It was just past four a.m. as I walked out of the bus station. The police car slowly followed. It kept shadowing me as I walked down the road, maintaining a distance of 400 metres or so. I, purposefully, made it easy for it to follow me.
26.04.2016 - 02.05.2016 28 °C
You might have seen it on the news. On one of those world maps where countries are marked in different colours according to their performance in something. If you’d noticed that weird gray ‘no-data-available’ area in the upper left corner of Africa, you’ve noticed Western Sahara.
The “disputed territory” has had this ‘gray status’ since 1975 when the Spanish left their last colony in Africa. They left so completely that they even duck up the bodies from their cemeteries to re-buried them in Spain. The term ‘disputed’ is diplomatic lingo for “someone is not following international law” - in this case, that ‘someone’ is Morocco. For non-diplomats, most of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco. The long story short is that the Spanish let Morocco and Mauritania “have” the territory when they left. This against the direct will of the local population, the Sahrawis, who according to the United Nation’s Charter had a right to self-determination as a colonised people. They still have this right, now just under Moroccan rule, not Spanish. Hence, Western Sahara has been named the Last Colony of Africa.
Spectacularly, back in 1975 Morocco had 500.000 unarmed civilians march into the territory in what is known as ‘the Green March,' claiming it in a glamorous way as Moroccan. The army had moved in six days earlier. Mauritania eventually had enough of the local population’s resistance and left. Morocco swiftly moved into that territory too. And the reason for all is? Natural resources. (What else?). Western Sahara is home to the world’s biggest reserve of phosphate, and the waters off the coast a rich – making the fishing rights here big business. A ceasefire eventually put an end to the fighting in 1991. Since then, Morocco has occupied around 80 per cent of the territory. The 20 percent left to the local population is eventually nothing but sand, with no natural resources. Hence, about half of the Sahrawi population currently live in exile in refugee camps in Algeria.
This conflict is largely unknown to the wider world. Primarily because no powerful state cares about this easily forgettable corner of Africa.
Travelling here is distinctly different from travelling in Morocco. I’ve had both civilians and police instruct me not to take photos. At all. Of anything. One local Sahrawi, who befriended me, wanted his picture taken and we had to drive out of town for no one to see us. Both police and military presence are massive, and there are at least a couple of military bases in each of the towns I’ve visited.
Entering and exiting any town the buses stop at a police checkpoint and everybody will have their ID’s checked. As a foreigner, the Moroccan occupational force fear that I’m a journalists or human rights activist, who’s only mission is to expose all the violations happening towards the Sahrawis (more on that here and here). My details were vigorously noted at each checkpoint, and at my final destination for the day are the local police warned about my arrival. When I arrived from Morocco to Smara very early in the morning, the local police was waiting for me at the bus station. Just sitting, casually in their car. After leaving the bus station, the police car slowly followed around 400 metres behind me. The last thing I wanted was any trouble, so I made it easy for them. Not turning too many corners in a row while looking for a hotel. The first two I tried were full. After this, the officers clearly got tiered of following me around at 4:30 in the morning. They drove up to me, asked if I was looking for a hotel and the took me to “the best” (at 3€ per night it clearly wasn’t). Being under surveillance has its benefits too.
Smara isn’t visited as often by foreigners as it is inland. It’s also closer to the front line between the Moroccan army and the local rebels. So besides an alert police force, there’s also plenty of secret agents making sure that none of the locals I spoke with would tell me anything about the occupation or any mistreatment going on. This explains why my new friend was so weary of having his picture taken. Luckily, the agents are rather easy to spot with their sunglasses and leather jackets. I stayed out of too much trouble, and they stayed out of my way, though one was spectating me playing football with some local kids in Smara. Those kids would probably have gotten a visit from the police one of these days...