Sahara, Thirty Years On

Last week, Morocco marked the 30-year anniversary of the Green March. Little known in the States, the March was the brainchild of King Hassan, who claimed it would free the Western Sahara provinces from the grip of the Spanish colonizer and return them to Morocco. Hundreds of thousands of civilians marched through the desert to reclaim the empty border post. (For a timeline, see the Wikipedia entry. For a history of the conflict, see the web page of MINURSO, the United Nations’ Mission in Western Sahara.)

Since the annexation of the Sahara, however, Morocco has been mired in a guerilla conflict with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. A UN-brokered cease-fire was declared in 1991 and a referendum was planned. Fourteen years later, the vote still has not taken place; the two sides are fighting over who should vote. Morocco has the upper hand, militarily, and enjoys the support of several Western nations. The Polisario Front, meanwhile, is recognized by approximately 50 African and Latin American countries.

Like many Moroccans of my generation, the memories I have of those days are tinged with rosy nostalgia. I was in second grade, I think, and I remember doing my homework in the living room to the sound of patriotic songs playing on the TV. There was a sense of national unity, of greater purpose sweeping the nation like wildfire. As an adult, my own views on the conflict have changed quite a bit, of course. Right now, there is neither peace nor war, neither integration nor independence; the limbo is disastrous for Morocco, hindering its economic and political development.

For many years the Green March was a sacred cause, and a taboo. If you cared what happened to you and yours, you couldn’t even dispute the official story. But things are changing now. The Moroccan magazine Tel Quel, for instance, published a long article about the march, disputing certain details and revealing various behind-the-scenes negotiations between Morocco and Spain.

Related: All Quiet on the Western Sahara Front. [Guardian]