By Roger Childs
Last week a small but attentive audience heard Larry speak on his time with the United Nations in this disputed territory. He was in the area for 6 months in 1995 as a UN Military observer. He was part of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum of the Western Sahara (UNMRWS), which seeks to allow the local people to choose between being part of Morocco or form their own government.
Western Sahara is small but has been hotly contested for decades. It was a former Spanish colony which was annexed by neighbouring Morocco in 1975. Since that time the territory, which has about the same area as New Zealand, with a population of 567,000 people, has seen the local Sahrawi population challenge Moroccan control. Their political movement, the Polisario, has set up a government in exile in nearby Algeria.
Tunisia also supports the Polisario and in late August upset the Moroccan King by giving Brahim Ghali, leader of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the status of a visiting head of state at an African Development Conference. To further upset the Moroccans a European Union representative recently stated that “the Sahrawi people must be consulted so that they themselves decide their own future”.
Larry outlined the nature of the area; the challenges of the environment; the political problems, getting supplies of food, water and fuel, and what it was like living in such a remote desert area. The audience particularly enjoyed his anecdotes on serving with other military personnel from many countries. There was some fascinating detail about the Chinese, Russians and Ukrainians.
The environment throws up many problems such as sandstorms, scorpions, snakes and jackals. Larry recalled a high pitched scream from the toilet when a recently-arrived Bangladeshi officer discovered a snake in the pan!
Driving in the desert is problematic and it is essential to keep to the “roads” such as they are. Avoiding land mines is crucial as the annual Paris – Dakar Motor Rally drivers are well aware. Occasionally camels and goats meet a nasty end getting blown up in minefields.
The Western Sahara is the last territory on the planet to be decolonized by the UN and it is incredible to think that 27 years after Larry was there the long sought-after referendum has still not taken place. The vast majority of countries support a vote taking place, but the Moroccans will not have a bar of it.
This remote area in the north-west of Africa gets little publicity and it was fascinating to hear Larry Keim, with a well-illustrated power point spell out the nature of the territory and the challenges of living there.
Sadly a solution to the key political problem that keeps UNMRWS present in the area, seems as far away as ever.