Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Politics of the Western Sahara

Politics of the Western Sahara

When John and I started talking about running a marathon and indeed when we'd decided to run this particular one, I don't think we had really understood just how contentious the whole Western Sahara issue is.

Thinking about it now, I guess it shows a huge level of naivety on my part not to have at least had an inkling about that when I first read about it:

  • People are killing for and dying over this.
  • Morocco has built a 1500km long sand wall manned by 100,000 soldiers and and filled it with unknown hundreds of thousands if not millions of land mines. 
  • We are visiting a refugee camp created by this conflict!
I didn't and I still don't want to make my trip a "political" statement.

I want to help people who can't help themselves but the more I read, the more I start to understand that staying neutral isn't really possible. Just by going there I'm effectively saying that I support the Sahrawi, but that makes me distinctly uncomfortable because I've always thought of Morocco as a friendly and relatively modern and civilised country that I'd like to go on holiday to some time.

Part of the Berm that separates Occupied and un-occupied Western Sahara
The 1500km long sand wall "Berm" as seen from a satellite via Google Maps

The fact that the UN and the African Union both say that Morocco's occupation of the region is unlawful - read about the UN's Mission for Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) on the UN's website - makes me feel much better about supporting the people in the camps but it still makes me feel nervous that I'm getting involved in a political situation that I don't have any personal stake in.

[Edit: to balance the argument, here's a link to a pro-Morocco news blog which talks about why the UN is wrong and is even slightly critical of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. TBH, I'm not sure it does them any favours but that might just be a bit of confirmation bias on my part.]

That said, given that I have the ability to write a website, run a marathon and raise some money, don't I have a moral obligation to do what I can?

Now I think I start to understand why the West has a habit of sticking its nose into so many other countries' businesses...

It's all getting a bit philosophical and political for my liking (and taking me out of my comfort zone, which is one of the reasons I do this kind of thing).

What got me thinking about this, and thus writing this post about my thinking, was an article Sandblast (with whom I'm running the marathon) posted on Facebook from Guardian newspaper written by a Sahrawi protester. The article is quite moving and speaks of all sorts of rights violations, but Sandblast also recommended reading the comments afterwards which really opened my eyes to the seriousness and passion of each side of the argument.

Along side the obvious, but extremely well written and somewhat convincing, propaganda from a Moroccan PR/gov person, there were arguments (some well made, backed up with evidential articles and some not) from both sides of the conflict and there were definitely moments I was thinking about changing my mind and finding something less contentious to get involved in.

There were also some interesting parallels drawn (by an obviously pro-Moroccan commenter) between the way the demolition of the Laayounne protest camps and the dispersal of the Occupy Wall Street protesters  were carried out and the violence that ensued (from both protesters and police). I think both sides of the argument agreed this was the case and perhaps one of the key reasons why the Western Sahara conflict hasn't really made main-stream news: A little too close to home?

It's quite frustrating in a way because I don't want to get involved in a political argument and risk confrontation with anyone let alone people potentially armed and dangerous. All I want to do is to run a marathon somewhere awesome and meet some amazing people who's quality of life I can improve.

Perhaps this is the first profound change in me that this journey has caused - an understanding that the only wrong thing to do would be to do nothing.

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