What a crazy 24 hours! I’m happy to say I’m safely in Dakhla, a tiny city on the end of the Rio Oro peninsula in Southern Western Sahara. Dakhla is a sleepy little desert town, somehow dry and desolate despite being surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic, but after Laayoune it feels like sun bleached paradise.
We got here after one of huge longest nights of my life: an eight hour bus ride through the desert. The bus ride itself wouldn’t have been that bad were it not for the police checks. Since Western Sahara is controlled by the Royal Moroccan Army, they are quite intense about who gets in and who gets out. There is absolutely no tourism here, which makes two Canadians and an Italian a suspicious group. Every so often a police man would enter the bus and walk down the isle, before stopping at my seat and asking to see my passport. Luigi could blend in with the Moroccans, but my and Mack’s blond hair tends to stand out. They would ask for our papers and ask if we’re here as tourists, before leaving the bus with our passports in hand to write down our information. After what felt like ages of feeling the kind of anxious one only experiences when without your passport in a foreign country, the police officer would return, ask for our profession, and then we’d be on our way. The other passengers must have hated us for the hold up.
Yesterday morning we had a nice little sleep in before packing our bags and heading to the MINURSO HQ. MINURSO is the UN Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara, and is based out of Laayoune, though they have a presence over the whole region, as well as in New York and Tindouf.
When we decided to come to Western Sahara, Luigi really wanted to see if we could visit their base, so I emailed about our visit. They were incredibly welcoming and set up an official briefing for us, as students of politics and international relations.
We met our contact at the headquarters gate after receiving a bit of attention for taking pictures of the HQ sign without permission. After sorting that out, we were each given a visitor’s pass and were lead through to a conference room.
The whole base was painted white with UN blue highlights. It felt a little big like what I imagine a military base to feel like, but then there were also lush gardens intermixed with UN flags and bulletin boards. On the inside, it was very clear that the buildings hadn’t been updated since the mission opened in 1991.
To start, we were given a brief overview of the UN’s work in the area. MINURSO is an observatory peacekeeping mission, meaning they are unarmed and are there to observe and insure that everyone is obeying the rules set forth by the Security Council. In this case, it’s a ceasefire put in place by the UN in 1991 for the Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) and the Frente POLISARIO (FPOL). The RMA and FPOL are the de facto authorities in the territory. Officially, the UN considers Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. In other words, he said, it is a colony.
Next we had a presentation from a Military Commander from Pakistan, who gave us a more in depth understanding of the military history in the region. Spain colonized the territory in the 1800s, and did not leave until 1975, when Morocco organized the Green March to expel the Spanish from the area. Around the same time, the Frente POLISARIO were fighting for independence through guerrilla warfare, which transferred from aiming at the Spanish to aiming at the RMA. In 1987, they built Berm. Berm is sand wall that divides the territory between the RMA and the FPOL. It’s only about 3m high and is anywhere from 4-20m wide, but it’s filled with landmines, so the height of the wall really isn’t important. The FPOL control East if the wall, and the RMA control West, and neither authority can cross the wall for any reason. The UN has a presence on both sides and is the only authority allowed to cross over the wall and be in restricted areas.
There are four phases to the UN mission, and they are currently in the first one, which involves monitoring the ceasefire. Eventually, they are meant to organize the referendum, but that is not expected to occur for a while considering the current state. There is further controversy over who should be allowed to vote, because a lot of Moroccans have moved to the territory in the past 40 years.
Next we had a presentation from reps from Mine Action, and company contracted by the UN to destroy landmines East of Berm. The RMA put landmines all over the area during the 70s, but since then the mines have drifted with sand and wind, so any maps that existed back then on their locations are of no use. The RMA is in charge of destroying mines West of the wall, and have 11,000 troops working to destroy them all. On the East side, the FPOL don’t have any resources to destroy the mines, so Mine Action works with a team of 50 people to clear as many as possible.
Mine Action was established in 2008, and has been incredibly successful in mine clearance and destruction. Their model is generally to go to a territory and train locals and the local authority in the project in order to eventually hand it over to them, but since there is no official authority here, they haven’t been able to withdraw. In the 6 years they’ve been working, there’s been an 80% reduction of cluster strikes in the area, and they have established SMACO, which they hope will become an authority there.
After the last presentation, we were invited to have lunch at the base’s cafeteria. It was Friday, so we got Couscous. The cafeteria was painted with bright colours, and as we ate, UN guys played pool and hung out in their light blue caps.
When we were done, we were escorted out of the base. We had to give back our visitor passes, but they gave us each an information package about Mine Action, and business cards from some of the people we had met!
It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and so interesting to visit an actual UN mission. In school and in the news you hear about UN presence in different countries, and now I have an idea of what that looks like.