RABUNI CAMP, Algeria — It is almost half the size of the Great Wall of China, four times the length of the wall in the West Bank, and 16 times longer than the Berlin Wall ever was, but few have heard of the 1,600-mile-long Moroccan military wall that divides the Western Sahara.
On the western side of the wall, Morocco exerts de facto control over what the Saharawis call the “Occupied Territories.” On the eastern side, the Saharawis’ Polisario Front governs and maintains its military forces.
The Saharawis refer to the Moroccan barrier as the “Wall of Shame,” not only because it divides the 160,000 Saharawi refugees in Algeria from their families and friends in the Moroccan held territory, but also because it threatens the lives and livelihoods of the thousands of Saharawi nomads that still wander through the Western Sahara’s deserts.
Construction of the wall began in 1980. Since 1975, the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS) had been battling the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies (until the latter’s defeat in 1979), using lightning-strike guerrilla tactics that exhausted their adversaries’ traditional armies.
In the face of ALPS victories, the Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) began work on a long barrier of simple sand embankments meant to slow down the fast-moving Saharawi soldiers. Between 1980 and 1987, five heavily fortified walls were added to the east and south, completely cutting off the Saharawi soldiers and refugees from their home cities, such as Layoune and Smara. Today, despite a ceasefire signed in 1991, both parties actively patrol their respective sides of the wall. Along the western side, Morocco maintains about 160,000 troops, reinforced by heavy military installations every seven miles, which include radar, artillery and tanks.
The Polisario refuses to cite the number of units that patrol its seven military regions on the eastern side of the wall, claiming that if war is resumed, all Saharawis will come to the front lines to fight.
From afar, the Moroccan military wall appears to be a sandy hill with a few helmeted soldiers peering over the top. A more accurate depiction, however, is given by Hamdi, a 24-year-old Saharawi from Layoune who crossed the wall on foot in 2007 to escape imprisonment by Moroccan police for his pro-independence activities:
"First, I cross a small ditch, about one meter deep and one meter across. Then I arrive at a low wall of rocks. These rocks are loose, so when you try cross the berm, they fall and make noise, so the soldiers come. Then there is other, much bigger trench. When I climb out of that, I cross last wall of sand and rock, which is more than two meters up. I pull myself over, jump down to other side, jump over big barbed wire fence, and run across live field of mines in black of night. I am very afraid of step on mines, but I think, 'If I make it this far, I have to trust Allah that I make it through the field of mines alive.'”
Hamdi is one of thousands of Saharawis who have crossed the wall to flee the Moroccan police and escape to the refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria. Most cross the wall at night with a handful of belongings, a bag of dates, and a few liters of water. After traversing the barrier, they often must spend days walking through the desert before reaching a group of nomads or a Saharawi military company that will take them to the camps.
Of course, that is only if they survive the nighttime trek across the field of anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines. Though the exact number of mines on the eastern side of the wall is unknown, estimates range from one million to over 10 million, and the U.N. consistently ranks the Western Sahara as one of the top 10 territories most contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs).
In April, the true threat of these mines became very real for more than 1,200 international visitors who were participating in an annual protest march in front of the berm. During the protest, a group of young Saharawis charged towards the Moroccan soldiers on the other side of the wall, hurling both rocks and insults. A 19-year-old charged forward, and although others tried to restrain the youth, he stepped on a mine and blew off his right foot, injuring four others. “You have all seen in a very tangible way how easily Morocco’s wall can convert human life into death,” said Abdelkadar Taleb Omar, a senior member of the Polisario, the following day.
Muhamed Abdelaziz, the secretary general of the Polisario Front, expressed his desire for U.S. President Barack Obama to press Morocco to dismantle its wall, calling it a “grave violation of human rights.”
For the Saharawi people, however, the Western Saharan conflict is shrouded by another wall — what they refer to as “a media blockade.” The Saharawis insist that their decades-old conflict is painfully underreported in the international media. They say that until this media wall is torn down and the international community becomes interested in the Western Saharan conflict, it is likely that Morocco’s 1,600-mile berm will remain standing.