At the entrance to El Aaiún from Tarfaya (about 100 kilometers to the north), after passing an access control post, a narrow mural near a roundabout represents the Green March and, next to it, the map of Morocco painted in red of its flag includes Western Sahara. Its location recalls the invasion of the city by thousands of people on November 6, 1975, an event that King Mohamed VI commemorates every year. That date began Rabat’s occupation of the territory that Spain would leave shortly after after almost 100 years under its sovereignty. Almost half a century later, on the facades of houses in neighborhoods far from the center, you can see black lines that drew the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, all crossed out or covered, as the only symbols that show the resistance of the inhabitants of the city.
Sultana Jaya arrives in Gran Canaria to receive medical care after a year and a half “besieged by Moroccan authorities”
Among the streets of the capital of Western Sahara, a resident greets: “Welcome to Morocco”. A few meters away, in another neighborhood, a neighbor says: “Welcome to the Sahara.” In the city of about 200,000 inhabitants, the headquarters of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) is located, surrounded by a wall and a fence, guarded by Moroccan security forces. The building reminds us that it is still a non-autonomous territory pending decolonization, despite the fact that the United States, France or Spain support the Rabat proposal, which refuses to hold a self-determination process and advocates establishing autonomy under its sovereignty. .
Mohamed VI already reiterated it in his speech to the nation on November 6, in the framework of the 46th anniversary of the Green March: “For Morocco, the Sahara cannot be the object of negotiation” and “represents the essence of national unity of the Kingdom”. He also highlighted the “general development drive” that he says he is carrying out in “infrastructures, economic and social projects” in what he calls “provinces of the south.” Six years earlier, he celebrated the anniversary in El Aaiún with a mass bath and even with a soccer match attended by Diego Armando Maradona.
Not in vain, the main avenue of El Aaiun is called Mohamed VI. It crosses the city from one end to the other and runs parallel to the Saguía el Hamra, an intermittent river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean and which, in turn, gave its name to the northern region of Western Sahara when it belonged to Spain. It is also part of the name of the Polisario Front: Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro; the latter, the southern region. Beneath the Moroccan surface, Saharawi activists resist accepting the occupation despite the reprisals they say they suffer, whether it be for publicly supporting the representative of the Saharawi people and the self-determination referendum, displaying the SADR flag in the streets or simply celebrating a victory for the Algerian football team.
Algeria, which has supported the Polisario Front since its creation in 1976, broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021. Among other reasons, because of the policy that Rabat is developing in Western Sahara. And, recently, he has done the same with the Government of Spain, one day after Pedro Sanchez confirmed his position in the Congress of Deputies: support Morocco’s proposal to solve the conflict because it seems to him the “most serious and credible” to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara, against the entire Parliament.
“The Government of Spain is a traitor to the Saharawis”, says Mohamed Mayari. He is coordinator of Team Average, a media created in 2009 that carries out its work in Western Sahara. Among other recognitions, he has obtained the International Prize for International Journalism Julio Anguita Parrado in 2019 for his work in denouncing the violation of human rights of the population that inhabits occupied territory. “The Government of Spain was a traitor because it left the Saharawis in a miserable situation”, he recalls, and now, with its public support for the Rabat thesis, “it is once again failing in its historical and moral responsibility with the territory”.
“We distinguish what the civilian population does, which is strong and offers us help, from the Government; (The Executive) says that they give us support, they give us food, but we do not want that help, we need international obligations to be fulfilled. If you support the Saharawis, give them political support”, says Mayara. In addition to Equipe Media, he has worked as an employee at El Aaiun City Hall and as a history teacher at a high school. He says that he has been fired from both. In 2007 he participated in a UN human rights meeting in Geneva and, upon returning from it, lost his job “without any explanation”. After five years teaching, he was fired in 2015 for, he adds, his work at Equipe Media. That time, his wife also lost her job, even though she is not an activist.
Mayara has also been one of the founders of the Committee of Families of the Saharawi Martyrs in the Moroccan Secret Prisons. He says that until he was 16 years old he did not know what happened to his father. It was then that three of his uncles came out of the Agdez prison, within the framework of the 1991 ceasefire agreements, and told him that he had been arrested in 1976 and, after protesting that one of his 21-year-old nieces had been “raped and murdered” was also “murdered”. These prisons were created clandestinely by Morocco to lock up activists and supporters of the Polisario Front.
Gdeim Izik 11 years later
Currently, there are more than 40 “Sahrawi political prisoners” in Moroccan jails, locked up for their political demands. A group of people who were arrested and tried by military and civil courts after the protests during November 2010 in the Gdeim Izik camps, in the largest protest of the Saharawis since Spain left the territories, which was harshly repressed by the Moroccan government. One of the prisoners is Mohamed Bani, sentenced to life imprisonment.
His wife, Aajna Ghali, says she must travel 600 kilometers to visit him in Ait Mellou prison. There he “is forbidden to see the sun” as there are no windows and, unlike other prisoners, “he must be in his cell all day.” She, with the support of her family, raises her five children.”I suffer for them, they ask me about their father, they ask me when he is going to get out of jail,” she says, with a voice shaky.
Ghali tells his story with the translation of Mayara, who organized the meeting at the home of Kira Ahmad Mbarek, mother of Said Damber. At the age of 26, he was assassinated in 2010, after the Gdeim Izik protests. Said’s face covers one of the walls of the room where the conversation takes place between glasses of tea, dates and milk. Khalil Damber recalls that his brother was shot by the Moroccan police when, on December 22, 2021, he left a cyber-café where he watched the Copa del Rey match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao.
“We continue to fight, because we want the truth, justice,” remarks Khalil. The family denounces that an autopsy was never carried out to clarify the causes of his death and they did not give them the body to bury it. In October 2011, a trial was held in El Ayoun in which policeman Jamal Takermch was sentenced to 15 years for accidentally firing his gun. “It was all a lie, they said there was only one, but there were at least three policemen,” adds Khalil, “it was a state crime.”
Since then, every year, on the anniversary of his murder, the family protests in front of his house with the support of other Saharawis. “Our house is like a symbol of the struggle,” adds Khalid, who then shows a video on his cell phone showing how the police assault his mother in one of those protests. During all these years, his family has not stopped demanding justice, despite reprisals and, he adds, blackmail to accept jobs in exchange for silence.
Do all the Saharawis who live in El Aaiun support the self-determination referendum? “Here there are Saharawis in favor of the cause and Saharawis in favor of Morocco, it’s 47 years of occupation,” explains Khalid. “There are traitors and people who work in favor of them”, he clarifies, “but the majority is with the cause and against Morocco”, although “there are few Saharawis left in El Aaiun, most of the young people leave, not there is work and there is a lot of pressure here”.
In fact, he has lived in Lanzarote for 24 years, where his children were born. “We are eleven brothers: four are living abroad (two in France and two in Spain); the others are here, in El Ayoun, except for two, who reside in Morocco”. He remembers that in 1989 he lived in the Tindouf refugee camps, until 1994. “Then we went to Mauritania, we got a visa and we moved to Spain, in 1998”. On the rabbit island he worked in the hotel industry. He returned to El Aaiún when the pandemic began, to be with his mother and sisters
Khalil recounts that every time he tries to return to El Ayoun he has “problems at the airport”. “They are always bothering us, it is very difficult to live here, they don’t let you do anything, they take your job away if you are with the cause or they force you to be silent.” He now hopes to be able to travel to France because in Lanzarote “there are no more jobs”. Khalil sees it as “very difficult” for the self-determination referendum to be held one day. “Now we are at war,” he recalls, after the Polisario Front declared the end of the ceasefire in November 2020.
“We will keep going, we will never give up. We have the reason to resist, our cause is just. We must continue to resist the Moroccan occupation. It is necessary to exert more pressure against the Moroccan occupation, to free the Saharawi political prisoners and to protect the human rights of the Saharawis living in the occupied territory”, concludes Aajna Ghali.