Morocco’s land trade routes are rare. The Alawite State shares its borders with the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, with Western Sahara, and with Algeria (a country with which it does not have good relations). If Morocco wants to trade overland with the rest of Africa, it has to look to Mauritania, south of Western Sahara. To carry out this task, Morocco had a problem so far: it needed to cross the 2,700 km-long wall that was built to separate the occupied part of Western Sahara from the rest of the territory.
The Moroccan Kingdom opened a passage in its own wall to create a trade route that was not contemplated in the agreements signed with the United Nations. This route leaves the occupied Western Sahara, crossing through the area under the control of the Polisario Front, the organisation recognised by the UN as the representative of the Sahrawi people. The trade route consists of a partially paved road, where trucks, loaded with natural resources extracted in the occupied part, also circulate. That is an illegal trade, according to the Sahrawis.
If Morocco wants to trade overland with Africa, it has to do so through Western Sahara. It has opened a passage in its own wall that was not contemplated in the agreements signed with the UN. The Sahrawis now complain that more than 12,000 new mines have been placedThus, when Sahrawi peaceful protesters cut off the Guerguerat crossing on 21 October, they stopped part of the Moroccan land trade. King Mohamed VI’s response was to send a military detachment to suppress protests. With this manoeuvre, the Moroccan army entered an area where military presence is forbidden, regarded as a buffer zone by the United Nations. Morocco justified this manoeuvre by ensuring that it exhausted all diplomatic channels before its intervention in Guerguerat. The Polisario Front also mobilized its troops to guarantee the safety of the protesters, and an exchange of fire took place between the two armies. These acts have marked the end of the ceasefire after 29 years of calm, since the Polisario Front considers the Moroccan intervention a violation of the signed agreements.
The Alawite government says that the trade route with Mauritania is now secure, and open for the movement of goods and people. To guarantee this trade relation with Mauritania and to avoid Sahrawi presence there, Morocco has placed more than 12,000 new mines in the area, the Sahrawi Mine Action Coordination Office (SMACO) complained.
The Spanish State never stopped ruling over Western Sahara
The return to war is marked by the failure to hold a referendum. 45 years have gone since Spain abandoned its possessions in the Sahara and reluctantly voiced its intention to hold a plebiscite in the then-53rd Spanish Province, as it was known. Today, Spain’s position has changed. It has delegated to the United Nations the decolonization of this territory, despite being the administering power in charge of Western Sahara. With the signing of the ceasefire, the two opposing parties and the United Nations had, once again, committed to holding a consultation in the disputed territory. 29 years later they have not even agreed on who will be eligible to vote. Meanwhile, Morocco has continued to exploit phosphate deposits in the occupied part, has managed Western Sahara’s rich fishing waters, and has restricted the activity of Sahrawis who live in cities next to the wall.
Life in the occupied territories has been hard since the beginning of the conflict in 1975. With the return to war, activists in the occupied zone fear increased repressionLife in the occupied territories has been hard since the beginning of the conflict in 1975. Forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture decimated the Saharawi population during the war. Moreover, since 1991, the situation of Sahrawi citizens in the occupied cities has not improved. Activists such as Aminatou Haidar have denounced Moroccan practices on several occasions. They speak about the lack of freedom of expression, torture, arbitrary arrests, and violence when Moroccan forces suppress demonstrations for self-determination.
With the return to war, declared by the Polisario Front on 13 November, activists in the occupied zone fear increased repression. On 21 November, for example, two Sahrawi journalists were to be married in Laâyoune. However, the Moroccan police surrounded the couple’s residences, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Electricity was cut off from their houses, and police officers tried to break in. That is why they try to report such practices to the international community, in hope that attention will protect them from the Moroccan authorities.
No perceived alternative to war
The Sahrawi response to the return to armed struggle has been almost unanimous. Many say that they have been pushed to choose the path of war, that they have no alternative, even though that might mean losing their livesThe Sahrawi response to the return to armed struggle has been almost unanimous. Even many young people born after 1991, who do not know the war, have gone to military schools to sign up as volunteers, since they have no experience as soldiers. They claim that they have nothing more than a borrowed territory in Tindouf (Algeria), where the refugee camps are found. The peace processes have not helped them, and they are tired of waiting. Many Sahrawis say that they have been pushed to choose the path of war, that they have no other alternative, even though that might mean losing their lives.
The reopening of the conflict has so far consisted of small clashes between both armies. Some skirmishes are spread along the wall. Even so, not much information on the conflict is available, due to the lack of journalists on the ground and international observers. Sahrawi and Algerian news agencies are releasing war reports that let people know about attacks on entrenched Moroccan positions —including casualties in the Moroccan army. On the other hand, official Moroccan communication news agencies do not publish facts about the conflict, so it is difficult to verify the information from both sides.
If all remains the same, the war in Western Sahara can drag on for years in small clashes along the wall dividing the occupied area from the Polisario Front-held territories. In this case, the war could turn into a conflict of attrition.