If you ask the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, the Arab Spring did not begin in Tunisia in 2011—it began with the October 2010 protests in the town of Gdeim Izik, in Western Sahara's occupied territories. The former Spanish colony has been illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975. Its territory is divided in two by a 1,677-mile-long sand wall and surrounded by some 7 million land mines.
The native Sahrawis, led by their independence movement the Polisario, are recognized by the International Court of Justice as the rightful owners of the land. However, Morocco hijacked Western Sahara's decolonization process from Spain in 1975, marching some 300,000 settlers into the territory. This triggered a 16-year war between Morocco and the Polisario, which forced more than 100,000 Sahrawis into exile across the border in Algeria. Technically, Western Sahara is still Spanish and remains Africa's last colony.
Whether adrift in refugee camps and dependent on aid or languishing under Moroccan rule, the Sahrawis are still fighting for their independence in an increasingly volatile region. Meanwhile, the UN has no mandate to monitor human rights in occupied Western Sahara. VICE News travels to Western Sahara's occupied and liberated territories, as well as the Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, to find out more about one of the world's least-reported conflicts.
In the first part, we attend the 38th-anniversary celebration of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Sahrawis celebrate this anniversary every year despite the facts that Morocco controls a third of their homeland and the parade takes place in Algerian refugee camps run by the Polisario.
At the celebration, we meet Sahrawi activist Sidahmed Talmidi, who, in October 2010, helped mobilize the Gdeim Izik protest camp near Laâyoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara. Chomsky refers to the thousands of Saharwis who gathered there to demonstrate against their unequal social and economic status and the brutal denial of their human rights as the real beginning of the Arab Spring.
Then Ahmed Salem, a war veteran and commander of the Polisario's Second Battalion, shows us around the makeshift refugee camps in the arid desert, where more than 100,000 Sahrawis who have escaped the Moroccan occupation have lived for nearly 40 years, relying on humanitarian aid and waiting for the chance to return to their homeland.