Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In Miami on Monday, several congressmen met with a delegation of Western Sahrawi refugees who had spent years in Cuba as unwilling students of Fidel Castro’s totalitarian regime. They had been sent there as children for Communist indoctrination by the Polisario Front, a left-leaning separatist group which has had a decades-long dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara region and only just recently released 400 Moroccan POWs who had been held in captivity, some since the outbreak of hostilities in 1976. During the war, which ended in 1991, the Sahrawi refugees were forced to settle in Polisario-controlled camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The Miami delegation, which also met with the Editorial Board of this paper last week, represents those few who were able to escape the camps.

Their life stories are worth recounting, if only in brief. Saadani Ma Oulainie was sent to Cuba when she was 8 after witnessing the torture of her father, a political prisoner. She remained in Cuba for 14 years on the Isle of Youth, where the Sahrawi students are held. When she was finally returned to the Polisario-controlled camps in 2003, she learned of the death of her father, whom she hadn’t spoken with since her deportation. At age 10, Ghalli Bentaleb was separated from her father, who was a former Polisario member, and sent to study in Cuba for 13 years. She was returned to the Tindouf camps in 2002, from where she managed to escape with the help of her father. Tahar El Aoud was sent to Cuba when he was 15 and remained there for nine years, indoctrinated by the Cuban authorities in Marxist ideology and a healthy dose of anti-Americanism. “We were taught to hate America,” he recounted. Many of the boys sent to Cuba were also forced to undergo military training.

Estimates vary, but the Moroccan American Center for Policy, which is sponsored by the Moroccan government, says 3,000 Sahrawi children are still being held in Cuba and 350 to 400 more are sent there every year. By separating the families, the Algeria-backed Polisario maintains effective control of the Tindouf camps. For instance, should a father escape, he is almost guaranteed never to see his son or daughter again. All other political options are denied. As a 2002 State Department report said, “The Polisario reportedly restricts freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement in its camps near Tindouf.”

The Polisario’s release of the Moroccan POWs shows that it is sensitive to international pressure, especially when that pressure comes from Washington. Making it very clear to the Polisario that the forced deportation and indoctrination of children is unacceptable could go a long way toward obtaining their release and bringing an end to this abhorrent practice.

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