Elaine Obenshain statement in the 4th Committee
Thank you, Your Excellency,
Five years ago, I watched a documentary on the plight of the Saharawi people isolated in the Polisario camps in the desert of Algeria. It was my first exposure to the horrible conditions suffered by the Saharawi people in the camps, and I spent the next year researching the conflict in the region. As I learned the history and current realities of the situation, it became clear to me that the best opportunity for true representation of the Saharawi people was found within the Moroccan Autonomy Plan.
But I felt I needed to personally see the truths of the region.
I went with the genuine intent to listen to the stories of ordinary people who wanted to share their experiences of life in Laayoune. From those visits, I recognized the often-inaccurate portrayal of life in the region, and I feel obligated to present the realities I’ve experienced.
Unfortunately, people going about their daily lives, raising their children, getting an education, working for better jobs and actively participating in self-governance is a normalcy that does not capture the attention of the press or most NGOs. Yet this reality is valid for the Saharawi people living in the Western Sahara within the borders of Morocco. Let me share just a few of their stories.
I spoke with two young men who started an active association for the preservation of Saharawi resources and traditions. I met a woman who started her own business selling preserved camel meat. She now employs five other women providing incomes for their families. Another woman opened an orphanage in Laayoune and a Saharawi cultural center in Rabat.
Saharawi men who were captured and tortured by the Polisario showed me the scars on their wrists and ankles from ropes used to bind them inside grave-like holes. Some spoke of family that remained in the camps and the sadness they felt from separation from their loved ones. They spoke of the fear they had for those who had not escaped the oppression of the camps. They spoke of their love for their country and deep-rooted allegiance to Morocco.
The Saharawi people are not segregated below an imaginary line drawn on the map. Hassan, an elementary school headmaster lives in Guelmim where his public school has won numerous awards for excellence. He is an example of a Saharawi whose voice would be excluded in the referendum proposed by the Polisario - even though his heritage is the same as one who lives in Laayoune, Smara or Dakhla.
Other Saharawi representatives hold official positions throughout Morocco. Are they less “Saharawi” than their counterparts living south of an arbitrary line drawn in the sand? Who decides who is Saharawi and who is not? Whose voice is valid and whose is irrelevant?
Over the years, I’ve made new friendships and grown close to the people of the Sahara. I’ve traveled as a private citizen visiting at my own initiative and expense. I stay in Saharawi homes, play with their children, visit their schools, and attend their weddings. I have always enjoyed unrestricted access, open communication, and assurance of safety.
In my observation, Morocco has already successfully implemented the Autonomy Plan :
- through free and open regional and national elections;
- by developing a modern infrastructure to support commerce and employment;
- and building schools and technology centers to provide education and job preparedness for its citizens.
The cultural identity of the Saharawi people is protected and preserved through language, art and social traditions. Human rights are protected under Moroccan constitutional law as well as independent observation by civil societies.
It is the Saharawi people who have inspired me to advocate for autonomy. I’m confident that Morocco’s AUTONOMY PLAN is the only realistic and credible solution representing a viable approach to satisfy the aspirations of the Saharawi people to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my personal experiences with you today.