Eleven Sahrawi independence fighters were arrested by Moroccan authorities as they tried to leave Western Sahara to bring their fight for self-determination to the festival, held December 13-21. Of the 101 Sahrawi delegates who did make it, 29 came from the occupied zone; the rest from refugee camps in Algeria. According to the leadership of the delegation, the 29 are marked for arrest by Moroccan authorities when they return.
You cant imagine how many people wanted to be here, Kharrachi Benbahh, a young man from the occupied territories, told the Militant.
There is a big possibility I will be arrested and tortured when I go back," said Roubio Ali, 23, a photographer from the occupied zone. My family has told me not to return. But I will go back anyway. It doesn't matter what my family says because comrades have been arrested.
In face of a growing independence struggle led by the Polisario Front, Spain ceded control of Western Sahara in 1975 to the semicolonial regimes of Mauritania and Morocco. The Polisario Front launched a war against the occupying powers, defeating the Mauritanian forces within a few years. But when the war ended in 1991 the Moroccan government controlled 80 percent of Western Sahara. The independence movement has been participating since then in UN-sponsored negotiations for a referendum on Sahrawi independence.
The largest protests in recent years occurred in Western Sahara in the months prior to the festival. Up to 30,000 people set up four camps in the occupied territory to protest Moroccan rule and the systematic discrimination against Sahrawis in employment, housing, and education.
Protesters demand Free Sahara
The biggest action was at the Gdim Izik camp outside the city of El-Aaiún. The camp was destroyed by the Moroccan army November 8. Jamal Kraidach, 32, who lived at the camp, told how soldiers encircled the area and a two-hour battle between protesters and soldiers ensued. Thousands took to streets of El-Aaiún in protest, chanting Free Sahara.
Even though they outnumbered us, it didnt stop people, said Kraidach. He said Moroccan nationalists under the protection of armed troops attacked protesters. They stole from our bazaars and broke into homes. For days afterwards police would arrest any Sahrawi they saw. Offices and schools in the city were closed for a week.
Mariem Zafri, 27, from Smara in the occupied zone said that students walked out in solidarity with the El-Aaiún protesters. It is a dictatorship. Sahrawi students arent going to school for fear of being attacked, she said. Most youth cant find work. You have two choices: either accept being moved to the north of Morocco or remain without education.
Over the last couple of decades, the Moroccan government has moved Moroccans to occupied Western Sahara. They now outnumber Sahrawis, who must carry ID cards marked with SH or face jail. Sahrawis can also be distinguished by their Hassaniya Arabic dialect and clothing.
I cannot lose hope to see my country said Najla Mohamed Lamin, 21 Like many Sahrawis she was born in the refugee camps in Algeria. Lamin said that young people there are fed up with years of stalled negotiations overseen by the United Nations. Now the youth especially want to fight, seeing it as the only way to get their homeland back.
The camps are in the middle of a desert, and are dependent on aid, which she said is inadequate. We study in the camps and have opportunities to study in Algeria, Cuba, and other countries. There are Cuban doctors in the camps and Sahrawi students train to be doctors in Cuba, she said. Two Sahrawis currently studying in Cuba came with the Cuban delegation.
The Sahrawi delegates organized events, displays, dances, and other impromptu activities. Many delegates were invited for tea later to continue discussion.
A solidarity forum for Western Sahara heard greetings from delegations and organizations from around the world. Some 250 festival participants protested at the Moroccan embassy in Pretoria.
Targets of provocation
Activities organized by Sahrawi participants were targets of provocation and disruption by the 150-strong delegation from Morocco, which was led by youth groups affiliated to the Socialist Party and Communist Party. They distributed literature defending the Moroccan monarchy and its occupation of Western Sahara.
In one provocation, Sahrawi delegate Rashid Lehbib Hosein, 23, from the Awserd refugee camp, was arrested by South African police officers after a Moroccan who lives in South Africa appeared with a bandaged arm and neck accusing him of assault. Examinations of the man by police quickly showed he had no injuries, and Hosein was released without charge.
They attack us to put fear in the hearts of Sahrawis, said Kraidach. It doesnt work. Thats why 29 of us from the occupied territory came to the festival. We will return without fear. Maybe I will be arrested but the struggle will remain until we get our freedom.
Paul Pederson and Linda Harris contributed to this article.
S. Africa: Youth share experiences of struggles
Keen interest in revolutionary books in South Africa
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