Cheikh was among the hundreds of delegates attending the 11th Congress of the Polisario Front, the organization leading the struggle for independence in Western Sahara, held here October 12-16. He is the general secretary of Ugtsario, a trade union federation that organizes Western Saharan workers.
This was the first Polisario Front congress held in the liberated territory of Western Saharajust 40 miles away from the wall marking the border with the Moroccan-occupied zone.
Some 2,000 people attended the October 12 opening session of the congress. Delegates included those elected from each district in the camps, soldiers elected from each military region, army officers and government officials, and representatives of Saharawi youth, womens, and trade union organizations. Delegations from a number of countries that recognize Western Saharas right to independence, and other international visitors and press also attended.
In his opening remarks, Polisario Front general secretary Mohamed Abdelaziz reviewed the accomplishments of the independence movement since the last congress four years ago. He reaffirmed Polisarios commitment to fight for the liberation of the entire Western Sahara.
The delegates met for two days to vote on a program of action for the coming period and elect a new leadership.
Since 1975 the Moroccan government has occupied this nation, with backing from Washington, Madrid, and Paris. The U.S. government has been the leading arms supplier and military adviser to the Moroccan king, providing more than $1 billion in military aid to the Royal Armed Forces of Morocco in the last quarter century.
A military camp of the Saharawi Popular Liberation Army (SPLA) today, Tifariti is a town in the northern part of the liberated zone. It is a strip of territory comprising about 20 percent of Western Sahara, which Polisario liberated in the course of the 16-year war with Morocco. Most SPLA soldiers are stationed in the zone. The bulk of the Saharawi populationalmost 200,000 peoplehave been living in camps around the city of Tindouf in southwest Algeria since the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara 28 years ago.
Many delegates came from the camps in Tindoufa nine-hour bone-rattling trip across open desert. Marking the border from Algeria into the free Saharawi territory is an outpost flying the green, red, black, and white flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
History of struggle
As with many nations in Africa, the borders of Western Sahara were drawn up officially by the main imperialist powers in Europe at the Berlin Conference of 1885. Spains claim to Western Sahara was codified at that gathering.
In the late 1960s, Madrid began to face a challenge to its rule as the people of Western Sahara launched a struggle for independence. The post-World War II anticolonial movement in Africa and Asia provided the impetus.
The Organization for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Ouad ed-Dahabtwo regions that make up Western Saharawas founded in 1967. This group, which called for independence, was hounded and brutally repressed by the Spanish colonial administration, which murdered its central leader, Mohammed Sidi Ibrahim Bassiri, in 1970.
The Polisario Front (a Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was born in 1973 and launched a guerilla war against Spanish rule. Its central founder was a young student named El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. Polisario attracted thousands of Saharawis to its banner, who began to deal blows that weakened Madrids grip on the territory.
In the fall of in 1975, the governments of Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania signed an agreement in which Madrid divided its colony between the two neighboring African nations, granting Morocco the upper two-thirds and Mauritania the lower third. At the same time, King Hassan of Morocco launched an invasion of Western Sahara, settling some 350,000 Moroccans in the territory in a chauvinist campaign called the Green March, after the color of Islam.
The king demagogically claimed that the marchers would be armed only with the Holy Book of Allah. But an occupying army of 20,000 troops from Moroccos Royal Armed Forces came along with the settlers and began a fierce crackdown against Polisario and other pro-independence Saharawis.
While no longer the direct colonial ruler, Madrid remained the dominant imperialist power in Western Sahara. As part of the handover, Spanish capitalists were guaranteed a 35 percent share in the phosphate deposits at Bu Craa, among the worlds richest known reserves of the ore.
The freedom fighters turned their guns against both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979 Polisario had defeated Mauritanias forces. As the Mauritanian troops pulled out, however, the Moroccan army moved in to occupy the remaining portion of the country.
The war with Morocco lasted until 1991, when both parties agreed to a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. Unable to defeat Polisario militarily, the Moroccan regime, in the decade leading up to the ceasefire, had reverted to a strategy of building massive sand walls to keep the Polisario Front out of Moroccan-occupied territory. By the late 1980s, the Moroccan government had built 1,500 miles of walls around 80 percent of the country.
Participants in the congress were taken to see a section of this wall, about an hour and a half drive from Tifariti. More than 100,000 Moroccan troops are stationed along its perimeter, aided by land mines, night-vision technology, and high-tech motion sensors provided by the Pentagon.
Last February, Washington announced it would increase its direct military aid to Morocco from $5 million in 2003 to $10 million next year. This is on top of much larger arms sales that the Pentagon approves for the kingdom each year. In exchange, Moroccos royal regime has consistently sided with Washington. It sent thousands of troops to Zaire in 1977 to shore up the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko when it faced a crisis, and more recently, the kingdom provided cannon fodder for the NATO-led forces in Bosnia and Kosova. Acting as a loyal pillar of imperialist domination in the region, the Moroccan monarchy has also tried to appropriate and offer for sale the potential oil wealth of Western Sahara.
The possible offshore oil reserves have attracted growing interest from the main competing imperialist powers. In February 2002, the United Nations rejected a bid by the U.S. chemical and oil company Kerr-McGee and the French oil giant TotalFinaElf, to work with the Moroccan regime to begin offshore oil exploration along Western Saharas coast.
Representatives of an Anglo-Australian oil exploration company, Fusion Oil, which has discovered oil along the coastline of neighboring Mauritania, have signed a deal with Polisario for offshore drilling. Three representatives of this company came to Tifariti during the Polisario congress to continue discussions on Western Saharas oil wealth.
UN referendum on self-determination
For the past 12 years both sides of the wall separating Western Sahara have been patrolled by a UN-assigned force of 230 soldiers and administrators. During that time, the Moroccan regime has agreed twice to hold a referendum on Western Saharas independence. Each time, however, the Moroccan rulers have sabotaged the process and tied it up in UN red tapewith the complicity of Washington and Madridafraid that the vast majority of Saharawis will vote for independence.
Eight days after the end of the Polisario congress, the Moroccan government confirmed that it would reject a third UN-brokered plan for a referendum. Polisario, which had initially rejected the accord, accepted it in July. The agreement, called Baker Plan II, was drafted by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker, who has been negotiating between the Moroccan monarchy and Polisario as a special UN envoy.
This plan calls for a four- to five-year period in which the Saharawi population would be resettled in Western Sahara. The territory would remain under Moroccan rule but would be granted limited autonomy. At the end of this period, a referendum could be held on independence or continued colonial rule.
In his opening remarks to the congress, Abdelaziz said that the Polisario Front had agreed to co-operate with the UN on Baker Plan II not as a final solution to the independence struggle, but as a base for a new process. The independence movement remains attached to the initial settlement plan, the Polisario leader stated. Signed as part of the 1991 ceasefire, that plan promised a referendum based on the Saharawi population alone.
In a March letter outlining Polisarios position on Baker Plan II, Abdelaziz criticized the United Nations for caving-in to Moroccos maneuvers for 12 years. Since the ceasefire, the Moroccan regime has organized what Abdelaziz described as the second and third Green Marches.
The second occurred in 1991, when the kingdom demanded that 170,000 Moroccans be allowed to vote in the referendum. The third took place months after the Moroccan government had signed a second referendum agreement, the 1997 Houston Accords, also brokered by Baker. In order to undermine the plan, the Moroccan regime brought 50,000 settlers to Western Sahara to be identified for the referendum.
As the UN mission assigned to determine who can vote in the referendum was wrapping up the selection process in 2000, the Moroccan government appealed previous UN rulings and submitted a list of 131,000 names that had been previously rejected.
At each turn, Abdelaziz said in the letter, the UN-appointed officials acceded to Moroccos demands and eroded the criteria for who would be allowed to vote, tying up the process.
The Polisario leader told delegates that the Saharawi people cannot wait indefinitely. He stressed that Polisario will improve the fighting capacity of its armed forces and reach out for expanding international support.
Social changes through struggle
The Polisario gathering opened October 12, the Day of National Unification. On that day in 1975 the sheikhs, or tribal chiefs, swore their allegiance to the Polisario Front.
During the decades of Spanish rule, Madrid had effectively used the tribal divisions and hierarchy to maintain control. But the momentum for independence swept aside these outmoded social forms. In its Program of National Action adopted in 1974, the Polisario Front declared its opposition to all forms of exploitation. The program called for the abolition of slavery, which continues to exist today in neighboring Mauritania, and an end to the tribute that the majority of the Saharawi people were required to pay to the sheikhs.
Despite the hardships in the refugee camps, Polisario has achieved far-reaching social gains. In the same 1974 declaration, for example, the independence movement proclaimed its commitment to reestablish the political and social rights of women and open up all perspectives to them. Five years later, Polisario founded the National Union of Saharawi Women. The group has more than 10,000 members today.
The womens federation was also at the center of a literacy campaign initiated by Polisario. As a result, more than 90 percent of Saharawis in the camps and liberated territory are literate today, compared to less than 10 percent during Spanish colonial rule. In Morocco and the occupied territory of Western Sahara, literacy is just above 50 percent today.
Efforts have also been made towards achieving a measure of economic self-sufficiency in the camps. Polisario has set up a poultry plant, and has tried to establish vegetable gardens and raise livestock.
In addition, thousands of Saharawis from the camps have traveled abroad to continue their studies in Algeria, Cuba, and Libya. Many Saharawis this reporter spoke with had received their high school and university education in Cuba.
According to Miriam Mugisa, one of Cubas representatives to the conference, more than 600 Saharawis study in Cuba today and seven Cuban doctors practice in the camps. Mugisa said that the number of Cuban physicians volunteering in the camps has been reduced because more Saharawi doctors have been trained abroad, many of them in Cuba, and have now assumed most responsibilities here.
This reality has made Polisario a pole of attraction for toilers throughout the region resisting imperialist domination.
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