Free Western Sahara Network | 10.10.2010 14:07
5th October, 2010, New York
(journalist, writer and broadcaster)
I am here today in a number of different guises.
Firstly I'm here as a representative of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara to deliver a message from British parliamentarians who could not be here today.
Secondly, I'm here as a journalist who, having spent time with the refugees in the camps in the Algerian desert and with human rights defenders from Western Sahara, would like to take this opportunity to relate some of their testimonies.
And thirdly I'm here as a campaigner and human rights advocate who holds the fervent belief that the crisis in Western Sahara has gone on for too long and caused too much suffering to be allowed to continue any longer.
I'd like to start off by reading this statement from Jeremy Corbyn MP. He is the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara and also the vice-chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights GroupVin Westminster. He says:
“I am very pleased that the United Nations decolonisation Committee is once again discussing the situation in the Western Sahara.
Under all the norms of de-colonisation the people of the Western Sahara should have a free choice on their own future. They have never had that choice. No referendum has taken place and tens of thousands have lived in refugee camps in Algeria since the 1970’s. Over thirty five years is far too long for anyone not to know their own future or be able to return to their own land.
Many Saharawi people are held as political prisoners in Morocco in occupied Western Sahara and it is necessary for the UN mission, MINURSO, to include a human rights requirement in its mandate.
The resources of land and sea should not be exploited without the approval of and benefit going to the people of the country. It is therefore wrong that the European Union has concluded a Fisheries agreement with Morocco under which Western Saharan waters are exploited by European fishing vessels.
I hope the world will wake up to the situation facing the country and ensure the future of the Western Sahara is decided democratically and legally by the Saharawi people.”
That was the message from Jeremy Corbyn.
On a personal level I would like to tell you how it is I come to be here today. I first went to the refugee camps in the Algerian desert last year as a journalist to report on the situation for the British newspaper, the Independent. What I witnessed there affected me profoundly. It was not just the fact that the Sahawari refugees had been separated from their families and forced to live in abject conditions for over three decades. What shocked me even more was that until I went there I had no idea of the existence of these camps nor the conflict in Western Sahara. My ignorance reflected a wider lack of awareness of this forgotten conflict around the world. The fact that no one knows about their situation makes the suffering of the Saharawi even harder for them to endure.
Over the past 18 months I have been back to the camps again. I have also met with dozens of human rights defenders from the so-call occupied territory of Western Sahara. They have told me about their lives and I have borne witness to their suffering. It is a tragedy that so few Saharawi could be here themselves to tell their stories. Their testimonies would be far more powerful than anything that I can speak of. But in their absence, what I'd like to do is to relate to you just a few of the many stories that have been told to me.
In the refugee camps I spoke to local doctors, international NGO's and even a representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They told me about widespread health problems including hepatitis B, anaemia, meningitis, and various forms of malnutrition. A 2008 study, supported by a survey from the WHO, suggests that one in five children in the camps has acute malnutrition.
I met Laedaf Abid, medical director of the small hospital in Dakhla refugee camp. He told me:
“We do not have enough equipment, enough medicines, or enough doctors...About a month ago, a woman went into labour at night and before we could deliver the baby the midwife had to go looking for petrol for the generator.”
Last year I was introduced to 19-year old Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit. Two weeks before we met, Ibrahim's leg had been blown off below the knee by a landmine. He had been taking part in a march to the 1,500 mile-long fortified barrier known as “the berm” built to prevent Saharawis from returning to their land. In a symbolic gesture, Ibrahim was attempting to get close enough to the wall throw to a pebble to the other side when he trod on the device. Ibrahim had no regrets. He told me:
“I would gladly lose my other leg if it would mean that my country could be free”
In Dakhla refugee camp I met Issa Brahim, a 32-year-old mother of four who was born and raised there. She told me:
"We have nothing here. We are without work, we are without water, we are without land for our goats to graze. But we are not without hope."
Greatest among Issa's hopes is to set foot in her homeland for the first time.
It is not just in the refugee camps that the Saharawi people are suffering. In occupied Western Sahara discrimination and human rights abuses been repeatedly documented by international human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concerns over human rights violations.
Ten days ago I was at an international conference in Algeria attended by 73 human rights defenders from Western Sahara.
There I met twenty year-old Nguia El Haouasi who had been arrested by police last year after participating in a peaceful protest. She said:
“They tore off my clothes leaving me naked in front of their ferocious eyes. All this was done while they were video-taping everything. Then they beat me in every part of my body.”
I also met forty-year old Ibrahim Brahim Saber, an activist who has been in and out of prison since the age of sixteen. He told me:
“I have been beaten and tortured many times and in many ways. But none of us have chosen this life of struggle. We were born into it.”
Last December I flew out to Lanzarote to interview Nobel Prize nominee, Aminatou Haidar. I met with her on the 23rd day of her hunger strike. In a barely audible voice she told me:
“My hunger strike is about the individual right of one person to return to her home and her family. But it also about the collective right denied to the Saharawi people to live freely in their native land.”
Whilst Aminatou Haidar was eventually allowed to return to her family others have not been so fortunate. This Friday will mark the first anniversary of the arrest of several prominent human rights defenders who were arrested in Casablanca airport after returning from a visit to the refugee camps. Three of the activists - Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek, and Ahmed Naciri are still imprisoned in Sale jail, Rabat awaiting trial.
The human stories I have just described are all different but each speaks eloquently to the same urgent need. The need to find a political solution crisis in Western Sahara.
A political solution may seem far off with the parties positions being so far apart: the Polisario being unprepared to negotiate away their legitimate right to self-determination, Morocco rejecting any proposal that contains even the possibility of independence, and the Security Council showing an unwillingness to enforce its own resolutions. But history has shown that a political solution is the only way forward.
Having said this, it is important to stress that a political solution to this problem is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians. It is up to us all, to civil society groups, campaigners and individuals to make their voices heard. We must demand that our governments around the world exert diplomatic and political pressure on those who are ignoring the requirements laid out under international law and blocking a referendum of self-determination in Western Sahara.
As Martin Luther king said “the arc of history may be long but it always bends towards justice”. There is little doubt that the people of Western Sahara have both the tide of history and the force of justice on their side.
For more information visit:
Western Sahara Campaign UK - www.wsahara.org.uk
Free Western Sahara Network - www.freesahara.ning.com
Free Western Sahara Network