Tent city is 'a call for independence'

Thousands of protesters have camped outside Western Sahara's main city, Laayoune, demanding housing and state jobs in a mass show of discontent.

DEIM IZIK, WESTERN SAHARA // Seven years ago Moroccan teachers in the disputed territory of Western Sahara expelled a Saharawi named Moussa from school for his political views, shunting him into chronic unemployment.

Last month, Moussa joined thousands of Saharawi protesters camped outside Western Sahara's main city, Laayoune, demanding housing and state jobs in a mass show of discontent that has spiralled into a standoff with Moroccan authorities.

While protest organisers insist that their demands are strictly socio-economic, many Saharawis privately view the camp as an indirect call for independence.

"We can't talk to the government about self-determination," said Moussa, 24, eating bread and jam with friends in the camp. "Our only means of dialogue is through social issues."

He paused as a bowl of sour milk and water circled the tent and everyone took a swallow, a tradition that evoked the men's nomadic origins.

Saharawis descend from Yemeni tribes that entered North Africa in the 14th century, chasing the rainclouds with their herds of camels.

That lifestyle has largely vanished since Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, triggering war with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement. The conflict has defied attempts at resolution since the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991.

The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option, while Morocco rules that out and proposes autonomy instead. The two sides are meeting today near New York City in the latest round of UN-led talks to break the impasse.

Meanwhile, Morocco has poured money into infrastructure and goods subsidies in Western Sahara to attract Moroccans to the territory.

Today, they outnumber about 100,000 Saharawis by two to one.

Hopes of work brought a Moroccan labourer named Ali, 21, from his hometown of Agadir to Laayoune five months ago.

"But I'm struggling to make ends meet," said Ali, folding clothes at a street market stall one evening last week. "The truth is that if you want to work here, you need a job in the administration."

Protesters at the camp outside Laayoune say that Saharawis are disproportionately excluded from state jobs and key industries.

"We have the right to live with dignity on our land," said Omar Zraibia, a member of the camp's governing committee. "That means housing and more access to the public sector."

Last month, Mr Zraibia was one of about 30 Saharawi activists who pitched tents in the desert south-east of Laayoune as a gesture of protest. Today, the camp has ballooned to nearly 8,000 tents, according to organisers, as Saharawis have flocked to join the movement.

"Our demands are purely social," Mr Zraibia said. "We don't want them to be politicised by Morocco or anyone else."

Moroccan law prohibits questioning the country's rule in Western Sahara. Police typically break up public demonstrations of support for independence, while courts have jailed leading pro-independence activists.

In the camp outside Laayoune, political activism and the flags of both Morocco and the Polisario are forbidden. Nonetheless, Moroccan army units surround the camp, helicopters circle overhead, five checkpoints control the access road and cellular networks are frequently jammed.

Tension spiked two weeks ago after Moroccan soldiers shot dead a Saharawi boy trying to enter the camp. The Polisario has blamed Morocco for the killing, while Morocco says the soldiers fired after being fired upon by someone in one of two cars carrying the victim, Najem el Garhi, 14, and other Saharawis.

Moroccan authorities bar foreigners from the camp, although some foreign media, including The National, have been able to enter discreetly. Last night, Saharawi demonstrators blocked roads with stones and fires following unconfirmed reports that the army had sealed the camp.

On Thursday, members of the camp's governing committee met in Laayoune with Moroccan interior ministry officials to try to work out an agreement.

The government is offering state jobs and free building lots for all Saharawis in Laayoune who can demonstrate they are in need, said Mohamed Jallali, a spokesman for the Laayoune governorate.

"We had a good dialogue, but there's no solution yet," said Mr Zraibia. "We need more clarifications from the government on what is being offered."

For now, cars have continued to stream into the camp, their occupants flashing V-for-victory signs to the cheers of assembled Saharawis.

"People are angry with the government," said Abdelmjid Balghzal, a member of King Mohamed VI's advisory committee on Saharan affairs. "If the state doesn't solve this problem, the movement will turn political."

For many in the dusty camp outside Laayoune, that is already happening.

"Our children have good hearts and minds, but the government won't allow them to work," said Suelma, an unemployed mother of three. Her children were barred from school because they lacked money for textbooks, she said.

The night settled around her tent, where she sat with her family drinking hot milk flavoured with thyme. "Now this camp is our country," she said. "And it's a good country."