organisations. When he was once again jailed, Amnesty International launched a campaign for his release. But there are many others whose names are not known, at least not to the international community.
At only 18, Hassanna Aalia is no stranger to the Moroccan police. He is a photographer and his images document that which is so difficult to express in words. 'Testimonies,' he says. Mr Aalia has himself seen the ether of police brutality. Behind the city slums lies Seguiat at Hamra, a stagnating river where Sahrawi are regularly taken to and beaten. 'They took me to the river, they beat me there, they tortured me, and then they left me there,' he says in a quiet voice.
Stuck in the green swill of its water are rusting cans of Pepsi and other refuse. Behind, the walls of Suuk Djema and ahead, a single road meanders into the desert some call the lahmada, literally translated into 'oh the heat, the cold'. Somewhere along this edge stood Hassanna Aalia, forced to strip naked as the Moroccan police took photos of him and then threatened to send them to pornographic sites if he continued to document the abuse. Despite the events that have unfolded there and the litter that dots the river banks, Seguiat at Hamra is beautiful, an oasis in the desert where one could imagine of how things may once had been, before the Moroccans, before the Spanish. It is peaceful.
Hassanna Aalia is fortunate. He never experienced the Black Jail unlike another Sahrawi human rights defender, Ahmed Sbai. I met Mr Sbai in the outskirts of Laayoune and waited for his contact to arrive at a corner butcher, where whole sheep are strung upside down from hooks, blood dripping from their noses into small pools of crimson on the dirty concrete. In the distance, high-pitched voices of children playing in the darkness break an otherwise complete silence. The silhouettes of the block apartments stand cut against the brilliant stars of the night sky. Finally, a figure of a man approaches and then moments later, his story begins.
'You enter that prison lost but you leave as a new born,' he says. 'I cannot really express in words what it's like.'
In 1999, Mr Sbai says he was kidnapped from a demonstration in Smara and sent to Lebbayer, a secret jail 25 kilometres outside Laayoune. He was taken to a room inside the compound and tortured. 'It's an empty room with no furniture except for a table and a large light. There are at least eight people in the room who then band your eyes before the torture begins. They place you facing the wall on your knees with your hands bound behind your back. I sat like this the whole night, until they set me on the table and beat me.' He says he was then taken by his hands and feet, and stretched out with his face pushed to the floor while someone pounded his kidneys.
Accused of belonging to a criminal organisation, Mr Sbai was then sentenced to prison for two years in what he describes as rigged court proceedings. 'There is no independence in the court system. The judge will always decide in favour of the Moroccan government.' Mr Sbai describes the Black Jail as a building coming apart at its foundations. Inside, there are five rooms three to four meters in length with a maximum total capacity for 250 prisoners.
'I lived among thieves and criminals but I did meet two other political activists. Each room has at least 60 prisoners,' he says. Even in these closed quarters, Mr Sbai says drugs and alcohol are rampant, smuggled into the jail by prison staff. 'The authorities allow the drugs to control the prison population. The food made us sick and we were given water that been stored in a cistern where rats swam.'
What then are the Polisario doing to advance their cause? At the 34th European Conference of Coordination Support to the Sahrawian People (EUCOCO) in Spain, it became obvious that the Polisario's actions in Morocco proper and the occupied territories was less than minimal. In the place of real action were words and dozens of speeches from delegates and representatives from around the world, expressing their solidarity and their photo-ops, which were few and far in between. Algeria's delegate shouted his country's solidarity with the Polisario, but refused when asked to comment, saying he was there as a private citizen and was not speaking on behalf of Algiers. He then asked to remain anonymous.
At the 'Human rights in the occupied territories' workshop of the conference, Brahim Dahane, president of the ASVDH expressed his frustration. 'The Polisario have yet to coordinate a plan of action,' he said. Sadafa Ahmed Bahia, himself a member of the Polisario did not disagree. 'The Polisario's implication in the occupied territories is minimal. They don't organise protests, they only represent them.' And then again, in Agadir, Sahrawi student leader Aino Mohammed offered the same response. As it stands, the movement has no paid full time human rights lawyer. Arguments broke out at the workshop and at one point, a handful of jurists simply left. Even among the civil societies represented at the EUCOCO, there exists a rivalry exasperated by language barriers and codes of conduct. Eva, a French activist kept me entertained on all the political intrigues within the movement. But the costs are obvious. A glaring frustration of inaction seems to have derailed any substantial movement - at least at EUCOCO. There are indeed other solidarity movements for the Western Sahara, but EUCOCO seemed to décor a set.
The European Union itself has its own act. The European Commission remains the largest donor to the refugees in Algeria. Since 1993, the Commission's Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) has handed out âÂ‚Â¬133 million to the camps. Then two years ago, it gave another âÂ‚Â¬10 million and then the same amount last June. At the same time, the European Union is signing lucrative fishing contracts with Morocco off the disputed coastline, in direct violation of international customary law and their duty of non-recognition over an area still under litigation. The 1975 ICJ ruling states that the right to self-determination also includes the right to sovereignty over natural resources. But an Association Agreement signed with Morocco means exports are stamped with a EUR1 certificate designating the products as originating in Morocco - including those exploited in the Western Sahara.
Morocco is Africa's top exporter of fish. And certain ministers in the European Parliament were outraged when contracts were finalised. In 2006, Brussels signed off the Fisheries Partnership Agreementwith Rabat. EU vessels are now exploiting the rich fish grounds off the Western Saharan coast. These fleets fly German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Dutch, British, Polish, and of course, Spanish flags. Spain has the most licences. Only Sweden has officially denounced the plunder of these natural resources while Ireland, Greece, and Austria have expressed serious reservations over the partnership agreement. Money is to be made and mouths to be fed. And as the financial crisis squeezes its grip, more and more pressure will be placed on Rabat to open up markets and trade to its vast neighbour to the north. But this is only part of the story.
Prior to an annual congress in Tifariti in 2007, Polisario leader Baba Sayed said the Polisario needed a fundamental change. 'This congress must be a renaissance for us or it's over for Polisario.' At EUCOCO, he appeared content but it was difficult to ascertain whether or not his renaissance had ever materialised. At the refugee camps in Algeria, the youth are mobilising and taking decisions without first conferring the Polisario. It is a situation that admittedly has the Polisario on edge.
'The Sahrawi leaders couldn't stop us. They were afraid something would happen. They wanted us to stop but we refused,' said 28-year old Brahim Sid Ahmed Boudjemaa, a Sahrawi refugee from the Smara camp in Algeria. Boudjemaa had, along with several hundred young student Saharawi, approached the Berm, a sand wall that runs 2000km through the contested border with Algeria and well along the edge of Mauritania. The students walked through a minefield and tossed rocks at the Moroccan soldiers. Boudjemaa said the Polisario were afraid something would happen, that a Moroccan soldier would lose his cool and shoot one of the students. But no shots were fired, their fingers only just touching the triggers.
Resorting to international laws and human rights protocols has left some of the refugees feeling bitter. The principles of justice are present as are the associated values. But it's the waiting that is pushing many to the brink. At the very least, those living in Laayoune in the occupied territories can stage a fight, are active and are driven with purpose for a cause that belongs to them and fundamentally to us all.
'Our situation might lead to extremism, it is so unfortunate and sad, but we have no exit. We have lost all faith in the UN. History tells us that anything taken by force should be resolved by force,' said Mulay Hamadi Nanak, a refugee in the camps in Algeria.
With no future and no real prospects for an independent state, Mr Nanak is seeking solace in a dream, in a solution that borders on madness. War is an absurd tragedy. Some of the old men who fought against the Moroccan soldiers are today lying at the centre for landmine victims in Rabbouni. Some are missing limbs, others paralysed. They are spending the remainder of their lives supine, thinking about the what-ifs and the terrible suffering they and their Moroccan brethren have experienced for a cause that seems dispersed and blown away like so many fine grains of sand.
Nikolaj Nielsen is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. His work has appeared in openDemocracy, Reuters AlertNet and other media. He writes the human rights blog at Foreign Policy Association.