– visited April 2016 –
You don’t have to feel bad if you have never heard about this country. Actually, even right on the ground, the Western Sahara is hard to find. I know it is there, but I honestly see no trace.
Western Sahara is one of the most sparsely populated territories on earth. It mainly consists of desert flatlands. Along the bus ride from Laâyoune to Dakhla I remember hardly any settlement of size. It is a barren landscape, with few interesting topographic features and the desert reaches right up to the ocean. The territory of the Western Sahara is larger than the United Kingdom but instead of 65 million people less than 600,000 call it their home.
Western Sahara had been the Spanish colony of “Sáhara Occidental”. As the Spanish occupiers prepared to leave in 1975 both Morocco, to the north, and Mauritania, to the south, claimed the territory. To pressure Spain, 350,000 Moroccan civilians marched into the territory in a strategic mass demonstration called the “Green March”. They called for the return of the Moroccan Sahara. Even a few days earlier, Moroccan troops had entered the territory in another area. Spain, with the dictator Franco close to death and just wanting to get out, cut a deal with both Morocco and Mauritania (Madrid Accords) whereby Morocco would annex two-thirds of the territory and Mauritania one-third. None of these countries cared about the opinion of the inhabitants of the territory, the Sahrawis, who consider themselves distinct from their Arab brethren.
A United Nations mission had asked them though for their opinion and found overwhelming support for independence. The inevitable happened and the Polisario Front rose up against the new occupiers. It was helped by its north-western neighbour Algeria. With much less resources available, Polisario resorted to guerrilla warfare. In 1979 Mauritania had enough and withdrew.
As the Polisario Front mostly attacked from the desert, Morocco started to build a fortified sand wall, called the “berm” to stop the attacks. The 2,700-kilometre-long fortification line consists of sand and stone walls about 3 metres in height, with bunkers, fences, and landmines throughout. The barrier minebelt (what a nasty word that is) that runs along the structure is the longest continuous minefield in the world. Military bases, artillery posts and airfields dot the Moroccan-controlled side of the wall at regular intervals. Radar masts and other electronic surveillance equipment scan the areas in front of it. 80% of the territory of the Western Sahara lies to the west of the berm and is fully controlled by Morocco. 20% of the territory, for the most part uninhabited, lies east of the berm and constitutes the so-called “Free Zone”, nominally the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
In 1991 the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. The plan included a referendum the following year where Sahrawis were to choose between affirming integration with Morocco or Independence. At the time of my visit, that referendum was 24 years late and still not anywhere near. Morocco kind of enjoys all it wants, no fighting anymore and it has control of the territory so there was reason to find all sorts of excuses for the referendum not to take place. From a Sahrawi perspective, I can understand that there is little stomach to actively fight, as the power balance is so overwhelming against them. Protests and demonstrations for independence occur with some regularity.
The countries of the world divide themselves into four groups. Some countries accept Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, some countries support Polisario, some countries support Sahrawis right to self-determination but not Polisario (most Western countries) and some countries (notably China) just have never taken any position on the issue. That effectively means a stalemate. United Nations envoys travel to the region, foreign governments tell Morocco that the referendum really should take place but no one exerts any real pressure. Even with countries supporting the Sahrawis, there is arguably little interest in the formation of a tiny country (not by area but by population) that would struggle to establish itself.
Morocco has used tax breaks and subsidies to convince thousands of its people to move to Western Sahara to change the make-up of the population. Sahrawi protests are suppressed; torture by the security services is reported. But Morocco has also spent billions of dollars upgrading the infrastructure. Western Sahara’s strategic value has been growing. The side held by Polisario has little in the way of resources. But the portion controlled by Morocco is rich in phosphates and fish. Large reserves of oil may lie offshore. Western Sahara is also a gateway to west Africa, a region to which Moroccan trade is growing. I see little chance for an independent Western Sahara in the future.
Travelling Western Sahara
I enter Western Sahara on a night bus to Laâyoune. The city does not feel different than Moroccan cities to me. I have an hour to walk around town before boarding another bus to Dakhla. We ride through the desert for hours on end. There is a checkpoint but not much else, further south some bays are full of kite-surfers, the conditions seem superb. The berm is far away, and actually reaching it is difficult as no population centres are near it.
I stay the night in Dakhla and take a shared taxi, the only transport available to the Mauritanian border, the next morning. The old Mercedes has a tight net over the front part of the car to prevent sand from reaching the engine. The road is very good and we go fast. The driver plays loud electronic music and it feels if we are flying through the desert. We reach the Moroccan border post; the processing is done quickly. The paved road goes on for a kilometre or so but then suddenly ends. What follows is surreal. For the next two or three kilometres, we slowly make our way through the desert. Abandoned cars line our way. Apparently, no cars older than six years are allowed to be imported into Mauritania leading to the vehicles being abandoned in the no-mans-land. At some point we have to leave the car as some rocks are sticking out from the ground and Mohamed, our driver, wants to get the car lighter. The way is also littered with broken televisions. As we reach the Mauritanian border post, a smooth, paved road returns.
If this report has made you think what I count as a country and what not, read more here.