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On the Desert's Edge

The Moroccan American Center recently took me to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The following dispatch is the result of that trip.  

On the West Coast of Africa, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba, is the region known as the Western Sahara, one of the few remaining on earth that isn’t recognized as part of a nation-state.

It is administered by Morocco yet claimed by the Polisario, a guerrilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi that fought to take over from colonial Spain in 1975 and transform it into a communist state. The Polisario lost the shooting part of its war to Morocco, but the fat lady hasn’t even made her way to the dressing room yet.

You wouldn’t know by walking around that Western Sahara is the epicenter of what’s often (erroneously) compared with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor would you see any evidence that the cities, such as they are, were recently slums ruled by a police state.

You certainly wouldn’t guess, if you didn’t already know, that Western Sahara is still darkened by the long shadow of the Cold War or that the place still quietly bleeds from the unhealed wounds cut by Qaddafi and Castro, but foreign correspondents almost never go down there, and governments outside North Africa rarely give the problem more than a single passing thought every couple of years.

Western Sahara’s citizens don’t know how to suffer in ways that stir activists or make headlines, but they are suffering. Tens of thousands are to this day held in refugee camps—which are really more like concentration camps—across the border in Algeria. They’ve been living in squalor as hostages in one of the planet’s most inhospitable places almost as long as I’ve been alive.

Hardly anyone on earth has ever heard of them.

*

I flew down there from the Moroccan capital in early 2014 and could see from the air that I was about to land in a place no closer to anywhere else of significance on land than Ascension Island way out in the Atlantic. 

The city of Dakhla, my destination, is a bubble of sorts. It’s a seaside town on the edge of the Sahara Desert and closer to Africa’s tropical forests than to the Mediterranean on the continent’s north coast, yet the climate is near-perfect. The average high temperature in January is room temperature, and even in August it’s just 82 degrees Fahrenheit—the same summer high as in the mild Pacific Northwest. The cool waters of the Atlantic create a razor-thin coastal microclimate that spares Dakhla’s people from the infernal heat of the desert that broils alive anyone who dares venture far from the beach.

Few live out in the wasteland. Western Sahara is one of the world’s least-densely populated areas. It’s two-thirds the size of California, but only 800,000 people live in the whole of it, fewer than in metropolitan Omaha.

The area has virtually no resources to speak of. When Spain pulled out there was fewer than fifty miles of paved road and one schoolhouse. Dakhla was little more than an army base with a couple of stores outside the gates surrounded by ocean and sand.

It was a ghastly place until recently, filled with shantytowns typical of the poorest regions of Africa. People lived in cinderblock houses with no running water or electricity. And it was repressed.

“I went down there in 1998,” a retired diplomat said to me in Rabat, “and I counted 35 policemen in four blocks. I couldn’t go anywhere without being followed. It wasn’t possible to have even a peaceful demonstration without getting beaten up by the police.”

The Moroccan government has eased up dramatically in the meantime just as it has up north, and most of Dakhla is brand-new. A huge percentage of Sahrawis—the Berbers, Tuaregs, and Arabs of the Northwestern Sahara—were nomads well past the mid-point of the 20th century, but nearly all of them are now urban. 

Dakhla during my lifetime has mushroomed from a remote Spanish outpost into proper city of more than 85,000 people. Most have lived there for only one or two generations. Few are wealthy, but I saw none of the squalor typical of rapid urban migration in so many developing countries. Morocco has invested an enormous amount of money in the Sahara to make Dakhla livable, not just by building infrastructure and housing but by investing in parks and a new promenade on the waterfront lined with palm trees.

I’d get bored after a while if I lived there—Dakhla is provincial, small, and conservative—but I doubt I’d have many other complaints. The city is clean, friendly, and aesthetically adequate. Buildings and houses tend to be rectangular and consist of only the simplest ornamentation, but they’re painted in various desert hues and that’s enough. Everything seems to work. European tourists love the place for its outstanding kite-surfing, desert adventure tourism, and film and music festivals, and they bring a hint of cosmopolitan sensibility to the place that it would otherwise lack.

“Why did nomadism disappear now,” I asked a local man, “instead of decades earlier or decades in the future?”

“It’s the 21st century,” he said and shrugged. As good an answer as any, I suppose. Why shouldn’t the Sahrawis live in houses with televisions and Internet and drive cars to work like most of the rest of the world?

On weekends, though, families like to return to the desert. Their hearts still reside in the wildness of the Sahara.

Dakhla would be a great place for a day trip from Spain’s nearby Canary Islands if it had ferry service, but a deep sadness soaks into its bones. The war with the Polisario is frozen, but it is not over.

The Polisario was founded as a popular movement in 1973 to resist Spain’s colonization in what was then known as Spanish Sahara. Its primary sponsors were Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi and Soviet-backed Algeria.

In the fall of 1975, the Moroccan government orchestrated the Green March, a non-violent yet Godzilla-sized demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of citizens crossed the border on foot and walked several miles inside Spanish-occupied territory demanding General Franco’s forces withdraw. Spain did leave later that month, Franco died less than a week later, and the war between the Polisario and Morocco was on.

Thousands of refugees fled across the Algerian border and set up a constellation of camps, mostly outside the desert city of Tindouf, but—as expected of the proxies of Castro and Qaddafi—Polisario leaders soon turned those camps into prisons.

The conflict could have escalated into an American-Soviet proxy war, but Moscow was content to let Cuba, Libya, and Algeria handle it, and Washington figured correctly that Morocco could win on its own.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis still live in the camps, some as willing refugees, most as hostages. If they want to go home—and most of them do—they’ll have to escape and risk imprisonment, torture, and occasionally murder.

The so-called Moroccan Wall—a ten-foot high barrier in the desert made of sand, stone, fencing, and land mines—separates Western Sahara from Polisario territory. Every single Moroccan-Algerian border crossing is closed, and the Polisario, in cahoots with the Algerians, hunts down everybody who runs.

*

Abdelatif Bendahane knows Africa better than just about anyone. He was the director of African Affairs at Morocco’s foreign ministry and works today as an unofficial advisor to the president of Burkina Faso.

He and I talked politics over coffee.

“Morocco was once an empire from Tangier to Senegal,” he said as he leaned back expansively. “The nomadic tribes in the Sahara always had good relations with the sultan in Rabat. Mauritania used to be part of the Moroccan Empire. There was no such entity as Mauritania before 1960. Today it’s independent, so some think it’s plausible that Western Sahara might also one day become independent.”

France ruled what is now Mauritania until 1960, and the French left Morocco in 1956 after 44 years of occupation, but the Spanish held onto their in-between piece of the Sahara until 1975. Morocco has no designs on Mauritania, but it chaps Rabat’s hide that its reacquisition of Western Sahara in the wake of the Spanish withdrawal hasn’t been recognized internationally, partly because the conflict is a relic of the now long-dead Cold War and also because from Morocco’s point of view the region has been liberated after a long colonial occupation.

The only reason the conflict  still simmers is because Algeria won’t let it go.

“The problem is between Morocco and Algeria,” he said, “not between Morocco and the Polisario. Without Algeria the Polisario wouldn’t exist. Algeria’s government used to be leftist and socialist. It’s not anymore, but their hegemonic ambitions are exactly the same. To this day there is no settled border between Algeria and Morocco. They want a federation with Western Sahara so they will have an Atlantic sea port. They believe this might actually happen.”

But it can’t happen unless somebody first forces out the Moroccans. And the Moroccans are no more likely to leave the Sahara than the United States will ever leave Texas. Franco’s Spain never considered Western Sahara an integral part of its territory, but Morocco does rightly or wrongly. “Imagine if Spanish-speakers in the US voted to secede,” he said. “Washington would never accept it.”

But since no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the area, Rabat is making a compromise offer of autonomy under the umbrella of sovereignty. The Sahrawis could run their own affairs, and unlike under Polisario rule, they could do so democratically. Morocco could hold onto territory. And the stability Western Sahara currently enjoys as an extension of Morocco’s wouldn’t be lost. 

It’s the best deal the Polisario is ever going to get.

But Algiers thinks it’s all a zero-sum game, that any gain for Morocco comes at the mathematical expense of Algeria. That’s nonsense on stilts. All countries are better off with friends and allies as neighbors rather than enemies, but the Algerian regime, warmed up Soviet holdover that it is, hasn’t figured that out yet.

There was a brief period when Western Sahara might have slipped from Morocco’s grasp had things gone a bit differently. The Polisario was once much more popular than it is now, but it’s hard to gauge how popular or not the Polisario is today because no vote has ever been held on the question.

The Polisario won’t accept a referendum on the status of Western Sahara if everyone who lives there gets to vote, and Morocco won’t accept a referendum on the Polisario’s terms because it would disenfranchise anybody who didn’t live there before 1975, including all the Sahrawis who were forced out of the territory by the Spanish occupation.

The Sahrawis hold their own local elections, however, and they vote for their own representatives in the Moroccan capital, but Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz writes letters to Ban Ki Moon asking the UN to put a stop to it. (The man really does take his opinions and style from Castro and Qaddafi.)

“The Polisario might have won the vote on their terms if it was based on their restricted voter list during the reign of Hassan II,” Bendahane said. “Western Sahara was a police state back then. Today it’s different. The Polisario would suffer a crushing defeat if everybody could vote. That’s why there has not been a vote.”

“What do the other North African countries think of all this?” I said.

“Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mali are all with Morocco,” he said.  “Mauritania fears Algerian power and splits the difference, supporting both sides more or less equally.”

In some ways the status quo should be fine from Rabat’s point of view because Morocco will never leave the Sahara and no one will ever force out Morocco. But the Cold War with Algeria makes the creation of a functioning and stable North Africa all but impossible while the region festers with chaos and violence that even with a non-perfect storm could metastasize. 

*

Former Moroccan political prisoner Driss el-Yazami says Morocco was in bad shape during the rule of the previous king, Hassan II, and that Western Sahara under his rule was even worse. “In the 60s and 70s,” he said when I met him in his office in Rabat, “we had huge tension between leftists and the monarchy. The leftists wanted to kill the king and were armed by Algeria and Qaddafi. We had disappearances, detention centers, secret trials. Socialist newspapers were censored and I was sentenced to life in prison.”

He’s out now and is President of Morocco’s National Council for Human Rights created by the younger and more-liberal King Mohammad VI after his father died.

“In the mid-1990s political prisoners were released and we began the process of democratization,” he said. “Sometimes it goes too slow, in my opinion, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Polisario, though, isn’t moving in any direction. The organization has apparently junked its ideas about Marxist-Leninist economics—it’s hard to build a dictatorship of the proletariat in a refugee camp whose only industry is smuggling—but its totalitarian structure remains intact.

Dakhla native Mohammad Cherif experienced that at its worst. He spent more than a decade with the Polisario—first as a willing recruit, then as a prisoner.

Growing up under Spanish colonialism, he found the Polisario’s demands for independence compelling, and he signed on in 1977. “Their propaganda appealed to a lot of people,” he told me.

He left Dakhla in 1978. After six months of military training the Polisario sent him to Libya where he trained three more years at a military academy.

But he’d barely even finished when he was arrested in 1981 for criticizing the Polisario leadership and scurrilously accused of collaborating with Moroccan security. “They use that tactic against people whenever they have trouble in the camps.”

The guards tossed him down a hole, slammed a grate over the top, and left him there for five years.

“I had no name in the hole,” he said. “They called me by a number.”

They permitted him no contact whatsoever with the outside world. He used a bucket for a toilet and had his hands tied behind his back at all times. “They wouldn’t let me sleep,” he said. “For five years I hardly slept. The guards banged on the grate every hour at night and forced me to yell out I’m here.” Whenever they dragged him out, usually to torture and interrogate him, they put a sack over his face so he couldn’t see anything or anyone else.

Their questions rarely even made sense.

“They hanged me from the ceiling by my wrists and ankles and whipped me,” he said. “I had to make up stories just to get them to stop. They’d leave me alone for a month to let my body heal, then start again.”

Pressure from his family, some of whom were senior Polisario members in good standing, finally got him out of that hole. He asked if he could rejoin the army, but there was no chance they’d give him a gun, so they sent him instead to the Polisario Embassy in Algiers and then on to Spain’s Canary Islands where he managed to escape to the Netherlands. 

“The Polisario are not the representatives of the Sahrawi people,” he said. “They are the torturers of the Sahrawi people.”

*

For decades the Polisario has been shipping Sahrawi children to Cuba for indoctrination at the primary source. Maghlaha Dlimi was one of them, but she’s home now in Dakhla and she agreed to meet me for coffee and talk about it.

I was keenly interested in what she had to say, partly because I had just returned from Cuba myself, which ties with Qaddafi’s Libya as the most repressive country I’ve ever visited. It says a great deal about the Polisario and its ideological severity that those two countries were its principal backers when it was founded.

“They sent me to Cuba when I was ten years old,” she said. My flawed Spanish is about as good as her flawed English, so we hobbled along in both languages. “First to the Isle of Youth, then to Santa Clara, then to Camaguey. This was in the 1980s. I got there on a Russian boat from Algeria with 3,000 other kids.”

She took Spanish lessons in the camps before heading over. Children who struggled with the language went to Algeria, Syria, Libya, Russia, or Yugoslavia—all communist or communist-aligned countries.

Ostensibly she went to Cuba for school since better teachers were available than in the refugee camps, but that wasn’t really the reason.

“I had no idea until I got there,” she said, “but the real purpose was to indoctrinate me with communist ideology. We also received military training, girls as well as boys. None of us wanted to stay. We wanted a real education.”

She didn’t get one. Nor did the other Sahrawi children. Castro’s education of children from across the ocean wasn’t a charity mission. He used them as pawns in one of his grand adventures in Africa. Western Sahara was but his latest. Havana’s men, including Che Guevara, trained guerrillas in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Cuba even sent soldiers into Angola

“The Polisario wanted to impose a communist structure on nomadic populations,” she said. “I don’t believe that has changed. The same people are the leaders today as when I was young. There are still Sahrawi children in Cuba right now.”

She wanted to study journalism and translation in school, but they wouldn’t let her. “I got good grades, but they said no. Only kids who were part of the Polisario cadre could choose what to study. They forced me to study education and teach Spanish.”

The leadership eventually sent her to Spain and she managed to escape through the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid.

Her cousins are still there, but her brothers and sisters made it out. Her oldest brother fled first, in 1997, then organized escapes for everyone else.

“It’s impossible for an entire family to get out at once,” she said. “And when one family member leaves, they keep a close eye on the rest. We don’t dare tell anyone we’re planning to leave, not even our parents. There is no family intimacy in the camps. You never know if one of your brothers or sisters will rat you out to the guards.”

*

The Polisario is the self-styled representative of the Sahrawis, but Khallihanna Amar has a much stronger case since he was elected to the local community council in Dakhla.

He too is one of the Polisario’s former prisoners.

They scooped him up the first time he tried to escape from the camps in 1995. “They interrogated me for a month,” he told me. “Over and over again they asked why I was trying to leave and where I was going.”

Surely, I said, the Polisario has an ass-covering excuse for not letting prisoners leave that makes at least some vague sense ideologically. They still refuse to admit they’re holding even a single soul hostage.

“Of course,” he said. “If you try to leave they accuse you of being a counter-revolutionary and a Moroccan agent. My father was accused of collaborating with the Mauritanian resistance and sent to a re-education camp. And for my second escape attempt I paid a smuggler to take me to the Mali-Mauritanian border. Traffickers there smuggle humanitarian aid, cigarettes, and everything else. I worked my way up the coast and walked past a minefield to the Moroccan border. The Moroccan soldiers saw me coming and grabbed me.”

Western Sahara is not a police state anymore, but not everyone who followed the conflict in the early days when it made headlines are aware of that yet. Dakhla isn’t exactly a hotspot for foreign correspondents. It’s more than 1,000 miles down the West African coast from Tangier and pinned in the middle of nowhere by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a Mars-like desert bigger than the United States on the other. It takes twenty hours to drive there from Rabat, about as long as it takes to drive from Seattle to Los Angeles. Aside from European kite-surfers, hardly anyone ever goes there.

I had to wonder, though, if I was being fooled by cosmetic relaxation that didn’t go very far. It happens. My thoughts kept returning to Cuba, not only because the Castro regime backs the Polisario but because I had recently been in Cuba myself and know all too well how many people visit on holiday and think everything’s fine when it’s not. It’s at least theoretically possible that repression in Western Sahara is simply less obvious than it used to be, as in Cuba, and therefore more insidious.

The lack of men with guns on the streets does not by itself mean it isn’t oppressive. I didn’t see men with guns in Havana, but Cuba has the worst human rights record by far in the Western Hemisphere. I was sitting across the table from a man who had been elected to the local community council in a multiparty election, though, so how bad could it be?

“When I came back,” he said, “I found that I still had all my social, political, and economic rights. And I got elected to the council. So no, I’m not being oppressed. No one here is oppressed. But there are young people who know nothing about the camps and who demonstrate against Morocco because the Sahara is not independent. They are like me when I was fourteen and Che Guevara was my hero. I didn’t listen to anybody back then.”

Morocco’s government isn’t like Cuba’s. It holds free and fair elections with a range of parties to choose from across the political spectrum. The Polisario runs an asteroid belt of actual police states in the camps across the border inside Algeria, which itself is smothered by a Soviet-style regime. That’s where you’ll find the Cuban analogue in North Africa, which makes perfect sense since the Polisario is partly a creature of Castro.

“Conditions in the camps are miserable,” Amar said. “People are living in tents and mud buildings built by Moroccan slave labor. Food is only available depending on what kind of relations people have with the leadership. There are constant epidemics. And they’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

Try to imagine living like that in the hottest place in the world. The climate in Dakhla is near-perfect thanks to the cool winds off the Atlantic, but go just a few miles inland and you’ll feel like you’ve stuck your face in front of an open oven on broil.

“What do people do all day in the camps?” I said.

“The Polisario gave us a schedule to occupy our time and our minds,” he said. “Men get military training. Woman are organized into committees for education, distribution of humanitarian aid, and social relations.” The disgraceful use of child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa is well documented, but they’re up north, too, out in the desert. “Children begin military training at age ten. They are taught how to take apart an AK-47 and put it back together blindfolded.”

Morocco’s human rights record is far from perfect. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free” rather than “free.” But the Polisario’s patron states stomp on human faces with boots as a matter of course. It’s fine and good to be skeptical of the Moroccan government, its reforms, and its claims, but that goes double for Cuba, Algeria, and the Polisario.

“We want American guarantees to Morocco so we can fix this,” Amar said. “People here have suffered a great deal since the mid-1970s. We want peace and security and to have our families together again. What purpose has been served all these years by keeping our families hostage in those camps?”

North Africa is so close to Europe. The two continents can see each other across the Strait of Gibraltar. Yet they are politically, socially, and economically thousands of miles apart.

The entire Sahara-Sahel region is unstable. Egypt is ruled again by a military dictatorship. Libya is on the verge of total disintegration a la Somalia. Algeria is mired in a Soviet time warp. Northern Mali was recently taken over by Taliban-style terrorists so vicious they prompted the French to invade. At the time of this writing, US troops are hunting Nigeria’s Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram across the border in Chad.

Tunisia is doing okay, but it’s small. Aside from Morocco, the entire northern half of Africa is a disaster. Most of the continent, really, is still a disaster, but North Africa matters more to the West because it’s the southern half of the Mediterranean. The region isn’t Las Vegas—what happens there doesn’t stay there and never has.

The region’s potential is obvious to everyone who has seen it at its best. Marrakech in Morocco, Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, Ghadames in Libya—these are some of the world’s most beautiful places, and they’re inhabited by the some of the friendliest and most personally delightful people I’ve ever met.

Well into the 21st century, though, there is still more darkness than light, even in the blazing Sahara. Military dictators, Islamist mass-murderers, human traffickers, gun-runners, thuggish communist proxy militias, and kidnappers run roughshod and wild. The city of Dakhla has managed to keep it all at some distance, but it’s fragile. On most maps Western Sahara is nothing but a geographic abstraction.

That can’t possibly last.

Maybe, perhaps even during my lifetime, North Africa will realize its potential and flourish with the freedom and prosperity on the other side of the Mediterranean, but that time is not yet. Not even Morocco—the most stable and civilized state in the region by far—has managed to permanently secure its backyard yet.

“What would happen,” I said to Amar, “if the Sahara became independent and the Polisario, one way or another, became the government?”

“An instant civil war,” he said, “and an instant failed state.”

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