No man's land

"No man's land" Continued...

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

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."


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