x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Western Sahara conflict's explosive legacy

The devices have killed hundreds of civilians since fighting broke out in 1975 when the desert territory was annexed by Morocco.

Ahmed el Ouaban, 30, lost his brother and his right hand to a landmine in Western Sahara.
Ahmed el Ouaban, 30, lost his brother and his right hand to a landmine in Western Sahara.

SMARA, WESTERN SAHARA // One day 18 years ago in Western Sahara, two boys set out from their tent with the family goats into the aftermath of a war. Only one returned. "Mahjoub noticed something like plastic on the ground and started playing with it," said Ahmed el Ouaban, 30, who lost his right hand to the landmine that killed his brother. "I didn't even hear the explosion. The next thing I knew my family were bringing me to the hospital in their Land Rover."

Mr el Ouaban is among hundreds maimed or killed by landmines littering Western Sahara, a desert territory largely annexed by Morocco. Victims'-rights campaigners want better access to state support, while the frozen conflict means landmines remain a deadly menace. The United Nations has renewed the mandate of the peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, while UN-led peace talks between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement remain deadlocked.

Fighting broke out in 1975, when Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara as Spanish colonisers withdrew. They were resisted by the Polisario Front, which had contested Spanish rule. Mauritania dropped out of the war. But Morocco and the Polisario fought and laid mines along a shifting battle front until Morocco raised a 2,500km earth security barrier in the early 1980s. It is unknown how many mines remain in Western Sahara, said Penelope Caswell, Western Sahara programme manager for Landmine Action, a British non-governmental organisation working since 2006 to clear areas under Polisario control.

The group has identified 37 minefields and 158 cluster bomb strikes by Moroccan jets east of the security barrier, she said. "But obviously it's not limited to that, because we constantly find new ones." Last month Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said in a report on Western Sahara that while landmine accidents decreased last year, de-mining must accelerate given the growing number of victims.

The Moroccan army began clearing mines in 2007 on its side of the security barrier. Around 300 civilians have been killed and 600 injured there since 1975, said Noreddin Darif, a member of King Mohamed VI's advisory council on Saharan affairs and a campaigner for landmine victims' rights. "The army has maps. When they want to remove mines, they can," Mr Darif said. "But it won't be possible to clean the entire region until we have peace."

A 16-year war ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire to allow a referendum on independence, which foundered on disagreements over who should vote. The Polisario still wants a referendum with independence as an option; Morocco rules that out, proposing autonomy instead. The conflict saps economic growth in the region and divides about 200,000 native Saharawis between Western Sahara and refugee camps in Algeria run by the Polisario.

Meanwhile, Polisario and Moroccan forces are still squared off in the desert. The city of Smara is less than 160km from the security barrier. There is a century-old religious complex, a military airport, and streets and cafes thick with Moroccan soldiers. In summer 1982, Smara was briefly evacuated as Polisario raiders drew near, said Sidi Sheikh Ahmed Laqab ben Limam, born to local nomads and raised in the city. Then aged 18, he left camp one evening and strayed from the path. The subsequent explosion cost him his left leg and right eye.

"My life changed 180 degrees," he said. "I'd been in top form, able to work, read, write and support my family." Now jobless, he scrapes by on 1,600 Moroccan dirhams (Dh680) provided monthly by local authorities. The government has refused further aid because the incident was not registered by security officials, he said. About 15 per cent of the alleged victims lack such documentation, said Mr Darif. Others are indemnified haphazardly according to rules normally applied to people injured on the job, he said.

"There's a lack of transparency," said Mohamed Boukili, a member of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, which assists people injured by landmines. "The government is withholding information to avoid dramatising the conflict." Morocco's communication ministry did not respond to a written request for information on how the state deals with claims by alleged landmine victims. Those claims can be hard to verify, said Ahmed Herzenni, president of King Mohamed's advisory council on human rights. "Normally, the state should protect these people, but they must be examined case by case," he said, adding that alleged victims should address claims to Morocco's courts.

That is not enough for Mr el Ouaban, who left the desert for Smara three years after his injury and the death of his brother. Refused state aid because he lacked the necessary documentation, he said he found work in a shop selling motor oil, fan belts, antifreeze, and various automotive pipes and tubes. "Now this is what I know: cars," he said, gesturing towards the shelves with the stump of his arm. "But if I had some money, I'd have dreams."

jthorne@thenational.ae