Decades later, refugees return to a land still divided

BYLINE: Alison Lake
Pg. A20
LENGTH: 911 words

Several generations of Saharan refugees of Moroccan, Algerian and Mauritanian origin remain trapped in an old desert conflict. As a sand wall divides families and tribes in Western Sahara, an impasse over the territory’s status perpetuates discontent. Some 90,000 Sahrawis, or native Saharans, have lived in desolate tent camps in Algeria since the late 1970s, where they fled to escape warfare between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

Now they are fleeing back to the Moroccan side of the Sahara in increasing numbers, according to reports from the Moroccan government and the United Nations. Most escape to reunite with their families and settle in growing Sahrawi communities; some peacefully promote independent statehood for Western Sahara, while others have planned attacks on Moroccan security forces. For more than three decades, Morocco and the Polisario have vied for control over the Western Sahara, a non-sovereign territory the size of Colorado.

Since 1975, Algeria has provided diplomatic and political support to the Polisario’s campaign for independence. Morocco, which controls the majority of the territory, would prefer to oversee a semiautonomous Western Sahara. On Nov. 8, outside the Moroccan-administered town of Laayoune, pro-Polisario militants attacked police with rocks, machetes and knives, killing 11 and wounding 70 others. A demonstration against Moroccan favoritism toward those who have moved back from the Algerian camps had turned violent; « Moroccan police had been ordered to peacefully dismantle a protest camp after militants took control, » said Aziz Mekouar, Morocco’s ambassador to the United States.

Saharan discontent dates back generations. During the exodus east to Algeria in the 1970s, some refugees were Polisario supporters and were absorbed into its leadership. The Polisario kidnapped others and forced them to settle in the camps, say hundreds of refugees who escaped or left the camps, and some who spoke recently in Dakhla, a bustling Western Sahara town on the Atlantic. The United Nations and human rights organizations have accused all the conflict’s major players – Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario – of human rights abuses. U.N.-led talks among the three last month failed to reach a compromise over the region’s status. People living in the Polisario camps in southwestern Algeria cannot seek citizenship, work permits or refugee status. Escapees tell of abuse, lack of basic services and infiltration by traffickers. Even as they settle in new Moroccan-built housing and receive Moroccan citizenship, they fear for relatives left behind. Moulay Ismaili, 85, lives in Smaara on the Moroccan side and traveled to the United Nations in October to plead for the release of his son, Polisario police chief inspector Mustapha Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud.

The Polisario had let Mouloud visit his father in August, and « after 31 years of being away, he liked what he saw in Morocco and said so publicly, » Ismaili said. « People in the camps are brainwashed to hate Morocco, and Mustapha saw that the Moroccan Sahara is a nice place to live. » After Mouloud announced his support of Morocco’s proposal of semiautonomy for Western Sahara, the Polisario jailed him for treason. Polisario spokesman Emhamed Khadad said by phone from the camps that the Polisario is a peaceful, pro-independence movement. Yet more than 1,500 people have left the camps this year and traveled to the Moroccan side of Western Sahara, say Moroccan officials. For many escapees, life is good in Dakhla, which, like Laayoune, is administered by Moroccan civil government and security forces. « Dakhla is an oasis, the safest place in Western Sahara, » said Abdeslam Azelhad, assistant to Western Sahara’s regional governor. Following the day’s extreme heat, Sahrawis emerge in the early evening as the sun dips, strolling through the markets in the ocean breeze.

Women and children can safely walk the streets of Dakhla at night, and stores are open late. « I can go anywhere I want, » said Mahjouba, who runs a day-care center and women’s leadership program. During a meeting in Dakhla with tribal leaders, Sahrawi women shared their stories of escape from the Algerian camps. « Our journey was frightening, and we only made it here by the grace of God, » explained Mahjouba, who, like most Sahrawi women, was modestly draped in a colorful head-to-toe garment, and asked to be identified by one name to protect family still living in the camps.

The trip through Mauritania has become more dangerous as Polisario traffickers and al-Qaeda militants patrol the borderlands, say area experts and the governments of Morocco and Mauritania. Naha Belal, who is in her late 20s, was born in Tindouf and escaped the camps in June. A single mother, Belal is disabled and must use a wheelchair or crutches to get around. « We often went days without food because of the traffickers, » she said. « The conditions were very difficult, and it’s hard to survive when you have to beg for food. Even the water we received was often undrinkable and hot after arriving in containers shipped across the desert. » Morocco has invested heavily in those who have returned from the camps, trying to stabilize the region’s economy and provide jobs and education. In the home provided for her and her two young sons, built by the Moroccan government, Belal prepared hot green tea for a visitor according to tribal custom. « I have hope for the future, » she said.
LOAD-DATE: December 7, 2010

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