Friday, February 29, 2008

Western Sahara

In Western Sahara I’m a computer programmer, not a journalist and I don’t know enough about what’s happening here to write with authority. But no one is here to write accurately and freely about the tension between Morocco and the land it administers so it seems useful to at least bear witness to the situation.

Dakhla has received a fresh coat of paint these last days in anticipation of the music festival here that began Thursday and runs until March 3. There are flags on every lamppost, freshly cleaned streets and a big concert stage in the middle of town. There are military checkpoints heading in and out of the peninsula, but that’s nothing new.

From the beginning, Dakhla struck me as a city with too many buildings and too few people and in recent days it appeared there were more people cleaning the streets than walking them. Even before I knew anything about the details of the conflict here it struck me that Morocco was making a concerted effort to plant roots in the barren sand of Western Sahara.

That makes sense since after Spain vacated the area in the 1970’s Morocco lost it’s bid to formally annex Western Sahara in part because it couldn’t demonstrate a strong enough connection to the area to its south. Instead, international powers dictated a referendum to determine Western Sahara’s future, but the vote has been stalled for decades amid debate over who gets to vote.

In the meantime thousands of Moroccans have been “shipped in” to Dakhla in an apparent effort to extend Morocco’s influence and population.

Military instillations make up a very large chunk of the buildings here and there’s an officer on nearly every street corner. You’d have to dig much deeper than we have these last days to know how the people who live here feel about the government’s tactics or the rebel Polisario’s cause. But for better or worse Morocco is populating the desert with infrastructure, people and music to create an oasis of development in the infertile sand or to scam ownership of something that isn’t theirs.

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