- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara

Keltoum El-Khayat left home barefoot at age 15 with five other teenagers, telling her parents she was going to stay the night with her aunt.xxxxxx Instead, she joined a war against Morocco for the independence of a Colorado-sized chunk of northwest African desert called Western Sahara. It was the start of a 31-year odyssey against the backdrop of the Cold War that would take her to Algeria, Cuba, Spain and Sweden, and finally deposit her on the other side of the conflict, back in Western Sahara as an adviser to the Moroccan government she had sworn to oppose.

Her former comrades call her a turncoat, but Mrs. El-Khayat says her change of sides stems from a sense that the conflict, one of Africa’s longest, can only end in compromise, and from her disillusionment with Polisario, the guerrilla movement that recruited her in 1975.

That was the year that Spain, Western Sahara’s colonial ruler, gave up the phosphate-rich desert territory and Western-backed Morocco moved in to claim sovereignty, while its neighbor, Moscow-backed Algeria, supported Polisario’s war.

The recruiters in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main city, “told us if we stayed in Laayoune, there would be genocide, so we joined,” she recalled. They appealed to the nationalism of the young recruits, she said, telling them Morocco was after their wealth and that if independent, they could become as rich as Kuwaitis.

So she left home on a warm December afternoon with nothing but the bright dress she was wearing.

Eight-year war

Polisario promised that the war would be short, but the Moroccans were determined to hold onto what they felt had been stolen from them by Spain. Morocco poured about 100,000 settlers into Western Sahara and built a 1,600-mile barrier of sand and stone walls with bunkers, barbed wire and several million land mines to keep out the rebels.

During the eight-year war that ended in a cease-fire in 1991, thousands died on both sides, and Western Sahara, with a population of less than 400,000, excluding settlers, lost many as refugees. An estimated 160,000, almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, still languish in tents and mud huts at five camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf.

The West didn’t accept Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and some 60 governments, mostly of African and other Third World countries, recognized Polisario. The stalemate has remained, despite strenuous U.S.-led efforts to break it — efforts made more urgent now that Washington counts both Morocco and Algeria, which straddle possible infiltration routes across the Sahara, as allies in its war on terrorism.

The parties accept that the Sahrawis, as the people of Western Sahara are called, should decide their fate by referendum. The big question is: Who gets to vote, and for what? Neither Morocco nor Polisario agree to the other having sovereignty over the territory, and Polisario says that if the settlers have a vote, they will unfairly tilt the numbers in Morocco’s favor.

Mrs. El-Khayat quickly exchanged her sari for fatigues and was trained as a guerrilla, but apparently never saw action. She got married in her Tindouf refugee camp and had a daughter, then began moving up in Polisario’s political ranks. In 1983, she was sent to Cuba for five years, divorced her husband and remarried, went to mainland Spain, then Stockholm, then Spain’s Canary Islands, where her new husband joined her.

In the early 1990s, the couple defected. Mrs. El-Khayat’s second husband, Mohammed Bouossla, is now a senior official in Morocco’s Interior Ministry, and she is one of nine vice presidents on a royal council established in March by King Mohammed VI to advise on ways to achieve autonomy.

Mrs. El-Khayat, now a mother of three, began having doubts about Polisario while in Tindouf in 1976, when 70 youths died as a result of torture, she said. Her second husband and two brothers were imprisoned for a few years, and an uncle died in a Polisario jail, she added.

“In Polisario, it’s absolutely forbidden to express any view other than theirs,” she said.

She said that many Polisario rebels have defected to the Moroccan camp, and many Sahrawis fear independence will only push them into autocratic Algeria’s orbit. Meanwhile, Polisario has been losing diplomatic ground as many of the governments that once recognized it have withdrawn their support and pinned their hopes on a negotiated settlement.

However, unemployment, poverty and government neglect continue to breed recruits to Polisario, and Mouloud Said, a Polisario representative in Washington, said support for his movement is increasing.

Polisario cites gains

“We have more people today protesting with the Polisario Front than we ever had. We have more people in the prisons today than we ever had,” he said in a telephone interview.

He acknowledged that Polisario has had defectors, but said they are people who “want to sell their conscience and principles … for material gains.”

Mohammed Daddach, a Polisario supporter in Laayoune, spent 25 years in a Moroccan jail, 14 of them on death row, and said human rights violations are rampant as Moroccan security forces suppress Sahrawi independence campaigners.

“The only solution is a referendum,” he said.

Mrs. El-Khayat insists that independence is unrealistic.

“After 30 years, we realized that Morocco isn’t so bad. African countries were being torn apart by wars. At least Morocco is stable,” she said.

“Our struggle had been to achieve peace, security and democracy. Morocco is on the path to democracy. This is what the Sahrawis want. They have suffered a lot.”

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