• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

Forgotten By The World, And Abandoned During A Pandemic: What is the Western Sahara Conflict?

Whilst the World drops everything at hand and rushes to the Coronavirus battlefield, the long-forgotten Western Saharan conflict persists, placing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Sahrawi refugees on the edge of a catastrophe.

Since 1973, Western Sahara has been victim to a restless tug of war between the Polisario Front and Morocco- whom both claim the land as their own- igniting protests, wars and militarily clashes that have sparked decades of instability in the region, and forced thousands to seek refuge in neighboring Algeria.

The Tindouf refugee camp is estimated to house 100,000 Sahrawi refugees- although Morocco argues these numbers are inflated. Most reside in poorly sanitized, medically inadequate, and densely populated areas, creating ideal conditions for a coronavirus outbreak.

Most residents suffer of malnutrition and anemia

Additionally, worrying rumors have begun to circulate, claiming that the Polisario leadership (who have long taken responsibility for the wellbeing of Sahrawi individuals) have abandoned those in the camps, leaving them to their own devices in the wake of this pandemic.

But what has caused these refugees to seek shelter in the first place, what have they been fighting for, and why- after more than 40 years- has no international organization been able to resolve the conflict?

How did the Western Sahara conflict begin?

Between 1884 and 1975, Western Sahara was under Spanish occupation. Following World War 2, when European colonial rule began to unravel, many North African nations saw this as their only opportunity to reclaim land that was unjustly seized from them.

Of these nations were Morocco and Mauritania, who claimed Western Sahara as part of their historical territory.

In late 1975, the Moroccan government organized a ‘Green March,’ where approximately 350,000 Moroccan citizens, accompanied by 20,000 troops, entered Western Sahara, to establish their presence and intimidate unstable Spanish forces.

Spain who, following Moroccan pressure, feared the prospect of a war over the territory, decided to split Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, in accordance with the Madrid Accounts.

The two nations began to settle into the Sahara but were faced by a tenacious force: Western Sahara’s indigenous population.

The Polisario Front V.S. Morocco

The Polisario, a Sahrawi military organization originally established to fend off Spanish forces, refused to submit to another occupation, and so, fought both Morocco and Mauritania with relative success, all in hopes of gaining Sahrawi independence.

They were largely supported by Algeria, who delivered arms, training, financial aid, and food.

In 1976, they declared the establishment of their own country: The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which won limited recognition from other states.

A few years of guerrilla warfare between the fronts exasperated tensions in Northwest Africa and drained the budget of Mauritania who, in 1979, withdrew its forces from the territory.

But Morocco, who had already invested millions of dollars in military expenses, infrastructure, and profitable phosphate mining industries, were far more determined.

For them, the region was seen as a national symbol: an indivisible aspect of their identity.

Years of military clashes between unabating Moroccan and Polisario forces left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

And even though the early stages of the conflict saw frequent peace initiatives (including an empty promise made by the UN to put the Sahara’s self-determination to a vote), Morocco’s invasion persisted.

By the end of 2011, the movement had largely subsided, leaving Morocco with 80% of the territory, and the whole conflict at a stalemate.

Why is Algeria so supportive of the Polisario Front?

The Algerian government, over the decades, has shown more dedication to Western Sahara's independence endeavor than it has to its own population.

And although their intentions have never been formally announced, there are many speculations as to why this is.

On one end of the spectrum, people presume Alegria’s interest is merely political; aimed to destabilize Morocco’s mounting dominance over the region. Algeria, having the upper hand due to its size and natural resources, fears that Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, a land rich with Phosphate and unexplored benefits, would tip the regional balance of power.

Additionally, Morocco and Algeria have had a history of tense political relations. The Western Sahara conflict could be considered a winning card for the Algerian side, although Algeria’s substantial funding over the years makes this a less-likely scenario.

Others claim that Algeria’s desire for Sahrawi independence is purely economical: as it would grant them easy access to the Atlantic for natural resource exportation.

However, a widely accepted, and much more optimistic, theory behind Algeria’s unwavering and unconditional support coincides with their national history. Algeria had previously suffered one of the worst occupations in history, where more than 100 years of unimaginable French brutality and torture claimed the lives of 1.5 million Algerians.

Perhaps their support for the Sahara is rooted in their urge to rid surrounding nations of the unbearable oppression they, themselves, were forced to endure.

The prospect of peace and understanding between the two fronts does not seem any more promising today than it did 40 years ago.

Despite countless efforts, most international organizations refuse to take critical action out of fear of either side’s retaliation.

Both the Polisario Front and Morocco are unpredictable forces, and the possibility of another war would not be out of the question if negotiations between the two go sour.

Despite both sides fighting relentlessly for authority over the land, as the coronavirus ravages through the World’s supplies, neither the Polisario nor Moroccan, fronts appear too keen to aid those they forced into a state of vulnerability.

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