If people are people…
‘Please don’t come to Laâyoune,’ said the voice. ‘It’s too dangerous with all the secret police and army here.’ With that the receiver went dead and I was left standing alone in a dark and dusty Marrakech internet cafe. The whole incident was like a cliché from a 60s spy novel; but this was the year 2012 and very real. I had been speaking with a representative of the Polisaro Front in Laâyoune, the capital of Western Sahara.
The Polisaro Front are the government of the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara who have been occupied, repressed and tortured by Morocco since it invaded that state in 1975. Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as Africa’s last colony. The body has deployed a tiny, under-resourced and overstretched force of peacekeepers to the region to monitor a 1991 ceasefire between the Sahrawi people and Moroccan army.
Since the invasion, 75, 000 Sahrawis remain in torturous stasis. They survive in refugee camps in the desert, physically hidden from sun-seeking tourists by the omissions of the Moroccan tourist board and a little mentioned defensive wall called ‘the Berm.’ At 2,500 kilometres the Berm is the world’s longest continuous minefield, with missiles, tanks and soldiers pointed into the desert ensuring Sahrawi subjection and silence. Reminiscent of Gaza, and the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 70s, this is the world’s forgotten struggle.
The Polisaro representative was right, of course. Just last year, Sahrawi community organisers attempted to join the Occupy wave which took its cue from the Arab Spring in Tunisia and spread out across the world from New York’s Zuccotti Park. Their attempts to create a Sahrawi Occupy camp resulted in violent clashes with the police ending in the burning of the camp and the murder of a number of the Sahrawi organisers by Moroccan security forces.
The Polisaro representative explained that our presence in the Western Sahara, off the usual surfers’ trails, would incense security forces and bring their unwanted attention onto Polisaro activities. The only alternative would be to enter Polisaro controlled lands form Algeria, behind the Berm, but the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since Algeria supported the Sahrawi during Morocco’s invasion.
Western Sahara remains a physical and political anomaly, a tragedy evinced in daily struggle for the Sahrawi people. The possibility of visiting and learning from the Sahrawi community workers fighting for their rights in these harsh conditions is what had attracted us to get off our flight home from Liberia in the first place. Now, with the safety of the Polisaro activists uncertain it would be stupid to arrive in Laâyoune and start making political soundings that could jeopardise their safety even further.
As we left the internet cafe and faced the blinding sunlight of Marrakech we realised that we now found ourselves in Morocco with hardly any money, our plans scuppered. We decided to hitchhike to Fes, across the foothills of the great Atlas Mountains, and from there to make it to the coast and the boat to mainland Spain. This fall-back plan evolved into a wonderful experience which exposed us at every turn to the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people; loving families, retired couples, young people and children. Everyone we met was curious about where we were coming from, how we enjoyed Morocco and if we wanted to share some delicious mint tea and food with them. Being tired and hungry hitchhikers these reminders of the generosity of the human spirit kept us going. Each experience left us smiling in amazement that these strangers could be so kind.
The humbling kindness made the realities of the situation in the Western Sahara all the more strange. How could we experience such wonderful hospitality from beautiful people while the same people were supposedly happy to force the Sahrawi to live a sub-human existence confined behind a minefield, tortured and disappeared for speaking out? Being Irish I thought of our island’s perennial contestations between multiple traditions of culture and religion, all of whom call Ireland home but have different visions of what ‘Ireland’ should be.
Hence, centuries old struggles continued into modern times so that by the 1960s there was effectively a civil war between the IRA and unionist paramilitaries, often supported by the British Army and Northern Irish police. My mother tells a story about my granddad, who at the height of what became euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’, went missing in a Protestant area of Belfast. As a Southern Catholic, he would have been expected to be in serious danger. Yet, when found, he was in a pub laughing and joking with other men from this Northern Protestant area as if they were old friends.
People are people everywhere, really quite generous and wonderful when we meet face to face. Why then do they do such terrible things to each other?
‘Well it was ours all along’ said one of our Couchsurfing hosts when we questioned him about the Western Sahara. Moroccan history is possibly even more complex than Irish history! Various layers of Arab empires, Berber tribes and European domination by France and Spain all lead to a history from which it’s hard to decipher in a black and white way what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. So yes, at one stage the Sahrawi peoples were under the control of Moroccan sultans. But when it comes to human rights and freedom from oppression such historical empires hardly matter. If that were the case then Sweden could lay claim to Dublin because it was founded by Scandinavian Vikings and the Irish in turn could lay claim to the west coast of English which they once occupied back when St. Patrick was a young boy.
In reality, people simply move about. For thousands of years this was done without regulation. Then borders were created as artificial and arbitrary boundaries of power which were then legitimised by cultural otherness (‘we are different from you because of x, y, z’) and inculcated with fear of ‘the other’; the enemy who supposedly sought to destroy the culture and this new imagined community now called the nation.
Today, the United States is the classic example of this. It is a nation almost entirely held together by the myth of what it means to be American- a myth which is so often defined not by what it is but by who is ‘out there’ trying to destroy it. This myth has gone into overdrive in the post 9/11 world. It holds the nation together despite huge disparities of wealth, the continued ghettoisation of people of colour and a huge oppressed working class who survive on measly wages and minimal social protection. Rather than questioning or challenging this, young guys from the impoverished and marginalised doldrums of America are encouraged to consider a career in the Army. Many of them take it up given that there are few other chances to escape. Rather than asking why they have been dealt a shitty hand in ‘the land of opportunity’ they are diverted to thinking about those terrorists who will put an end to their way of life.
But what is this ‘way of life’ only the internalised oppression of ‘common sense’ capitalist exploitation? These myths of culture and history are very powerful. They control the way in which we approach all situations because ‘history is the space in which every man [sic] approaches his [sic] consciousness’, and elite interests are the ones who decide what story the history books will tell. So we have nations-and nationalism- which protect elite interests.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century millions of the poorest British and Irish working class men fought in the British Army across the globe. They were sold a story of empire which was spun from the twin webs of ‘race’ and nationalism. This was a hideous obfuscation of the reality that British Government was a collection of extraordinarily rich men who used their army of the desperate poor to secure access to natural resources and cheap (slave) labour across the globe. They did this by exploiting the myth of the other.
In order to sustain the myth, protecting the fragile imagined community, some people must necessarily be denied membership. Those who have membership must be encouraged to feel different from those who do not. This is done by asserting that particular cultural traditions, languages, religious beliefs and in the extreme skin colour are allowed or disallowed in the imagined community. This, of course leads to racism, oppression and dehumanisation of ‘the other’. The creation of the myth of ‘the other’ perfectly suits the elites of our world, whether British aristocrats, American political classes or Moroccan kings.
By socialising the poor and marginalised who suffer under their rule to fear ‘the other’, elites can ensure that the working classes can become amongst the most violent oppressors. This can be seen time and time again. Today in Belfast Loyalists are rioting over when the Union Jack is flown on city hall. The piece of cloth is just that, nothing more, but what the fight fudges is the fact that those communities are facing increasing social residualisation in depressing council estate conditions; they are working class communities with no opportunities turning once again on ‘the other’ to protect what little they have.
And of course, our wonderful Moroccan hosts. The power of the myth of ‘the other’ is clearly at work with them. ‘Ours all along’ says the Couchsurfer, almost conscious that the history and culture are so often evoked to wrap a legitimising veil around terrible injustice. It is that creation of borders, at first imagined and then constructed with barbed wire and minefields, which allows us to justify the pain we cause to those outside our imagined community, our nation, our border.
Thus the people who showed us such warmth unquestioningly condemned the Sahrawi to such brutal torture, repression and oppression. People just like them are stationed on the Berm, are working in gulag-like prisons and are the ones who murdered the Sahrawi Occupy activists. Their actions fuelled by racism, their racism fuelled by the myth of ‘the other’.
Europe’s only land border with Africa
The air was thick with smog, billowing from the exhausts of hundreds of waiting cars which sat, engines purring, waiting for their passengers to clear the border crossing between Morocco and Spain at Melilla. The artificial glow from the floodlights high above gave the whole scene an eerie feeling as fluorescent yellow mixed with the grey haze of the cars. It was a very tense situation. Despite there being a seemingly omnipresent armed police presence, disorder reigned supreme. The border crossing seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.
Crowds gathered around check-point booths clutching passports, pushing, shoving and shouting. Some men were controlling things at the top of the mass of squabbling people, and for a fee you could get your passport to the top of the queue. Every so often someone would be angered by a supposed queue skipper and a fight would break out. The tightly packed crowd would be pushed apart with bodies and barriers crashing loudly to the ground. This violent cacophony was met with little more than a few disinterested whistle blasts from the police and a lecture on how to form a queue, which was, of course, ignored.
In the midst of this suffocating chaos, the police caught a woman who had been hiding in a car and trying to cross the border. She was dragged, screaming from the boot. At the same time, taking advantage of this distraction, a group of people started to hop the fence, perhaps hoping that at least one of them would make it. Police sprang from everywhere, whistles piercing through the shouting. At it’s not bullets, I thought.
The Mediterranean crossing is the most dangerous in the world. Every year hundreds of refugees die or disappear, presumed drowned, as they attempt to get from Africa to Europe and the chance of a better life. Yet because of the colour of my skin, an accident of birth, I survived this crossing. The absolute injustice of borders is unbelievable, and when seen first-hand at one of only two land borders between Africa and Europe it cannot be ignored. It must not be ignored! The close like between neo-colonial development models, neoliberal exploitation of the Global South and the converging environmental crisis require transformative changes.
The issue of borders is at the core of this. There is no border seperating nationalism, racism, colonialism, neoliberalism and the destruction of our environment.
Metro Eireann on the Western Sahara situation, ‘Africa’s last colony’: http://metroeireann.com/article/western-sahara-africas-last,3695
Western Sahara Resource Watch: