Images: Western Sahara refugee camp © Bård Ove Myhr
Most have little or no understanding of the conflict situation just 100km east of The Canary Islands.  Africa’s last colonial battlefield has been in a state of ceasefire since 1991, when UN peacekeeping forces brokered a truce in order to ensure a referendum was held on self-determination.  Originally agreed to by Morocco, who then changed their minds once the Sahawari fighters laid down their arms, the area has been in a state of limbo ever since with tens of thousands living under occupation, as second class citizens in their own land and an estimated 180,000 native Sahawari’s having spent the last three or four decades in refugee camps, in exile across the Algerian border.  That the world’s press rarely if ever refers to the conflict has led to it being referred to as Sahara’s Forgotten War, and Africa’s last de facto colonial struggle for independence.


By Lencer – CC BY-SA 3.0

Previously under military occupation, known as Spanish Sahara, the last vestiges of European colonial rule resulted, in November 1975, in the The Green March, with Morocco laying claim to the resource rich area.  Just two weeks before the death of Spain’s ailing dictator, Morocco’s King (Sultan), Hassan II, organised a strategic march of 350,000 Moroccan citizens and some 20,000 troops into the territory to claim it following Spanish withdrawal.  This led to a backlash from the Sahawari fighters who had originally formed to expel the Europeans, and a 16 year-long war ensued, only coming to terms with the announcement of the UN backed referendum.

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established by Security Council resolution 690 of 29 April 1991 in accordance with settlement proposals accepted on 30 August 1988 by Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO).

Polisario Front in Western Sahara Free Zone, Image: © Bård Ove Myhr

The Sahawari are the only people ever to have been recognised be the international community as the native population of the territory and no country in the world has ever recognised Morocco’s claims to it.  For 29 years tension has been mounting as optimism, and patience turned to hope, then frustration and and despair as the world turned its back on the situation. Fighting broke out this week, with armed clashes following the clearing of peaceful protesters who had been blockading a road, they say was built in direct contravention of the UN truce, resulting in skirmishes and live rounds being fired. The Polisario Front declared the ceasefire to have been broken and immediately launched a counter offensive.

On Friday Moroccan forces moved into a buffer strip, at the Guerguerat zone, following what they called weeks of “provocations” from members of the pro-independence Polisario Front, to which Algeria is also sympathetic. While Morocco denies that there were any victims in the clashes with the Polisario Front, it did announce this Saturday that there have been “fatalities.”

By Abjiklam Western Sahara CC BY SA 4.0

The Moroccan occupation is cordoned by a more than 2,700km wall, or berm, the second longest in the world, erected in the eighties by Morocco from north to south of the Sahara and separating the occupied territory from the arid desert wastelands in which the free sahawari population survive until this day.  It separates the Moroccan areas (the Southern Provinces), to the west, from the Polisario-controlled areas (Free Zone, nominally the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) to the east.

According to official sources in Rabat, no casualties had resulted during the two days following the removal of the protests.  The Polisario Front, however, announced this Saturday that it considers the ceasefire signed with Rabat to have been broken, and decreed a state of war throughout the territory in response to the attack perpetrated on Friday, when Moroccan military units crossed this dividing line to break the blockade and build a security corridor.

Polisario Front train in Western Sahara Free Zone, Image: © Bård Ove Myhr

There have been reported exchanges of fire between the Moroccan Army and the Polisario forces stationed in the area. Saharawi units say they have bombed four military bases and two Moroccan checkpoints located along the desert wall with tension between Rabat and the Polisario (in exile) has skyrocketed.

The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ramped up efforts Friday to get Morocco and pro-independence supporters to step back from fighting, warning that the clashes could rupture nearly 30 year’s of cease-fire and warning that any escalation could have “grave consequences.” without specifically accusing either party.

Here on the Canary Islands, regional politicians from the Coalición Canarias demanded the UN intervene to guarantee the ceasefire in Western Sahara continues, while members of Podemos have voiced their “rejection” of “military action” instigated by the Moroccan army, in the area of ​​El Guerguerat against the Sahrawi civilian population, who were peacefully protesting against the deployment of a contingent of the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie dressed as civilians, as well as the presence in the area of ​ military commanders from the Alawite kingdom, which they consider to be “a serious breach of the ceasefire” signed in 1991.

Polisario Front train in Western Sahara Free Zone, Image: © Bård Ove Myhr

What is clear, is that tension has been building for quite some time, as Morocco continues to strip resources from the region with consistent reports of oppressive policies that do not favour the native Sahawari population.  With forty years of diaspora, and many young Sahawaris having grown impatient while the world turns a blind eye, there is every likelihood that the current generation may be willing to take up arms once more to try to secure a better future for their people.

Morocco continues to try to downplay the situation.  External international observers, however, agree that this is the most significant development in this ongoing conflict for more than generation.