The forgotten country of decolonisation
Omar has been estranged from his family and homeland since the early age of 9. He first arrived in Spain in 1997 to participate in the Holidays in Peace program, that gives Sahrawi children the opportunity to spend the summer with a Spanish family, avoiding the searing heat of the refugee camps in Tindouf, in the Algerian desert, where he was born.
Achieving good grades at school while recovering from a long-term injury allowed Omar to remain in Spain. “Adapting to the new life was very difficult”, he tells Fair Planet. But despite the pain he has endured, he is satisfied knowing he is dedicating his efforts to Western Sahara cause.
Omar and his family have themselves been victims of the low-intensity but lengthy conflict that has dogged the disputed region since 1975. This year marks the withdrawal of Spain, the European power that colonised this often-forgotten territory on the west coast of Africa. The Madrid agreements of 1975 simply handed over power from Spain to Morocco and Mauritania with the assurance of an independence referendum being held. Such a promise has never come to fruition and resistance fighters (the Polisario Front) became embroiled in guerrilla warfare against Mauritania until 1979 and Morocco until 1991.
A peacekeeping delegation called United Nations Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) was then formed, but the conflict remains unresolved and the region is considered a Spanish colony. Although the International Court of Justice recognised its right to self-determination, 40 years later Western Sahara is still listed by the UN as a non-self-governing territory and subject to the decolonisation process.
Omar’s family fled Western Sahara during the 1975 Moroccan invasion. First they arrived in the Free Zone region to the east of the country, which is controlled by the Polisario Front. The coastal western region remains under Moroccan occupation. Later on, the family reached Tindouf, Algeria.
Although the vast majority of Western Sahara borders Mauritania and Morocco, the territory only enjoys friendly relations with Algeria. Thus, hundreds of thousands of displaced people are funnelled out of the north-eastern corner of Western Sahara to the camps at Tindouf. It is currently home to approximately 150,000 refugees, totally dependent on foreign aid and the work of international NGOs. The majority have been there for more than 30 years.
José Taboada was undergoing military service in Western Sahara when it was a Spanish province and witnessed the Moroccan invasion first hand. His experience there filled him with “rage and shame”, considering the “abandonment with which the Sahrawis were treated”. Since then, he has never stopped fighting for the independence of Western Sahara and for the rights of its people. Today, he is the president of the Spanish National Coordination Group for Solidarity with the Sahara.
Taboada also observed how Moroccan forces started building the Berm: a sand wall surrounded by millions of mines and guarded by thousands of Moroccan troops, that has separated entire families for decades. Although it is the biggest wall in the world, with more than 2,700 kilometres, it is “completely overlooked by the international community”, says the activist, which is evidence to “how disregarded this conflict is”.
Although no country in the world recognises the Moroccan occupation, “no one is acting to pressure Mohammed VI to withdraw from the territory” and apply the UN’s resolutions, Taboada tells fairplanet. In the meantime, Morocco continues to exploit the rich natural resources of Western Sahara through Phosphate extraction and fishing.
After 25 years of non-violent resistance, José Taboada has no doubt that “if there is no independence referendum in this disputed region, armed struggle may return” to the territory. Omar is also “pessimistic about considering a peaceful solution to the long-lasting conflict”, blaming both “the Moroccan intransigence and the weakness of the Security Council”. But in the end, he still believes he will be able to see a “free Western Sahara”.