Alexa

Saharan refugees long for new battle on a forgotten front

Saharan refugees long for new battle on a forgotten front

On a rocky hilltop deep in the Sahara Desert, five soldiers warm themselves around a charcoal brazier, sipping tea and dreaming of a war that doesn't come.
Their enemy, the Moroccan army, crouches behind fortifications just 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the west across a moon-flooded plain. But the two sides' guns have been silent for 15 years.
For the five soldiers, that is 15 years too long.
They belong to the Polisario Front, a well-armed and increasingly impatient force of indigenous Saharawis who want independence for their homeland _ the vast Western Sahara _ which Morocco has occupied since 1975.
For now, a cease-fire in place since 1991 holds on this forgotten front, overshadowed by conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the drumbeat for a return to war is growing louder both among Polisario troops and the 160,000 Western Saharans in dusty refugee camps in southwest Algeria's desert.
A promised U.N. referendum meant to decide Western Sahara's fate remains just that _ a promise. After 15 years of lobbying for the vote, which Morocco stubbornly rejects, patience among Polisario fighters is wearing thin.
"I know that land stone by stone," mused Ali-Taleb Najem, a graying veteran. "When it's time to attack, we'll know what to do."
An incredulous giggle ripped from Saleh Ahel-Baidan, a shy 18-year-old with a wispy mustache.
"What, you don't believe me?" said Najem patiently. He has spent most of his life campaigning in this desert and has breached the Moroccan lines more than once.
"OK, OK, I believe you," Saleh said, regaining composure.
Saleh joined the men only four months ago. He has never seen his enemy but said stoutly: "I'm looking forward to it."
For now, chances of a new war are low, but the stakes would be high. The California-sized territory hugging North Africa's Atlantic Coast is rich in minerals and suspected offshore oil _ wealth that enticed Morocco to invade Western Sahara, ceded it in 1975 by outgoing colonizer Spain.
Holding on to Western Sahara pits Morocco against Algeria, even as the U.S. wants the two regional heavyweights to work together against Islamic extremism. Algeria backs Polisario because it wants to check Morocco's attempt to expand its territory, and expects access to Western Sahara's resources and ports should Polisario finally win.
So far, Algeria has shown little appetite for another war, and Polisario leaders in the refugee camps are unlikely to start one without Algeria's permission. But Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been unflinching in his support for Polisario _ last month, he urged visiting Spanish leaders to press Morocco to allow an independence referendum for Western Sahara.
For the Polisario fighters, ending the stalemate looks increasingly urgent as morale crumbles on the home front _ the refugee camps.
"There's some slipping of the sense of hope and future," especially among young people, said Janet Lenz, who oversees charity work in the camps by Christ the Rock Church in Wisconsin.
"Their parents gave up everything to the cause with the idea of getting back to the homeland. The young generation doesn't even know the homeland."
Even their parents would hardly recognize it now. Morocco has poured money and settlers into the empty desert, building towns and infrastructure. Moroccans, lured by tax breaks and government jobs, now outnumber the estimated 50,000-90,000 Saharawis still living there.
In November, the U.N.'s World Food Program, which distributes food to the camps, warned that a lack of donations threatened 90,000 of the poorer refugees with rare food shortages. The WFP did not explain why donors have cut back support.
"We're just waiting for the order _ we want to attack," said Commander Hamdi Mohamed, a lanky career Polisario soldier in a crisp olive uniform who leads a battalion on the border. He blames the U.N. intervention for thwarting Western Sahara's shot at independence.
During the 1975-1991 hot war, Polisario built on the Saharawis' camel-raiding heritage to launch surprise assaults on Morocco's sluggish conventional army.
Whenever Morocco retaliated with its modest air force featuring French Rafale and Mirage fighter jets, Polisario would vanish again into the desert before the planes could do much damage.
Morocco raised a 1,600-mile (2,575-kilometer) sand wall in defense as combined casualties mounted into the thousands. This left the two armies facing off across a mine-ridden no man's land. Occasionally Polisario overtook the wall in fierce dawn assaults before the 1991 cease-fire put the fighting on indefinite hold.
Mohamed blames the lack of international attention paid Western Sahara on the fact that "we have had a clean war, without any suicide bombings or killing civilians."
Saharawis complain that they have worked hard to play by the rules, but it has gotten them nowhere.
The refugee camps are well-organized and their society egalitarian. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, an exile government led by Polisario, is a democracy recognized by some 60 countries that Saharawis consider a blueprint for a free Western Sahara.
Women's rights are widely respected, literacy in the camps is more than 90 percent, and many people study at universities abroad _ mainly in Spain, Cuba and Algeria _ through scholarship programs.
But the U.N.'s failure to advance their cause "is sending the message that everything (the Saharawis) are doing is not useful, that maybe they should be violent," said Malainin Lakhal, head of the Saharawi Journalists' Union.
Upcoming elections to the Saharawis' governing congress could put more restless young leaders at the top.
Although a new war looks remote, the U.N. isn't taking chances: The Security Council routinely extends the 300-strong peacekeeping mission installed in 1991, largely to observe and guarantee the cease-fire.
Morocco has deployed 160,000 troops _ the bulk of its army _ in Western Sahara. U.N. mission officers believe Polisario's soldiers number thousands, nestled into the landscape in small groups carrying Kalashnikovs and anti-aircraft missiles, and driving Landrovers and Soviet-made tanks supplied by Algeria and Libya.
Absent any fighting, the men perform field exercises and scout Moroccan positions, said Saleh. He enjoys the camaraderie and nights under the stars, but isn't sure if he would stay a soldier in a free Western Sahara.
Commander Mohamed would. "I like my job and it's what I know."


Updated : 2021-04-14 01:21 GMT+08:00