'Forgotten' Victims Languish In Tussle Over W. Sahara

Morocco and rebels deadlock over a mineral-rich North African region

Mustapha Sirji sways from one foot to the other. The towering mud walls of the Martyr Mohammed Lasyad Prison rise around him out of the Algerian desert. He has been forgotten by the country that sent him to war and has spent 19 years locked in a jail that echoes with the sound of Muslim prayers.

"I ask the others if I am a human being here, or if I am an animal," he says, his eyes glazed. "We are the forgotten victims.... I have lost my youth. We have lost our families. Every time we receive letters, somebody has died. How long is this going to go on? Please will somebody notice us?"

Mr. Sirji and 600 others at this prison are among 2,300 Moroccans held by the Polisario Front. Since 1973 the Front has been fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich territory in northwest Africa bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Western Sahara's native nomadic Sahrawi tribe founded the Polisario Front in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialists who had occupied the territory since 1884. In 1975, Spain left, after signing a secret deal with Morocco and Mauritania, which split the territory between them, ignoring the native Sahrawis' hopes of creating an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR.

Effort to organize a vote

That same year King Hassan of Morocco ordered 350,000 Moroccans to occupy the Western Sahara. Fighting broke out and the Polisario Front was eventually pushed into Algeria, which had backed Polisario and given it arms.

Polisario took its Moroccan prisoners with it. Today Polisario controls only a narrow strip of Western Sahara adjoining Algeria and Mauritania; the rest is in the hands of the Moroccan Army.

Since 1991, the United Nations has been trying to organize a referendum of the Sahrawi nomads to establish whether Western Sahara should become part of Morocco, as King Hassan wants, or become independent. The UN mandate brought a cease-fire in the fighting that has generally been respected. But the mandate expires May 31.

Planning for the referendum has been blocked by the Polisario Front. It accuses Morocco of attempting to register up to 100,000 people with little or no link to the Western Sahara as voters in the referendum to ensure that the vote goes Morocco's way.

With just three weeks before its mandate expires, the UN is unlikely to renew its effort to solve by a vote what has become Africa's last colonial conflict.

'The world has forgotten'

Beyond the walls housing the prisoners of war, tents and shacks dot the harsh Algerian terrain. They are home to over half of the Sahrawi tribe, housing 165,000 people in camps named after towns in the Western Sahara now occupied by Morocco.

Other refugees are scattered around Mauritania, and some still live in the Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation.

Maluma Fadli Said, wrapped in a sweeping shawl dyed indigo, pours tea from glass to glass, preserving the ritual of cooling and brewing at Smara refugee camp, a tent city just outside Rabouni in southern Algeria.

"The world has either forgotten us, or perhaps it is against us. I don't know," Mrs. Said says. "In Arabic, we have a proverb which says that those who keep quiet when they should be speaking the truth are the same as those who tell lies."

Outside the womb of her carpeted tent the harsh light is blinding. "Our children are dying from lack of food," she almost yells, her round face freezing into a sneer of harsh defiance. "But we have our goal. We don't care how long it takes. And we will be behind our men when they go to fight. We have all lost somebody. But we have our motto: The Entire Homeland or Martyrdom."

Dressed in military fatigues, Mohammed Abdelaziz, president of the SADR and leader of the Polisario Front, speaks thoughtfully, softly alternating between precise Arabic and heavily accented French. His gleaming white desert headquarters, among the rocks and desert of the area Algeria has given to Polisario to administer, lies low behind its arched entrance, within the relentless rise and fall of the wind-whipped dunes.

He ponders the teapots, cups, plates, and jugs emblazoned with the Soviet-style hammer and guns emblem of his theoretical Western Sahara state, whose right to exist has been recognized by 70 nations but whose land remains occupied by Morocco, whose forces are stationed across a minefield from his.

"In 1989, when the cold war started to thaw, King Hassan changed," he says, casting his gaze out of the open window.

"He told us that his ... dynasty was symbolized by an egg, which he wanted to pass on unbroken to his heir. So we talked with him.

"But ... the Moroccans have not been under pressure, and they retreated from all their commitments," he says, handing a visitor a brass coin minted to mark the SADR's 20th anniversary.

In the national emblem's new design the telltale hammer has been removed. The cold war is over, but the real war in the Western Sahara goes on.

Morocco unites on Sahara

"It may be that we have taken the settlement plan for the Western Sahara as far as it is possible to go, given that we can only work with the cooperation of both parties," concedes the UN's acting special representative in the region, Erik Jensen.

That seems to be a strong hint that the UN mission will end May 31 unless the two sides agree to initiate direct talks, a plan the Polisario leadership now intends to put forward.

Morocco is as desperate to make legitimate its control over the territory as is the Polisario. The occupation of Western Sahara is the only policy that unites all Morocco's legal political parties.

The issue rekindled Moroccan nationalism during the political turmoil of the 1970s. Anti-monarchists voiced support for self-determination for Western Sahara, but were imprisoned for doing so and are now silent or exiled abroad.

Both Morocco and the Polisario Front concede that they are incapable of a military victory. Moroccans who are determined to keep the Western Sahara blame neighboring Algeria for supporting the Polisario Front, who King Hassan says "have not given their hearts" to Morocco.

"Since its independence, Algeria has wanted to create a 'satellite' in the Western Sahara that would give it an opening on the Atlantic Ocean and prevent Morocco from becoming a strong state," says Havmid Tadlaoui, a professor of law at Rabat University in his book 'The Sahara is Truly Moroccan," published last year.

The Polisario Front says that, since 1976, 600 Sahrawis in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara have "disappeared." Last May demonstrators outside the UN office in the main Western Saharan city of Laayoune were arrested for calling for a fair referendum. The UN did not intervene. Eight protesters received 15 to 20 year prison sentences, which were later reduced by King Hassan.

"The Western Sahara is a political question that helps the Moroccan authorities resolve internal issues. It is on the dark side of politics," says Sidi Omar, director of the Moroccan Human Rights Association in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

"The regime wants to cover up its atrocities while it moves toward democracy.

"Most Moroccans would like the [Western] Sahara to remain part of Morocco. But for there to be real human rights, the referendum result should be accepted whatever way it goes," he says.

But Mr. Omar is doubtful that even a fair vote will resolve the conflict.

"Either way there will be war," he says.

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