Thursday, May 10, 2007

Speaking in the name of Sahrawis

In the wake of the U.N meetings about the Western Sahara and the buzz surrounding the Moroccan Autonomy plan, websites and blogs started to be filled with analyses, points of view, and comments about the issue. However, the resulting contributions represent generally the ideas of Americans and foreigners. Some of these analysts and commentators rely on the same source they are themselves alimenting. Others rely on few comments made here and there by some Sahrawis, draw a complete "analysis" of the Western Sahara, and put words in the mouth of Sahrawis as if they have been living in the Western Sahara for years.
Photo Courtesy of

I mentioned in another occasion that the missing part in these discussions is the voice of those who are most concerned: the Sahrawis. I think there are two reasons for that. The first and main one is language. English, as my post deals with English websites, is not a popular language in all North Africa, much more in the Western Sahara where people, at most, speak Spanish as a second language. The second reason is access to computers and Internet. What is a daily life accessory in the U.S is a luxury in the region. Although the Moroccan side of the Sahara has a modern infrastructure and people can afford to buy computers there, still it's not at the reach of the average person. In the camps, it's worse as refugees have still to go to U.N facilities and fill forms to make phone calls (I still don't understand that procedure, why people in the camps have to go to the U.N to make phone calls ?). It's obvious that their access to a computer and to Internet would be a monumental task.

For these reasons, Sahrawis are the missing voice in English websites and blogs. Of course, some Sahrawis do participate to Internet discussions, but they are only a few and definitely can't represent the multiple array of sahrawis that live in the Western Sahara or in the camps in Algeria, either in terms of ethnicity (belonging to a specific sahrawi tribe) or politically (pro-Morocco, pro-Polisario, neutral or another status).

In a complex conflict such as the Western Sahara, hearing from all the Sahrawis is important. But when some analysts jump on that factor and start generalizing that the Sahrawis want this and that, then it's academically not honest. Some of that is coming from Polisario motto that it's the "only legitimate representative of the Sahrawis", therefore it's the only entity who can say what sahrawis want and act in their name. I think that's wrong. Just from my contacts with different Sahrawis, many of them don't recognize that motto and doesn't want Polisario to speak for them. Included in this category are Sahrawis loyal to the Moroccan monarchy living in Morocco and abroad. Furthermore, there has never been a general election, a referendum, or any kind of tribal council that elected Polisario as a representative. The Polisario Front doesn't want to discuss its "representativity" of the Sahrawi people and consider it a fait accompli that is not discussable. It's very antagonist from an organization which rejects the Moroccan fait accompli in the Western Sahara. This of course doesn't mean that Polisario don't speak in the name of certain sahrawis. I presume that Polisario members are abundant in the camps and that the refugees are to certain extent favorable to the Front (I aknowledge that I can't base my presumption on a solid survey or academic research).

The bottom line: Sahrawis are generally absent from Western Sahara debates in English. As long as this factor exists, there should be some restraints from speaking in the name of the Sahrawi people. On the other hand, efforts should be done to help Sahrawis express themselves in English. As an American who has done so much in the camps said "There is such a need for the Sahrawi to be able to have their own voice in our country".


At 5:30 PM, Blogger sahara-watch said...

You can always check out ARSO opinions if you're interested in what a wide variety of Sahrawi nationalists (albeit educated, literate, internet-users) are thinking:

At 7:31 PM, Blogger StudentintheUS said...

S.W, it's true that many Sahrawis do participate to ARSO Opinions but I would evaluate that 99% of the conributions are either in Spanish or French. My post dealt mainly with the voice of Sahrawis in English websites and blogs.
But still, the question of the representativity of ARSO commentators can be asked. I doubt for example that people in the camps have access to computers and Internet. I also doubt that the elderly in Sahrawi tribes, wherever they are, have any interest in Internet as a media to express themselves.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous alle said...

I still don't understand that procedure, why people in the camps have to go to the U.N to make phone calls ?

Because there are no other public phones in the camps, which are located in the middle of the Sahara desert. I think you knew the answer to that one.

(Cell phones, of course, can be and are used for calling without UN involvement, and there are dozens of little shops where you can buy phone credit cards. Sadly, most people don't have the money.)

At 4:18 PM, Blogger StudentintheUS said...

Alle, that's the obvious answer, but that's not what I want to know. For me, phone lines can be available in some camps. First, the Polisario Front does use telecomunication systems to contact its representatives worldwide, so why refugees can't use some of it to make personal phone calls.
Second, if the U.N was able to put in place a telephone system, why is the access regulated ? Why can't someone just walk-in, make a phone call, and leave.
Third, Tindouf is in Algeria and there are phone numbers with Tindouf area code, so how it comes refugees there don't have access to phones.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous alle said...

For me, phone lines can be available in some camps.

Yes, and they could be available on the top of Mount Himalaya too. But they're not.

First, the Polisario Front does use telecomunication systems to contact its representatives worldwide, so why refugees can't use some of it to make personal phone calls.

I'm sure they do use them, even if I can see the point of not letting people waltz around the diplomatic offices at will. Also, I'm sure you agree, using Polisario's command & control network to place private calls to Moroccan-held territory might not be quite ideal for security purposes.

Second, if the U.N was able to put in place a telephone system, why is the access regulated ?

Because there's a just a small number of phones and call time, due to underfunding for the program. People sign up to make a call, get to stand in line, then make it as soon as it's their turn. There have been tens of thousands of calls made so far, so it's not as if they're trying to cut it down intentionally. As an example, the SG report for Apr-Oct 2006 says that some 56,000 refugees in the camps were able to use the service during that period alone.

If you think there should be more public phones available, then you need more aid and financing to the camps & Minurso for this purpose.

Why can't someone just walk-in, make a phone call, and leave.

Because there's maybe ten or fifteen phones, not easily accessible if you live in a distant camp, and 100,000 people who want to use them as often as possible. I'm sure you can see why the UN would want to bring some organization to that.

Third, Tindouf is in Algeria and there are phone numbers with Tindouf area code, so how it comes refugees there don't have access to phones.

Refugees in Tindouf city do have access to public phones there. However, their camps are not located in Tindouf city.

What exactly are you not getting about them living in the desert?

At 11:04 PM, Blogger StudentintheUS said...

Alle, I am waiting for an answer to this phone thing from someone who has been in the camps several times.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous matadorsahara said...

it's too important to notice that firstly i would like to thank you for your article it reflect that you are interested in the issue of western sahara,secondly i would like to tell you that what you have noticed is too important for us as sahrawis or for others since it enlightened us about some vital element that one should be familliar with to convey his point of view and to make his voice listened.but there is also the moroccan pressure on the right of communication and expression that should be mentioned at that stage.and thank you so much for your interest in western sahara issue.

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