Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Internacional viewpoint on Western Sahara
Was an honor to have this interview with Will Sommer
1.You have just celebrated your first anniversary of blogging about Western Sahara. Can you tell us about your first encounter with the Saharawi issue and what were the main driving forces for this interest?
I wish I could say I was bumming in Tangiers when I fell in love with a gorgeous Sahrawi, and when she left me I fell in love with her people’s cause. It sounds a lot cooler than what really brought me to Western Sahara. I was playing an online game where players were countries (I was Palestine), and the Moroccan player bragged about how well he oppressed Western Sahara. I had never heard about Western Sahara, and the dearth of information about it online surprised me. To find out more, I started my blog. The positive response I received within days got me hooked.
A couple things interested me about Western Sahara. Few people are talking about it, especially in English. By writing about it I became an authority in an almost empty field, so there was more interaction with people and a better chance of changing things. I had also just been accepted in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, so I was interested in international politics.
The best reason for supporting Western Sahara is that it’s such a clear conflict, and it’s comparatively so easy to fix. If you look at Palestine, another occupied territory, you need to constantly hedge and say you support Palestinian nationalism, but not that amorphous term terrorism. With Western Sahara there are no such risks. Give money to a charity that gives Sahrawis food and you know it won’t end up buying bombs, because the Sahrawis aren’t interested in bombs.
Like I said, it’s easy to resolve the Western Sahara dispute: hold a referendum. Morocco already agreed to it, and Polisario wants it. If the United States and France told Morocco, “Hold the referendum or you’ll lose military and financial aid,” there’d be a referendum next month. That’s a simple goal that’s heartening for someone looking for a cause.
2.Being a blogger about such forgotten conflict how is it important for the Western Sahara issue to be covered by the media? Are there any means of getting more media attention to this cause?
The first problem with Western Sahara and the media is getting American media to cover it at all. If it bleeds it still leads, but that charming guideline doesn’t matter when Morocco lets people rot in the Black Prison or kills them in protests. Morocco has also done an effective job of keeping journalists out of Western Sahara.
To their credit the Polisario Front has recognized the futility of war, and the occupied Sahrawis know violent terrorism will only help Morocco. If Sahrawis start blowing up buildings or taking hostages, Morocco will get evidence for its absurd claim that independence advocates are terrorists. The downside is that media is less likely to cover non-violent protests.
I can’t speak for media outside the United States. For example, I know in Spain the former colonial relationship means a lot more coverage. But in the United States if Western Sahara gets written about at all the angle is “Check out this dispute no one cares about.” I had to write that way myself when I got an article published in my school newspaper. It’s better than no coverage at all, but it’s not an angle that’s conducive to change.
I don’t know how to get more media attention for Western Sahara, but I have some ideas. Pitch articles to publications and websites you think might be interested, and give them a targeted angle—for example, I’ve suggested to youth political sites that they write about teen protesters in Western Sahara. Clever protest ideas might get media attention, but those require a lot of people. On that count, I often think of the Vietnam War protest where protesters tried to “levitate” the Pentagon.
The trick is to be clever and timely, or at least one of those things. Working on a paper myself I know that journalists are always desperate for ideas. Most of them will jump at a topical article related to Western Sahara.
Another easy way to get more words written about Western Sahara is writing a blog about it yourself, or a letter to the editor of a newspaper that’s recently written about Western Sahara. The Washington Times is a bad paper, and it spills more editorial ink supporting Morocco’s occupation than most other paper’s do writing about Western Sahara at all. Send them an e-mail and tell them they’re ridiculous.
3.As far as we concerned, you have had a “small” demonstration in front of the Moroccan Embassy. Is that a good way of getting their attention and do you think it made some difference?
That protest was just me and Mikael Simble from the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, so you’re right that it was small. Still, I think it showed the people at the Moroccan embassy that some people in the United States know about Western Sahara and aren’t going to forget it.
Since then I’ve distributed flyers on cars around the embassy, informing their neighbors about the occupation. Hopefully some of this educating and shaming will get back to Rabat.
4.Also, you have had the opportunity to meet two very important people from Western Sahara, the president Mohamed Abdelaziz and human right activist and ex-political prisoner Aminatou Haidar. Can you tell us briefly about that and how important was it for you to meet these people?
I met Aminatou Haidar in September 2006 at a congressional reception, so I was still new to the cause then. It was great to meet her because she struggled so much for what she believes. I’d say along with Ali Salem Tamek, Brahim Sabbar, and Mohammed Daddach she’s the leading Sahrawi dissident, and being a woman makes her a great icon for the movement. From what I’ve read, it seems like she’s inspiring young Sahrawi women to become involved, which is great both for an equal post-referendum society and the struggle image internationally.
My pleasure at meeting the president at a dinner in Washington was dampened by his previous reprehensible treatment of the Moroccan POWs and his never-ending presidency. Obviously I support his work but “my excitement at meeting President Abdelaziz was dampened by my disagreements with his police”. It was much more interesting to meet the people who work with Abdelaziz to free Western Sahara. There was a great diversity in the group, which included Algerians, Americans, Spaniards, Sahrawis, and Frenchmen. I enjoyed meeting Khatry Beirouk, who runs Western Sahara Online. He lives in Maryland and has an occupation unrelated to the Western Sahara movement, but he’s still committed and spends a lot of time on his website. To me, that’s the ideal of a dedicated activist. If Western Sahara gets more men and women like Khatry, it’ll be in good shape.
I didn’t speak much with either Abdelaziz or Aminatou Haidar because neither of them speaks much English. That’s a problem because if you’re going to get America to stop supporting Morocco you need a charismatic leader who can go on television and speak eloquently. It seems like Malainin Lakhal, the head of the Union of Writers and Journalists, is doing a good job of this. He’s convincing a lot of in New Zealand and Australia that they should stop accepting plundered Western Saharan phosphates.
5.Being an outsider to this conflict and especially being an American, what can your government and people do? How much hope do you have for a three decade long dispute?
It’s funny you mention it because supporters of the occupation often tell me to tend to my own house (Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, wiretapping), which I’d like to see changed too, obviously. I watched a documentary about the US academic Noam Chomsky last week, and he said the American media should’ve focused more on death squads in El Salvador or East Timor than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan because those were things Americans could actually change. At first I thought I was doing the same thing in Western Sahara, but then I realized Western Sahara is an American problem. After all, besides France my country is Morocco’s biggest supporter.
It’s the same problem my country had in East Timor: the United States has a predilection for supporting oppressive regimes instead of democratic nationalist movements. Like East Timor, though, I think there’s going to be a turning point with Western Sahara. There are all kinds of signs that a referendum’s gaining momentum: more countries are recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, activists in Scandinavia are accomplishing great things, and it seems like more Moroccan journalists are willing to ignore official censure to write the truth about Western Sahara. I’ve said for a few months that I expect the Western Sahara to be free by the end of my life, and right now that’s looking pessimistic.
If that’s going to happen, though, more Moroccans needs to be convinced that an independent Western Sahara is better for them than a fallow, occupied Western Sahara. That’ll be the hardest thing to accomplish in the entire 31 years since the invasion, but it’s also the most vital. I hope everyone working for a referendum in Western Sahara, Sahrawi or not, will consider that and be polite to Moroccans. That said, concerns for politeness shouldn’t get in your way when you’re trying to end a grotesque abuse of human rights and international law.
Thanks for letting me go on about my favorite topic.