Last month, after 29 years of diplomatic stalemate, Western Sahara returned to war. The territory is a former Spanish colony; Morocco and Mauritania invaded as Spain withdrew in 1975. The Polisario Front, an independence movement made up of the territory’s indigenous Sahrawi people, took up arms. A messy and inconclusive guerrilla war dragged on until a 1991 ceasefire, by which point Mauritania had relinquished its claims on the territory, and Morocco had built a sand berm – at 1700 miles, arguably the longest military barrier in the world – to separate the roughly three-quarters of the territory that it occupied from the remaining quarter or so controlled by Polisario, which governs in exile from a series of refugee camps in Algeria’s Tindouf Province.
In a pandemic, some common-sense policies can closely resemble authoritarianism. Banning large public gatherings, for instance, is both a classic authoritarian move and a reasonable strategy to control the spread of the virus. This tension opens up an opportunity for would-be authoritarians to exploit the situation, using the pandemic as cover for implementing policies that would otherwise result in a lot more pushback, domestically and internationally. While the population is staying home and the media are distracted, there is time and space for political shifts that would otherwise be impossible.
Ghazouani travelled by presidential jet to Bir Moghrein’s airstrip, outside town; most of the time you wouldn’t know it was there, if it weren’t for a set of aircraft steps standing alone in the desert. Bir Moghrein is ‘only Mauritanian depending on the mood of the guard that day’, a European photojournalist who has worked there told me. Most of the cars in town have licence plates from the neighbouring Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. At the moment, though, conversation there is as much about the election as it is about the WhatsApp group for finding lost camels.
Daha Bulahi, sixtyish, is a Sahrawi, born into a nomadic family in the northwestern Sahara. One of his eyes is fake, the eyelid mangled, and he’s missing a couple of fingers. None of this prevents him from brewing tea, which he did throughout our interview in the Sahrawi way, aerating the tea by pouring it from glass to glass and accumulating bubbles on the surface. He worked in landmine clearance for several years, and Yago, a Spanish demining technician who was working with him, told me the story of Daha’s mutilation. Lacking sophisticated equipment, he would dig underneath each mine and pick it up from below with his bare hands, avoiding the pressure-plate triggering mechanism on the top. Then he would throw it over his shoulder, letting it explode, and move onto the next one. This is about as safe as it sounds. He had cleared a vast number of mines successfully, but one day a mine exploded as he threw it, spraying him with shrapnel. Daha’s survival strained the bounds of credulity, but there he was, brewing tea with what was left of his hand.
On 27 February, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement cannot apply to the territory of Western Sahara. Morocco alleges that the former Spanish colony, on the Atlantic coast between Morocco and Mauritania, is part of its integral territory. The view is not officially shared by any UN member state, and the UN considers Western Sahara a Non-Self-Governing Territory.
I recently spent some time living with a refugee family in the Smara refugee camp, Tindouf Province, Algeria. The family were Sahrawis, exiles from the Western Sahara Conflict, and though they had lived a mostly stationary life in Smara for perhaps forty years, they were still culturally nomads. One day, when I had been living there for a few weeks, a relative of the family turned up in a white pick-up truck with a live camel tied to the flatbed. The camel was enormous, and gave no sign of discomfort as curious children swarmed around it.