Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Western Sahara: A Primer

What do you know about Western Sahara?

Okay, funny joke, smart guy. It's in the western Sahara. Didn't see THAT one coming from a mile away.

What else do you know about it? Don't bother looking in an atlas, or the CIA Factbook, because unlike just about every other place on Earth, you'll primarily find a lot of occurrences of the abbreviation "n/a". Not available. When you see a map comparing how the various countries of Earth perform in almost any statistic, almost invariably, there will be a grey splotch of mystery right below Morocco.

Welcome to the Western Sahara. There's a lot more going on here than 'not available'.

In 1884, the Western Sahara- like the rest of Africa- became a European colony, in their case by Spain. Morocco took a degree of control on the close of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, and would assert further control amidst the end of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's rule, culminating in Spanish withdrawal in 1975.

This created a power vacuum consisting of three forces: northern neighbor Morocco, eastern neighbor Mauritania, and the independence-minded Polisario Front, comprised of a coalition of local Sahrawi tribes. A mutual neighbor to all three, Algeria, sided with the Polisarios, and alongside them would have to deal with Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south. This came despite a finding from the International Court of Justice that agreed with Algeria and found that the people of the Western Sahara wanted independence. Thus began a period of armed conflict that would last until 1991, with the Polisario forming a government-in-exile in Algeria.

The Mauritanians gave in in 1979. Morocco, however, would wait the Algerians out for an additional decade. A UN peace proposal was floated in 1988, specifying a referendum on whether the Sahrawis preferred independence or to become part of Morocco. However, the referendum stalled, and when Algeria shifted focus to internal matters soon afterwards, Morocco had the upper hand. There would be no referendum. A cease-fire was declared in 1991.

Morocco had not gotten off easy- the war had proven costly even after being backed by aid from Western powers treating it as a Cold War proxy (Morocco was Western-aligned; Algeria was Eastern-aligned), but through the 80's, Morocco had been slowly constructing berms- low sand wall fortifications across various sections of Western Sahara. The berms aren't just sand, though. They include bunkers, trenches, barbed wire fences, landmines, and electronic detection systems, as well as rapid-response forces defending against Polisario incursions.

Here's a map of where the Berm was built and when. The yellow are on the map is Polisartio-controlled. Morocco controls all access to anything of value. This includes all cities of note. Morocco now refers to the area behind the Berm as the 'Southern Provinces'. The Polisario refers to the area not behind the Berm as the 'Free Zone'. The UN, wishing not to take sides, refers to the areas respectively as 'west of the Berm' and 'east of the Berm'.

The Free Zone is largely uninhabited desert, unsuitable for anyone except nomads. Most Sahrawi, and the Polisario leadership, to this day still reside in the Algerian camps in borderland Tindouf Province (also noted on the map), where Algeria is generally happy to have them. Some Moroccans regard even Tindouf as historically theirs, and not just Tindouf and Western Sahara, but the entirety of Mauritania and even parts of Mali. Aside from Western Sahara, though, it's not acted upon much aside from stoking internal emotions.

For a refugee camp in the middle of the Sahara Desert entirely reliant on aid from the host nation, the Sahrawi camps are actually fairly well done. Far from the ramshackle tents seen in Darfur, the Sahrawi have been able to construct solid housing, though tents were deployed after a 2006 flood. As of 1995 (unfortunately the most recent available figures), the literacy rate was pegged at 90%, a total reversal of the sub-10% they saw upon entering the camps. There's a functioning internal democracy, and as of last year, a university is under construction on Free Zone soil. However, there simply aren't enough basic supplies to go around, and sickness and malnutrition are widespread. While the Sahrawi have constructed a semi-livable environment, they'd much rather be home.

The Sahrawi continue to push for a referendum, but difficulties always arise given the fact that there is no reliable count of just how many refugees there are. The Polisario refuses to allow a census for fear of tipping its hand as to their potential strength in such a referendum, and nobody can be sure how many refugees have departed the camps for Mauritania or Mali. A UN mission, MINURSO, was conducted for the specific purpose of conducting the referendum, but it ended without success in 2004. The other major stumbling block is that Morocco insists on having its own Western Sahara settlers take part in the referendum, and since everyone's at least fairly sure that the Moroccan settlers outnumber the grand total of Sahrawis, this is a non-starter.

And so the refugee camps persist.

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