Here is the full interview that we conducted on International Panorama with Chaia Ahmed Baba, of the Sahrawi Youth Union (UJSARIO), and the message that Hamdi Omar Youbali, also of the UJSARIO sent us from the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.
Tell us about the history of the Saharawi people
Chaia: The Sahara was a Spanish colony. People denied it, did not want it. So when people realized and became more aware of the situation, they protested, they wanted Spain to leave the territory. And there were many attempts by, say, guerrillas to achieve this. There were losses, there were disappeared.
When Spain withdrew we were at war with Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania withdrew, that is why we have a part of Western Sahara that is liberated. With Morocco we entered into a very strong war, where blood was spilled. We have many martyrs there.
The Sahrawis were bombed, they had a very rough time. They had to find a more peaceful area, where they can establish a state. They began to carry out this State so that it can have greater recognition by the world.
So Algeria was the destination. It is the one who opened its arms to us and we found refuge there. But it was not an easy refuge. It was full desert, lifeless. You can imagine the situation, but it was enough for the Sahrawis because they insisted, they wanted to take this State forward and make the world know about this situation.
And in 1991 the “ceasefire” agreement was signed because they wanted a peaceful solution. It is not because they could not continue the war, but the UN got involved with the idea of negotiating peacefully and we are peaceful people who believe in peace, we do not want wars. So we have accepted this agreement, but it did not advance, it did nothing and since then we are in this fight, let’s say, neither peace nor war. It is still a silent fight, the Sahara was recognized by many countries, it is true. But many more have not recognized it. It remains semi-unknown to the world. The refuge, the beginning of the refuge was in 1975, a refuge, war. But after the “ceasefire”, we have focused more on education, it was the starting point for the establishment of this people.
What is life like in Western Sahara today, socially, economically and politically?
Chaia: The life of Western Sahara, let’s say, at present. Since the refuge began, well, since the “ceasefire” agreement was signed, I told you that we have begun to focus more on making society more up to date with the development of the world, education.
So at the political level we have a varied conflict. We have the State, the party that is the Polisario. It is a party, which is well organized. I already told you that after the refuge we have focused on organizing the population. We have something called “Wilaya”, which is something like provinces, with well-organized cells. You can call it the most organized camp in the world, because it is well organized as a State. What happens is that it is in a desert terrain, where we do not have many possibilities.
Economically, we in the refugee camps live on humanitarian aid. There are donor countries, the European Union, Algeria in the first place.
In all areas of education we have scholarships, food, you could say in everything.
But there is an exploitation of natural resources in the occupied areas. We are in a very advanced position of the Sahara in fishing and also in Phosphate. But those resources are heavily exploited by the European Union. They commerce with our natural resources without our consent and without the consent of our only legitimate representative, the Polisario. The normal thing would be to negotiate with it, but it is not done, they negotiate with Morocco, instead of the Polisario.
And that cannot be done, because they have no right to negotiate with our fishing, because it is not normal for a people to live on donations, humanitarian aid, having those fishing resources or this wealth from which they could live, and more people could live. And we continue to live on donations. In other words, what they earn through this fishing, we live on … that is, it is shameful, to negotiate with someone’s wealth and give them donations, it is a laugh!
There is also another social aspect, it is the life of the camps. In this desert we have made a life, we have given it life. After the war and the “ceasefire” we have been able to establish schools, hospitals, education centers and those are like a starting motor for the future. But there are many problems, for example, there are no job opportunities for the youth and that is another obstacle that we are facing.
That is in the camps, but in the occupied areas it is another world. Those people, let’s say, we have suffered at the beginning as refugees, but they started to suffer when they started to protest. When they went out into the street, to say we don’t want this, we want our freedom. They went out peacefully, but faced violence, imprisonment. They are mistreated, tortured. Both women and men are raped, tortured. They cannot speak freely. Economically they are in prison, unemployment, less rights.
Morocco says that the Sahara is part of Morocco, but then if it is part of Morocco, why are the people there not enjoying those rights? You say it is part of Morocco, but they don’t live like the rest of Morocco.
They cannot attend the universities, the same happens with schools, they cannot be in the street, even in their houses they cannot live in peace. They can come at any time, grab you and take you to jail, you can’t be at peace.
So, we are not only suffering in the camps, but also in the occupied areas, even more. Where there is also a media blockade.
How has the fight for self-determination developed?
Chaia: After the “ceasefire” in the presence or under the control of the UN, the objective was to hold a referendum on self-determination. Let that people choose what they want. Morocco says it is part of Morocco, the Polisario says it is part of the Sahara. So let the people decide. What do you want? Make a referendum, they choose what they want. That was the objective of the agreement they had in the “ceasefire” and to negotiate. But there was no progress, there was no development.
Also, the UN does not want this to advance, because if this international organization wanted an advance, it would get it. But it doesn’t want to. Because many countries in the world negotiated through asking for self-determination or a referendum and have achieved what they wanted, most of them. Why not the Sahara? Well, the only answer that I am sure is because there are powers, there are powerful countries behind this. There is France, which does not want that to happen, does not want Western Sahara to have its freedom, its sovereignty, its land. There is also Israel, there are many more countries. There are also Arab countries that do not want this to move forward. So, with this problem, how are we going to achieve our rights?
We are in a situation that we feel frustrated, we do not know what to do. The only way that youth and people think is war. But there are many people who do not want war. There are mothers, there are children who do not want war. They don’t want to lose more people. But year after year it is seen to be the only solution.
We were born thinking that everyone is living like us, in a desert. We do not live our childhood as it should, we live it among the sand, the sun, the heat, without being able to enjoy the sea, without being able to enjoy our riches, without being able to be with our relatives. For example, my family, my grandparents, my uncles, I never saw them. They exist, but I can’t see them. They are in the occupied areas, I cannot see them, I have never been able to see them. So I don’t want another generation to suffer the same, I don’t want my children, my grandchildren to suffer the same.
There is also one thing that the economy is above Human Rights. If a country wants to recognize Western Sahara, but has its economic business with Morocco, with France or with the European Union, with our fishing. They cannot make that decision and follow this path, because they are going to lose in the economy. That is why I always say that the economy is above Human Rights.
So we feel like we don’t know what to do. We don’t want war, but we also don’t want this life. How much longer? How much longer are we going to bear the situation we are living, both in the occupied areas and in the camps? In the camps there are difficult conditions, there the heat exceeds 56 degrees in the summer. Living in mud houses, covered by metal plates, something that attracts more heat. And with climate change that makes temperatures rise more, that makes us suffer more. And we don’t want to give up, because we can’t, because it doesn’t come from our hearts. Because we are fighting for something where there are people who died for this. If those people gave their lives for that thing, of course it’s fair. It gives a certainty that when you think of the martyrs, you say, they died, they gave the most precious thing that their lives have. Then we can hold on. But until when? And above all peacefully. So I don’t see a development of the situation through the UN and through those powers. But we continue resisting.
Women and youth have played a leading role in the rebellions that have crossed the world in recent years. Is this expressed in Western Sahara too?
Chaia: The Sahrawi woman was the fundamental part of the Sahrawi struggle. Because in the times of the war, it was woman who educated, who established schools with their hands and organized the cells in the “wilaya” provinces.
They were everything, because when men, and not only men went to war, there were also women, but most of the women stayed there in the camps educating the children, informally or formally, organizing everything. You can even say that the camp was established by women. In everything social, education, in everything. And they have not stopped there, they have continued and continue to be a fundamental and important part of that fight.
The Sahrawi woman is a minister, the Sahrawi woman is a teacher, the Sahrawi woman is a mother, the Sahrawi woman is a worker, housewife, everything. You can find her everywhere, so when you come to the camps you will notice that there is an incredible feminine movement. The woman feels free, she feels powerful, she feels supported by the man and not behind the man, she feels on the same path as the man.
In the occupied areas in most of the protests you see women there facing Moroccan men, from the Moroccan army. They get hit, raped and they are still there giving everything.
Young people are also the engine. Young people are everywhere. Most of the organizations are of the youth, because there is the youth organization, the union of youth and sports, the union of young Sahrawi women, the union of women.
But the youth only feels the frustration. It is frustrated, they are in a very critical situation. And what happens is that each year the need is greater and the consciousness is greater. And you want to live and fight more. They reach a point of exploding, they can no longer stand it. They already think more about war than peace, although they are peaceful and want peace. But if there are no peaceful solutions then it is war. Both women and men are prepared, they are very prepared, but they still have faith that this can end peacefully, but each time we see that it cannot.
How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected Western Sahara?
Chaia: As I mentioned before that the base of the establishment of this State was with education.
It started with non-formal education, trying to educate most people, both older and younger, women and men, without having to be of a certain age to study. The old, the old, that is, all the figures, began to educate themselves and they have succeeded. Since then, education has been the most fundamental thing.
Due to the pandemic, we have not been able to continue with education, perhaps they have done something, but not entirely. With the internet it was not possible. Since we are in a remote area, in the middle of the desert, then the connection is a bit difficult. It is a little difficult to study online, it is impossible. So it is affecting us a lot.
But the danger is in the occupied areas, there had been no cases in the occupied areas. But when the occupant realized that there were no cases, he did not control the area. He did not apply confinement in the occupied area. Because it comes in handy for people to get infected.
There had been no cases, but in a short time, sending people, workers from Morocco, infected with the pandemic to occupied areas, the cases began. Opening the borders for Sub-Saharan Africans to enter from southern Africa, cases increased. That has us very worried, super worried.
Moroccan hospitals have no quality, they don’t care about people’s lives, much less Sahrawis’. Then you can imagine the danger. We are not very calm. Fortunately, everything is controlled in the camps, everyone is applying confinement as it should. There are no cases, we are taking good care of ourselves, with limited possibilities and material conditions. But we have been able to control this and avoid cases.
How important is international solidarity for you? And what would you like to say to the ISL militants who are listening in various countries of the world?
Chaia: Well the role that these organizations play is very important in our fight because of the support they give us, we feel stronger.
So my message to organizations is that it is very important for us that you support this cause, that you put pressure on governments, to come out with us, to talk about Western Sahara, so that the world knows about it. It is a silenced story, it is a hidden story.
We are tired and we do not want war, we want peace. But we need support, we need countries to recognize Western Sahara and we need organizations that support, that speak, that fight alongside us. Like us who are fighting alongside many organizations, even if they are not related to us. But we feel they have the right to achieve their goals, so we fight alongside them. So we want the same thing, that they fight alongside us, that they make the world know about this just cause and those peaceful people that all they want is to live in peace like any human. And that no more generations are born in this desert thinking that it is the only thing there is.
All organizations are important to us. What interests us are the common points, the shared struggles. So I feel very happy to be able to find this space where I could express myself, where I could speak freely about the cause. And to you, thank you really for giving us this time, giving us this space and listening to us. We appreciate that very much. And thank you very much and for many more projects ahead.