“We spent a week traveling around Morocco, exploring history and culture in Tangier, Fez, Rabat, etc. We decided to continue south to Western Sahara, aware of the political conflict and with a desire to see for ourselves what life is like in the Moroccan occupied territory. We had already visited the camps for Western Saharan refugees in Algeria. Our plan was to travel through Laâyoune to Dakhla; drinking tea, talking to locals and experiencing the landscape.
We arrived in Laâyoune by bus on Friday November 21st. We checked into our hotel and were greeted by the clerk and a crew of UN officers using the WiFi in the lobby; their emblematic trucks lined the curbs outside.
Once settled in we went for a stroll through the center of town, got some food and tea and called a friend of a friend; a local human rights activist and made plans to have lunch the following day.
On Saturday morning, we woke up, had breakfast in the hotel where we struck up a conversation with the waiter and made plans to have coffee together in the evening. It seemed like a great opportunity to connect with locals who did not outwardly identify as political activists.
After breakfast we went for another stroll around our hotel and then met for lunch at the home of the local activist, Elghalia Djimi.
That evening we came back to the hotel and were promptly informed by hotel staff that we were being followed and photographed by the police.
At 20:30 – about an hour later, we were summoned to the lobby which was quickly filling with Moroccan plain-clothes officers of undeclared affiliation. They demanded our passports. They asked us nothing about our plans or activities. We were informed that we violated our tourist visas by speaking with local activists. At 21:00, we were escorted to our room and told to get our belongings as we were persona non grata, effective immediately.
We had been told a cab had been arranged to drive us to Agadir, approximately 670 km north of Western Sahara. We expressed our desire to take the bus to Agadir, but they forced us into the cab, making it clear there was no room for negotiations. As we were corralled out of the hotel and into the cab we realized that there were over 40 police and Moroccan officials in the streets and sidewalk around the hotel. We were hoping to see one of the many UN officials we had seen earlier in the day, but there none were in sight. By 22:00 we were speeding north towards Agadir.
The region had been hit by torrential rain and flash flooding that caused the destruction of local roads and highways, and to date has taken the lives of 17 people. The trip, which on a good day takes 8 hours, took us 15 hours. As we traversed roads rapidly eroding from raging water we worried about the journey the cab driver would face returning to Laâyoune.
We arrived safely in Agadir and from there took a bus to Marrakech.
It seems unfortunate that our removal from Western Sahara prevented us from meeting anyone outside the activist community. We never made our coffee date with the waiter from the hotel and his friends.
This experience has only heightened our concern for the human rights of people living in Western Sahara and throughout Morocco. Is it not a basic human right to be able to build relationships without government interference?
Morocco is host to the World Forum on Human Rights fromNovember 27 to 30 in Marrakech. We encourage the activists, scholars and journalists in attendance to inquire into the situation in Western Sahara, and to question why foreigners are prohibited from freely associating with individuals there.
Moving forward, it seems critical to also question the effectiveness of the current UN peacekeeping operation and the extent to which it protects the human rights of all individuals in the region.
Yeshe Parks and Tennessee Watson”