James Baker Steps Into a N. African Sandstorm

Former US secretary of state restarts talks next week on who will rule Western Sahara

For years, Fatima Mohammed Lamin has kept faith in one thing: returning to her homeland, Western Sahara.

She speaks of her country as the promised land. Her dreams are in stark contrast to these barren refugee camps in the Algerian desert that have been home to her, along with 150,000 other Saharawis, for decades.

With a pretty face and dark hair wrapped in an Islamic shawl, her eyes are sharp with resolve. Miss Lamin vows never to marry while living in exile, but pines for the Western Sahara capital of Layoun, which has been occupied by Moroccan troops since 1976.

"I never saw it, but my neighbors and family talk about it. It's beautiful," she says. "I won't marry here just so my children can die in war."

Like most Saharawi refugees, she is hopeful that James Baker, the former US secretary of state who has been appointed the United Nations special envoy, can mediate a solution.

But Saharawis have already waited so long that their camps appear permanent. Television aerials sprout from some mud-brick dwellings, and there is widespread resignation.

The UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991, but a referendum on the future of the territory has been put off again and again amid arguments about who should vote.

Morocco has sought to pack voter lists with non-Saharawis, to ensure the result leads to integration of the former Spanish territory with Morocco, according to the UN and human rights groups.

Baker's challenge

In one cast of the ballot, Western Sahara is either to be closely and forever integrated with Morocco, or made an independent state under Saharawi rule.

Mr. Baker has taken on a tough challenge: Though both sides say they will accept the result of a free vote, Morocco's King Hassan II has made control of the territory an article of faith among Moroccans. And Polisario can't imagine any Saharawi voting against independence, so it is unlikely to consider any other result fair.

Polisario has fought hard against Moroccan troops for Western Sahara's independence. But its forces control less than one-third of the territory, which has been cut off by a 700-mile-long sand barrier built by Morocco. On its side of this berm - guarded by 150,000 troops and lined with minefields and barbed wire - Morocco controls one of the world's largest reserves of phosphate, used for making fertilizers and other chemicals.

In 1995, Morocco sold Western Sahara's offshore fishing rights to European countries.

Morocco claims that Western Sahara has historically been part of its territory - a myth debunked by a 1975 International Court of Justice ruling - while Polisario claims it was always separate: a different Bedouin people with very different traditions.

Baker brought the two sides together for closed-door talks in June and July, and announced agreement on compromise proposals. A third round is due in Lisbon, Portugal, on August 29-30.

But in these parched camps, no one is holding his breath. Baker's role has brought a rush of optimism, but the refugees have been let down before.

"We are tired of waiting for this referendum, we are fed up," says Lamin, whose father and two brothers died as Polisario Front fighters. "These are hard conditions, and this is not our land."

It took Spain 50 years - from 1884 to 1934 - to pacify Western Sahara. When it decided to give up the territory, it signed a secret deal with Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 to divide the land, ultimately pulling out in 1976 - without consulting its Bedouin inhabitants. The UN at the time found an overwhelming consensus among Saharawis for independence.

Mauritania dropped its claim in 1979, after four years of war, but King Hassan used the issue to strengthen his hold. So far, there appears to be little sign of compromise by either side. A Human Rights Watch report in 1995, however, said "Morocco ... has regularly engaged in conduct that has obstructed and compromised the fairness of the referendum process."

The plan has stalled on the issue of identifying voters. In 1991, in anticipation of the vote, Morocco transferred 40,000 people who it claimed were Saharawis - though they had no identity papers - into the territory. They are still waiting in camps guarded by Moroccan troops, and drawing pay.

Some 150,000 more names were also submitted by Morocco. The UN, however, required positive identification. Intimidation and confusion ensued, forcing the UN to suspend the count in 1995.

America's Moroccan ties

For Polisario, which still receives political backing from Algeria and received military support from a range of East bloc nations during the cold war, strong American backing for Morocco has complicated the issue.

Morocco has been a staunch ally vis--vis the Arab-Israeli peace process and has helped maintain stability in North Africa.

Many Saharawis hope that US ties to Morocco will not cloud Baker's peace mission.

"I want to say to America: It's not fair," says one old Saharawi chief in the refugee camp. "When Iraq invaded Kuwait, they restored order, but not with Western Sahara.

"It's not fair that these children are living in exile, far from their country," he adds. "I met Baker, and I think he is going to be fair. Our cause is very clear. It is right to everybody and as clear as this moon. These children should not stay in this desert."

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