Youth for peace in Western Sahara

In the beginning of October, young people from Western Sahara, Palestine, Kurdistan, parts of Europe, Latin America and Asia were brought together in Catalonia for an Erasmus+ programme titled ”Youth for Peace”. Emmaus Stockholm’s intern Nadine Frisk writes about her experience.

The following article is a reflection from Nadine Frisk. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Group photo taken outside the Old Quarter of Solsona. Photo: Hayat Rguibi

During my one week in Catalonia, I met some truly inspiring people and learnt so much from them.

Coming from occupied Western Sahara, some were members of Equipe Media, a journalist collective which documents human rights violations in the occupied territories to counter the media blockade imposed by Morocco. One of them was Hayat Rguibi, who was arrested and tortured for six months for her activism and was prevented by the Moroccan authorities from going to school to receive an education. Besides them, there was also Nhabouha Lakhlifi who has been using legal channels to demand Morocco to release information regarding Saharawi protesters who disappeared in 2005, of which two are her brothers. There was also Laaroussi, who faced discrimination for being a Saharawi studying in Marrakesh, but sees a bright future for an independent Western Sahara with a high potential for renewable energy production.

All the participants from the refugee camps in Algeria were active in community development and advocacy. One of them, Tatah Lehbib, after his own grandmother’s house was destroyed in a flood, has been building houses out of recycled plastic bottles and sand that can withstand the harsh weather of the desert that the Saharawi refugees are subjected to.

For the programme, the organisers, led by former Swedish EU parliamentarian Bodil Valero, tasked us with producing a Peace Declaration which we would present at a seminar on ”Peace and the European Union” at a place called the House of Europe in the city of Berga.

A major debate throughout the week was whether the Western Sahara conflict can be resolved peacefully or if there is a need to return to war. The lack of progress in the UN peace process has led some Saharawis of the new generation to call for a return to war with Morocco. Despite the small successes achieved through peaceful resistance, a number of the Saharawis expressed that they see little hope in their rights being fulfilled when the world is governed by countries that put their own economic interests before the rights and wellbeing of others. We met with Saharawi former military and policemen of the Spanish Sahara who despite having experienced the war first-hand, also seemed to have little hope left in a peaceful resolution.

Saharawi participants from the occupied territories and refugee camps holding up the Saharawi flag. Photo: Hayat Rguibi

On the other hand, many Saharawis do not support this view and continue to believe in peaceful resistance. Mimi Hamma, a member of the Saharawi organisation for non-violence, NOVA, strongly advocated against a return to violence to resolve the conflict. For 28 years Saharawis have chosen the peaceful path to resolve the conflict and continue to do so, but with little support from the international community against the continuous human rights violations and exploitation of Morocco, desperation has pushed Saharawis to consider a return to armed struggle.

There were presentations by the Saharawis, Palestinian and Kurdish participants, by the Belgian participants on the Green movement, as well as on the work of Emmaus Stockholm. We met as well with Spanish former military and policemen in the Spanish Sahara who spoke of their surprise on the day when Spain gave away Western Sahara to Morocco and how they felt that Spain had betrayed the Saharawi people. Although not everyone spoke English or Spanish, one of the multilingual participants would translate each presentation so that everyone could benefit from it.

We were also in Catalonia on the second anniversary of the independence referendum, and we learnt much about the similarities between the Saharawi and Catalan independence movements. We even participated in a demonstration in the nearby town of Solsona, and I saw how enthusiastically the Saharawi activists marched and chanted together with the Catalan protesters.

Our final Peace Declaration included clauses calling for the EU to stop Morocco’s plundering of Western Sahara’s natural resources, the expansion of the MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights monitoring, involving the African Union in the UN-brokered peace process, and importantly, involving the youth in the peace process as well.

The Western Sahara conflict is very real to me now, as I have heard first-hand accounts of the situation there. Those living in the occupied territories face human rights violations by the Moroccan forces, and those in the refugee camps face unemployment and a hopeless future. They are incredibly talented, driven and capable people, but it is all going to waste because of the conflict. They definitely deserve better.

Nadine Frisk, 
23 year-old intern from Malaysia 

From Left: Carla Havermans, Nadine Frisk (Myself), Darak Abdel Fattah, Esjaba Messaoud, Julia Xandri. Photo: Carla Havermans