domingo, 12 de abril de 2009

Activits brush up on Wall of Shame before journey to Western Sahara

In the stifling meeting hall of the National Union of Saharawi Women (UNMS), hundreds of international activists gathered late Thursday morning to learn about the Moroccan-built wall of sand and stone that divides the Western Sahara in two.

The presentation on the 260,000 km wall was given by Lih Beiruk, special representative of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to the Netherlands; Ahmed Sidali, the Saharawi director of Landmine Action, a British NGO that has been working in the region since 2006; and representatives of the SADR Ministry of Defense.

The conference began with a 10-minute documentary produced by UNMS and the Saharawi Youth Union (UJSARIO) entitled "The Wall of Shame," as it is known among Saharawis and international supporters of the Saharawi movement for self-determination.

According to the documentary makers, the Moroccan wall, which is defended by 160,000 soldiers, hundreds of tanks and millions of mines, was built with four main objectives in mind: to keep Polisario soldiers (the leaders of the Saharawi movement for independence) away from the main cities occupied by Morocco, to safeguard the Bu Craa mines and the ports at Layoun under Moroccan control, to take away the Polisario’s previously effective suprise attacks and to create an obstacle to any kind of offensive led by the Saharawis.

In the early 1980s, the documentary continued, the first walls were built out of sand, but in May 1987, the Moroccans began to fortify them with thicker rock walls.

During the short film, the Moroccan wall was compared to the Berlin Wall. The latter, it was argued, received coverage both day and night, while the former was unknown throughout the world, despite the fact that it was 60 times longer than its German counterpart.

All in all, just a mine around the wall

After the documentary, Lih discussed history of sand berm and the the military build-up by the Moroccans on their side of the wall.

The wall, argued the SADR special representative, was the brainchild of Israeli military experts, who entered Morocco with Canadian passports and assisted the Moroccan military in planning and constructing the barrier.

"We continue to try to convince Morocco to de-arm its side of the wall, but it just keeps fortifying it with more modern weapons," Lih argued. "It has taken international assistance that it promised to spend on combatting illegal immigration and the drug trade, and it has used it to fortify the wall."

While unable to cite specific examples of the Moroccans continuing to plant mines around the sand curtain – a practice which is prohibited under the conditions agreed to by the Polisario Front and the Moroccan crown in the 1991 UN-sponsored cease-fire – Lih suggested that the Moroccan military may be doing so at night.

"We have found mines that were fabricated in 2001," he pointed out,"so if you do the math..."

A dirty, thankless job

Meanwhile, on the Saharawi-controlled side of the wall, the Polisario Front has enlisted the help of Landmine Action (LMA) in de-mining the Western Sahara since 2006, said Ahmed.

Echoing a similar presentation given at the Association for the Families of Saharawi Political Prisoners and Dissappeared Persons (AFAPREDESA) on Saturday, Ahmed informed the attendees of LMA’s past activities and future plans in the Western Sahara.

In 2007 and 2008, the organization performed its survey of the area and began removal of the landmines, cluster bombs, and ordinances it encountered. By November of 2008, LMA had visually cleared over 3,765,000 square meters and had performed subsurface scans on another 63,000 square meters. Within this area, the NGO destroyed 1,877 items, including 550 BLU63 cluster bombs.

Landmines, cluster bombs, unexploded aircraft shells, and other ERWs plague the Western Sahara, making it one of top 10 most contaminated countries in the world.

"Our efforts are doubly challenging here in the desert," said Ahmed. "After a heavy rain, the mines can migrate with the water and sands, so we have to re-check areas that we have already surveyed."

When asked how long the demining of the Western Sahara would take with LMA’s current resources, Ahmed responded that the process could take "decades."

Man versus mortar

The Spanish, German, Italian, British and American acitivists – among others – listening to the presentation on the Wall of Shame were doing so in preparation for their journey to said barrier the following morning.

Over 1,000 participants are expected to take the two-hour ride in Land Rovers and Jeeps to the Liberated Zones of the Western Sahara (the territory under the control of the Polisario Front). Once at the wall, the activists will march for 2 of the 240,000 km of the embankment, showing their solidarity with the Saharawi people.

For many of the travellers, it will be their first encounter with the Moroccan wall, and a hint of nervousness was apparent in the meeting hall, but a representative of the SADR Ministry of Defense did his best to quiet their qualms.

"We have visited the zone just a few days ago," he affirmed, "and it is perfectly safe. Just stay with the group, and it will be a very safe, productive and moving day."

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