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Sahrawi Disappeared

Sahrawi Disappeared (Running time: 29 minutes)

This podcast was recorded between September 2002 and October 2007 in Algeria, Switzerland and the UK. The podcast includes comments from Philip Luther, Amnesty International, Christian Viret, BIRDHSO and Sidi Omar, Polisario representative to the UK and Ireland as well as former Sahrawi disappeared Daoud El Khadir and other Sahrawis with family members still missing.


Until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1990, Morocco fought a fifteen-year low-intensity war with the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, more commonly known as the Polisario.  The Polisario seeks independence for the Western Sahara, a region that the U.N. classifies as “a non-self-governing territory” and that remains under effective Moroccan control.  The ceasefire was supposed to lead to a U.N.-organized referendum in the region to choose between on whether to accept Moroccan sovereignty and independence.  However, Morocco has used a dispute over the list of eligible voters to keep the referendum plan from moving forward, while proposing regional autonomy within Morocco as an alternative to the referendum.

During the period of armed conflict, Moroccan security forces carried out hundreds of forced disappearances in the Western Sahara and arrested hundreds of others and sentenced them to long prison terms after unfair trials.   Although the repression eased after 1990 and in 1991 King Hassan II released some 270 of the “disappeared” Sahrawis, security police maintain a tighter control in this region than elsewhere.  The continuing repression and political tensions in the region complicate the task of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission.

State authorities have restricted independent human rights activities in the region.  In June 2003, a court ordered the dissolution of the local branch of the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Equity, on the grounds that it was carrying out “separatist” and “illegal” activities.  The Forum is a national organization representing victims of past abuse that has been active in following the work of the ERC.  A local group, the Sahrawi Association for Victims of Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by the Moroccan State in the Western Sahara, has encountered numerous obstacles in its recent efforts to obtain legal status.  The Moroccan Human Rights Association received authorization to operate a section in the city of El-Ayoun in 2005, but after nearly two years of delays.

Local residents may hesitate to step forward to talk about the abuse they suffered in the past, fearing reprisals from authorities.  They may hesitate also because of a feeling of distrust toward Moroccan state institutions, or because of political pressure from separatists to put the “national” cause ahead of individual cases. There is also the fact that a large portion of the Sahrawi population has been living in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria since the 1970s, complicating the task of the ERC to solicit their participation in its work.

No one disputes that Moroccan forces “disappeared” Sahrawis during the 1970s and 1980s, but the number of cases is a matter of contention. Over the years, a number of human rights organizations and NGOs sympathetic to the cause of Sahrawi self-determination have prepared and circulated lists of as many as 1,500 Sahrawis deemed to have “disappeared” at the hands of Moroccan authorities.

ERC President Benzekri said the ERC cross-checked all the lists it had obtained of Sahrawi “disappeared,” reviewed relevant army and gendarmerie archives, dispatched researchers to the Western Sahara, interviewed relatives of missing persons, consulted with the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and obtained through ICRC auspices information from Sahrawis formerly in Moroccan custody and now living in the Tindouf camps.  Benzekri maintained that this research enabled the ERC “to clarify numerous cases, even if there are a lot still to be explained.”  He has also said that the number of persons “disappeared” and still missing from all regions of Morocco totaled about 260, indicating that he considers the number of confirmed cases of “disappeared” Sahrawis to be far lower than most of the estimates put forward by NGOs. Benzekri said that some of the NGO lists included persons for whom there is no available evidence that they had ever been taken into custody by Moroccan forces. He explained that these might include Polisario fighters who were killed by Moroccan forces but whose bodies were either never recovered or were buried without the next-of-kin being informed.

Extract from the Human Rights Watch report on the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC)

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Alternative Formats



  • S L James



  • Sue Bingham (French)
  • Carolina Casañas i Comabella (Spanish)
  • Tanya Haj-Hassan (Hassaniya/Arabic)


  • Closing song recorded at the Garden of the Disappeared in Geneva as part of an international conference on the issue, March 2003

Recorded: September 2002 – October 2007

creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Sahrawi disappeared demonstration outside the UN, Geneva, March 2003. Photo: S L James.

Sahrawi disappeared demonstration outside the UN, Geneva, March 2003.

Photo: S L James

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Last updated Sep 09, 2011