Western Sahara: the Tale of A Wall

“DOWN with the Moroccan wall of shame.”

On March 22, 2008, the rally jingled in Mahbes, a small city in northern side of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

“The day of freedom for Western Sahara will certainly come and it is very close,” said Belen, a 21-years old young lady from Madrid, Spain. The Sahara Press Service (SPS),the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) official press agency, reports that Belen argued the Moroccan-constructed sandy wall a symbol of colonialism and therefore need to be shattered. Another protester was Miguel, a 28-years old computer specialist from another city in Spain, Saragossa. He expressed his respect to the persistence of the Sahrawi people and their affection to peace. According to the news agency, most of the 2,500 protesters were European. It is said; intentionally Belen and Miguel were there to “complete” their country’s responsibility back to the day when the Spain, which had occupied the territory since 1884, left Western Sahara in February1976.(1)


Sahrawi or Saharawi is a general term referring to persons living in the Sahara, more specifically the refugees from the Western Sahara. The desert land of 266,000 square kilometers is bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria and Mauritania to the east, Mauritania to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Sahrawi consists of number of tribes, sub tribes and faction of mixed Arab, Berber and black African descent. Until 1985, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Sahrawis people have sheltered in desert region of Tindouf, Algeria, the biggest Sahrawis refugees’ compound outside Western Sahara.(2)

The land has been an object of dispute even before Spain ended its nine-decades colonization in February 1976. Three years earlier local Sahrawis established Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro, better known as Polisario, an arm movement with Sahrawis’ independence as its main goal. In another hand Morocco claimed Western Sahara was a part of Greater Morocco prior to the Spain colonization.

Many of Sharawis who were seeking a protection in the Algerian refugee camps, together with those who fled to the Moroccan territory in 1950s, were nomadic communities from small cities in the middle of the desert, such as Laayoun, Dakhla, La Guera, the famous Smara, and a phosphate-mining city of Bou Craa. A report submitted by the League of Red Cross Societies in 1975 and 1976 describes that the refugee camps were set up in the heart of the desert, in the area where finding any waterholes was not an easy thing to do. The climate was hostile; it was very hot in the daytime and at the nighttime the temperatures dropped extremely. Numerous of them had been living in poor tents, while many others spent their days and nights in the open desert. Most of refugee had big problem with their health; they were exhausted after marching thousand miles across the desert. Most of refugees were women and children and yet a lot of children had been affected by severe malnutrition, while many newborn babies experienced lack of nutrition as their mothers had had too little milk to feed them.(3)

According to William J. Durch, senior associate and co-director of the Future of Peace Operations Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington D.C., at the initial days of the conflict more than 60,000 Sahrawis fled to the refugee compounds in neighboring countries, primarily in Tindouf of Algeria. While around 186,000 Sahrawis continued live in Western Sahara territory.(4)

In his note, dated back to the 1991, Durch who had serviced as a foreign affair officer in the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Carter administration and also a former project director for the Panel on UN Peace Operations at the request of the Office of the Secretary General, depicts that the Western Sahara’s basic demographics were severe and gloomy. This rigorous profile was indicated by the 18 percent of infant mortality of the population, averagely 40 years of while life expectancy, and 15 percent of literacy rate. Moreover, the Western Sahara’s population growth is around 2.8 percent, and produces a population structure with a majority under the age of 20.(5)

Toby Shelley, a journalist with the Financial Times implies that the numbers of Sahrawis who live either in Western Sahara or in refugee camps are not clear from time to time. In 1970, the Spain reported that Sahrawis in Western Sahara was 76,425 compare to only 9,000 living outside. Meanwhile, Moroccan administration stated that there were around 30,000 to 35,000 Sahrawi refugees in the southern side of Morocco, and Polisario estimated that the total number of Sahrawis refugees out side the land was 50,000. Polisario claimed that there were around 750,000 Sahrawis people would join an independent Western Sahara. The 2002 report provided by a Spanish newspaper Le Monde states that from among 400,000 living people in Western Sahara only one-quarters were Sahrawis.(6)

In its recently report, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provides similar figure as offered by Le Monde six years earlier, saying that there are approximately 400,000 living persons in Morocco-controlled, where around 250,000 to 300,000 are Moroccan settlers and 100,000 to 150,000 are Sahrawis. In addition, there are 160,000 Moroccan soldiers and polices. Meanwhile in Polisario-controlled territory there are roughly 30,000 Sahrawis nomads. NRC accounts that around 160,000 refugees are living in Tindouf of Algeria and 26,000 are sheltered in Mauritania. In all camps the humanitarian aid is now decreasing therefore the economy of refugees is crumbling.(7)


However for the Kingdom of Morocco, it is a great wall to defend and protect its “portion” of Western Sahara and its interests from Polisario’s attacks instead of a wall of shame. The wall construction had been started in August 1980 and finished in April 1987. The 10-foot-height and 3,000 kilometers-length wall goes parallel to the Algerian and Mauritanian borders, from the most Western Sahara’s northeastern border with Morocco’s official borderline to the city of La Guera in the most southwestern point of Western Sahara. Morocco guards the sandy wall with military outposts at small intervals along its length, plus ditches, minefields, razor wires, and artilleries as well as rapid reactions units located a couple of miles inside the wall. Air support could be called in to give back up
protection and high-tech monitoring equipments scanned the desert. Moreover, the Moroccan administration doubled its military presence in the territory to 160,000 men.(8) 

At the same day with the rally in Mahbes, newly appointed Personal Representative of UN Secretary General for Saharan Issues, Julian Harston, met the Moroccan Interior Minister, Chakib Benmoussa in Rabat. Instead of protested the wall, Harston addressed the UN’s satisfaction toward Moroccan authorities’ effort to “implement trust measures and encourage visits exchange between Sahrawi families to lessen the sufferings of the population of the Polisario-run camps of Tindouf (southwestern Algeria).” While in return, Benmoussa expressed Morocco’s concern on Polisario’s activities that could jeopardize the 1991-ceasefire agreements.(9)

1. Taken from http://www.spsrasd.info/en/detail.php?id=1165, as retrieved in March 22, 2008.
2. Lippert, Anne. (1975). The Saharawis Refugees: Origins and Organizations, 1978-1985, in Lawless, Richard, and Monahan, Laila. (Eds.). War and Refugee: the Western Sahara Conflicts. London and New York: Pinter Publisher. p.151.
3. Ibid. p. 153.
4. Durch, William J. (1993). United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, in Durch William J. (Ed.). The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping: Case Studies and Comparative Analysis. New York: St. Martin’s Press. p. 407.
5. Ibid.
6. Shelley, Toby. (2004). Endgame in the Western Sahara. London and New York: Zed Books. p. 87. 
7. NRC Report. (2008). Occupied Country, Displaced People. Issue 2/2008. Oslo: NRC. 
8. Shelley. (2004) p. 192. 
9. Taken from http://www.map.ma/eng/sections/imp_world/personal_unsg_repres/view, as retrieved in Marc 22, 2008.

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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