- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2005

TINDOUF, Algeria - When Youssef told Hafez that he was not a real Saharan, the eldest son al-most exploded. He leapt into the air and cried out that his father was denying his roots, the revolution and everything that the Polisario resistance movement has been trying to achieve for three decades.

His father responded calmly, saying it was the Moroccans who had developed the land; built highways, banks and the new airport; printed money; and provided running water and electricity.

“The Moroccans built our country. It is part of Morocco, and an independent Sahara has no right to exist. Revolution is out of date. You and your friends can dream about independence and freedom, but reality dictates another story,” Youssef, 67, said calmly, apologizing to the visitors for the fuss between father and son in their presence.

From conquest to march

The Arabs conquered North Africa in the seventh century. Four centuries later, indigenous Berbers based in Morocco ruled much of the southwestern Mediterranean coast and most of Spain.

The nascent U.S. Navy vanquished the “Barbary pirates” — named for the Berbers of Algiers; Morocco; Tripoli, Libya; and Tunisia — who had preyed on American shipping early in the 19th century. Soon, colonial France took over Algeria and seized Morocco, while Spain took the Spanish Sahara.

Morocco became independent in 1956 after sultan Mohammed V returned from exile and the international port of Tangier was ceded to the new state.

The sultan died in 1961 and was succeeded by his son Hassan II, born in Rabat in 1929. King Hassan II needed to increase his popularity among the Moroccan people.

In 1975, Hassan organized the Green March, in which 350,000 unarmed Moroccans walked into the former Spanish Sahara. A guerrilla-style conflict ensued because the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the desert seized by Morocco wanted independence.

They named their movement the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia El-Hamra and Rio de Oro — two former sultanates on the Atlantic shore — “Polisario” for short.

Since then, a long, sad and mostly ignored guerrilla war has been sputtering along.

At first, the Polisario was backed by Libya and Algeria, but because of a heavily armed defensive wall inside the territory bordering Mauritania and Algeria, the Polisario’s room for maneuver became limited.

Libya eventually withdrew its support and Algeria basically said: “Why don’t you come over here and live in our desert?”

Morocco quickly developed the southern parts of Western Sahara and integrated it into its economic and political spheres of interest, to the delight of more elderly nomads.

Now, 175,000 Western Saharans live in camps in southern Algeria, near Tindouf, and peacekeepers for the United Nations do their best to keep the conflict out of the news. Residents of the Polisario camps receive a basic diet costing the international community $14 million per year.

Utter dependence

Those arriving in Tindouf from the Laayoune airport in Western Sahara are told at 8 a.m. that it is almost lunchtime.

“After a little while, it gets so hot we usually do not work,” a representative from the U.N. liaison office explained. “We eat very lightly and take it easy until 4:30 p.m.”

The thermometer shoots up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Digital equipment doesn’t work. A stretcher resolves any immobility problems.

At 7:30 p.m., thousands of stars shine undimmed by light pollution.

Youssef lives in the Dakhla refugee camp with other wise men of the tribe and his relatives. The camp is named for the village on the Atlantic, where Youssef and other elders were born.

In the camp, there is no road or signs and almost no talk in the darkness — just a trail in the sand and the multitude of stars.

“I find my way intuitively,” Youssef’s son Hafez explained, “without other clues than the stars.

“Not too long ago, a few men of our tribe got lost in a new car and died here of dehydration.”

Thousands of containers bring canned food, milk and clothes to the camp. The world sends in 80 metric tons a year.

“We are completely dependent,” Hafez said. “That is why we need an independent state of our own. We need our freedom. The Moroccans are animals. They corrupted our fathers and the elderly.

“We are not Moroccans and never will be. The occupation of our lands of Western Sahara is illegal. They are trying to bribe us with their buildings and roads, but we never give up. We are a proud people, in need of education and our own land.”

Dakhla has a small, windowless emergency hospital, a school and a few shabby shops.

The cemetery is temporary. “If we move back home from here — back to our own country,” Hafez’s mother said, “we will take our dead people with us.”

That day is not in sight. There is no employment in Dakhla, nor in the other camps.

Many of the 175,000 refugees were born and raised here. They became accustomed to this pace of life. They are receiving care and have no worries.

The elderly wise men come together before 8 a.m. and fondly remember the resistance days of the Polisario, drinking tea after a greeting ceremony that may take up to 10 or, if it’s more formal, 20 minutes. They have given up hope of ever returning home. They return to their tents at 10 a.m. and congregate again only in the late afternoon.

Forgiving elders

“What good is it to fight and sacrifice our blood?” Youssef asked. “They never meant bad. The Moroccans wanted to develop the country, and so they did. As long as we can live in peace with one another, it is all right. War does not solve our problems.”

The clan agrees, and the other old men sip their tea.

Youssef’s soft words offend his son. It characterizes the generational conflict and the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario.

“They have given up their identity, their pride,” Hafez said. “Something we inherited from them, how can we pass it on to the next generation? What are we. Who are we? Why does the international community not want to hear our voice? Because of people like my father and his friends who have given up.

“But as far as we are concerned, the fight goes on. Because we have not given up. One day we will win our independence and be free.”

The U.N. Security Council mandate for a referendum in Western Sahara was to expire this Saturday. The Security Council was meeting late yesterday to consider another extension, but its Web site (www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/minurso) said the mission’s activities are already funded through June.

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