In Algeria’s no-man’s land, buried in the vastness of the Sahara desert, there exists a community of mud huts and tents that have, over time, transformed from a destitute refugee camp into a bustling community forced to make due. Electricity is sporadic and living conditions are harsh—to be expected in one of the hottest places on Earth. There are schools and hospitals (though the latter are poorly equipped). There’s even an annual Sahara Film Festival to distract from reality.
Throughout the region’s history, maps have been drawn and redrawn—and with each new draft, there emerge winners who stake their claim to the land. For four decades, people here have lived as refugees—causalities of war and colonialism, largely forgotten amid regional instability and political upheaval.
When Spanish colonialists pulled out of the Western Sahara in 1975, Moroccan forces quickly annexed the large piece of land bordering the Atlantic, making it the largest and most populated region on the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories.” Today, the future of the Western Sahara, dubbed by some as Africa’s last colony, is no clearer than when Spain withdrew. The rebel movement-cum-government in exile of the Polisario, formed to end Spanish colonization of the Western Sahara—only to be pushed out by Moroccan forces following Spain’s withdrawal—remains in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Along with tens of thousands of their fellow indigenous Sahrawi people, they are cut off from their would-be nation by a series of checkpoints, landmines and a Moroccan-built barrier of sand and stone spanning 170 miles across the desert—a bitter reminder that winner takes all.
A new generation is coming of age in the camps, frustrated by the perpetual status quo of talks over the future of Western Sahara, and detached from the far-left ideologies of Che Guevara and Gamal Abdel Nasser that fueled the Polisario’s fight 40 years ago. At least 56 percent of the refugee camp population is under the age of 18, according to UNHCR, and have never stepped foot on Western Sahara soil. Concerns are growing that the camps are becoming a potent recruiting ground for Al-Qaeda and that other extremists have begun to prey on the scalding frustrations of disillusioned Sahrawi youth who face a future of uncertainty.
Members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s North African affiliate, are thought to roam freely between the border of Mali and Algeria, near to the refugee camps, particularly after France launched a military offensive in Mali in January to drive out Islamic militants who had seized Timbuktu. That same month, a deadly hostage crisis orchestrated by AQIM at a gas facility in Al Amenas, Algeria further hinted that Algerian forces may be stretched thin in their efforts to combat domestic terrorism.
“If the situation inside the camps turns dangerous, it’s not just a problem for Morocco and Algeria alone—it’s a problem for Europe, Africa and the whole world,” says “Wali” Hamid Chabar, governor of Morocco’s southernmost region, part of the disputed territory.
In an April report to the 15-nation Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted “serious concern over the risk that the fighting in Mali could spill over into the neighboring countries and contribute to radicalizing the Western Saharan refugee camps,” Even the Polisario, he added, “have not ruled out terrorist infiltrations.”
But Polisario leaders say they are taking extensive measures to prevent this from happening, and accuse the Moroccan government of bribing former refugees to speak out against the rebels. “Moroccan terrorists were linked to the 9/11 attacks, to the Madrid bombings; there are Moroccan fighters in Mali now, there are Moroccan fighters in Syria,” says Mohammed Yeslem Beisat, the Polisario’s ambassador in the United States. “I challenge those making these accusations to find me one Sahrawi terrorist who has been arrested anywhere—in Mali, Iraq, Syria. Give me names!”
Morocco was no exception to the wave of protests that consumed most of North Africa in 2011. The youth-based February 20 Movement took to the streets by the thousands, demanding jobs and an end to corruption by those closest to the monarchy. But King Mohammed VI was quick to respond just weeks after the protests began, addressing the nation in a rare televised speech, proposing new legislations and reforms. Despite efforts to target corruption and human rights violations, however, critics point to failures by the government to take genuine efforts to address these and other issues, and virtually no effort to curb the powers of the king himself.
The arrest of a prominent Moroccan journalist last month underscores just how seriously the government in Rabat is taking security concerns. Ali Anouzla, editor of the news website Lakome, was arrested for directing readers to an article in Spanish daily El País. The original Spanish report provides a direct link to a YouTube video purportedly posted by AQIM. The video berates Morocco’s King Mohammed VI for despotism and corruption, and depicts a photo of the young ruler engulfed in flames. It also summons Moroccan youth to take up arms in the name of jihad.
A senior Moroccan intelligence source, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, said that the government has “concrete evidence” that as many as 100 members of the Polisario are working with Mujao, an offshoot of AQIM, in their lucrative drug trafficking business that generates some $1 billion annually. In 2011, the government blamed AQIM for a bombing at a café in the Moroccan city of Marrakech that killed 17 people, mostly European tourists.
Refugees who have left the camps say that young men, granted permission to leave to attend university, increasingly return preaching “backwards ideas,” as longtime refugee Ahmed Rabbanni, 48, described it. “Many of them end up building a network of contacts, in places like Mali and Niger, who continue to feed them those ideas even after they return to the camps,” he said.
Discontent is seething outside the camps as well. Southern Algeria has recently been the scene of significant protests by those pointing to an uneven distribution of wealth from the country’s enormous gas and oil reserves, much of which are found in the Sahara. While most of the leading figures with al Qaeda’s Algeria branch hail from the north, one of the main figures of the Al Amenas crisis was Mohamed Lamine Bencheneb, part of the southern Sons of Sahara armed Islamic group.
Moroccan authorities refer to the refugees as “captives” or “hostages,” suggesting that there would be a mass exodus back to Morocco were they allowed to leave the camps. However, in a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, the organization noted that the Polisario “does not prevent camp residents from leaving the camps on trips of limited duration or to settle elsewhere permanently,” though it adds that the people returning to Western Sahara “concealed their ultimate destination, fearing that the Polisario would block their departure if it became known” that they were returning to the Moroccan Sahara.
With modern communication tools available to the refugees, “there is no mystery anymore about what goes on in the camps, and what goes on in the disputed territory,” said Jacob Mundy, an assistant professor at Colgate University and co-author of Western Sahara: War Nationalism & Conflict Irresolution. “The fact that so many people choose to stay in the camps probably speaks more to Morocco’s failure to win the hearts and minds of the Sahrawi people.”
The Polisario estimates that as many as 150,000 people live on their four major camps in Tindouf, Algeria; for years, the group received international aid to accommodate such a large number of exiles. However, the U.N. lowered its estimate in 2005 to 90,000 after conducting an assessment of the size of the camps via satellite imagery. Moroccan officials insist that the number may be as low as 40,000, and that Polisario officials are profiting from sales of the extra food and supplies—something the Polisario staunchly denies.
However, former refugees note terrible abuses behind the scenes for those who undermine the Polisario’s authority or fail to support the fight for Western Saharan independence. Accusations of spying for Morocco are reportedly rampant and punishment is allegedly severe, with numerous refugees telling The Daily Beast that they endured torture and years of imprisonment and solitary confinement at the hands of the Polisario. Cherif Mohamed, a former diplomat and member of the Polisario military, said he spent a year in solitary confinement as part of a seven-year sentence for treason, a crime he says he didn’t commit. “They dug a lot of individual holes in the ground and in these holes is where prisoners were kept,” he explained.
“Sometimes they attach you by your hands to the ceiling. Sometimes they attach you hanging from your ankles. Sometimes they cover your head and pour water over your face until it drives you crazy. Sometimes they tie you to a pole in the ground and throw cold water on you all night. Sometimes they tie you to a table, spread eagle, and people put their cigarettes out on your body--my body is covered in scars.”
Several other former refugees shared similar stories, but the Polisario claims that the Moroccan government pays people to spread negative stories in an effort to weaken the battle for self-determination.
Further complicating matters are Morocco’s sour relations with Algeria, which it has repeatedly accused of supporting the Polisario logistically and otherwise. To this day, the border between the two North African nations, once a bustling trade route, remains closed after Morocco suggested that the Marrakech bombers received support from Algeria. However, chilly relations between the two neighbors date back to the days following Algeria’s War of Independence in the 1960s, when Rabat attempted to claim part of modern-day Algeria as “Greater Morocco.” The attempt sparked a bloody battle along the border region, and relations have been rocky ever since. “Algeria also for obvious reasons doesn’t want a bigger Morocco,” said Arezki Daoud, publisher of the North Africa Journal. “There’s also possible mineral wealth in that area so obviously Algeria wants a piece of the pie.”
But Morocco stands firmly on claims that it has historic links to the Western Sahara dating back many centuries. This, the Polisario insists, is merely the government’s way of monopolizing Western Saharan resources, like fisheries and phosphate mines. Rabat has reportedly begun oil exploration there as well. The Moroccan government is spending some $2 billion on infrastructure, schools, and hospitals to develop the once-neglected territory and win hearts and minds.
In Laayoune, dubbed the capital of the disputed territory, the former shantytown is now a bustling center of some 300,000 residents. Many of the Sahrawi people who have chosen to return to Western Sahara often do so with the understanding that they concede to Moroccan rule. Challenging Moroccan authority anywhere in the country often comes at a price and protests, while not illegal, are frowned upon. In late 2010, just before cries of discontent began brewing in nearby Tunisia, Laayoune was scene to some of the most violent protests in years, with Sahrawi protesters briefly taking over the streets in parts of the city, display the illegal red, green, and black flag of their imagined nation and setting fire to police cars and government buildings. Many Moroccan loyalists retaliated, looting and pillaging Sahrawi neighborhoods. Sahrawi activist say that hundreds of their people remain imprisoned in Morocco, many of whom have never been prosecuted.
Residents of Western Sahara have long complained of neglect by the government in Rabat, which until recently had focused its resources on developing the north. While Rabat may be looking to appeal to local residents with the recent boost in investments, its critics say that it is only inflaming tensions further since many deem this as Morocco’s move to plant its flag deep into Western Sahara soil.
The Polisario officially laid down arms in 1991 following a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, which paved the way for a referendum, allowing Sahrawis the right to vote for independence or permanent integration with Morocco. But talks broke down over who is eligible to vote, and a referendum has never taken place.” The U.N. didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to identify who has the right to vote in a referendum since the population has moved around so much,” said Chabar.
All the while, the future of those tens of thousands of people in the camps is the ultimate dilemma. And while a large segment of that population has never stepped foot on Western Saharan soil, the dream of independence remains vibrant. “Do people change their religion because they don’t see God?” said Khalili Elhabib, a Sahrawi human rights lawyer who spent 16 years in a secret Moroccan prison. “The desire to live in a free Western Sahara does not come from seeing the land. It’s an idea that is inside of these people that is as strong as their faith.”