I attended the Finnish Social Forum (FSF) screening of Gdeim Izik documentary. The Finnish Social Forum is an annual gathering of Finnish NGO’s, professionals, researchers and activists. It is also the local branch of the World Social Forum. The event is mainly funded by the Finnish Foreign Ministry. FSF attracts a vast and varied crowd and this year was no exception. On my walk to the fourth floor where the documentary was to be shown, I had met several friends and bought three books from a discount basket.
The room was half full when I arrived. Inside there were people I already knew, but also a lot of new faces. Some of the Social Forum events gather dozens of people, and I was aware that the Western Sahara issue would not be one of those big ones where it is hard to find a seat. So, I was very pleased to see so many people attending. The documentary was released by the human rights organization Sahara Thawra
More people should see the film. It brings to light at least two major issues connected with the conflict: the conflict is mainly ignored by the world and there is very little independent monitoring of human rights.
Now, the strength of the film is in its weakness. The documentary depicts only a partial truth. It only shows what it can show. There was no independent reporting because Morocco made sure no reporters were around. Amazingly, reporters who tried to fly from Spain were not let in to the planes heading for Morocco. The UN Minurso operation was nowhere to be seen. All we got from Gdeim Izik is this documentary and the parts that were filmed in the camp were shot by amateurs who just happened to have a camera. This is not a work of journalism but it is a statement. It is easy to dismiss as propaganda but in doing so we fail to see the other side: The Sahrawi side, the side, we seldom see.
I must admit that I had very little knowledge of the documentary beforehand. I knew it was about Gdeim Izik, the 2010 Saharawi protest camp in the occupied Western Sahara and that it was brutally dismantled by the Moroccan military and secret police. It has been claimed by Noam Chomsky that what happened in Gdeim Izik was the “first spark” of the Arabic Spring.
The beginning of the endless wait
After some short welcoming words by the organizer, the curtains closed and we shut out the early spring light of Helsinki and were torn to the seemingly endless Saharan wilderness and the cold reality of its brave people.
It is hard to say, when exactly the conflict in Western Sahara began. Was it already in 1884 when the territory was handed over to Spain as a colony in the Berlin Convention? Or did the conflict start when in 1973 the Polisario Movement (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguila el Hamra y Rio de Oro) began to mobilize against the Spanish in order to establish an independent Western Sahara? Many people familiar with the conflict would argue, that the current conflict started when Spain was pressured by the UN to let go of it’s “Spanish Sahara” in 1975. According to the 1960 UN General Assembly decolonization law, Spain should have had the responsibility to set up a referendum for the Western Sahara Saharawi people on the issue of independence.
In stead, Spain (led then by General Franco) struck a deal with Morocco and Mauritania, that divided Western Sahara between two African nations. When Spain withdrew its presence, Morocco and Mauritania invaded the parts of Western Sahara they were ‘entitled’ according to the agreement. The move was criticized, and still is, by the UN and many other countries.
This happened in 1975 and 1976. As the Polisario was already established and the Saharawi were gearing up for independence, it is no surprise that after the Spanish left, the guerrilla war was soon directed against the new colonial powers.
After a change in Mauritanian politics in 1979 the country negotiated a peace with the Polisario and withdrew from the area it had received in the deal with Spain. However, the conflict with Morocco dragged on until 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed with the Polisario.
The documentary starts with a cavalcade of pictures of injured people. Then we see a man dressed in a t-shirt writing “Losing all hope will set us free” on a dirty brick wall. The feeling of isolation and hopelessness is understandable since after the 1991 ceasefire there have been numerous attempts to set up a vote on the Western Sahara independence. All have failed.
A peaceful demonstration
Gdeim Izik began like many protests, after a long period of frustration. One day in 2010 a few Saharawis made camp some miles from the largest of the occupied cities, Laayoune. Then the camp began to grow. And it kept on growing and finally some 20 000 people were living there. What began as a protest for more social freedom for the Saharawi, ended up being a moment of “historic achievement”, as the Sahrawis in the film tell us.
In order to truly understand how momentous occasion Gdeim Izik was, we should be reminded how Morocco has acted in the ceasefire period. Firstly, Western Sahara is divided into two areas. In the west there is the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara (and the rich Phosphate mines), and to the east, divided by a heavily mined and guarded “Moroccan Wall” (the Berm, and actually there are several of them), there lie the “liberated provinces”. Laayone resides on the “Moroccan side”, so a huge protest camp in the heart of the occupation is a major occurrence.
The camp was soon surrounded by Moroccan military in trying to stop people from leaving or coming. Despite all efforts, the camp grew. The film speaks about Saharawis being shot or mugged by the security forces and there are some heart braking stories told by the relatives. It was a classic stale mate.
And then there is the Minurso, the UN mission originally formed to organize the referendum for independence in 1991. The vote was the sole reason Polisario agreed to the ceasefire. At first, it was hoped that 1992 would be the big year. Then 1997. 2003. 2007. Today, they still wait.
In the documentary, we see the Minurso drive away in a UN car. The Saharawis claim that Minurso kept away from the camp so that they would not get involved. This created not only a terrible situation for the protesters but it also shows how the UN presence in the area has no real affect. This year the Minurso mandate will once again be renewed. Despite the international pressure and continuous reporting by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, there is little hope that UN would actually begin to monitor the human rights issues.
So, the Sahrawis are left on their own as the build up of military forces around the demonstration camp gains pace. Everybody knows it is only a matter of time. Amazingly, even as the attack looms near, we see the Saharawis rally for freedom and chant for independence. They shout against everything that is wrong: the occupation, the illegal fishing in Western Sahara sea waters, the mining of Phosphate from the lands that actually belong to them. And of course, they were also demanding social justice and human rights.
So, we who see the documentary in the comfort of our homes, feel desperate as the attack eventually starts early in the morning of November 8.
The end of the beginning
What happened is this: the camp got destroyed. What we see in the film is more. Gdeim Izik became a story or a legend even. It has now the power to unite and ignite people who have for decades struggled against seemingly impossible odds. This is how legends are made: through stories of defiance and bravery. We see the Saharawi women and children walking through a military barrage with expressions on their face I can only describe as ‘unbeaten’. The young men run around throwing stones and shouting defiant support for the Saharawi cause. They are not afraid and because of this documentary, we all can see that. But, as I write this I am fully aware of the terrible tragedy the whole incident was. But you can only wonder, how deep their conviction must be in order to risk their lives for it.
As we enter the after match of the film, we dive right to the center of the ongoing propaganda war waged by Morocco. This war is fought back by a handful of journalists, enlightened politicians around the world, NGO’s and bloggers. The aim of the Saharawi side, and their international supporters, is to show the truth. The aim of the Moroccan secret police is to conceale the truth. It gets exceedingly difficult to find out what the Western Sahara conflict is about. However, as the tension between the two groups escalate, one should remember that this is not a struggle between people but between an oppressive and elitist regime and the Sahrawi ethnic minority.
The rest of the film is used to portray the Western Sahara situation in a global context. Like the protesters in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara was also abandoned by the majority of the world powers. Spain, who has the historical and moral responsibility to act is politically too torn in disagreement to do anything. The EU and the UN don’t act.
This was made clear by the organizers after the film. What they argued, is that it is not the job of the NGO activists to find out what’s happening. That should be the job of the international community of nations, mainly the UN, EU and Spain. After Gdeim Izik there have been almost weekly clashes between protesters and the Moroccan police. The 22 leaders of the Gdeim Izik camp are still being held in prison and there is a mounting evidence of torture and human rights violations all over Marocco. They are officially accused of “kidnapping the 20 000 people and forcing them in to the demonstration”.
The destruction of the Western Sahara and the Saharawis is not going to happen in a landslide of Moroccan government terror, like in Gdeim Izik, but by a choke of silence by the rest of the planet.
Awareness growing in Finland
The Finnish Friends of Western Sahara (Länsi-Saharan ystävät Suomessa ry) has been operating since 2005 and there is a growing interest in the region. This May Day there was the annual workers march that went through the city centre and the Minurso-protest-flag was was shown to thousands of May Day participants around the city. Currently there is a definite buzz in the local NGO:s and a good co-operation with a group of Spanish activists. More activities are expected as co-operation with other European NGO’s intensifies.
The message is simple and the popular opinion is clearly balanced against the Moroccan occupation. Finlands good reputation as a UN country could come in handy when fresh contacts are to be opened to the highest levels of government. In the advent of the Arabic Spring it would be no surprise if the Western Sahara cause would be the “next big thing” on the world agenda.
By Ilkka Vuorikuru for Friends of Western Sahara in Finland.