Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sahrawi Broadcaster Describes Western Sahara Freedom Struggle

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sahrawi Broadcaster Describes Western Sahara Freedom Struggle

Article excerpt

Sahrawi Broadcaster Describes Western Sahara Freedom Struggle

The Western Sahara, an arid, sparsely populated northwest African territory roughly the size of Great Britain, is the setting for one of the last and longest struggles for self-determination in the world. Zahra Ramdane, a Sahrawi woman very much involved in that campaign, was born in the Western Saharan capital of El-Ayoun, has lived in refugee camps in Algeria since 1982, and has not seen her family in 17 years. A radio broadcaster for the Sahrawi Ministry of Information, she met with the Washington Report on a recent speaking tour of the U.S.

The Western Sahara had been occupied by Spain from the late 19th century until early 1976, when the Franco government withdrew from the territory because of growing nationalism among the Sahrawi inhabitants and escalating costs of maintaining the Spanish presence there. Sahrawi aspirations for an independent state were thwarted, however, when neighboring Morocco and Mauritania claimed the right to divide the territory between them.

The Polisario Front, founded by Sahrawi nationalists in 1973, resisted the territory's division both in the diplomatic arena and on the battlefield, and Mauritania eventually relinquished its claim.

Morocco, however, did not, despite the fact that the International Court of Justice dismissed Morocco's historical claim to the area in October 1975. Instead, King Hassan of Morocco has staked his regime's prestige on Morocco's assimilation of the Western Sahara. He personally promoted the "Green March" in November 1975, when nearly 200,000 Moroccan demonstrators crossed into the territory to establish Morocco's claim. Its success helped stabilize the rule of the king, who had narrowly escaped assassination attempts in 1971 and 1972.

Of the thousands of Sahrawis who fled following the Moroccan occupation, most have settled in a cluster of refugee camps across the border near Tindouf, Algeria. The Polisario Front has carried out military operations against the Moroccan army from this base, and laid the foundation there for a future Sahrawi state.

In fact, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed on Feb. 27, 1976, one day after Spain's formal withdrawal. Although the SADR maintains effective control over most of the Western Saharan land mass, "le Sahara utile" ("the useful Sahara"), containing the territory's major cities and most of its natural resources, remains firmly in Morocca, hands, protected from Polisario attacks by a network of electronic defenses and a huge sand embankment called "the berm."

A Military Stalemate

Locked in a military stalemate for nearly 20 years, it is clear that the Polisario cannot drive the Moroccans out. Nor, so long as Algiers protects the Polisario in its Algerian enclave, can the Royal Armed Forces extend Moroccan control beyond the confines of the berm.

Hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict therefore lie with a U.N.-sponsored referendum allowing Sahrawis to vote either for integration into Morocco or for independence. Despite the presence of a U.N. contingent, known as MINURSO, to maintain a cease-fire in the territory and to conduct the referendum, the vote has been delayed repeatedly by disagreements over voter eligibility.

Morocco and the Polisario each accepted the 1974 Spanish census as the basis for a list of eligible voters, but Morocco has since demanded the inclusion of 104,000 additional voters. These, Morocco claims, are descendants of Sahrawis who emigrated to Morocco before 1974. The Polisario rejects these names, arguing that people not recorded during the century of Spanish occupation are unlikely to be true Sahrawis. The U.N. currently is attempting to reach a compromise on voter registration, though with little progress to date.

Zahra Ramdane is emphatic in her conviction that "the U.N. peace plan is the only way to solve this question." She maintains it "has not been implemented due to the block of the Moroccan government. …

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