July 20, 2003 - Young Politicians of America: Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Morocco: Peace Corps Morocco : The Peace Corps in Morocco: July 20, 2003 - Young Politicians of America: Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, July 20, 2003 - 11:52 am: Edit Post

Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay

Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay

Western Sahara bubbles to the surface: A quarter-century-old cause gains momentum stateside

Author: Dane McQueen
Date: July 9, 2000 On a gorgeously bleak expanse of desert stretching along the North Atlantic coast of Africa, a little known drama unfolds, wrought with enough intrigue and simmering tension to become the 1,002nd Arabian night. Caught in a mix of nationalistic positioning, international isolation, and hardcore determination, the native Sahrawi people of Western Sahara have spent 25 years pressing for independence from Morocco, which occupied their lands in 1976, including 18 years of armed conflict. A 1991 United Nations intervention into the struggle brought a ray of hope, but the UN peace plan has stagnated due to continued disagreement between Morocco and the Sahrawi people, represented by the Polisario Front. The sun, however, has not yet set on the Sahrawi people. An increasingly high-profile US awareness campaign has breathed new life into the Polisario movement, and results are potentially only a few steps away.

But Morocco isn't going to yield easily. "This is a part of our country; how would you like to lose Texas just because a minority of its residents want to break away?" a website operator of the Moroccan government site asked. "The area you call Western Sahara has always been Morocco."

Suzanne Scholte, an ally of the Polisario movement through the Defense Forum Foundation," points to other motivations for continued occupation. "The Moroccans wish to exploit the mineral-rich phosphate mines and the wonderful coastal fishing. Also, King Hassan seized this territory in a big public relations display. It is a big image problem for the new king to even acknowledge the dispute over Western Sahara," she said.

Near the Mauritanian border
A roadblock to Sahrawi progress also lies in Western Sahara's history, a bedfellow of imperialism which has put the 102,703 square mile area at the hands of outsiders. Ruled briefly by Spain in the 1500s, Western Sahara fell to Morocco for over 350 years, a time which Morocco claims makes Western Sahara a part of it (a claim partially validated by a European court ruling). Spain regained the territory in 1860, naming it Spanish Sahara. An imperialistic backwater during colonial rule, Spain vacated the region in 1976, leaving Morocco and Mauritania to divide the territory although Polisario had declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Mauritania backed out in 1979, and Morocco then became the sole ruler of Western Sahara. By then, many of the Sahrawi and the Polisario leaders had fled to the desolate western tip of Algeria where they set up a government-in-exile and live today in refugee settlements, now with a population of 180,000. Algeria has been the largest supporter of the Sahrawi's quest for independence; motivations for the aid are debated.

Morocco's occupation, according to YPA member Joseph Stotts, a 20 year-old American who spent six months in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla, continues the region's inherited imperialism. "Western Sahara is like the last colony in Africa. It is ruled by Morocco for the purpose of enriching Morocco, and the native people of Western Sahara have almost no voice in the country," he said.

Stotts' claims echo those of the Polisario Front. Their armed contention of Morocco's occupation led the UN to join the fray in full in 1991. At the center of the UN initiative is a referendum to decide the fate of Western Sahara; Western Saharans can either vote for official integration into Morocco or for independence.

Scholte says that the vote is the movement's sole demand. "The Polisario have sought for over a quarter of a century one simple thing: a vote on self-determination for their people, the Sahrawi," she said.

A vote seems simple enough. But the only problem is deciding who gets to vote, and that question has ensnarled the UN for the last nine years. Only natives of Western Sahara are to take part in the referendum according to the UN, but the Polisario and the Moroccans have such wildly different lists of eligible native Western Saharans that an agreement has yet to be reached. A June 29 meeting between the Polisario and the Moroccan government ended only with a promise to meet again in September.

Moroccan soldiers
The most recent issue of debate is the UN's refusal to accept a large chunk of voters proposed by Morocco, a decision Scholte praises. "The UN published their voter list earlier this year of approximately 86,000 names who are eligible to vote in the referendum. However, Morocco has appealed the rejection of 130,000 voters that it tried to register falsely in an attempt to stack the vote in their favor. These names were rejected by the UN because they could not prove to be Sahrawi. Morocco's objections to the rejection of these name is the major factor currently delaying the referendum," Scholte said.

Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay. "Morocco is currently stacking the deck and sending anyone with ties to the south down to the Sahara to do civil service for a period of time. Once down there, they are wooed with the subsidized housing and food prices and tried to be convinced to stay--at least until the vote is held. Peace Corps Volunteers in the southern part of Morocco report seeing caravans of Moroccans being shipped down south," she said.

Moroccan-born YPA member Ralph Hakim points to Sahrawi misdoings as well to explain the decade-long delay. "The Polisario leaders try to fill up their voting records with people who aren't even really connected with Western Sahara. Since [the Sahrawi] are all nomads, anyone who has crossed through Western Sahara is on [the Sahrawi] list," he said.

But Hakim admits to widespread Moroccan efforts to import voters. "We do it on a bigger level than [the Sahrawi]."

The referendum's delay has raised the stakes for both Polisario and Morocco. If the UN fails, Morocco keeps its claim to Western Sahara and fighting could easily resume. Consequently, both groups have turned to lobbying to help their case, with all-powerful America as the top target.

According to Scholte, Morocco has made a thorough effort to keep Americans on its side. "There is a tremendously powerful Moroccan lobby. The Moroccans spend millions on lobbyists here in Washington," she said.

On the other hand, the Polisario have basically just one representative. Leading the Polisario Washington DC delegation is the one-man show Moulud Said, an ambassador of the SADR. Enlisting congressional support and leading tours of the Sahrawi camps in Algeria, Said has been responsible for a lot of the recent awareness of the Western Saharan issue. "Working with Moulud, we have been able to get the truth out about the Sahrawi position through our many educational programs on this issue including fact finding missions to the refugee camps and forums on Capitol Hill," Scholte said.

Despite Said's charm and talent, an anonymous YPA member and US congressional aide sees the Polisario's chances for swaying Washington as slim. "When you learn about the [Western Saharan] issue, it's really hard not to side with the [Sahrawi], but feelings obviously don't always go a long ways on the Hill," he said. "The US really wants to keep Morocco as an ally, and risking the relationship over a weak, unknown country like Western Sahara doesn't make political sense. Most congressmen and senators don't want to get really involved."

Scholte begs to differ. "The Sahrawi people have many friends in the US Senate and US Congress. In fact, legislation authored by Congressman Ed Royce in support of the referendum passed the US House of Representatives unanimously. The most helpful senators and congressmen have been Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressmen Joseph Pitts and Donald Payne. I want to reiterate that we have had a wonderful response and support from many senators and congressmen," she said.

Flag of the SADR
While the United States government supports the referendum, it does not recognize the SADR as a country. Over 70 countries, however, as well as the Organization for African Unity, do.

The congressional aide believes that the Sahrawi will have American support when they can really catch DC's eye. "They need to make this into another Burma or South Africa issue. [Americans] need to feel injustice. Right now, not enough people know and so hardly any important Americans care," he said.

Ignorance of the issue may well be the greatest problem for the Polisario movement. Even among a political active and aware group of people like YPA members, knowledge of Western Sahara is minimal. In a poll of 50 YPA members, 31 had heard of Western Sahara and only nine had heard of the Sahrawi or the Polisario movement. However, five of those nine people had learned of the Polisario recently, indicating a growing awareness of the issue. Meg McEachern, a 16-year-old YPA member from Canada, reported that she had recently heard someone speak on the Polisario Front.

Scholte also believes that an ignorance forced upon the Moroccan people by the government hinders the Sahrawi cause. "In my heart, I believe that if the Moroccan people knew the truth they would support self-determination for the Sahrawi people. The problem is the government of Morocco. Moroccan people are forbidden to discuss [Western Saharan independence] in their own country and they censor newspapers that carry stories about the Sahrawi people. The Moroccan people, sadly, have no idea about the Sahrawi side of the issue because their government blocks the truth from them," she said.

But Thomas Anderson, a former Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Morocco, finds Moroccan nationalism, especially in regards to occupation of Western Sahara, as strong as ever. "There is no such thing as the Western Sahara. Ask any Moroccan and they will tell you that what most people call the Western Sahara is historically Morocco's."

Janes concurs. "No Moroccan will tell you that the Western Sahara is its own country, and maps showing a border are illegal in Morocco," she said.

Scholte is unfazed. "If [more] organizations get involved in this cause and more Americans pay attention and encourage the Clinton administration to use their influence with the Moroccan government to allow a free, fair, and transparent referendum, this issue could be resolved in the next six months," she said.

Scholte also counts on the support of young people. "There are many support groups throughout Europe, especially in Spain of young people who are active. In the United States, a group of students at Rockledge Elementary School [in Bowie, Maryland], the Rockledge International Club, has been raising money to bring Sahrawi children to the United States for the summer months and they started an e-mail campaign to educate people about the issue. We are hoping to get more young people involved."

Anderson has mixed feelings about the referendum. "The average Sahrawi citizen is much better off under Moroccan rule. Most are dependent on Morocco regardless of who controls the Western Sahara. All this being said, I have seen very moving websites that support the cause of the Sahrawi people and their claim to the Western Sahara."

YPA member 18 year-old Max Havers shares Anderson's sentiments. "I feel strongly that the Sahrawi have a right to vote about their future, but I do wonder if they will be able to survive as a nation. It's pretty poor down there," he said.

Still, Havers notes a determination in the Sahrawi. "They have been able to live in an awful part of the world for 25 years in exile and still have a literate, fed populace who can lobby in the United States and Europe. That says something about them."

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Story Source: Young Politicians of America

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Morocco; Speaking Out



By lahmouz (wana-88-206-12-196.wanamaroc.com - on Sunday, August 19, 2007 - 9:23 pm: Edit Post

i m moroccan teacher.i want to have some informations about volunteers i had met in azilal.i was their tutor.thanks

By oriel ( on Tuesday, April 08, 2008 - 7:40 am: Edit Post

you are welcome

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