This is a Sahrawi human rights story that is happening now, as you’re reading this. It is a story you would expect to see in a press release from Human Rights Watch or the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation — except that both of these organizations, which repeatedly profess to be deeply concerned about Sahrawis’ human rights, curiously ignore events that reveal abuses suffered by Sahrawis living in the Polisario and Algerian-controlled refugee camps outside Tindouf in southern Algeria. It is also the kind of story you might expect to see in the State Department’s annual report to Congress on human rights in Western Sahara — except that they too seem even more curiously uninterested in the rights of those suffering under the Polisario’s authoritarian governance. They garner no attention whatsoever in a quite lengthy State Department report on Western Sahara.
This story is about several young Sahrawis in a three-car convoy ambushed by an Algerian security patrol near the border with Mauritania late on the night of January 5. They were headed towards the border intending to sell small quantities of gasoline in the villages there to supplement their meager existence, otherwise wholly dependent on humanitarian assistance doled out by Polisario authorities in the camps. Two were killed and at least one other was wounded.
Following the shooting of these young Sahrawis, members of their families and others belonging to the same tribe began a protest in front of Polisario police headquarters in the “Smara” refugee camp. They demanded an accounting for the deaths and wounding and a return of the bodies of the dead. Over the next several days the protests grew as more members of their tribe joined. Eventually, several hundred protesters occupied the Police station. Both police and local gendarmes refused orders from Polisario leadership to arrest the demonstrators and instead abandoned the station and began a strike. The Polisario response was to call in the militia, surround the camp and impose a lockdown and curfew. Polisario militia around the camps are now reinforced with Algerian security services and helicopter patrols overhead. The lockdown and curfew have now also been extended to all the refugee camps in the region.
At the same time, several hundred more protesters joined two other young Sahrawis who are on hunger strike in front of the office of the UN refugee agency in the Polisario headquarters camp at Rabouni. These two have been protesting the confiscation of their vehicles after being arrested for similarly selling small quantities of gasoline in Mauritania. They demand the return of their vehicles and the right to continue this kind of small commercial activity. To prevent the protest in the headquarters camp from growing larger, Polisario security forces intervened, beating the protestors and detaining an unknown number. The two protestors on hunger strike were reportedly removed from the site and taken to Tindouf.
I heard the details from four cousins of the Smara victims last week while I was in Western Sahara and elsewhere in Morocco. They were in daily telephone contact with their friends and relatives in the camps to get real-time information about the uprisings and protests that are currently underway. They are angry and emotional and dumbfounded that no one in the international community is paying attention, that no one seems to care about what happens to their family and friends in the refugee camps. These latest developments and the shooting of their family members for something so trivial as selling a bit of gasoline across the border have them insisting on “revenge.” They report that protestors in the camps are resolved to continue their uprising until there is a full accounting of these events and an end to Polisario’s attempts to keep them dependent on Polisario handouts by preventing them from earning even a small living.
As of this writing, the protests continue in Smara camp and the camp remains on lockdown, under heavy Polisario and Algerian security control.
In the latest development, Polisario “president-for-life” Mohamad Abdelaziz, who has held his office for more than 35 years, has called a meeting at the Polisario headquarters in Rabouni of all the elders and sheiks of the various tribes in an attempt to bring the protests to an end. Ten vehicles full of Algerian security personnel are reported to have entered the Rabouni camps for the meeting two days ago.
Tragic as these events are, they are not surprising. International security experts have been highlighting for the last three years the potentially explosive danger these camps present to the already fragile and chaotic security situation in the larger Sahara/Sahel area. Indeed, at a major international security forum I attended in Marrakech last week, the subject of these camps and their potential dangers to the region was a topic of preoccupation among many of the hundreds of experts from the immediate region, Africa, Europe and the United States.
At that forum, there was a common theme. The time has come to stop simply talking about the nature of the problem in such get-togethers and instead focus on the need for immediate remedial actions, including taking a census of the camps to identify who is really there, and allowing those who wish to leave and return home to their families in Morocco to do so freely without reprisals.
At the very least, expressions of concern for the rights of the refugees living in these increasingly dangerous camps from those who claim to be the international guardians of human rights might be a very good place to start; today, before the situation there spins wholly out of control.
Robert M. Holley is Senior Policy Advisor for the Moroccan American Center for Policy, MACP