Exclusive: Ex-Polisario Front police chief tells his story
Mustafa Salma Uld Sidi Mouloud, as I have previously reported, is the former police chief of the Polisario Front, a Soviet-style liberation group that has resorted to violence against Morocco and the people of the Western Sahara. The front also has opposed (in conjunction with Algeria) an autonomy plan proposed by Morocco that could end the suffering of those living in squalid camps in Algeria.
I was able to contact Sidi Mouloud and, with the help of a translator, ask him to explain his decision to turn against the Polisario Front and to tell his story of captivity by the group.
He told me that he originally "left the Sahrawi camps in Tindouf to visit members of my family in Smara. It is a human right and a duty to visit one's family. Freedom of movement is a legitimate, necessary freedom and the Polisario Front turns exercising this right into a crime of treason or fleeing to the enemy."
It was then, he said, that he had a change of heart about the Polisario's mission. "After I became aware of how Morocco really is, seeing its democratic openness," he said, "I reflected on the conflict that has lasted so long. I arrived at the conclusion that the Sahara conflict cannot be resolved by total independence from Morocco because it is against Algeria's interests and this complete division would be against the interests of the Saharawis as well. So, the only remaining possible solution, given international resolutions, is a consensual political solution satisfactory to all parties, which is autonomy -- one that is internationally agreed upon and in everyone's interests."
He then described his capture by the Polisario Front:
During a press conference that took place in my fathers house in Smara, I expressed these beliefs, and the Polisario Front considered me a traitor.... I tried to return to the Tindouf refugee camps, and on the way there they detained me. Four Polisario Front military vehicles took me to an unknown location where I remained for 71 days in the middle of the desert.
Was he abused in captivity?
Polisario guards and secret agents carried me back and forth between mountainous areas where I had to live for 71 days under the trees in the Sahara, sleeping in the sand and being bitten by insects and snakes. I thank God that these injuries were not serious. On several occasions, they tied my hands and feet, blindfolded me and left me without water to drink for hours. I received death threats. For two weeks, they interrogated me, and when they were done, they told me that I cannot return to the Tindouf camps by order of the Algerian authorities and I cannot see my family, nor can they visit me.
His capture caused a storm of protest from the United Nations and human rights groups. That may well have triggered his release. He recounted that after "71 days under the desert trees, without any information from the outside world, they turned me over to the refugee organization [UNHCR] and carried me north to Mauritania."
He is now, literally, a man without a country. He told me:
Today, I am exiled from my family who are in the Tindouf refugee camps. Like all the Saharawi refugees in Tindouf, they do not have travel documents to leave Algerian territory and they don't know how to obtain them, even though it is a right to be reunited with one's family. I appealed for international human rights pressure on Algeria and the Polisario to get me out of that difficult situation, and the same is necessary for my current difficult situation, because I am separated from my family. I have no access to reunite with them, nor can I travel to Algerian territory. Anyone who leaves the refugee camps without permission of the Polisario Front is considered a traitor who is committing a crime and, according to the Polisario's penal code, such actions are punishable by ten to 20 years in prison, and this goes for all Saharawis for the last 30 years. When I tried to raise my voice about the Polisario and Algeria's disregard for human rights, they expelled me.
He is plainly fearful for the future of those caught in a humanitarian conflict. He said: "The situation is grave for the youth who are marginalized, and I feel that the camps are fertile grounds for Islamic fundamentalist groups and drug traffickers. The young Saharawis are getting caught up in these illicit activities and it is costing them their lives. "
But he also made a convincing case that the danger is not limited to the Saharawis. He observed: "The Sahara issue is central to the interests of the countries in the region. Algeria will not accept Morocco in control of the Sahara, given it would expand France's interests, which would lessen Algeria's influence in the region. Morocco will not accept Algerian control of the Sahara under any circumstances. We, the Saharawis, are very small in number.... [There are] only about 84,000 of us. This number of people could not form a country without outside help and such a situation would not be accepted by any country in the region. In my opinion, the only logical, fair and lasting solution is autonomy for the Sahara that respects the interests of the countries in the region."
The question remains as to what, if anything, is the U.S. and the international community are willing to do to alleviate the situation. Is the Obama administration prepared to take stern actions against Algeria if it does not stop obstructing a resolution of the conflict? Will the U.S. designate the Polisario Front as a terrorist organization? It appears that without further action, Sidi Mouloud's exile will continue, the suffering in the camps will persist, and the region will become a breeding ground for terrorism.
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