DAKHLA, Western Sahara- Nomads die hard. Atop the new houses of Dakhla, where some in these parts might save the flat roof for a meal outdoors and a satellite dish, the nomads reserve rooftops as urban pasture for sheep and goats. "You can find people in Dakhla who can't spend one week in town. They always go for a few days with cattle to the desert. It's a habit," said Mohamed Salah Tamek, Morocco's governor of the province.
In sandy tracts within view of the ocean, the Moroccan government is building hundreds of houses for refugees returning from a conflict that began 30 years ago and hasn't ended. Those who take up residence in the city yearn to roam the desert on occasion to find food and water for their cattle, to sleep on a dark expanse under the stars, and to eat meat with onions under a tent.
Preserving old lifestyles in a land riddled with contemporary conflict is at least part pipe dream. Western Sahara is the largest "non-self-governing territory" in the world, according to the UN, largely because UN intervention since a 1991 ceasefire has failed to resolve the battle for control between Morocco and an Algerian-linked independence movement.
Both are seriously Islamic based, yet each side recently has looked to U.S. Christians for support-both as a conduit to the Bush administration and in recognition of the tenacity of U.S. evangelicals when it comes to confronting the problems of Sudan, Nigeria, poverty, or AIDS in Africa. In the end, growing U.S. interest in resolving an intractable, Israel/Palestinian-type conflict is more likely to arrive because the global war on terrorism is knocking at Western Sahara's door.
At the Saharan doorstep the desert climbs from the Atlantic in jagged cliffs of sand and doesn't stop until it reaches the Red Sea 3,000 miles away. Cool winds prevail, surprisingly. On Dakhla's coast the temperature never rises above 80 degrees and never drops below freezing. The political temperature, on the other hand, holds steady and searing.
Even now up to 90,000 Sahwaris, as the Saharan residents are known, linger in refugee camps in southern Algeria. The number represents perhaps one-third of Western Sahara's population-all displaced, captured, or born in the camps following intermittent battles since 1975 that involve Algeria, Morocco, and other neighbors. All sides committed atrocities during the war, but Morocco has more quickly accounted for the missing and dead, releasing POWs within the first years of ceasefire. The Polisario Front, a remnant Marxist revolutionary group claiming to represent independence for the Sahwaris, only last year released the final 408 Moroccan POWs. It continues to block UN monitors and aid workers from Algerian desert camps where thousands of Sahwaris reportedly languish.
Decades of fighting over Western Sahara have ripped apart family life and community. The nomads may be wanderers, but their tribes traditionally are close knit. Nearly everyone on the street knows someone in the camps. Tamek has a nephew and two cousins he barely remembers currently living there.
Meanwhile, unwelcome visitors are showing up in this far reach of the Sahara. Seven months ago security forces arrested Mohamad Said Adjhiri south of Dakhla at Guerguerat on a recruiting mission for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
He now sits in a jail outside Rabat, but no one believes that's the end of the terrorism problem. Two months ago military forces in Tamek's province arrested about two dozen Pakistanis and Indians traveling overland. "It's not just the illegal immigration," Tamek told WORLD, "but, my God, what can be behind it? How can poor people come from India and Pakistan, take the desert and land in Sahara?"
Evidenced by Mumbai's July 11 train bombings, al-Qaeda shows growing talent for cross-border, remote-control attacks. Stable and moderately Islamic countries like Morocco, particularly when bordered by chaos, know they are on its radar.
Counterterrorism units, jujutsu-like, now spend more time and money than ever tracking al-Qaeda infiltration in the Pan-Sahel region, which includes northwest and central Africa. Forbidding topography, porous borders, and rank revolutionaries like the Polisario who specialize in arms trading and smuggling make a potent breeding ground for the new al-Qaeda: "leaderless terrorists" like Assem Hammoud, the 31-year-old Lebanese arrested this month in a plot to blow up Manhattan's Holland Tunnel, a plot that spanned six countries on three continents. So the Pentagon doubled counterterrorism programs in the Sahel: from $16 million last year to $31 million this year. Expect it to reach $100 million by 2008.
U.S. special forces and other small, expeditionary units are engaged even at this moment in joint exercises and training across north Africa and the Sahara because Algeria's extreme militant Salafists represent "the modern experience with Al-Qaeda," according to U.S. European Command's Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent,-"a mobile, self-sustaining and worldwide but loosely connected group of wily, desert-hardened militants."
Tamek told WORLD, "The serious thing about Polisario is that without anchored ideology it is most dangerous. And the most dangerous ideology in the world is the Islamist ideology. You can teach it overnight." He has arrested militants bearing arms purchased from the Polisario Front. He regularly confiscates European food sacks on sale in Dakhla markets meant for the refugees in Algeria's Polisario-run camps. "These people are used to a kind of burglary, to trafficking, smuggling aid, and selling their arms," Tamek said. "I'm not saying that the Polisario are terrorists now, but they are flirting with the devil."
For all that, the Polisario is reaping support in Congress not only from sympathizers like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.); it also has backing among Capitol Hill's Christian right and conservative human rights activists, including Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.). Both gave statements at a hearing hosted by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, endorsing the Polisario quest for self-determination in Western Sahara.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation and a prominent advocate for human rights and religious freedom in North Korea, chairs the U.S.-Western Sahara Foundation. She works closely with the Polisario, helping to organize trips for congressional staff, human rights and Christian groups to Algeria's Tindouf area, where the refugee camps are located. Scholte told WORLD, "Morocco is trying to say that the refugee camps are prisons. That is absolutely untrue. In fact there is intentional outreach among believers in the camps and incredible blessings as a result of the Christians in the refugee camps."
That may be true but hard to verify with the Polisario blocking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and independent aid groups from the camps. UNHCR has never been allowed to conduct a census, leading Moroccans to charge that the Sahwaris are more hostages than refugees.
In 2004 testimony before the UN, Scholte said Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara "has forced 170,000 refugees to remain in refugee camps unable to return to their homeland." She told WORLD the current Polisario numbers are between 165,000-175,000 refugees in the camps. She said reports of the Polisario sending children from the camps to Cuba for reeducation and forced labor are just rumors. "The Polisario sent students to Cuba for medical training," she said.
Returning refugees and POWs freed from the Polisario, along with aid workers who have managed to visit Tindouf, tell a different story. The most reliable estimates show 90,000 refugees and thousands of children sent to Cuba for reeducation and forced labor.
Abdullah Lamani, 51, said he was among 120 civilians taken by the Polisario and detained as POWs. That was 25 years ago. Released last year after "8,400 days" in the Tindouf camps, he said, "We were treated the same as military, tortured, but we had no training to withstand this."
Lamani worked in a depot south of Tindouf, he said, where a central pharmacy collected medicine and shipped it in trucks to Mauritania. In 2001, he began to see food aid diverted in the same way: flour from Canada and Germany, milk powder from Oxfam, and supplies from the European aid groups ECHO and CEE. POWs poured the supplies into white bags with no insignias and loaded them onto trucks to be taken by night, also to Mauritania. "Even crutches were sent on," he said. Meanwhile, a Christian group arrived with English-Arabic Bibles and sunglasses in about 1999, Lamani remembers. He saw the gifts but does not know who gave them. "They never let them see us," he said.
Aid groups, including the U.S. Committee for Refugees, say there are four camps in the desolate Tindouf military zone. But Lamani told WORLD he believes there are 22 camps, many with little more than holes in the ground or mud-brick houses. Lamani drew a map for WORLD of the camps, citing distances from Tindouf's military airstrip and its lone road. While the Polisario usually ferries Red Cross workers and other visitors to a camp about 12 miles from the airstrip, some camps-including a "12 October Center" that prisoners and refugees say is known for torture-are easily 50 miles from the airstrip.
Mohammed Khmamouché, a medical doctor, said the Polisario forced POWs to give blood. He and two other doctors extracted blood from other prisoners-all prisoners at least once a year, prisoners with rare blood types up to six times a year. "We had no choice. They were led to the infirmary and forced to give blood. We were forced to take it." Medicine at the infirmary, he said, "was very rare." He knew Polisario leaders sent away medical supplies to sell on black markets. "We had people with diabetes who were dying, TB was fatal because people had to work when they were weak and ill. As a doctor I felt helpless and demoralized."
The Polisario captured more than 2,000 Moroccan POWs. Lamani was among the final surviving 408 released last summer, 15 years after the ceasefire. His freedom followed diplomatic intervention from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former POW in Vietnam, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). Lugar shuttled between Rabat and Algiers last August before reaching an agreement on their release between Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) data and an unusual satellite survey suggest about 90,000 refugees still remain in the camps (although POWs say they eyeballed far fewer). ICRC and other monitors for years charged that the Polisario inflates camp population figures to receive excess aid to sell on black markets.
UNHCR reluctantly investigated the charges in 2004. A confidential report by its inspector-general's office issued last year said the allegations did not fall within its jurisdiction since "there were no allegations of misconduct by UNHCR staff." The report concluded by calling for registration of the Tindouf refugees, something the Polisario won't allow. At that time the European Commission ordered a satellite imagery report to count the Tindouf refugee population. It pegged the numbers at 91,000.
Saadani Ma Oulainie tells one of their stories. At age five she said she saw her father tortured in the camps. At 9, the Polisario put her on an Algerian military charter, along with several hundred other children, and flew her to Cuba. "The Polisario separated families as a tool. It was a way to keep parents in the camps, waiting for our return," Oulainie said.
At Cuba's Isle of Youth, where many other Africans were escorted, a delegation met Oulainie and other Sahwaris, and gave them a huge cake, she said, before issuing uniforms and sending them to work in sugar cane and citrus fields. She attended school every day, worked, learned Cuban anthems and dances, and learned about "evil America," she said. She received a Cuban diploma but did not return to Tindouf for 15 years. By then her father had died and her mother had been released from the camps. With help, she escaped in a truck full of aid bound for Mauritania and eventually found her mother in Casablanca.
If the numbers talk, the stories scream. Recognizing this, the Moroccan government has sponsored several refugees, including Oulainie, to travel to the United States. They met in 2005 and again last March with pastors, church groups, and members of Congress. The National Clergy Council along with Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Republicans from Florida, lent support along the way. The National Clergy Council plans a similar tour again next month.
It's hard to see how the competing presentations of Western Sahara can help negotiate its future. But both sides see U.S. intervention as the next hope after failing to carry out a referendum or achieve a negotiated settlement under UN mandate. And Sahwaris once aligned with the Polisario are less uneasy than before with Moroccan occupation as they see roads, houses, and businesses coming into remote areas. Dakhla has ATMs and an international hotel. It also has fresh vegetables, thanks to a European hydroponics operation that has begun growing produce in the desert.
Tamek champions the new developments but is a veteran convert. The Moroccan governor was one of the Polisario Front's earliest revolutionaries. Born in "the desert somewhere," he suffered like other Sahwaris under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco while Spain clung to Western Sahara for two decades after it won independence in 1956. At that time authoritarian rulers aligned with the West pitted themselves against Marxist revolutionaries who swore allegiance to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moscow. Morocco's King Hassan II, isolated and hardened, dissolved parliament, jailed and tortured political opponents.
Outside the palace walls in Rabat, university students like Tamek invented or joined reactionary movements. A self-described "leftist revolutionary committed to the overthrow of the monarchy," Tamek helped form early ranks Polisario. Hassan's police arrested him in 1977 and he spent five years in jail-"a very tough experience, and one I would like to have gone through without suffering. It was so great that good things came out of it," he said.
After prison and completing his studies (including a brief time at the University of Delaware), Tamek switched allegiance to Morocco's constitutional monarchy, and eventually won a post in the government, including a recent stint as Morocco's ambassador to Norway. Today he said he believes Western Sahara's future lies in integration with, and not full independence from, the Moroccan government. "Morocco amputated from Western Sahara will not be a state at all, it will disappear," he said. A Polisario-dominated Western Sahara would in effect choke Morocco between Algeria and the Atlantic. "Our only breathing side is the Sahara," he said. And as long as Western Sahara remains a political no-man's land, anyone can take advantage of it.