At first I was surprised.“No one here would do that sort of thing, right?”
I was given a few polite, though disappointed looks. Once again I had made an unreasonable assumption.
Earlier that day I killed an hour watching the Al-Shabaab cable channel. I couldn’t help but wonder who else in the camp was also tuned in, soaking up calls to jihad being broadcast across the Sahara by the Somalia’s largest militia.
It wasn’t just wrong to assume nobody around me had ever considered picking up arms, but also completely unfounded. I was surrounded by people who had been forced from their homes at gunpoint by an aggressive, brutal dictatorship described by the New York Times last September as one of Washington’s “closest allies in the region”.
For decades the indigenous Sahrawi people of Western Sahara fought a guerrilla war against Morocco’s illegal invasion of their country. In 1991 a ceasefire was negotiated, promising the Sahrawi a vote of self-determination. Finally, it seemed like the Sahrawi would be free to decide their own fate. Twenty two years later, between 100,000 and 150,000 Sahrawi remain in refugee camps on the Algerian border. They are free from the daily oppression that Sahrawi living under the Moroccan occupation face. However, they live in limbo. Those who fled the war in the 70’s are now raising children in refugee camps, while UN mission staff dine with Moroccan occupation forces. In occupied Laayoune, UN vehicles even fly Moroccan flags.
When I asked a friend of mine in the camps how he felt about his child growing up in the camps, he shocked me by exclaiming, “you know, fuck Morocco. Fuck Europe. Fuck America and fuck the UN!” Given that Morocco continues to sell Western Sahara’s natural resources to Europe, remains a key non-NATO ally of the US and seems to have blocked all serious discussion of a peace settlement at the UN, it should come as no surprise that people in the camps are sick of empty promises of an end to their lives of hunger, sickness and boredom.
After a few weeks in the refugee camps, I started to understand why fantasies of war seemed appealing. I met a mother who had joined protests against the Polisario, demanding an end to the fruitless ceasefire. She told me, “I know there are efforts, but…the powers like France don’t want the UN to do anything.”
“We can’t count on the UN. I hope [for war], because we don’t want to wait forever.”
If the Sahrawi ever did end the ceasefire, I have no doubt that many of the friends I made in the camps would be labelled terrorists. They would be condemned as extremists, like the Tuareg independence movement neighbouring Mali, who demanded independence after decades of losing their lands to mineral companies, and their freedom to governments in Bamako. Despite fighting against a military regime that had previously overthrown Mali’s democracy, the impoverished Tuareg tribes who were demanding a secular, free state were condemned for their use of violence.
Now, NATO armed Islamists have drowned the secular independent movement, and France has intervened to prop up the military government. Yet there is no one to defend Tuareg who simply want freedom from both dictatorship and theocracy.
It seems like everywhere I go, I find the voices of those who demand justice being silenced by bullets. In Colombia’s deeply divided capital, I stumbled across street art proclaiming “the sound of guns doesn’t allow ideas to be heard”. It’s not just Bogota, it’s endemic across the world.
Like the Sahrawi, so many of the world’s most oppressed wage non-violent struggles. This is admirable, and I have great respect for the Sahrawi and others who struggle against impossible odds without proactively adding to the endless killing.
Yet, I can’t agree with those who criticise anyone who tries to bring change with arms, simply because they employ violence. Tactically, violence is often a poor way of eliciting positive social change. Though not all home-made rockets from Gaza kill innocent Israeli civilians, they all hasten the genocide of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, many of those that don’t drop in the crossfire are left alienated. I only need to look next door in Colombia to see an example of this, where revolutionary forces are tangled in drugs and drowning in blood.
Benign change is best delivered by democracy and inclusion, not guns and exclusion. However, I can’t add my voice to the chorus from the first world that insists on respecting the primacy of liberal institutionalism, and condemning those who take up arms to defend themselves. I mostly encounter this argument from people much like myself; middle class, well educated whites who haven’t experienced the pain and suffering inflicted by the worst excesses of capitalism. Morally condemning some of the world’s most oppressed people simply because they resort to violence as a response to oppression is pure intellectual decadence. I hope to never resort to violence for political reasons, but I’ve never lost a family member to death squads, or a friend to a landmine. It can be hard to judge when I’ve never felt such pain. One thing I do have a right to judge, however, is apathy. Political complacency afflicts Western academia, philosophy, lifestyle and society as a whole. Turning a blind eye to injustice is worse than picking up a gun to fight it.