The American Scholar

A Fragile Peace

As an unofficial state, Western Sahara doesn’t really exist—and being tiny and well behaved, it is easy to ignore.

THE WAR OVER Western Sahara might be the world’s least-known long-term conflict. For more than four decades, an ethnic Sahrawi state-in-exile has been struggling, without success, for international recognition while waging a daily battle for survival in a featureless desert subject to subzero winters and summers so hot and still that cigarette smoke seems to congeal. Its capital, Raibouni, looks like something children made and then discarded: half-melted sand structures and brightly colored shipping containers, their metal blooming with rust, baking in the sun. The desert, relentless, encroaches, dusting every surface, crevice, and corner with sand.

The Sahrawis, a mix of Arab Muslim and indigenous Saharan Berber tribes who over centuries developed their own distinctive forms of language, dress, and matriarchal leadership, seek a return to the territory they claim as their national homeland 300 miles to the west—an arid stretch of Atlantic coastline, slightly larger than Oregon, just south of the Moroccan border. They were forced from their villages after a failed battle for liberation that began in 1973, when a group of students, soldiers, and nomadic herders, seeking independence from Spain, formed a guerrilla movement called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, better known as Polisario. The Spanish relinquished control of the territory three years into the conflict, but Moroccan troops quickly advanced to seize it. Polisario waged a guerrilla war until, in 1991, it signed a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement with Morocco that called for an independence referendum the following year. That referendum never took place, mainly because of stonewalling and obfuscation by the Moroccans, who had already walled off most of the territory and enjoyed de facto control. In 2007, Morocco presented a plan for Sahrawi autonomy rather than independence, marooning the refugee camps in an unending state of uncertainty—permanently impermanent, officially unofficial. Today, the United Nations, in the neutral language of political stalemate, classifies the contested territory as “non-self-governing.”

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