Features

No man's land

"No man's land" Continued...

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

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.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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