Elizabeth Bryant of United Press International recently spent time in Polisario refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, where languish some 160,000 Saharawi nomads, who declared an independent state in February 1976, when Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara, its former protectorate, a few months after the death of military dictator Francisco Franco.
Morocco annexed more than 70,000 square miles of the desert region two months later, and Mauritania later claimed the rest. A Saharawi guerrilla group, the Polisario Front, attacked the incoming forces with Algeria’s support. Mauritania signed a treaty with the Polisario in August 1979, and Morocco promptly occupied Mauritania’s former claim. Over the next dozen years, Morocco won control of most settled areas while the Polisario moved freely through the deserts.
The two warring sides have observed a cease-fire since 1991, when a U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed, but a planned U.N.-sponsored referendum on self-determination has never taken place. Miss Bryant interviewed Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelaziz, who calls himself secretary-general of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, about the status of the latest U.N. resolution aimed at ending the conflict.
The Polisario has accepted the U.N. plan, spearheaded by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, that Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years before a referendum is held on independence.
Q: What’s the current status of the latest U.N. peace plan?
A: We have spent 12 years going from delay to delay, because of obstacles raised by Morocco. We think Baker’s last plan offers an occasion for real peace which we can’t lose. It strikes a middle ground between the Moroccan and Polisario demands.
Now the Polisario has given all it can. It’s time for the [U.N.] Security Council to assume its responsibility and to pressure Morocco to adopt this peace solution.
Q: At what point will the Polisario make good its vow to return to war if negotiations offer no solution?
A: We have no fixed date to resume fighting. We worked with the United Nations to establish a date for the referendum for the self-determination of the Saharawi people. The United Nations is still monitoring the cease-fire, and the Security Council is still discussing the question of Western Sahara.
So long as there is hope, and the United Nations demonstrates its engagement for this referendum, we will continue collaborating with the United Nations. But when it fails to convince Morocco to accept the self-determination plan, we will be forced to defend our legitimate rights, including by armed struggle.
Q: But this standoff has dragged on for decades. Whole generations may grow up and die in these refugee camps and never realize their dream for a homeland …
A: It’s true. We have children who were born in these camps, and now, they too have children. But each generation is convinced that the Western Sahara is their home, and that Morocco is the occupier and the enemy. The Saharawis have the right to their land, and they will defend that right.
It’s also true that we have a large number of young people studying and working in Europe and other places overseas. But that doesn’t mean they lose their Saharawi identity. Nor has Morocco succeeded in making Saharawis living in occupied territories Moroccan citizens.
Q: People in your camps complain of a lack of will in the international community …
A: Of course, we see different international criteria are used in different situations. There was positive action concerning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or with East Timor. It means that in some cases, international law is defended, and in some it’s not.
Despite this, we believe the United Nations has made a tremendous effort. It’s been in Western Sahara since 1991 [monitoring the cease-fire], and it’s spent a lot of money on its mission in Western Sahara.
Q: The Polisario Front has established a parliament, local councils, and elections in these refugee camps. But there are no opposition parties. Does your vision for Western Sahara include multiparty democracy?
A: We have a project to build a democratic state based on a multiparty system, and to respect all the basic liberties — like liberty of expression and human rights. We defend equal rights between men and women, and equal opportunities for all people. We will adopt a free-market economy and tolerance between religions.
We live in a region that may not look kindly on these positions, but we are determined to defend our policies.
Q: The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recently initiated a program for Saharawis in the camps and in the Moroccan-occupied territories to visit each other. What kind of difference does that make?
A: We think the new operation by the UNHCR [has] great political and humanitarian importance. The Saharan families that have been separated by the Moroccan invasion since 1975 can now see each other — even if it is only for five days. Politically, it is also important for Saharawis living in the occupied territories to see their brother Saharawi citizens struggle for self-determination, and their refusal to be part of Morocco.
Q: There have been recent human rights reports regarding mistreatment of Moroccan prisoners of war held by the Polisario. How many POWS do you still hold, and what’s their condition?
A: We have liberated [set free] about 1,700 Moroccan prisoners of war — including some released in February. This has been done in a spirit of good will, to encourage peace.
We still hold about 500 Moroccan prisoners. Their condition — in terms of food, clothing and general living conditions — is exactly the same as those of Saharawi refugees and the Saharawi army.
The issue of POWs is included in the Baker plan. It says both sides must liberate all the prisoners once they begin implementing the plan.
Morocco still has 150 Saharawi prisoners of war. It must also account for some 500 civilian Saharawis who disappeared during the war — either liberate them, or give us information about what happened to them if they are dead.