Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony. It was colonised by Spain for century and later invaded by Morocco in 1975. The indigenous Saharawi led by the Polisario, their national liberation movement, fought a 16 year war against the new occupiers. The conflict led to a mass exodus of Saharawi civilians who were forced to flee aerial bombardments of napalm and cluster bombs and seek refuge in neighbouring Algeria. There in its harsh SW desert corner, they were allowed to establish the Saharawi state-in-exile in refugee camps. An estimated 200,000 are spread out today over five camps. Each one is named after a town in their homeland.
The occupying Moroccan forces divided the territory by building the world’s largest military wall and the second longest wall after the China Wall. Over the years Morocco has sought to strengthen its occupation and illegally exploit Western Sahara’s rich natural resources. Following a ceasefire in 1991 the UN was supposed to organize a referendum for Saharawi self-determination in Western Sahara to fullfil the decolonisation process. This was supposed to take place in early 1992 but it has yet to take place.
The indigenous Saharawis living under Moroccan rule have been suffering from ongoing human rights violations denounced by prominent international organisations ever since the conflict started. More than 300 remain disappeared since 1975. Meanwhile, their culture and traditions have become a means for the Saharawis’ peaceful struggle and survival, both in the occupied territories and the refugee camps.
Click here for a chronological overview of the conflict.
The conflict in depth
Western Sahara is the subject of a territorial dispute between Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975 and claims sovereignty there, and the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement representing the Saharawis, which calls for an independent state in the territory.
Currently, Western Sahara is divided politically, militarily, and geographically by a 2,700 km-long Moroccan-built defensive berm. About a fifth of the territory, lying east of the berm, is controlled by the Polisario Front.
The sixteen-year war that broke out in 1975, when Morocco and Mauritania jointly invaded Western Sahara upon Spain’s rapid exit from its former colony, is undoubtedly the single most important cause behind the large-scale displacement of the Saharawi population. Today, most of them are still refugees in the barren and remote desert of south-west Algeria. They live in camps run by the Polisario Front. The government-in-exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), also operates from the camps. Read more…