Vigil in London on September 7 for the Saharawi "Oxford Six" students—photo by Olivia Mann
At the beginning of August, 21 students between 16 and 24 years of age from Morocco, Western Sahara, and the refugee camps in the Algerian desert set off on what they hoped would be a life changing experience. Each student had been picked to attend a residential conference in Oxford, England organized by the EU’s Youth In Action program and sponsored by the British Council. The initiative was intended to help foster greater trust and mutual understanding between young Saharawis and Moroccans, enabling them to explore possible solutions to the conflict in Western Sahara, one of the worlds’ longest-running disputes.
Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1976 after the withdrawal of the Spanish. A 16-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. Fighting ended in 1991 when, under the terms of a UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised to the Western Saharans. This referendum has yet to take place and the Saharawi either live under occupation in their native land or as refugees in camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.
On the evening of August 5, eight Moroccan students in the Casablanca airport and six Saharawi students in the Agadir airport were told that they could not travel. Although their tickets and visas were all in order and they had already checked in, the Moroccan authorities refused to let them board their planes. No reason was given and the students who had been preparing for this trip for many months were understandably angry and disappointed.
While the Moroccan students made their way back to their homes, the Saharawi students decided to stage a hunger strike in protest in the airport terminal. In a country where protest and dissent is often violently suppressed and over 500 Saharawi political activists had "disappeared," this hunger strike was a bold action. Speaking from the airport on a mobile phone, 17-year-old student Amaidane Maimouna said that they understood the risks, but were determined to make a stand: "Either we will go to the UK or we will not eat and we go to hospital. There is no third way."
In Morocco, however, there is always a third way. As the sun sank over the runway at Agadir airport, around 20 police arrived. They entered the terminal, beat the students, and drove them away. Although mobile phones were confiscated, Elassri Mohamed Fadel managed to keep his hidden. "We have been beaten with batons" he whispered into the phone. "Beaten very badly."
The Oxford Six: El Haouasi Nguia (19, female), Amaidane Maimouna (17, female), Hayat Rguibi (19, female), Elassri Mohamed Fadel (24, male), Razouk Choummad (20, male), Mohamed Daanoun (20, male)
For more information on the Western Sahara, visit www.freesahara.ning.com
Thanks to the swift action of human rights organizations, the students, dubbed the Oxford Six, were released within 36 hours. Although efforts were made to arrange another flight and secure permission from the authorities for them to attend the final week of the peace conference, it quickly became clear that the Oxford Six would not be coming to England. Instead the students returned to their homes in occupied Western Sahara amid concerns that their impromptu protest would lead to monitoring and harassment by Moroccan authorities.
These fears were well-founded. On August 27, as campaigners were preparing to mark the 26th International Day of the Disappeared, one of the women students was picked up by police in El Aaiun. According to her testimony, she was blindfolded, beaten, stripped naked, and threatened with rape. After five hours, the police left her on the outskirts of the town. Days later, on September 2, Razouk Choummad, another member of the Oxford Six, was also picked up by police. He was blindfolded, stripped, and covered in a liquid, which he was told was petrol, in an ordeal that lasted several hours.
In London, on September 7, a delegation of MPs and campaigners visited 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to communicate their concerns about the Oxford Six. There have also been vigils, solidarity meetings, and a letter writing campaign.
These incidents took place within the context of a wider pattern of human rights abuses in the occupied territories. In recent years, numerous organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human rights, have expressed "serious concern" about human rights violations against the Saharawi. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco violated the rights to expression, association, and assembly in Western Sahara. The 2009 Amnesty International Report states that "[p]roponents of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara are harassed and prosecuted."
The Oxford Six set off to build bridges with their Moroccan counterparts only to return home days later as "enemies of the State." Knowing that the world is watching is a comfort to the students, although such knowledge cannot heal their scars or allay their fears.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, broadcaster, and human rights campaigner.