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Cold War in the Desert

On the ground with the Polisario Front, a guerrilla movement that has been fighting to end the Moroccan occupation of much of Western Sahara for almost four decades.

Polisario commander Ahmed Salem with his original artwork, a crocodile made out of Moroccan bombs. Photos by Andoni Lubaki

A young soldier sits in a lone tree in the desert, perfectly camouflaged. In front of him, a stretch of scrubland leads to a makeshift wall, ringed with barbed wire and guarded by snipers. Suddenly a manhole cover flops open, and a fighter in an Arab turban and army fatigues springs out onto the sand from his underground nest. Forty-five feet to his left another fighter appears, as if by magic, and then more, fanning out and protecting their position, their Soviet-era Kalashnikovs ready for action. The soldier in the tree signals to them, and they approach the mock wall, firing shots and taking out its guards, forcing them onto the ground and pointing guns at their heads. These soldiers are part of a conflict that started before they were born. I’m scuttling along behind these young desert warriors because the Polisario Front—a guerrilla movement that has been fighting to end the Moroccan occupation of much of Western Sahara for almost four decades—is showing me how it would take out an enemy target. The target in question is the nearly 1,700 mile-long wall that separates the Moroccan-administered part of Western Sahara from the Polisario-run “liberated territories,” a mostly empty expanse of desert, where this exercise is taking place. Given that the area surrounding the Moroccan Wall is one of the most heavily mined terrains in the world, the exercise is plain tragicomic. The physical strength of the Polisario fighters is offset by their aging weapons, and their tactics feel like they might belong in the 20th century. Morocco, after all, is a modern military power, with an air force boasting 100 combat aircraft, including the latest F-16.


But these men are possessed by a single, undeniable dream: that of holding a referendum on their independence. It’s a dream that is endorsed by the UN, the African Union, and the International Court of Justice. Moroccan-administered Western Sahara is not internationally recognized as a legitimate part of Morocco, and the Sahrawis—as the indigenous people of Western Sahara are known—live either abroad, under Moroccan rule in the world’s last major colony, or in the refugee camps on the outskirts of Tindouf, in western Algeria.

Morocco and Algeria are dangerous rivals. Since 1994 the Algeria-Morocco border has been closed, and both countries, particularly Algeria, see the Western Sahara as a place to play out a proxy war. To this end, Algeria funds the Polisario Front and hosts Sahrawi refugees. Algeria’s intention is to keep Morocco mired in the Western Sahara, to force it to sink money and resources into the protection of the territory in order to weaken it.

A young Polisario fighter waits in a tree as part of an exercise. His fellow soldiers are about to emerge from a tunnel underneath the tree.

The Moroccan king Mohammed VI believes, like his father Hassan II, that Western Sahara is historically Moroccan, and his government wants the territory for its phosphate and its coastline, which is full of fish that is exported to Europe. Now there is talk of oil. The French oil company Total is exploring off shore, as is Kosmos Energy of the US. The feeling in the Sahrawi refugee camps is best expressed by the Polisario Front’s UN liaison, Khadad Emhamed, who says, “Why have these people been suffering for four decades? Why is the world paying attention to the suffering of others and not to Sahrawis?”


How did it come to this? Between 1884 and 1975, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. The Polisario Front was founded in 1973 to fight against Franco’s imperialistic government and dispute any Moroccan claims to the territory. In November 1975, Hassan II sent 350,000 civilians and 25,000 troops into what was still the Spanish Sahara. Native Sahrawis were thrown out of their homes. This was the Green March. It sent the Spanish into an end-of-empire panic and led to a secret agreement between its government, Morocco and Mauritania, the latter of which claimed close links between its people and the Sahrawis and wanted a chunk of the Spanish Sahara to make up part of a “Greater Mauritania.”

Signed in the last week of Franco’s life in 1975, the Madrid Accords cut the Polisario Front and the Sahrawis out of the equation. Two thirds of the territory was given to Morocco, and one third was given to Mauritania. The Polisario went to war with both powers, and while Mauritania ceded the patch of desert now known as the liberated territories to the Sahrawis, the Moroccans fought on until a ceasefire was signed in 1991. While the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has tried and failed to set up a referendum, the Polisario and the Moroccan army have been fighting a cold war in the desert. In the Moroccan-administered territories, Sahrawi activists and former Polisario fighters are beaten in the streets, tortured, and kept in prison.


Mohamed Salem, Polisario’s security commander, shows us some of the hash the night patrols confiscated from smugglers who, he believes, are backed by Morocco.

To visit the liberated territories and the refugee camps you must first fly to Tindouf, Algeria. Western civilians aren’t allowed in Tindouf without special permission, so at the airport we are greeted by an Algerian military convoy. They take us to Protocolo, the one guesthouse complex for foreigners, which, with its low walls and dozing guards, looks like the kind of prison it would be quite easy to escape from.

It isn’t escape we are concerned with, though. In October 2011, three foreign NGO workers were kidnapped from the guesthouse by members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a jihadist group that broke off from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “We have reliable information that these jihadist groups are still trying to abduct foreigners and attack us,” the Polisario Front’s defence minister, Mohamed Lamine Buhali, warns us. Because of this, our rooms have a number of iron doors and alarms. Nevertheless, the manager is at his most animated when telling us not to shit in the shower—a piece of advice he says he now has to dispense following an “incident” with a French NGO worker.

Before coming to Western Sahara, I read reports and heard rumors that MUJAO, AQIM, and other jihadist groups were trying to recruit young, frustrated Sahrawis from the refugee camps. With very little work available and the struggle for independence no closer to being won, the promise of money and action is tempting, but so far, few Sahrawis have heeded the call. One Sahrawi imam is known to be pro-jihadist, and rumors circulate that he encourages young men to fight in Syria and across North Africa. However, the belief among the Polisario is that the drug smugglers and Islamist groups operating in Western Sahara are being funded by Morocco.


According to the Polisario Front’s security commander, Mohamed Salem, terrorist groups—along with straight-up non-jihadist criminals—smuggle hashish into Europe through the region. In his office, Mohamed shows us the route the smugglers take across the Moroccan border, through the liberated territories into Mauritania, through Mali, along the Niger border, and then up through either Libya or Egypt and into Europe.

Mohamed tells me that the Moroccan army let the smugglers across the wall, pay them, and show them how they can make their way safely through the minefields. To cross the wall and pass safely through the minefields any other way would be close to impossible. Mohamed believes the Moroccan politicians and other members of the elite are involved in the hashish trade and profit enormously from it. He proudly shows us some blocks of hash that the Polisario night patrols confiscated from smugglers in the liberated territories. These patrols target both extremists and smugglers. In doing this, the Polisario believe they are fighting Morocco. In 2013 they took 3,500 pounds of hash, all of which was cultivated in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

While the Polisario claim they’re actively fighting these groups, Morocco, for its part, accuses the Polisario of being in league with the smugglers and the terrorists. “First they called us communists; now they call us terrorists,” says Ahmed Salem, a Polisario commander who is also our guide. “The Mauritanians used to say we ate the arms of black people—please! There have always been all types of people in Polisario. Our understanding of Islam is an inclusive one.”


There are more pressing concerns in the refugee camps, which house upwards of 100,000 people, often in makeshift shacks made from the most basic materials. Unemployment is high, health problems are rife, and in a desert environment that makes agricultural work very difficult, these refugees have been entirely dependent on aid ever since they moved here to escape the war in the mid 1970s.

Soldiers outside a refurbished cave, one of the Polisario’s many disguised hideouts in the middle of the liberated territories

A job in a restaurant is coveted. If you aren’t getting paid $55 a month to work for the Polisario Front, your best bet is to try to find work in a shop, drive a cab, or help foreign NGO workers. Most Sahrawi families have at least one member working abroad to send money home. Cuba used to be a big supporter, and a whole generation of Sahrawis went to study and live there, becoming known as “Cubarawis,” but those days are fading, along with Castro’s health. Cases of depression are very common among Sahrawis. This is one of the symptoms of a life spent in exile and of a dream deferred. It is the kind of life that makes living in the present difficult. When you hope to move back to your homeland, any inclination to make your life more comfortable is dangerous. Improving your existence in the refugee camps could mean that you are accepting your existence in the refugee camps.


In the back of a pickup truck taking us from Tindouf to the refugee camps, amid a convoy provided by the Algerian military, Jean François, a French NGO worker, tells me that he helps local people plant gardens but that many are averse to the idea because they see it as an admission of failure, a sign that they are prepared to give up the fight. Many Sahrawis agree. “This is a stop in our life because we want to go home. That means no big construction. We need houses but not big buildings,” says a teenage boy I met at the February 27 celebrations, which happen annually to mark the day on which the Polisario Front announced the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. His friend adds: “This is Algeria, not our land. Imagine if you couldn’t go home? Imagine if the world didn’t care that you weren’t home?”

The feeling that the world is ignoring the Western Sahara pervades the region. Most people believe the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, but for some—including Noam Chomsky—it began a few weeks earlier at Gdeim Izik, a temporary Sahrawi protest camp in the occupied territories, where a peaceful demonstration held by thousands was crushed by the Moroccan authorities. The Polisario believe the winds of change in the Arab world are with them, and they want democracy and human rights. But given the way the Arab Spring has turned out, they may not want to stick to that analogy.


From the refugee camps, we head into the desert to the Polisario base in the liberated territories, where we will be the first foreign journalists to see the fighters train and carry out their night patrols. On the way, we pass Morocco’s great wall, patrolled by guards and surrounded by mines. Sahrawis protest Morocco’s occupation there every day, watched from on high by Moroccan gunmen. Our 4x4 heads along tracks that seem to exist because someone once decided to drive into the middle of nowhere and everyone who came after followed the tire marks. Our guide, Ahmed, points out trees and rivers that are indiscernible to our eyes, particularly as the rivers run underneath the desert.

A few miles from the Polisario base, we pass MINURSO’s desert headquarters. With its multicolored lights flashing in the dark, it looks like a futuristic oil rig, an embodiment of human ineptitude. Set up in 1991 to monitor the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front and to ensure a referendum allowing the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence and integration with Morocco, MINURSO has become something worse than a lame duck mission. While its failure to bring about a referendum could be blamed on Morocco or the Polisario, it’s harder to justify the fact that the mission’s base in the liberated territories has to be guarded by the Polisario or that its soldiers plunder prehistoric artefacts from the surrounding desert. Nobody at the base is prepared to be interviewed, but when we show up the next afternoon, we drive around the inside perimeter and are cheerfully welcomed by the Polisario soldiers who are protecting the people who were once meant to protect them.


MINURSO is also the only contemporary peacekeeping mission that does not have a mandate to monitor human rights, which means that the UN does not record the killing, torture, and illegal imprisonment of Sahrawis by the Moroccan authorities. MINURSO’s mandate is up for renewal at the end of April and the question of human rights will loom large. Khadad Emhamed is fed up with them. “It’s the same old story with the UN. They’re always searching for a solution and they never find one. The US is more important to us now. If they begin to pay attention again, we might get somewhere,” he says.

If the UN leaves, the Polisario say they are ready to fight. More than that, young Sahrawis say they are ready to fight and the majority of them are with the Polisario. “If you don’t like the Polisario, then you are with the Moroccan government. If you want freedom, then you’re with the Polisario,” a young guy I met in the refugee camps tells me as he fixes an old Mercedes engine part. Though it sounds like propaganda, it comes across as honest and is often repeated to me by a number of Sahrawis.

Soldiers prepare a lamb, which has freshly been slaughtered for lunch on the drive back to the refugee camps.

Back at the desert base, where a meteor the size of a terraced house sits plump in this flat, Martian landscape, Ahmed shows us a crocodile sculpture he made from bomb parts found in the desert. The crocodile is Morocco, he says, eating the Western Sahara. Inside the base, photos of past Polisario commanders adorn the walls. Most of them died before they reached 40. The iconic El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, co-founder of the Polisario Front and the first president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, takes pride of place. He looks like a Brazilian soccer player from the 70s, a Che Guevara for a forgotten conflict. Across the Western Sahara, photos and murals of global independence fighters such as Guevara and Simón Bolívar join those of Sahrawi martyrs like El-Ouali. The great founder is a reminder that all liberation movements have divisions within them. El-Ouali’s brother lives in Mauritania, at odds with the Polisario leadership because he believes they should already be back at war with Morocco.


At night, we head out with the Polisario’s anti-smuggling patrols. The drug traffickers negotiate this desolate land by moonlight in pickup trucks with the lights turned off. The Polisario patrols scour the wide desert in their vehicles. Each patrol is made up of five or six fighters, and every night there are more than 20 patrols in the region. In the middle of the night, when they want a break, they stop, build a fire, heap sugar into a pot, add some tea leaves, and make green tea, which they drink in three rounds.

The smugglers normally travel without weapons so that if they are caught they can pretend to be innocent gentlemen enjoying a little night driving. It gives the Polisario something to do, and it gives the smugglers someone to worry about. But it’s also preparation. “This situation with Morocco is more than boiled. We’re very close to war,” says Dah El Bendin, the night patrol commander. And if the war comes, the Polisario are prepared to bring it to the Moroccan homeland. “We will make it free or we will become martyrs,” a young soldier at the camp says of the occupied territories.

The Polisario say the liberated territories are largely unoccupied because they don’t know when they will start the war again. During the war, to hide in the flatlands, the fighters used tunnels, inside which they were forced to use plastic bags to piss and shit in. They’d stay in these tunnels or in caves carved out of rocks for up to three months at a time. In emergencies, they’d become human submarines, thrusting straws up through the sand in order to breathe. There are still some Bedouins living traditional nomadic lives here, but aside from the small military camps dotted around, there is not much settled life in the area. The war and the land mines have decimated Bedouin life. Once, most Sahrawis were Bedouins—now they have to stay in one place. Nomadic families regularly lose camels to land mines.

One night, I ask Ahmed if he could live in a Western Sahara governed by Morocco, if the Moroccan government were made up of good people. He tells me that if it were made up of good people, they would grant the Sahrawis the right to a referendum. “My father was kept in a Moroccan jail between 1976 and 1983,” he says. “They told him he was going to be set free, but they shot him instead. My brother disappeared in 1981. I hear that he’s still alive in a Moroccan prison, but I don’t know if that’s true. One of my uncles was machine-gunned to death by Franco’s soldiers in 1970 during a peaceful protest. Another was beaten so badly that he was thrown on to a pile of rubbish because they assumed he was dead. He was found by children and then sent to teach in a school in Morocco. He was a prisoner in his own school. The Moroccans came to our homes and kicked us out, but this isn’t a problem between Sahrawis and the Moroccan people, it’s a problem between Sahrawis and the government of Morocco and its king, a government that took Bedouin families and threw them out of helicopters. This is why I want a referendum for my people.”

The drive back from the liberated territories to the refugee camps takes the whole day. Our 4x4 breaks down, and we stop to eat a lamb that was traveling in the back of another pickup and has the dubious honour of being slaughtered in front of us.

I think of all the other successful African liberation movements, including the ANC, who were given weapons by the Polisario during the 1980s—Apartheid-made weapons stolen from the Moroccans. I think of the liberation movements that turned sour once they were realized, of ZANU in Zimbabwe and the EPLA in Eritrea, of South Sudan and its troubled birth. Who is to say an independent Western Sahara, sitting in an unstable region, surrounded by rivals and hated by Morocco, wouldn’t suffer a similar fate?

The Polisario are still fighting for their dream, but they are small, and the outside world is vast. They have the support of most of Africa, particularly Algeria, but does this support have the interests of the Sahrawi people at its heart? Algeria, after all, has a repressive government and is beset by internal conflict. The Polisario must face up to international indifference, a powerful Moroccan army, and the growing threat of militant groups in the region. They face the world, but they’re ready for war.

For more on the Polisario Front’s plight in the desert, watch our film about Western Sahara, coming soon to VICE News.