Mahfoud is a leader of Polisario, which heads the Western Sahara independence struggle, and of the Sahrawi National Womens Union. This was the first-ever visit by a representative of Polisario to New Zealand. More than 340 people heard her speak at public meetings and on university campuses in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin.
Mahfouds tour of New Zealand was followed by a series of similar meetings in Australia. The New Zealand leg of the tour was organized by a number of groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, the aid agency CORSO, the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, the Communist League, students associations, and the Young Socialists, along with university professors and members of African and Muslim communities. The initial invitation for Mahfouds visit was extended by the Australian Western Sahara Association.
The tour came out of political collaboration between Polisario supporters and delegates from the South Pacific region at the International Festival of Youth and Students, held in Algiers, Algeria, in August 2001.
Mahfouds itinerary included meetings with aid agencies and the foreign affairs spokesman for the Green Party. Mahfoud also requested that the New Zealand government lend its support to her peoples struggle for independence.
Mahfoud used the tour to build solidarity with this fight for national independence a struggle, she noted, that faces powerful enemies. Behind the Moroccan monarchy, which occupies Western Saharan land, stand the imperialist governments of France and the United States.
The independence leader was welcomed at the public meeting in Auckland with a formal greeting in Maori. She began her presentation with a 23-minute video that provided background on the history of the Sahrawi independence struggle, and her peoples ongoing resistance.
A nation of 300,000 people in northwest Africa, Western Sahara was from 1884 to 1975 a colony of Spain. In the face of a growing movement for independence led by Polisario, Madrid withdrew, giving the green light to the governments of Morocco and Mauritania to divide and occupy the embattled nation.
The video showed how the majority of the people of Western Sahara were forced to abandon their homes and flee into the desert in neighboring Algeria at this time.
Four more years of struggle ensued, at the end of which Polisario fighters drove out the Mauritanian forcesonly to see the Moroccan regime extend its occupation across the whole country.
The Sahrawi people have never relinquished their fight, however, and today Polisario retains control over around a third of Western Sahara. In 1989 the Moroccan government agreed to a settlement plan, which suspended the war. The plan included a cease-fire and preparations for a United Nations-organized referendum on independence.
UN referendum never held
Scheduled for 1991, this referendum has never been held. Instead, explained Mahfoud, the Moroccan regime has built a 1,500-mile wall across the length of Western Sahara between the occupied and liberated areas. Some 200,000 Moroccan soldiers are deployed along its length, she said.
The occupied zone, which runs to the coast with its abundant fishing grounds, is fertile and more developed, she said, Sahrawi people living there cant criticize the monarchy or openly support independence. Many have been disappeared . While the total Sahrawi population of the zone is unknown, UN officials have registered 48,000 people as eligible to vote in the referendum.
The arid desert areas of the liberated zone are home to several nomadic peoples, who risk death and injury from the millions of land mines that have been laid by the Moroccan armed forces. Many have been killed, said Mahfoud.
The wall affects the lives of so many nations, she said. The desert was a living zone and is no more. Western Sahara was previously a link to the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, she explained. Now travelers and traders have to follow more circuitous routes through Senegal or Algeria.
For almost 30 years we have been living in camps in the desert, said Mahfoud. Today most of the Sahrawi population lives in these camps in western Algeria.
Each of the four camp settlements is divided into quarters of around 7,000 people eachan arrangement that helps guard against the spread of epidemic diseases that could break out. Each has its own school, medical centre and Red Cross post. Committees in each camp are responsible for health, education, justice, work with the Red Cross, and making handicrafts for use in daily life.
Everyday life in the camps is hard, and every simple task is complex, Mahfoud said. Gardens provide only small quantities of food so people are dependent on aid, sent primarily through the World Food Program. Contributions are also sent from friendship organizations, mainly based in Europe. Only two of the settlements have drinkable underground water, while the other two require water to be brought in by truck.
At the start we had nothing in the camps. We had to organize schools, water, supplies, everything, Mahfoud explained. One early task was to teach people, many of whom had previously led nomadic lives, how to cook and use the canned and prepared foods donated by the aid agencies.
Only a few jobs are available in the medical centers, schools and gardens, said Mahfoud. Under Spanish colonial rule the Sahrawi people were left without an education system. A literacy campaign was organized, and today 90 percent of the camp population can read and write, she reported.
Preparing the struggle means preparing the people, Mahfoud emphasized. We now have primary and secondary education in the camps. For further education, students have to go to other countries. There are currently 2,000 students in Libya, 3,000 in Algeria, and 1,400 in Cuba.
Mahfoud is among those who have studied in Cuba. Cuba is helping a lot of third world countries, she explained. The revolutionary government has opened up the Isle of Youth, and each country has its own school on the island. I feel very strongly about this. It is unfair that in Western countries you never see any newspaper speak about this.
Describing the impact the independence struggle has had on the condition of women, Mahfoud explained that womens lives in the camps are the hardest, because they are responsible for the everyday organization of life. In the past, women were meant only to do some things. Now they realize they can be doctors and teachers.
During the war, when men were at the frontline, women had to build everythingschools, hospitals, all institutions. Now most councils in the camps are composed of women, she explained. The desert camps include a womens school, where women receive training in nursing, teaching, and computing. The Algerian government has supplied the school with electricity.
Mahfoud also described how the Sahrawi National Womens Union is organizing to supply all the camps with solar panels, so people can run a television or radio and keep in touch with the outside world.
With the refusal of the Moroccan regime and its imperialist sponsors to organize a referendum, The Sahrawi people are pushing our leadership to be more aggressivethey are asking to relaunch the war, for a solution, Mahfoud told participants at the Auckland meeting.
The referendum was not Polisarios idea but the United Nations, she said. We accepted and put down our weapons, and now have waited 10 years because we want to get independence peacefully. But we wont give up our right to self-determination.
Mahfoud rejected a proposal made by UN special envoy to Western Sahara James Baker for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. It is the same as integration, she said.
If they think Morocco will be more stable if Western Sahara becomes part if itthats just crazy, she continued. Morocco cannot control the people of Western Sahara. Were not used to having a king, to having politicians who like to be on top of us. You have younger people like me who have studied in Cuba, Algeria. There will be rebellions everywhere and they will spread into Morocco. It will be the same as Palestine.
In the discussion period, Mahfoud pointed to the historical ambitions of the royal family of Morocco to rule a larger empire in North Africa. In the 1970s, they launched the 60-day war against Algeria, and it was only 10 years ago that they recognized Mauritania as an independent country, she said. In Morocco, the maps of the region do not even show a line between Morocco and Western Sahara.
Much more powerful exploiters are also intervening throughout the African continent. Today there is a war between the United States and France regarding colonies. They are dividing the geography of Africa.
Oil is one of the riches these imperialist powers have in their sights. Both the French company TotalFinaElf and U.S. company Kerr McGee have been granted permission by the Moroccan government to explore the substantial oil deposits off the Western Saharan coast. In addition, the Spanish oil company Repsol is prospecting next to them in the territorial waters of the Spanish-controlled Canary Islandsonly half an hour by boat from the Western Saharan coast.
When she spoke at Canterbury University in Christchurch, Mahfoud also observed that more Moroccan youth are opposed to the monarchy. On her visit to New Zealand, she said, she had met some Moroccan immigrants who had told her, dont give up, please keep fighting.
The Christchurch daily, the Press, published an interview and photo of the independence leader May 28, and featured the article on its website that day.
At Waikato University in Hamilton, Mahfoud said, We are the last colony in Africawe have never had a decolonization process.
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