Western Sahara — the next desert storm

Betrayed by Spain and oppressed by Morocco, the Saharawi people of Western Sahara compare themselves the Palestinians or the black majority in apartheid South Africa. And they want the world to know their story  

King Mohammed VI of Morocco was visiting a hammam when a genie appeared.
“I can offer you one wish," the genie said.
“I'd really like to see my late father, Hassan II," Mohammed replied.
“That's a difficult request, bringing a person back from the dead," the genie said. "Have you got another wish?"
“Well, I'd like Western Sahara to become part of Morocco," said Mohammed.
“Hang on while I'll look for your father," said the genie.

Saharawi joke

In the far western expanse of the Sahara is the world's longest continuous wall. It starts in Morocco and slithers down through the desert for 2,400 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean. More than 130,000 soldiers line its perimeter. Made of sand and stone, it stands one and a half metres wide and between two and three metres tall, and has command posts every two miles. Motion sensors, barbed wire and several million landmines provide an extra layer of defence. For most of its course, it cuts across a sparsely populated region that Morocco regards as its southern provinces. On maps the area appears as Western Sahara. The UN calls it a "non-self-governing territory". It is Africa's last colony, where a near-forgotten liberation war lies dormant.

The wall is sometimes referred to as Hassan's Wall, after King Hassan II of Morocco, who annexed most of what was then called Spanish Sahara when Spain pulled out in 1976. About half of the indigenous population, the Saha­rawis, who had been promised a vote on self-determination by Spain, fled across the desert to refugee camps in an inhospitable corner of Algeria in order to escape Moroccan rule.

They were assisted by the Polisario Front, a poorly armed but fiercely determined nationalist movement. Unable to prevent attacks on his troops by Polisario guerrillas, King Hassan ordered a series of joined defensive walls to be built around the main cities and installations in Western Sahara. Bulldozers bullied the barrier into place, eventually enclosing about four-fifths of the territory. Forced ever deeper into the Sahara, the Polisario was left with a ribbon of desert that it called the Liberated Zone.

The wall should have come down. In 1991, Morocco and the Polisario agreed to end their 16-year war. The UN was to oversee a referendum on independence for Western Sahara within nine months. Morocco first blocked the vote and then abandoned the poll altogether when it realised the result would not go its way. Eighteen years and nearly $1bn in UN expenditure later, the Polisario camps - and more than 100,000 refugees - are still there. So is the wall, though few outside the Maghreb know that it exists. I didn't until one day I saw it represented as a thick black line on a map of Africa I bought a few years ago. I was intrigued, and resolved to see the wall and hear the stories of the Saharawis living on both sides.

As I drove through the flat desert plains in the Liberated Zone, the wall appeared to me as a caramel stripe on the horizon. Two Moroccan soldiers on lookout ducked out of sight when they saw the Polisario Land Cruiser approaching. "Rabbits! Cowards!" The man cursing was a 39-year-old Saharawi journalist and independence activist, Malainin Lakhal. He had unbrushed hair, a goatee and silver-rimmed glasses. "The wall of shame," he spat out. He knew all about the wall - he had crossed it one moonless night nine years earlier. Back then, he was running to escape the Moroccan secret police, leaving behind his relatives, his future wife and the intifada brewing in the "occupied territories". Which was where my journey began.

On a cold and rainy night in January last year, I boarded a bus in the Moroccan seaside town of Agadir and headed down the coast. At dawn, we reached Tarfaya, a small settlement 60 miles across the water from the Canary Islands. Mist rolled in off the Atlantic. A few men ambled in the sand-dusted streets, ghostly in their thick, hooded djellabas. It was here, in late 1975, that 350,000 Moroccans gathered under the orders of King Hassan before setting off on the "Green March" into Western Sahara, in a show of intent during the last days of Spanish rule. In the afternoon, I caught another bus, following the marchers' route south through scrubland, crossing an invisible frontier. On the outskirts of Laayoune, the territory's capital, a policeman boarded the bus, checking the identity cards of all passengers. I handed over my passport, hoping he would not deduce my profession. Journalists are not welcome in Western Sahara; to question Morocco's "territorial integrity" is to break the law.

A military base guarded the entrance to the city, whose desert-pink buildings rose up beyond a wide green river. I checked in at a cheap hotel. My room looked out on to a bank of radar dishes and seven military jeeps in a sandy lot.

It was evening, and soldiers in peak caps and faded uniforms were cycling home. Moroccan flags flew on every block. The city had an orderly, if sterile, feel, different from the frenetic atmosphere of cities such as Fez and Marrakesh. There was another feeling, too. In the traffic and parked on the roadside was an inordinate number of police vehicles, mostly new sedans and minivans, painted white or dark blue, with metal grilles over the windows and headlights.

The city had eyes, as Aminatou Haidar, a petite woman in her early forties with brown-tinted spectacles, knew only too well. The "Saharawi Gandhi" to her supporters - and a dangerous traitor, according to Morocco - Haidar has come to symbolise the non-violent struggle for Saharawi rights. One evening she picked me up in her old black Renault sedan and drove me to a friend's apartment, as hers is under constant surveillance. Once the translator arrived, she told me her story.

Born in Laayoune, she was nine when Moroccan troops entered Western Sahara; relatives on both sides of her family fled to Algeria. Within months, hundreds of Saharawis with Polisario sympathies who stayed behind had been sent to clandestine prisons in Morocco. An uncle of Haidar's was one of the Disappeared. "My mother would often cry about her brother," she said. "My uncle had six daughters, and the strain on them was terrible. This made me understand that something was horribly wrong." In late 1987, while studying for her baccalaureate, Haidar was secretly involved in organising a pro-independence demonstration to coincide with a rare visit by a UN delegation to Western Sahara. At 3.30am on the morning before the UN mission landed, plain-clothes policemen swooped on her parents' house.

Still in pyjamas, she was bundled her into a van and blindfolded. As many as 70 other young Saharawis were seized at the same time. They were taken to a secret prison in Laayoune, where she was strapped to a plank, face down, with her hands and feet tied. Officers kicked and slapped her, threatened her with rape and gave her electric shocks. "We tried to move our blindfolds a bit to allow us to see out the bottom. But the police would shine lights in our eyes; if we reacted they knew that they had to tighten the blindfold."

Her "disappearance" lasted three years and seven months. She had been blindfolded most of the time. Years later she wrote in an online testimony: "19 June 1991 is the day of my liberation. The first day of summer and a music festival elsewhere. I am liberated, I was only a shadow of myself. A phantom, one of the living dead, a young girl out of a nameless hell."

By then Western Sahara had changed. Morocco had spent many millions of dollars on infrastructure projects - though just a fraction of its earnings from selling the territory's phosphate and fishing rights - while using subsidies and promises of jobs to entice tens of thousands of its citizens to move in. According to King Hassan, this was only fair; he told his people that Morocco had exercised authority over Western Sahara before Spanish colonisation in 1884 and that most Saharawis favoured integration. It was a lie. In 1975 the UN, which for more than a decade had been pushing Spain to hold a referendum on self-determination, sent a fact-finding mission to Western Sahara. It concluded that the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front, formed two years earlier, represented the most significant expression of Saharawi opinion, and that "the majority of the population within the Spanish Sahara was manifestly in favour of independence".

Morocco, meanwhile, had taken its case to the International Court of Justice. But, in a 14-2 ruling, the court found that the evidence did "not support Morocco's claim to have exercised territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara" before Spain arrived. A claim by Mauritania, made on similar grounds, was also rejected. Bizarrely, King Hassan interpreted the court's decision as a victory, and the next day announced plans for the Green March. Spain, in political disarray with General Franco on his deathbed, capitulated to Moroccan pressure; within a month a deal was struck to allow the king and the Mauritanian government to divide the colony between themselves.

Today, there are about 200,000 people in Laayoune - nearly a tenfold increase since 1975 - and close to 400,000 across Western Sahara. Most are Moroccans. Many of the Saharawi activists I spoke to described this influx using the Middle East lexicon of "creating facts on the ground". But a genial Moroccan who owned a car hire firm and who, after some persuading, drove me to see the port one day, saw himself filling an employment gap. "The problem with the Saharawis is that they are lazy," he said. "They are like the Saudis who get poor people from Asia to do all their work for them. They just want money from the government, and then to sit at home."

Staying at home was the only option for Haidar after her release, because Morocco had refused her a passport and banned her from going to university. After numerous appeals, she was finally allowed to study philosophy in Rabat - the location and course were of Morocco's choosing. If the intention was to get Haidar to understand King Hassan's point of view, it failed. She began to document human rights abuses against the increasingly frustrated Saharawis. The promised referendum had raised hopes for many that they would at last be reunited with relatives on the other side of the wall. But dubious attempts by King Hassan to classify more than 120,000 people living in Morocco as eligible Saharawi voters - and his decision to launch appeals after almost all were rejected by the UN referendum team - had stalled the process. In 1999, the year Hassan died and his son assumed the throne as Mohammed VI, patience snapped. First Saharawi students in Morocco launched small protests for better conditions, and then demonstrations spread to Laayoune. After a fortnight, the police moved in, beating and detaining hundreds.

The "first intifada" had begun. The taboo of public dissent had been broken for the first time since the occupation started. Six years later, when it became obvious that Mohammed had no intention of allowing the Saharawis a vote - autonomy is the best they can expect, he says - the second intifada erupted. Haidar, who by now had a young son and daughter, joined one of the demonstrations to show solidarity. A policeman attacked her with a truncheon. Blood streaming from her face, and with three broken ribs and a broken collarbone, she was rushed to hospital, where she was arrested.

As Haidar was telling me her story, Ali Salem Tamek, a stocky 36-year-old with a goatee, dressed in the traditional blue draa robe, arrived at the apartment. Tamek has been to prison several times and is famed for his hunger strikes, which, on one occasion, took him to the verge of death. A Moroccan magazine once put his face on the cover under the headline "Public enemy number one".

Shot glasses of tea and plates of dates were passed around, and Tamek nodded as Haidar continued her story. She went on hunger strike for 52 days in Laayoune's notorious Cárcel Negra ("black prison), losing 17 kilogrammes. Following pressure from the European Union and Amnesty International, she was released after seven months. "This time in jail was worse," she said. "Before, I had no children. It was just for myself. I had no feeling of motherhood. Now the suffering was double."

To escape the creeping paranoia of Laayoune - a stranger at a café had casually mentioned that he knew where I was staying a few hours after I arrived - I hired a car and driver to take me to Smara. The third-biggest city in Western Sahara and the only one of any size not on the coast, Smara was also the closest I was likely to come to the wall, about 30 miles away. Beyond the police post on the edge of Laayoune, we were in the open desert. After two hours we reached Smara, where we were stopped and questioned at two further checkpoints. The main street had a few cafés. Virtually all the customers were soldiers. There were several billboards of King Mohammed, and numerous riot vans parked on the roadside.

A policeman refused to give us permission to enter a poor and densely packed neighbourhood. "This is not a tourist town, it is a military area," he said.

Back in Laayoune, I called Brahim Dahane, another activist and formerly one of the Disappeared. He told me to meet him outside a travel agency on a busy corner. When I reached there, I heard a voice behind me.

“It's you?"

“Yes."

“Follow me."

His apartment was nearby. Dahane hurried inside and walked over to the window, pulling the curtain back slightly to look down the street. Just a few days earlier, one of his colleagues in the Association of Saharawi Victims of Human Rights Abuses had been arrested for meeting a delegation from the European Parliament, which, having been blocked by Morocco from visiting Western Sahara since 2005, had been allowed in to Laayoune for a half-day visit.

Dahane had opened a cybercafé at a prime location to serve as a kind of Saharawi cultural centre. But the police kept raiding it, customers stopped coming, and he was forced shut it down. Other activists had told me similar stories of harassment of anyone considered to have ideas of independence, no matter how young. While giving me a lift home late one night, Haidar pointed out a school that even had a permanent police presence to suppress any dissent. If people like her and Dahane were the second generation of Saharawis to strive for independence, there was now a third taking it on, spray-painting walls with the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) - the state declared by the Polisario in 1976 - challenging teachers, shouting pro-independence slogans.

“We have a guarantee in our children," said Mohamed Fadel Gaoudi, a former political prisoner who later invited me to his apartment for dinner with several others. "Kids of ten or 12 now participate in demonstrations, which we never did. They say that there is no alternative to self-determination."

A note of dark humour drifted into the conversation. The Green March was the "Black March", the UN the "United Nothing": its mission in Western Sahara has an annual budget of $50m, but no mandate to monitor human rights. But when, at midnight, Haidar joined us, the mood lifted. I asked her if she had been tempted by offers of asylum in Europe. "I prefer to live in my home country, in effect in prison, but with dignity and determination. As long as Saharawis have not decided [their future] for themselves, we will not stop," she said.

The next time I spoke to Haidar was by telephone many months later. She was on hunger strike at an airport in Lanzarote, Spain, having been expelled from Laayoune for refusing to state "Moroccan" as her nationality on the arrival form as she returned from United States, where she had been awarded the latest of several human rights prizes. Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek were in jail again in Morocco and facing a military tribunal, having been arrested with other Saharawi agitators after visiting the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria.

If Western Sahara has a tourist draw, it is Dakhla, which sits on a finger of land pointing into the sea two-thirds of the way down the coast. In 1976, as part of the agreement with Morocco and Spain, Mauritania took over the city, but after three years of Polisario attacks it withdrew and renounced its territorial claim. Morocco moved in, and by September 1985 it had extended the wall from the north to protect the city. I caught the bus there one morning. A few camper vans passed us on the road.

I was in Dakhla to meet a Saharawi civil servant whom, for his own safety, I'll call Mustafa. I wanted to find out what life was like for somebody not actively involved in the struggle. We met on a side street near a busy plaza perfumed with the smell of flame-grilled camel sandwiches and drove to his apartment. We made small talk for a while, until his room-mate Abdallahi emerged from a bedroom with his girlfriend, who said hello and left. Abdallahi was Saharawi; she was Moroccan. Mustafa had waited for her to leave before speaking freely. "There are informers everywhere, guards, shopkeepers . . ." he said.

Mustafa had written a novel, which, if published, would be the first English-language novel written by a Saharawi, he said. I read the first few pages on his laptop; it was good, but it will never see print here. "Living in the occupied territories, when you are deprived of using the language that you want to give an opinion - not even a terrorist opinion - and to think freely, to write freely, you feel like you are living in internal exile," he said. A few nights later we sat watching television: al-Jazeera was reporting on the conflict in Palestine. "At least Israel allows Palestinians to publish their own books in Israel," Mustafa said. "It is better to be a Palestinian in Israel than a Saharawi here."

To one side of a quadrangle lined with captured Moroccan tanks, armoured personnel carriers and cannon stood a set of heavy metal doors. Pulling them open, the curator of the Polisario military museum in south-western Algeria flipped a light switch to reveal a scale model of Western Sahara, with a string of red lights tracing the path of the wall. Malainin Lakhal, the secretary general of the Saharawi Journalists' and Writers' Union who was my guide in the camps, pointed to the southern section of the wall, bordering Mauritania. This was the least well-defended section and it was there that he had crossed from the occupied territories in early 2000.

“It was a very difficult decision," he told me. "I had always been against people leaving the occupied territories to join the Polisario. I would say: 'They don't need you. They have fighters. We need you here.'"

He had been an independence activist since the early Nineties, working alongside Aminatou Haidar at times, and had already been jailed several times. Now the police were on his trail, forcing him to sleep in a different house every night. Besides his guilt at abandoning the cause within the occupied territories, there were personal relationships to consider. He had a steady girlfriend, and his father was getting old; Lakhal knew that if he left he might never see him again. His father sent him a message: "Whatever you decide, be a man about it." With the note was a commando knife. Approaching the wall late at night, Lakhal could see an army post, but scrambled across undetected.

I had taken a more comfortable route from Western Sahara, flying north from Dakhla to Casablanca, east to Algiers, and finally south to Tindouf, where Lakhal was waiting for me in the chilly early hours. We drove past the Algerian military post on the edge of town, into the darkness of the desert and the Saharawi state-in-exile, with its own elected government, justice system, number plates ("SH") and second language, Spanish having outstripped the French used in the rest of the Maghreb. In addition to the Liberated Zone, which runs along the eastern flank of Western Sahara, the Polisario administers four large refugee camps scattered over 100 square miles in Algeria. The camps are named after cities in the occupied territories - Laayoune, Smara, Dakhla and Awserd. We were heading for a fifth, much smaller, camp named Fevrero 27, after the day the SADR was founded by the Polisario.

My host family, a refugee couple with three young children, lived in a small house on a hillock. In the evenings I'd sit outside as the dropping sun turned into a gold coin that gave the western sky an aura of yellow, then orange, and finally, once it had slipped below the horizon, ivory white. The only sound was that of goats bleating in their pens.

One night Lakhal and I headed out in the darkness to the house of Mohammed Yeslem Beisat, the SADR's minister of African affairs. Just over 40, he is one of the youngest of the top Polisario officials. Over a dinner of camel meat and couscous, Beisat told the story of how, at the age of seven, he came to the camps from Western Sahara. He and his brother had spent their holiday in the desert with relatives while their parents stayed in Laayoune. Amid the panic when Moroccan troops moved in, the young boys were swept up in the exodus to Algeria. They never saw their parentsagain. "It was a huge trauma. You are no longer the same person after that," he said.

Even for a people used to living in the desert, the area around Tindouf is harsh; there are fierce sandstorms and little vegetation. Summertime temperatures are as high as 50°C and winter nights are harsh and cold. Food and water have to be trucked in by the Algerian government, whose support has allowed Morocco to claim to this day that the Polisario exists merely as a proxy for Algiers.

The Saharawi camps were clean and organised. The Polisario Front had adopted a socialist model, as much out of necessity as ideology. Everybody lived in the same-style tents and ate the same food. Livestock was owned communally. Tribal identities - the Saharawis are not a homogeneous group - were intentionally obscured. There was no money in circulation. Because virtually all the men were fighting on the front line, women ran the camps and played a leading role in society - rare in a Muslim country. Education, both for children and for adults, received priority. When the Spanish left Western Sahara the Saharawi literacy rate was under 10 per cent; in the camps it has risen to an estimated 90 per cent.

There were abuses, particularly against political dissenters who disagreed with the Polisario leadership, but few outside visitors to the camps left unimpressed.

By the time Beisat finished school the conflict was nearly over. He studied in Algiers before returning to the camps to work in the information ministry, the president's office and then the referendum committee. That the vote has never happened is the fault not only of Morocco, Beisat said, but also the western powers. The African Union and 80 countries, most of them in the developing world, have recognised the SADR, though 25 of them have since frozen or severed relations under pressure from Rabat. By contrast, no country has formally accepted Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Yet, despite the clear injustice and illegality of the occupation, Washington has refused to put pressure on Rabat to allow self-determination, because Morocco is an important ally in Islamic North Africa. France, which has large economic interests in Morocco, has proved even more one-sided, and the Spanish government fails to speak out for a people it betrayed.

“This problem in Western Sahara is not a Democratic Republic of Congo problem, with tribes and minerals," Beisat said. "It is not a Palestinian problem of religion. It is a simple, crystal-clear decolonisation problem that could be sorted out with five hours of voting. This feeling of humiliation creates a beast inside you."

One morning Lakhal and I drove east to Smara camp, where old artillery shells painted red and white served as traffic cones at the entrance. The refugees' tents have been long been replaced by mud-brick houses with roofs of corrugated iron held down with rocks, and today the camps resemble desert towns rather than refugee settlements. The more than 100,000 camp residents are still reliant on food aid, but there is now a small cash economy. Mobile phones and internet links allow people to communicate with relatives in Western Sahara whom some have not seen for more than three decades - because of the wall.

For young children, the camps are not bad places to grow up, compared to other refugee sites. Schooling, which is free and compulsory, remains at a good standard, and thousands of children are hosted abroad each summer by Spanish families. The challenge comes after school. Though males are still required to do basic military training "as freedom fighters, not soldiers", most are no longer retained in the army. But given that government jobs are scarce and low-paid, most young people must find other ways of earning a living and passing the time. Since the war ended in 1991, many thousands of Saharawi refugees have moved to Mauritania, northern Algeria or Spain - a pro­cess that the Polisario does not encourage but is unable to prevent. One of Lakhal's colleagues, a twentysomething journalist who worked for the official Polisario magazine, told me that his mother, sister and brother all now lived in Spain. The brother travelled there on an official Polisario work trip and never returned.

“The young people will soon start to say that the Polisario can go to hell if nothing happens," Lakhal told me. "The leaders know what war is. Normally it should bring a solution. But we have had no solution for almost 20 years. The society is boiling. The boys born in 1976 are now fathers. They don't want to stay here. Can they suffocate their anger?"

After Lakhal crossed the wall he did 14 months' military training in the Liberated Zone near a town named Tifariti. As I wanted to see the wall, he agreed to take me there. We left early in the morning and soon we were driving across flat desert gravel. After about 30 miles, we breached an unseen frontier, leaving Algeria for the Polisario-controlled section of Western Sahara.

Soon we saw the first nomads' tents. During the winter months, hundreds of refugees leave the camps for the open desert, taking herds of camels and goats with them. Around mid-morning, at a place the Polisario calls the "Rincón", where the wall makes a 90-degree turn west, I saw it for the first time - and Lakhal cursed. Rubbish strewn by soldiers piled up against the barbed wire in front of us. The wall was less imposing than I'd imagined - quite literally a barrier of sand - but the landmines and the sheer number of Moroccan troops ensured that it was perfectly effective.

We parked a short distance away. Our driver, a thin, mischievous man nicknamed "El Macho", whose job during the war was operating a Katyusha rocket launcher, gathered sticks and made a fire. Lakhal cooked brunch: camel heart, kidney, liver and hump - a small, fatty piece of meat. It was late afternoon when we reached Tifariti, a tiny town with a few administrative offices and some bombed-out buildings. The landscape had changed; there were now craggy hills sprinkled with large boulders. At the top of one of the hills was the army command post, painted rust red; nearby was the wreckage of a downed Moroccan fighter jet. In the army mess was a poster of abuses in the occupied territories, including a 2005 picture of Aminatou Haidar with her face bloodied.

As Lakhal prepared tea, he spoke about the shortcomings of the Polisario's attempt to persuade the international community to take its side. "The mistake is ours. Why is our representation in the UK just one or two people? We have one person in Australia; it's a continent, not a country. Two people in New York and the UN and one in Washington. No one in China and one in Russia. But with us, you are talking mostly about nomads. We have centuries with our own system, an oral culture. The power of the world is still not understood here."

He told me a story about travelling to South Africa in 2006 to act as in interpreter for Haidar, who had just been granted a Moroccan passport, allowing her to travel abroad for the first time. South Africa recognises the Saha­rawi Arab Democratic Republic, and so Lakhal could use his SADR passport. The journey required him to pass through Frankfurt, where police detained him. "They looked at my passport and said: 'This is not a country.' They took me to the police station. I asked if they had a world map, which they did, so I showed them Western Sahara on the map. But they said: "What is this SADR on the passport?' So I asked them to go on to the African Union website so they could see we are a recognised country. They were so surprised."

I asked Lakhal about his wife, Mariam, who works as a civil servant in Laayoune, and whom he married in Mauritania in 2007. He said he missed her and hoped he would see her again in a few months, perhaps in Algiers.

The following afternoon we drove to a Polisario military post, which consisted of a few simple barrack huts and a neat parade ground. A steady drip of soldiers filed into the reception room, wearing new uniforms and boots. Finally the commander arrived. Trained in Cuba, Habuha Braica was the Polisario's top artillery man, Lakhal said. Braica took us outside to view the four howitzer cannon that stood in a row next to two flatbed trucks used to move them around. There had been no fighting for more than 17 years, yet Braica said that his men remained on constant alert.

On my last night in the camps, Lakhal and I walked to the modest residence of Mohammed Abdel­aziz, secretary general of the Polisario and president of the SADR since 1976. We knocked on the gate, which was opened by Abdelaziz's wife, Khadija Hamdi, who is also the minister for culture. She led us to a long dining room with pale blue walls, blue couches and a table covered by a blue plastic tablecloth decorated with flowers.
Two Spanish women, old friends of the Polisario, soon joined us, along with the Polisario representative in Galicia.

Abdelaziz strode in a little while later, barefoot, a solidly built man in a flowing blue robe. He introduced himself to each of us boisterously. One of the Spanish women was called America. "So, America, do you speak English?" he asked.

“No."

He laughed loudly, and so did she. I asked about the possibility of a new war. The last Polisario Congress, in December 2007, had covered that topic, the president said. The decision to resume war was made; it is only the timing that needs to be decided. "Of course we don't want war."

Yet Abdelaziz was not despondent. "Morocco is not sitting comfortably," he said. "It is still living the same military situation as in 1991. With this long wall, all these soldiers are paid double salaries. That's very expensive for a country like Morocco."

He said he saw hope in Barack Obama and a new US foreign policy, and in the economic downturn, too, which could only make things more difficult for Morocco. "Maybe it will take a long time, but in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as [the people did] in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor."

Food was being brought out; salad, camel, chips, chicken, bread, a kind of desert mushroom, fruit. Abdelaziz kept putting more food on his guests' plates. "Eat, America," he implored the Spanish woman.

After dinner I walked back to my host family's house. I thought about Abdelaziz's cheerfulness and measured words. The refugees have been robbed of their independence for 19 years since the 1991 ceasefire, but, because there is no fighting, the outside world seems not to care. There seemed to be no glimmer of a satisfactory resolution at the time of my visit, and there has been none since. Yet many people in the Polisario camps believed that, in their president's words, in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as happened in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor.

Perhaps the refugees' faith had something to do with the paradox of the wall. They live in exile but at least they have a kind of freedom. On the other side of the wall, in Western Sahara, their relatives remain prisoners in their own homeland. Today, Aminatou Haidar, who was eventually allowed back home after 32 days on hunger strike in Lanzarote, is still under constant surveillance in Laayoune. And Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek have been in jail for many months.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

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As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

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Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster