Demetria Irwin with Western Sahara’s Ambassador to the U.S. Mohamed Yeslem Beisat. The Moroccan Wall is in the background. (124024)

Last December, I was among a group of African-American journalists, scholars and filmmakers selected to travel to Western Sahara and Algeria. The excursion was financed and organized by Polisario, a Western Saharan movement whose mission is to secure independence for Western Sahara. Part of the agenda for the excursion was to attend the fifth International People’s Right to Resistance Conference in Algeria, which had 360 delegates from 49 countries. The 10-day trip was enlightening and intense. The following are four takeaways from the journey.


What many people don’t know is that Africa still has one last colonized country. Spain was the colonizer of Western Sahara until 40 years ago, and that’s when neighboring countries Morocco and Mauritania took control. Mauritania pulled out, thus it’s been just Morocco as the occupier/colonizer (in Polisario’s words) for the past four decades.

The people of Western Sahara waged a long and brutal guerilla war against the much larger and better financed Moroccan forces for years. However, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1991. Since that time, attempts to peacefully resolve the dispute have been unsuccessful.

At issue are the terms of holding a U.N.-monitored referendum that would allow the people of Western Sahara to decide their governance, with options such as complete Moroccan control, complete Saharawi independence or a limited autonomy for the Saharawi people and continued Moroccan control. Meanwhile, thousands of Saharawi people live in refugee camps in Algeria outside Tindouf and are almost completely dependent on foreign aid for even their most basic needs, such as food.


Several people who claimed to be victims of or relatives of victims of political imprisonment and torture administered by the Moroccan government spoke to my travel group. Some of the people we interviewed specifically implored African-Americans to help Saharawi people gain independence. They see it as a thread in the cloth that connects people of the African diaspora, especially because of the police brutality experienced by African-Americans.

The video presented during the conference that purported to show brutality inflicted upon the Saharawi people at the hands of Moroccan authority was reminiscent of the numerous videos stateside of violent, sometimes fatal, interactions between police officers and African-Americans.


The Moroccan Wall, also known as “The Berm,” is approximately 1,670 miles long. The Moroccans began construction of the wall in the 1980s. The wall is patrolled by armed guards and effectively cuts off Saharawis from active mines and fisheries along the Atlantic coast. Western Sahara is rich with phosphates, which are used in the creation of energy sources.

In addition to armed guards, Morocco has also buried millions of landmines. The exact figure varies by source, but it ranges between 5 million and 7 million. Furthermore, because this is the desert and sand shifts, the precise locations of the landmines change.


There were many heavy topics discussed on the trip, but there were also moments of levity. One such moment came during a picnic lunch in the Sahara desert. I am a pescetarian (four years and counting), but I had to break my usual eating habits to try fresh grilled camel meat. When else would I get a chance to eat something like that, right? I tried the liver and the hump. Very tasty and tender! The hump was basically just all tender fat. I’m told that camel hump meat (even though it is fat) is much healthier than beef and is high in protein and vitamin E.

The expedition to Algeria and Western Sahara—from the bustling streets of Algiers to the humble graciousness of the refugee camps outside Tindouf and the guarded starkness of the Moroccan Wall in the desert—was an adventure of many firsts and bonding.

As we African-Americans continue to fight for our human rights here in the face of racism and other “isms” that come in many forms, we should also acknowledge and support the justice-focused missions of our African brothers and sisters.