Morocco’s army forced return to armed struggle, says Sahrawi minister

Fatma Mehdi, minister of cooperation of the Sahrawi Republic, spoke to Brasil de Fato about the struggle for sovereignty

February 02, 2023 by Michele de Mello
Caption: Fatma Mehdi is responsible for coordinating the humanitarian aid that serves about 90% of the population of Western Sahara - Michele de Mello / Brasil de Fato

Fatma Mehdi walked across the Sahara desert to the Fadel family’s tent home, where we spoke for about 30 minutes about the political resolutions recently approved at the 16th Congress of the Polisario Front, held January 13 through 20 in the Dajla refugee camp in the city of Tindouf, Algeria. 

Fatma is the cooperation minister of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, responsible for coordinating all humanitarian aid that serves about 90% of the Sahrawi population. “The Sahrawi organization is a key factor in distributing humanitarian aid. Here you don’t see anyone asking for alms,” the minister said.  

Self-taught in Spanish and English, Fatma studied Economics, Development and Cooperation at the Hegoa University in the Basque Country, and Communication, Planning and Participation at the University of Tarragona in Barcelona. Mehdi is the only woman in the Polisario Front delegation at the negotiation tables with Morocco.

Before taking charge of the ministry in 2019, Fatma was also Secretary General of the National Union of Sahrawi Women for 17 years and said that “the Sahrawi woman is the basis of our entire society.” The organization was created in 1974, just one year after the Polisario Front was founded. 

During the first years of the war against Morocco’s armed invasion, between 1975 and 1991, Sahrawi women were responsible for raising all the main structures of the refugee camps, such as nurseries, schools and hospitals, transforming the area into true Wilayas (states). At this time, Sahrawi women also had to learn everything from first aid to subjects such as history and geography, since they were the primary labor force while most of the men were fighting in the war. But women also joined the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army, creating a Special Military School in Tichla in the Auserd camp. “We want to be on all fronts,” the minister said.

After more than 30 years of ceasefire, in November 2020, Morocco bombed the Sahrawi people again, leading the Polisario Front to take up arms again. “The return to armed struggle was not an option, it was forced by the Moroccan army and the marginalization of the Sahrawi cause in international bodies,” she said.

In the new context of war, Fatma Mehdi evaluated the changes in the presence of women in Sahrawi society and the challenges in achieving the definitive independence of Western Sahara.

Check out the complete interview: 

Brasil de Fato: We are at the 16th Congress of the Polisario Front, the political organization that leads the people of Western Sahara. It is the first congress in the context of armed confrontation, after 30 years since the ceasefire with Morocco, which has now been unilaterally interrupted by the Moroccan Army. Considering the discussions that you have already had at the Congress, the political discussions, the return to armed struggle, and the whole history of violations by Morocco, in addition to the difficulties that the UN is having in making the referendum for the independence of Western Sahara. Can you comment on the perspectives of this Congress and the future to finally achieve the sovereignty and independence for the people of Western Sahara.

Fatma Mehdi: This Congress is taking place at a very important historical moment. We have the return to armed struggle, which was really not a choice of the Sahrawi people, but a decision forced by the Moroccan Army, but also by the marginalization, promoted by international forces, of the Sahrawi cause. Especially by the UN, by the Security Council, because for more than 30 years the Sahrawi people have given enough demonstrations of their intention to reach a peaceful solution. Starting with accepting the referendum, accepting many Moroccan voters, accepting the settlement plan…

In these 30 years, the Sahrawi people have been giving, giving and giving possibilities, opportunities to achieve a peaceful solution. Unfortunately, the international community has shown that there is no real will to find an end to this conflict. It is a conflict that really hurts the Sahrawi people, who are victims of this… But the Moroccan people as well.

It’s a conflict that, unfortunately, is helping other international forces. It is feeding their economic interests. It’s increasing the spoils of the riches of Western Sahara. Morocco wants a rich territory… without a people. This is impossible. So this Congress comes precisely at this historic and important moment, when the return to armed struggle is being seen as a mistake.

So, despite all this, the Sahrawi people, convinced of their just cause and of their right to use all possible avenues to defend their right, their land, no longer care how they portray us, what labels they put on us. Because we have already given many opportunities to give the UN and the forces time, but unfortunately we have come to the conclusion that if there is no war, if there is no blood, if there is no conflict, it is as if we are not here, as if we do not exist. We are observing the war from Ukraine.

We are observing and cannot understand how one people can be considered victims and others not, even though they live in worse situations. This year we are turning 50 years old. We have many generations that are very worried about the future. It is a very clear humiliation by international forces. And so the Sahrawi people have decided to take up arms again.

This congress [was] be very important because it marks the lines for the next 30 years, that is to say three years for this process of struggle for the liberation of Western Sahara. Right, you are the Minister of Cooperation, that means the person within the structure of the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in charge of everything related to humanitarian aid, to cooperation with other countries. About 90% of the Sahrawi people today depend on humanitarian aid.

BdF: About 90% of the Sahrawi people today depend on humanitarian aid. What is the relationship like with multilateral organizations? What has been the role of the United Nations Peace Mission to assist the Sahrawi people (MINUSRO) and the UN in getting humanitarian aid to the Sahrawi people? And where does most of the support come from?

FM: I want to highlight one factor that was very important and that ensured the organization and the equitable distribution of humanitarian aid, which is the Sahrawi organization. And this is what other international organizations that work in the camps, such as UN agencies, have also said. They say that the Sahrawi refugees are different from many others. This is thanks to the Sahrawi organization. Because, although we are living on Algerian land, everything concerning the organization, the management of everything related to the Sahrawis is the Sahrawis’ own management. Without anybody’s intervention. Humanitarian aid generally comes in different ways.

The first one, of course, being internationally recognized refugees by the UN, we have the UN agencies, WFP, UNHCR, but we also have other agencies, like the European ECHO, other international organizations, like the Red Cross. And also other NGOs that are counterparts of both the UN agencies and other countries that offer aid that is part of international cooperation to refugees worldwide. In addition, we have the solidarity movement with the Sahara. Mainly in Spain, Italy, France… and also the movement that we have in Latin America.

The water supply in the five Sahrawi camps is provided every two weeks by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) / Michele de Mello / Brasil de Fato

Besides all this, we have help from our ally Algeria, the country that welcomed us since the 1970s and is still helping us in everything it can. The last three years, in my work as a minister, have been very complicated. Because, besides the economic crisis that we have been in for many years, there has also been the problem of COVID and the war. This caused the displacement of many Sahrawis who were living in the liberated zones, where now there is war and it is no longer possible to live. This has caused the needs of the refugees to increase a lot. But we always say, both to overcome COVID and to overcome the deficit of international aid. I think that the Sahrawi people or society is a very supportive society.

Living as refugees for almost 50 years, until today, you don’t find anybody living on the street. You don’t find people begging. You don’t find people without food. These social values that we have have always been present, and thanks to them, despite the almost chronic deficit in humanitarian aid, this solidarity has always covered any need for the Sahrawis.

BdF: Already in 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favor of Western Sahara, making it clear that there was no legal framework for the annexation of the Sahara by Morocco or Mauritania. The UN also recognizes the Sahara as an autonomous territory, just as several other countries recognize the Sahrawi Republic. But during all these years, there has been a history of human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, many complaints, including torture, against the Sahrawis living in the liberated zone and in the part occupied by Morocco. What are the means today to denounce what happens and also to hold the occupying entity, the invading entity, accountable for all the human rights violations it commits?

FM: I think that the struggle, in terms of human rights, has been used very well in these last 30 years, taking advantage of this peace process in which we have been for almost 30 years. As you know well, MINUSRO, which came here precisely to work on the referendum issue and which is controlling the Western Sahara part, is almost the only mission in the world that doesn’t have the capacity to monitor human rights. It is something curious, because… the large UN forces do not want to work on this issue, because they know very well that Morocco is one of the countries that does not respect human rights, that has a security system that only represses people.

France has always been against MINUSRO in Western Sahara having such a mandate. We continue to demand it, but we know that it is not going to happen, because it is not in the interest of the large forces, especially those that are friends of Morocco.

BdF: You say that the UN is no longer a space for denunciation, so who could they turn to?

FM: When the Sahrawis come to MINUSRO, after a few minutes they are handed over to the Moroccan security forces. And there are no reports about what is happening in Western Sahara either. Morocco forbids everyone to visit the occupied zones so that they don’t find out what is going on. Many European parliamentarians have been denied visas to visit the Sahrawis.

We have the latest case of the special envoy of the UN Secretariat. They didn’t allow him to visit Western Sahara and so he had to cancel his trip… Nevertheless, I think that something that we can say is good is the question of the complaints before the European Court.

The Polisario Front presented many complaints against fishing, trade, the contracts of the European Union with Morocco. I think that these are very important resolutions, especially because they are affirming exactly what the International Court said in 1975, when it said that there is really no link between the Sahara and Morocco and that they are two separate territories, different, and that for any investment related to the riches of the Sahara, the Sahrawi people must always be consulted, and the only representative of the Sahrawi people is the Polisario Front.

I think we won that battle. We are still waiting for the resolutions that will be presented in two months, I think. And, above all, we have learned now that also within the European Union bodies they are discovering a lot of corruption, whose origin is the Moroccan state.

Chebani Bilal Mahmud studied medicine in Cuba and is now the physician in charge of Dajla Hospital / Michele de Mello / Brasil de Fato

BdF: In the West there is a lot of prejudice related to the Muslim religion. The whole US communication strategy has also played an important role in this, in trying to portray the woman as a subjugated being in the Muslim, Islamic culture. And being in the Sahrawi camps, you can see that this is not so. What is the role of the Sahrawi woman in everything that represents the resistance and, above all, in the construction of the Republic?

FM: I think that the Sahrawi culture is a culture that respects women a lot. This is something that we can find in many proverbs of the Sahrawi culture. I don’t know how to translate them into Spanish, but I can explain the idea. We say, for example, that women are… Have you seen around that men wear a turban on their heads? There is a proverb that says that women, for a gentleman, are a turban, which you have to put above your head, above everything.

And the woman is also… like the nucleus of a family. And when we talk about family, we are talking in broad terms. Because the Saharan family is very broad. So the woman is the core of the family. 

As mulheres eram a maioria entre os 2 mil delegados do 16º Congresso da Frente Polisario, realizado em janeiro de 2023 / Michele de Mello / Brasil de Fato

In another sense also, for us, religion has always been something to improve things. Not to make things worse. The Muslim religion can be practiced as a person. We are Muslim women. Islam, when we analyze it, Islam teaches you the importance of studying, teaches you the importance of collaborating, of helping, of respecting people, of working, the importance of working, so if you don’t have the knowledge to work you won’t be able to do anything.

So this is how we understand Islam. As something spiritual that helps us to collaborate, to improve our relationships, to study, to help those in need. So, for us, it was never a problem.

BdF: Here, in Dajla, one of the camps, one of the Saharan cities, you can also see that it has been the women in all these years of resistance that have created a life in the camp. So the woman is a main actor in this struggle.

FM: Yes, women were protagonists in this struggle and at this moment we are returning to this role. Because during the 30 years of peace we experienced a life of coexistence… in a broader sense because the men, since there was no war, spent more time in the camps. During the 16 years before 1991, the women were the ones who set up the camps, made the adobe bricks to build hospitals, schools, offices.

They had to study at night to teach the children the next day. They had to take special care courses, courses to heal people without having any experience, and until today we have this school, which continues to train many women to become nurses, doctors, to train them to do this service. Almost all the work in the camps was carried out by women during the 16 years of war. 

Today we are returning to that same role. Because for 30 years we had to understand how to protect our achievements. Because it is not easy. Because we are talking about a “normal” situation, where women and men live together. Because, before these 30 years, the majority in the camps were women. That is why they were mayors, ministers, and even took part in the war. But in those 30 years, we had to study our experience, see how we can protect our achievements, because when the war was over, we went back to a “normal” life and men started to be interested in political responsibilities.

We also don’t want men to be left doing nothing. They have to collaborate, but respecting the achievements that we had during the years of war. Today we are returning to this situation. We have a military school that continues to train women, especially young women, the ones who are interested. Military service has never been an obligation in the Polisario Front, even for men. It is a free option and we have women interested in learning because we want to be present on all the fronts.

So culture now is a very important factor that we are working on, as is war, diplomacy and internal work. So culture, for us women, is very important.

Saharan children are soccer fanatics / Michele de Mello / Brasil de Fato

BdF: Today, 82 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), most of these countries are in Latin America. Only Argentina, Brazil, and Chile maintain a neutral stance. What are the expectations and possibilities with this new progressive wave in Latin America and with Lula’s third term in Brazil? Will it be possible to advance in a South-South cooperation?

FM: They are mainly countries that have suffered the same as we are suffering today. We know that they are the ones that will understand us the most. We are very hopeful about Brazil, now that Lula is back, because of the democratic thinking, because of the values, to which many other forces do not give much importance. But I believe that we can count on Latin America because they are still very respected values, they continue to be of great interest, so we think that now we have a good opportunity to conclude the efforts that we have been making for a long time with other governments.

And my desire is to conclude, to fulfill the final objective with the arrival of this last progressive bloc to get full support shown by the opening of embassies for the Sahrawi Democratic Republic.

We also count very much on the role that can be played by Latin American countries within the UN and the Security Council. And I take this opportunity to say that the member countries there have always played a very important role during the last years. Especially in the defense of the Sahrawi people and their right to self-determination. 

This article was originally published in Portuguese on Brasil de Fato.