Western Sahara: Polisario Front detains journalists?

While it is always bad news when journalists are detained or harassed, we are extremely skeptical that there is "slavery" in the Polisario Front's refugee camps—and about this report generally. From South Africa's News24, May 7:

SYDNEY — Two Australian journalists who were making a documentary on slavery in refugee camps in northwest Africa were briefly detained in Algeria by separatists, an official said on Monday.

The pair were released unharmed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, an independence movement fighting for self-rule of disputed Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco in the 1970s, a foreign ministry spokesperson told AFP.

"We are aware that two Australian journalists who were making a documentary in the Western Sahara, in the border area between Algeria and Mauritania, have encountered difficulties with the Polisario Front," he said.

"But they left the area by commercial flight on Sunday and we understand they are now in Paris, but we are awaiting confirmation on that," the spokesperson told AFP.

The department would not confirm the names of the pair, but local reports said they were Sydney-based independent filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw.

The pair were detained after it emerged they were making a documentary about slavery and racism in refugee camps run by the Polisario Front in southwestern Algeria, reports said.

Australia does not maintain an embassy in Algeria but its embassy in Paris "made vigorous representations to the relevant authorities to seek their release," the ministry spokesperson said.

Australians are strongly advised not to travel to Western Sahara due to the risk of landmines and terrorist attacks.

Morocco annexed the desolate but phosphate-rich Western Sahara after the withdrawal of the region's former colonial power Spain and neighbour Mauritania in the 1970s.

A war ensued with the armed Polisario Front, which was set up in 1973 and established itself as the sole representative of the nomadic Saharan or Sahrawi people.

The conflict ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire but the question of self-determination has not yet been settled.

This story betrays its bias by calling the Polisario Front "separatists." Polisario are not "separatists" but independence fighters, because Western Sahara is not part of Morocco. Nor have there been any "terrorist attacks" in Western Sahara. Polisario have not targeted civilians, and in any case have honored a truce since 1990. So this account is clearly jaundiced. Does anyone have more information on these charges?

See our last post on Western Sahara.

The journalists speak

Received from Jacob Mundy:

Press release issued by Daniel Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala
Paris, 7 May, 2006

We have been working on a documentary film focusing on the life of one family living in the Saharawi refugee camps in the Tindouf region of Western Algeria. The film deals with the separation of Fetim from her mother, separated 31 years ago as a three year old when Morocco invaded Western Sahara. Ambarka Fetim's mother who lives in the occupied territories of Western Sahara flew for the first time to the refugee camps in Algeria on 27th April with the UN mission that reunites Saharawi families for 5 days.

This trip was our third to the Polisario run camps since September 2006.

We have been working closely with the Polisario who had until recently been extremely helpful and supportive as they are with the many aid organisations and other media that visit the camps.

Toward the very end of our most recent stay in the camps difficulties began to arise between ourselves and the Polisario, after the discovery of a missing tape. The Polisario began to believe we were straying from the focus of our film, that of family separation and giving too much attention to Fetimís black extended family and friends.

On our second last day we arrived back at Fetim's home for the farewell dinner of her mother and found the head of Protocol and 3 other Polisario officials there, the situation was extremely tense. We decided to spend the night somewhere else.

The following day at around 5pm we were picked up by Polisario officials and were held for a total of 5 hours. After which we had a long discussion with the head of protocol together with the head of security, there were two UN officers present to observe. After the discussion we requested to the UN officers to be removed from the camps. After negotiations with the Polisario, we were allowed to leave with the UN officers. At all times the Polisario looked after us and afforded us every courtesy.

We never discussed with the media any of our activities and discoveries within the camps. This moment in time is extremely important for the independence of Western Sahara. Something we support and have been fighting for the past 12 months.

Any information and material we gathered while in the camps has been and will continue to be