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Nowhere Land

After 40 years of fighting in the desert for their unrecognized country, the people of Western Sahara may be on the cusp of collapsing into extremism — and it could be the thing that saves them.

Story by David Conrad
Photographs by Micah Albert

In a forsaken town in the middle of southwestern Algeria’s harsh Sahara Desert, Bachir Mehdi stands in the road as a rusted Toyota Land Cruiser speeds in his direction.

An anti-aircraft gun is mounted to the truck’s bed, where five young soldiers, dressed in loosely worn combat fatigues, the insignias torn off, are sitting with Soviet-manufactured guns strapped to their shoulders.

“Run!” Mehdi says, but a gust of wind picks up, hitting our eyes with grit and sand. By the time it clears, the glare bouncing off the soldiers’ black-tinted sunglasses is visible — the truck is just 10 feet away, barreling toward him.

At the last moment, Mehdi lifts a hand into the air and the truck veers, slowing down just enough so one of the soldiers can give him a high-five.

Mehdi coughs in triumph; a mischievous smile breaks through his heavy wrinkles and the cloud of sand. With squinting eyes and forward-leaning posture, Mehdi makes it seem as though he is constantly walking against a heavy wind. A stocky father of six, the 58-year-old is our translator and guide, helping us negotiate not only the linguistic avenues here but also the political ones as we navigate our U.N. transport from Tindouf, Algeria, and cross into the embattled territory known as Western Sahara — a 100,000-square-mile expanse, the borders of which, though nonexistent on most maps, have been shaped by a legacy of Spanish colonialism and guerrilla warfare against neighboring Mauritania and Morocco.

Forty years of fighting have carved Western Sahara into a political jigsaw puzzle. To the west, Morocco occupies roughly 80 percent of the resource-rich disputed territory, including the entirety of the coast. The sandy wastes of the east are ostensibly under the control of the Polisario Front — the desert army that doubles as the would-be country’s political body — which originally formed as a liberation movement to oust the Spanish, but now fights to secure a free and independent state.

See Western Sahara on a mapAbout 30 miles south of the Algerian military base of Tindouf, a small town called Rabouni marks the first in a string of six refugee camps spread across an approximately 200-square-mile corner of southwest Algeria’s Tindouf province — a slice of desert that functions as the seat of the theoretical state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), whose military and government are headquartered in Rabouni. All together, the six camps are home to about 150,000 Sahrawi refugees — Mehdi and his family are among them — dispossessed by a decades-long conflict with Morocco, a war the majority of the population is too young to know, but is affected by nevertheless.

In one of these camps, called Smara, we walk with Mehdi along the desert road, stepping over strewn cigarette boxes, crumpled playing cards, and blue plastic bags, until we encounter a row of shops. A mishmash of cheap goods lines the shelves: toothpaste, half-empty cigarette lighters, perfumes, an assortment of lentils, flour, and juice boxes. It’s almost midday, but there are no customers. One vendor told us he hasn’t sold anything all week, though making money isn’t necessarily the point. He runs the shop to fill his time.

And on this day, we too are passing the time, waiting with Mehdi for an escort to the office of Nafaa Moustapha, the commander of the counterterrorism force within the Polisario military. It took nearly two weeks to arrange the meeting, and the commander will tell us that no other Western journalist has spent time with his little-known contingent — though it seems we were merely among the first to try.

Bachir Mehdi, our translator, walking by a refugee home; a Polisario counterterrorism unit on patrol.

There is an oppressive sense of waiting that pervades these camps and in that frustrated void, there are rumblings that the Islamist extremism that has found footholds throughout North Africa has begun to root itself in the forlorn expanse of the SADR, resurrecting the specter of guerrillas in the desert — with unforeseeable consequences. It is this threat, and not the protracted refugee crisis, that lately has begun to garner the world’s attention.

After French and West African forces pushed al Qaeda’s North African branch out of its fledgling Islamic state in northern Mali in January 2013, the Islamist rebels first retreated to the dune-covered but otherwise barren desert of southern Algeria. To replenish funds, weapons, and troops, Algerian and U.S. intelligence officials say, the militants are now trafficking drugs between Mauritania, northern Mali, southern Algeria, and western Libya. And the Polisario, which boasts a military force 10,000 strong (though an official number couldn’t be verified), has been accused of aiding and abetting this supposed surge of terror in the Western Sahara and the Maghreb, the North African region west of Egypt.

The young soldiers we saw in the truck were part of the Polisario’s response to this spate of violence, including the 2011 kidnapping of three aid workers by members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Comprised of approximately 100 soldiers, their special counterterrorism unit was created in October 2012 to combat the visible ascent of Islamist extremism in the region. This counterterrorism force is as much a means of protection as it is a signal to the world — and to the international community that funds refugee life here — that the rumors of radicalization in the camps are, in fact, not true.

Still, the story line that the Polisario is enmeshed with extremist organizations in the Western Sahara — that it is fostering and even contributing to the rise of these networks — persists. Though the nearest U.S. foreign news bureaus are more than 2,000 miles away in Cairo, and few journalists or regional experts who write about the Western Sahara have actually been to the Polisario-controlled camps, Western media coverage has nonetheless produced a hodgepodge of charged op-eds and polarizing commentary that continue to paint this picture — with headlines like “Al-Qaeda affiliate flexing its muscles in the Maghreb” and “Letting another Qaeda bastion grow.” The result has been a widely accepted portrait of Rabouni as North Africa’s next breeding ground for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and other extremist organizations operating in the Sahel.

This view is bolstered by stacks of security reports produced by think-tank denizens of Washington, D.C., who have concluded that extremism is not only rampant in the region but is overtaking Rabouni and the surrounding camps, and who tout the idea that far from working to combat the rise of al Qaeda’s North African affiliates, the Polisario army is aiding their operations.

Photojournalist Micah Albert and I made the 1,000-mile journey from the Algerian capital, Algiers, to Rabouni, to see if we could find evidence of this purported hotbed of extremism in the Polisario-controlled camps. After months of investigation, including two weeks spent in the camps last September, we didn’t uncover a wellspring of terrorists in the desert. Instead, we found a SADR government desperate to maintain its claim over the shores of the Western Sahara and whatever resources might lie there — like the rich fisheries and the mines that provide most of the world’s phosphate. We found a population, inclusive of the Polisario army, that the U.S. government is indirectly, and perhaps unknowingly, spending millions of dollars each year to feed through a multimillion-dollar aid package provided by the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace.

The clearest truth that we found, however, is that Western Sahara is a vastly misunderstood place.

Lingering on the peripheries, between states with more influence and problems that more insistently demand attention, Western Sahara is suffering through a globally acknowledged humanitarian crisis, the severity of which still falls short of compelling urgency. But the growing threat of this swath of sandy land that no one really wants becoming a haven for extremist fighters — real or imagined — might tip Western Sahara’s simmering crisis back onto the world stage.

Part Two

A Nonexistent Country

The Laayoune refugee camp — one of six in Algerian territory offered to the Polisario.

The Sahrawis never had a country.

The territory now known as Western Sahara was a colony ruled by Spain from 1884 until 1975. Its people, a mix of Arab and Berber nomads, were boxed in, as mobility in North Africa was confined by the lines of colonialism. When Spain’s military dictator, General Francisco Franco, became gravely ill in 1974, Spanish authorities fled Western Sahara to return to their homeland, taking everything with them — even exhuming bodies of Spanish nationals from the cemeteries. In the wake of their departure, the ruling Spanish left behind a sprawling power vacuum — one that the governing powers of neighboring Morocco and Mauritania were all too eager to fill.

It was during this time that the Polisario Front (the region’s main anti-colonial movement, which formed on May 10, 1973), began to take root, gaining support among the territory’s half-million habitants, known as Sahrawis — a term propagated by the Polisario in the late 1970s as a political unifier to bring together the multiple tribes living in and around the territory.

In October 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had legal claims to the land, while also upholding the right of the local Sahrawis to self-determination. Emboldened, the members of the Polisario — who had no desire to be either Moroccan or Mauritanian citizens — called for an independence vote to create their own country. Instead, over the next two months, in an effort to reclaim the “Southern Provinces” that was met with no resistance from Spanish or international forces, 350,000 Moroccan civilians and about 20,000 Moroccan soldiers crossed into the territory — an acquisition that would almost double the size of their country.

In response to the Moroccan invasion, Mauritanian forces entered the region from the south, eventually leading to a vicious armed conflict between Morocco, Mauritania, and the Polisario.

A woman in traditional dress with Polisario soldiers giving “victory signs” in 1979; a Polisario soldier stands with his regiment in 1978; Moroccan soldiers taking part in Operation Ouhoud in 1979; two Polisario soldiers in 1978. Credit: Getty Images

Despite the Polisario’s early guerrilla successes against the Mauritanians, the Western Sahara War, as it is referred to, ground on bitterly for nearly 17 years. The Moroccans dropped napalm and phosphorus bombs on the Polisario camps nearest the Moroccan border in the early months of 1976, pushing thousands of Polisario fighters, along with half of the Sahrawi population, from the coast to the interior desert of Algeria. By 1976, roughly 165,000 Sahrawis had left the land they’d called home and were living in refugee camps outside Tindouf, and on Feb. 27 — just one day after the Spanish completely and officially withdrew — the Polisario established the SADR to govern them. (Algeria offered the Polisario land near Tindouf, a bleak Algerian military exercise area just 30 minutes north of where Rabouni now stands, which the group accepted.)

But that didn’t end the fight. The Polisario continued to deploy vicious attacks against Moroccan and Mauritanian forces, picking targets like the iron mines at Zouerate, a small town in northern Mauritania, that were critical to an economy that was already buckling under the weight of the conflict. After eight French citizens were captured from Zouerate in two raids by the Polisario, in May and October, 1977, Mauritania’s former colonial ruler sent fighter jets and funded troops to run devastating raids against the guerrilla army’s columns in the desert. But the unpopular war ultimately brought down the weak Mauritanian regime, which was ousted in a military coup. The new government definitively ended Mauritania’s part in the war and eventually signed a 1979 peace treaty with the Polisario, in which it relinquished its claims to Western Sahara and recognized Sahrawi rights to the land.

The conflict is thought to have killed tens of thousands, though there is not a widely agreed-upon consensus on the total number of casualties.

SADR passport photos (left) and identity cards (right), collected by the Polisario in anticipation of a referendum on independence.

See the berm on a mapIn 1980, in an attempt to isolate the Polisario in their retreated position, however, Morocco built a massive berm, a raised barrier of packed sand and stones, which stands roughly seven feet high and runs some 1,700 miles — nearly half the length of the Great Wall of China. Sections are reinforced with barbed wire, electric fences, and surrounded by what is believed to be the longest continuous minefield in the world. It was constructed in six stages, taking seven years to complete; with each phase, the wall was extended, each time cordoning off more territory. Moroccan military defensive positions and observation posts are stationed every seven miles, staffed by 120,000 troops and buttressed with heavy artillery, airfields, tanks, and radar capabilities.

Throughout the 1980s, Morocco (which continued to regard the Western Sahara as having pre-colonial ties with the rest of the country, and which enjoyed support from the United States and France in this claim) engaged in bitter political negotiations and armed conflicts with the Polisario, which claimed to represent the land’s current inhabitants and was bolstered by military support, reportedly from Algeria. Other early supporters of the Polisario were few and far between; perhaps the most notable was Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was believed to have funded its independence movement. Though the U.N. intervened and brokered a cease-fire in April 1991, the Polisario’s push for independence didn’t end, but simmered as the struggle shifted from a military battle to a diplomatic one.

The last real hope for independence flared again in the early 2000s during four years of tense negotiations between Morocco, Algeria, and the Polisario led by former Secretary of State James Baker, who was then acting as U.N. special envoy to Western Sahara. The so-called Baker plan proposed autonomy for the Sahrawis, while making their land part of Morocco. In July 2003, an amended plan — calling for Sahrawi self-rule under a Western Sahara Authority until a referendum on independence could take place — was finally endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously called for its implementation. Shortly thereafter, Morocco said it would reject any referendum that included independence as an option. Baker resigned from his post and the efforts eventually foundered, with each side blaming the other for the failure.

Part Three

The Arc of Instability

Men walking on their way to the main World Food Program warehouse in Rabouni.

If you want a cold beer in Tindouf, the Algerian military town that acts as the port for foreign entrants into the Polisario camps, you have to get invited to the house of Omar Bashir Manis. The chief liaison officer for the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) lives inside the U.N. compound, a veritable fortress with 15-foot walls topped with barbed wire, and a dozen armed guards who secure the perimeter 24 hours a day.

If you want a good place to stay, the town’s most popular hotel — a repurposed three-story home that sleeps about a half-dozen guests — has rooms that go for $100 a night, a hefty sum in a place where the GDP per capita is around $2,500. A quick glance at the guestbook shows that just a couple of weeks before our visit, four U.S. government officials from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) spent three days in this hotel; a score of U.N. staffers fill many of the book’s remaining pages. With its relatively modest security — there are no armed guards and the rickety wooden windows open directly onto the street — the establishment earned its reputation as the safest hotel in town simply because of its proximity to Manis’s residence, which is right across the street. Though U.N. compounds make for common targets in other hotbeds of unrest, this one has never been attacked.

Walking into his office — a windowless cement block — we pass a dozen parked U.N. vehicles. Inside, we take our seats at a long table that fills half the room, while an overhead fan does its best to cut through the Algerian summer heat.

Manis, 62, who is Sudanese, has lived in Tindouf since 2010. He greets us with a disarming smile, his tall frame bending considerably to shake our hands. At first his pleasantries seem out of place, given the bleak daily realities of his assignment, but they seem less surprising after he tells us of his 30-year career in Sudan’s foreign service and his term as his country’s ambassador.

See U.N. operations on a mapHe quickly turns to business, however. “Algeria is putting unbelievable resources into trying to secure its southern border, but the space that the bad guys are operating in is so large right now,” he says. He walks over to a large map tacked to the wall that details all the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations and bases in the Western Sahara. As he takes us through the terrain, his offhand and frequent references to the region’s “bad guys” reveal just how copious, feared, or simply unidentified many of the extremist operatives are in the Maghreb, even for the area’s most revered security experts.

Established in 1991, MINURSO is tasked with monitoring the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario. With a couple of hundred troops and observers stationed across the Moroccan-controlled border and at each Polisario military outpost, the operation costs the U.N. about $60 million a year to maintain, amounting to more than $1 billion since the signing of the cease-fire, according to budget committee reports obtained from the U.N. Department of Public Information in New York. But what was once a straightforward and relatively quiet assignment in 2010, when Manis started this job, has quickly become immensely complicated.

Pointing to the map, he traces the 2013 retreat of AQIM militants from northern Mali into the rocky mountains of southern Libya, the presence of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the spread of MUJAO into the vast wasteland of dunes in southern Algeria and Niger — signs not of a more diluted extremist network in North Africa but of its evolution into a more strategically diffused operation. An emerging "arc of instability" is posing an immediate threat to U.N. operations in the region, he says, and the Sahrawi camps are right in the middle of it: Polisario fighters are operating along one of the most dangerous axes in the world. “We can’t forget that the insecurity in this region is real and whether they will become partners for governments interested in counterterrorism operations or extremist networks looking for recruits is still a big question.”

In 2011, militants from MUJAO kidnapped three foreign aid workers — two Spaniards and an Italian — from Rabouni. Then, last year, AQIM recruiters entered the Tindouf camps again, this time offering money to Sahrawi youth; it was enough to entice many of them to join the fight in northern Mali. With an eye on the rising insecurity in the region, some inside the Polisario leadership have used these instances as proof that their youth are vulnerable to radicalization and to pressure the international community to support a referendum that could end the refugee crisis. SADR President Mohamed Abdelaziz recently warned that his fighters will have no choice but to either take up arms against Morocco or radicalize if the U.N. fails to resolve the Western Sahara conflict.

Portraits of Sahrawi refugees.

“This used to be one of the safest operations,” said Manis, referring to MINURSO’s peacekeeping mandate prior to the 2011 kidnapping, “but when the terrorists came from northern Mali, that changed the security profile in this area 180 degrees.”

As a result, Manis explains, the U.N. and Polisario authorities jointly devised a security plan that was put into action in May 2012, “and from that day until now, everything has been guided by that plan.” The mandate requires Polisario authorities to escort U.N. personnel when they travel in the Tindouf camps, along with the deployment of additional Polisario troops around U.N. team sites east of the berm.

A military checkpoint at the edge of Tindouf — separating Algeria from the SADR — is the intersection at which Polisario autonomy begins and Algerian oversight ends. U.N. personnel are no longer permitted to stay in the Polisario camps overnight, but instead must arrive through previously arranged and approved convoys from Tindouf, escorted by Polisario troops

I tell Manis that we had ridden in the U.N. convoy the previous day to Rabouni.

“I know,” he says, grinning. “I approved it.”

“But we didn’t know where we were going yesterday.”

“We did.”

Once someone enters the SADR, however, the Polisario, not the U.N., functionally have the power. For weeks before traveling to Rabouni, we worked U.N. channels to arrange a meeting with the Polisario military leadership there, only to be repeatedly delayed by U.N. decision-makers in Tindouf and Algiers. A few days of working Sahrawi contacts, however, and the meeting was arranged. In the end, it was Bachir Mehdi (handpicked by the Polisario) who proved to be the most productive go-between with the military.

Views from a Sahrawi counterterrorism patrol responsible for monitoring the miles of open desert between the isolated refugees and porous Algerian border.

On the day of his triumphant high-five with the soldiers on that speeding truck — a gesture that gives credence to his connections — Mehdi brings us to one of the Polisario military training compounds. We are led through a stretch of dark, empty rooms, before finally arriving at the office of Nafaa Moustapha, one of the Polisario’s counterterrorism force commanders. Only a fragment of light from the half-cracked door cuts through the room, which has neither windows nor electricity.

We are told to wait for the commander on a sunken couch, its wooden legs shaved down, making it the lowest seat in the room. It is nearly autumn in Rabouni, a season beleaguered with sandstorms and temperatures that can soar as high as 120 degrees, and the building provides a welcome respite from the midday sun.

Moments later, Moustapha arrives. Mehdi stands out of respect, and we quickly follow suit. When Moustapha sits, it’s in a chair boosted considerably higher than the couch. Dressed in the same loose combat fatigues that the young soldiers had been wearing, he hangs his sunglasses off his collar. He welcomes us and addresses my initial questions in Arabic while Mehdi translates, but midway through the interview he switches to English, revealing that he speaks it fluently.

The interview ranges from discussions of the role of Sahrawi youth leaders in the Polisario military to potential partnerships between his unit and foreign governments, but when we ask him about the accusations that the Polisario cooperated with MUJAO during the 2011 kidnapping, if radical extremists are being housed in the camps, and whether they are partnering with al Qaeda offshoots in drug-smuggling efforts throughout the Sahel, Moustapha vehemently dismisses the claims as Moroccan propaganda. When asked, then, how he can possibly afford to fund such an extensive military operation, which includes daily patrols across hundreds of miles of desert and the preservation of a 10,000-strong military force, he simply says, “we have our means.”

He is more frank, however, when discussing how the massive desert force manages to feed itself.

The police and military force typically serve two-week shifts, Moustapha says. When they are off duty, most soldiers based in the camp eat from the food basket donated by the international community at their family’s residence, he says, but even those who return home during their “on duty” weeks, in and around Rabouni, are known to rely on the World Food Program (WFP) bounty. Considering that Rhonda Shore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, stated that her office hasn’t even approached the Polisario as a potential counterterrorism partner — in my September communication with her she stated that the United States only has a relationship with “sovereign” nations in the Maghreb (which doesn’t include the SADR) — the central role that U.S.-linked food assistance plays in sustaining Moustapha’s force is, at the least, surprising.

“Do U.S. officials know this?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says, convincingly, reminding us that he’s never met with any government official from the United States before. Maybe they do know, he says. “Maybe they don’t want to.”

Part Four

A Blind Bounty

Shipping containers near the World Food Program complex.

Moustapha’s admission, even if glibly made, is significant, as it articulates a steady flow of goods between an American government agency and Polisario fighters, a relationship that U.S. officials adamantly claim should not exist.

Since January 2013, the United States has given more than 5,000 metric tons of food to the Polisario, worth $7.2 million. This food is part of an annual WFP donation — totaling $35 million last year — of which the U.S. contribution is more than twice that of any other single country, followed by Spain, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Cuba. While the total fluctuates each year, the United States has been sending food to the Polisario through WFP since 1998.

The food basket is first taken by Algerian authorities from the Port of Oran, at the northern tip of the country, to the SADR border near Tindouf, where the Algerians hand it over to a Polisario escort; the food travels into Rabouni just like any other foreign entrant.

Polisario authorities typically deliver the commodities during the first week of each month. At about 120 distribution points throughout the camps, the food is handed to group leaders — all women — who are responsible for passing out the food rations to each household. In theory, those working in the military or as police are not qualified to receive the food at any stage of the process. In practice, however, everyone in the Polisario camps eats from the basket, regardless of who distributes or receives it. The soldiers, families of soldiers, and Polisario leadership we spoke with all said that military members eat from the same WFP stockpile, just like everyone else.

The warehouse, an empty hangar where more than 42,000 metric tons of food was received last year, is located just outside of the SADR’s military headquarters. The warehouse grounds are enclosed by hundreds of multicolored U.N. food containers, a reminder of the many years of the Sahrawis’ struggle as well as their increasing control over U.N. aid operations: Only Polisario authorities, operating under the benevolent but spurious name of the “Sahrawi Red Crescent” — it isn’t officially affiliated with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — whenever foreign aid is involved, approve who comes in and out.

Propane, water, and grain en route to the camps.

In refugee crisis situations, it isn’t uncommon for food assistance to be used by a wider population than is intended — and it isn’t always possible for the U.N. to monitor where all of its donated commodities are being distributed all of the time. But the longevity and orderliness of the Sahrawi arrangement makes it unprecedented. It’s likely that news of U.S.-funded food assistance going directly to the Polisario army has the potential to enrage Morocco and launch a serious diplomatic impasse for the United States, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

“The U.S. needs to assert better control of its aid,” says Pham. “No one has an accurate count or knowledge on something we have been paying on the blind for years. What is happening [in the SADR] is unconscionable and could lead to a political crisis.”

It would appear, however, that this news has not traveled as far as the USAID offices in Washington, D.C.

Rachel Grant, a representative from USAID’s Food for Peace (FFP) program, the food assistance arm of the U.S. government, says she is not aware that their contribution is going to members of the Polisario army.

Grant said that the United States’ $7.2 million contribution is intended solely for pregnant and lactating women and malnourished children. But, at the same time, she is aware that the goods her department sends — including lentils, beans, peas, rice, and vegetable oil — could be going to a wider population. Since the Polisario isn’t an entity recognized by the U.S. government, she said in an interview last October, “it’s not clear what adherence to standard operating procedures” is being met in the camps.

“It’s possible,” Grant admitted, that the food is going to the military, though she refused to acknowledge that it is. The U.S. food assistance program in the SADR "is unlike other situations in terms of how we derive numbers. And, yes, that definitely can be concerning.”

In fact, the “numbers” Grant refers to — meaning the statistics of where and to whom the food is distributed — are tallied through a monitoring process that is unlike any other crisis situation in the world, she says.

The WFP is the intermediary authority of the U.S. donation, meaning that it is responsible for coordinating and monitoring the quality and distribution of the food basket. Yet it’s a little more than 1,000 miles from WFP’s main office in Algiers, where most of its staff reside, to the camps surrounding Rabouni — the site of its only program in the country.

Pedro Figueiredo, the WFP’s country director in Algeria, says that he is not provided with a list of the people who receive their commodities and that he doesn’t have “full-fledge[d] authority over what is happening” once the food is handed over to the Polisario. “We have our field monitors who make sure that the food reaches the beneficiaries, but one of the weaknesses of the program is in the reporting,” Figueiredo says from his Algiers office. “We do the reporting but it’s based on what the others tell us. We can’t necessarily provide exact figures — okay, we have to rely on [Polisario monitors] reporting the figures to us.”

Donated grain from the World Food Program in a Sahrawi Red Crescent warehouse in Rabouni; a Sahrawi man drives an old Volvo tanker every day to the camp’s nearest water source, an artesian well 16 miles away.

Either way, USAID officials seem to be content with the present arrangement.

In her nearly two decades of work in food assistance, Grant couldn’t think of another situation in which the United States had given food to an entity it didn’t politically recognize in a fashion similar to the Polisario arrangement. “But this is the process that’s been agreed to,” she said. “I’m not sure there is any other way around it.”

According to Grant, since USAID made its first contribution of food to the camps in 1998, her three-day visit to Rabouni in September 2013 was the first time anyone from the USAID office had actually visited the camps. She recalled being impressed with how the food program was being implemented in the refugee camps. But when I inquired about military members eating from the pile, however, her tone changed — she admits the arrangement is less than ideal. She never sought a meeting with anyone from the army, and said she avoided engaging in a political discussion of any kind during the visit.

And when refugees asked her why the United States was content sending food rather than addressing the political stalemate at the heart of their suffering? “That’s not really why we are there.”


Why they are there at all, however, isn’t always clear.

This April, ahead of the U.N. Security Council’s yearly vote on MINURSO’s mandate, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the establishment of a sustained human rights monitoring mechanism in the Western Sahara, on both sides of the berm, and warned against unfair exploitation of the territory’s natural resources. His initial statement was echoed by a score of human rights advocates, including members of the European Parliament and the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which accused Morocco of repressing dissent in the Western Sahara and urged the Security Council to heed Ban’s call.

Amid vehement rejections of the proposal by Moroccan officials, the U.N. secretariat revised Ban’s comments, eliminating any explicit demand for an expanded peacekeeping mission. The Security Council ultimately voted to renew the MINURSO mandate for another year, without a human rights monitoring mechanism, just as it has done every year for the last two decades.

The events follow a vexing pattern for the Polisario. When Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made an appeal for human rights monitoring in October 2013, Moroccan government officials grew so upset that they recalled their ambassador from Algiers. When the United States supported a call for human rights monitors last year, Morocco cancelled a joint U.S.-Morocco military exercise and aggressively lobbied until the United States withdrew its proposal. With such feverish political maneuvering over the mere inclusion of human rights monitors, any chance of the international community resolving the actual humanitarian and political crisis at the core of the conflict seems inconceivable, according to Polisario officials I spoke with in April.

The United States did not support the call for a human rights mechanism in the Sahara during the April vote, yet U.S. officials say they remain committed to finding a political resolution and that they expect the Polisario and Sahrawi refugees to remain patient and cooperative until that happens.

Part Five

“You Know We Don’t Want to Be Here”

A Sahrawi woman walking near Rabouni.

The Rabouni office of the SADR education minister, Mariam Salek Hmada, is a stone’s throw from the Polisario’s training headquarters. On Hmada’s desk, in place of the traditional apple, is a statue of miniature guns. She says that education is not an alternative to the military but rather just a way to pass the time. “It is what our youth do to stay busy before the army.”

See the Sahrawi refugee camps on a mapAccording to UNHCR, 56 percent of the camps’ population is younger than 18. And, according to Hmada, the majority of the SADR’s estimated 32,000 children will join the army when they finish school, as only a handful of positions — in trades such as mechanics and carpentry — exist in the camps. Not only are opportunities inside the SADR limited, but the Sahrawis are not legally permitted to seek work in Algeria or Morocco because of their refugee status.

During a meeting with youth leaders, a young Sahrawi woman and an aid worker with UNICEF, Abdellah Keddi, engage in what the latter describes as a “typical disagreement.”

“There are no opportunities for us here, except the army,” 24-year-old Chrifa Saleh Mahyub tells a group of 14 Sahrawi young men and women brought together to discuss their most pressing concerns in one of Laayoune camp’s many cement rooms. “The U.N. can’t keep throwing development programs at us and hope we will assimilate, because we won’t.” Anyone in the Polisario camps under the age of 30 was born a refugee, she says, and “we don’t want our children to be raised the same.”

Sahrawi students as they waiting in line for UNICEF-donated supplies on the first day of school; a Sahrawi boy poses under a painting of the SADR flag in his schoolyard.

Keddi, the only representative from the development community at the meeting, responds by proposing projects in micro-finance and opportunities in trades, but the group sighs in exasperation.

“Even if you learn a trade, or get a degree, there is no work here,” says Mahyub. “Our problem is not with qualified people, but a lack of places to work. The army is the main employer, joining extremist groups is always an option, and people — most of my friends — are calling for war.”

The discussion had been in Arabic, but Keddi leans over and switches to English.

“They’ve been saying this for years,” he says. And he would know. Keddi has worked for nearly every sector in the camps over the last 13 years — WFP, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and now UNICEF. “But what can we do? We ask them, ’What can we provide for you here?’ And they say, ’nothing’; we don’t want to be here.”

“Because it’s true,” says Mahyub, also in English. “You know our situation. You know we don’t want to be here.”

In 2013, Mahyub participated in a confidence-building program led by the UNHCR, a project aimed at mitigating hostile feelings between the Sahrawis and Moroccans by reuniting the refugees with their relatives in the Western Sahara. But Mahyub returned with another story.

“I got to see the other side and the sea,” she said. “But there were Moroccans fishing there and they said, ’You cannot sit here; this is not your land.’”

Mahyub returned angry with the Moroccans who yelled at her and with the U.N. officials who sent her there.

“I buried it,” she says. “But I can’t bury it forever.”

Part Six

The Last Straw

A Polisario soldier on his unit’s daily patrol.

In Rabouni, Emhamed Khadad, a member of the Polisario leadership and an advisor to the SADR president is sending angry letters to Kosmos Energy.

The Dallas-based energy company is slated to start drilling later this year in the Cap Boujdour block, about 43 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara. With an oil exploration license issued by Morocco, Kosmos representatives say they are operating in accordance with international law, though those opposed to Moroccan control of the territory vehemently disagree.

SADR officials say that any discovery of oil would be fatal to the Polisario’s nearly 40-year struggle for self-determination in the disputed territory, and that by drilling in Western Saharan waters — without permission from the Polisario — the U.S. company is projecting a political position that will only serve to legitimize and further entrench Morocco’s grip over the land.

For years, Khadad has watched uneasily as the SADR refugee camps, once a bulwark of Sahrawi nationalism, have devolved into an oasis of frustration, vulnerable to currents of regional extremism and a younger generation’s call for a reignited war with Morocco. The prospective drilling project, he fears, could be the galvanizing event that will wreck a lifetime of work building to independence.

The concern is not just over money, according to Khadad, but that the drilling project might draw thousands of Moroccans seeking employment to Western Sahara’s coast — a move that could swing the balance of any potential vote over the territory by further diluting, and eventually outnumbering, the partitioned Sahrawi population.

Meanwhile, from his multistory office building in Dallas, Texas, William Hayes, Kosmos Energy’s senior vice president of government affairs, says his company has received correspondence from SADR government officials contesting their drilling project and affirming their belief that it constitutes a violation of international law. But he “respectfully disagrees.”

“We are not a bunch of guys in Dallas going rogue into the Western Sahara and hoping that everything works out,” said Hayes. “We feel good about the knowledge base we’ve got, we understand the other side of the position, and we honest to God feel like we are doing the right thing in partnering with Morocco.”

Any profits earned from the venture — which the company says could be in the many millions — will not go to the SADR, but a portion will be sent to the central Moroccan state treasury in Rabat, according to Hayes. But he insists that his company is not taking sides in the political dispute, and that he will make sure that any of the benefits Morocco reaps will also be distributed “to the people of the Western Sahara.”

“We encourage the peace process to go on, and may the best party win,” says Hayes. “But at the same time, even though it’s a complicated situation, we think there is a right course here and that we are on it…. Morocco has the right to issue these [drilling] licenses.”

Khadad is not so sanguine. Since 1978, Khadad has been one of three individuals responsible for representing the Polisario in all international peace negotiations, but he struggles to imagine a favorable outcome for his people in the Western Sahara standoff.

“The U.S. treats us as if we are merely refugees of hunger, but we are citizens with an army,” said Khadad. “Twenty-two years ago the international community said, ’put aside your guns and we will have a democratic solution.’ But after promise and promise, delay and delay, nothing has happened.”

Then as now, one failed negotiation, one battle, serves as prelude for another, far more dire, years-long struggle. But this time, with drilling along the SADR’s imagined coasts and the tide of regional extremism pulsing through its camps, psychological and physical borders are caving, making the maintenance of any sort of status quo increasingly untenable.

“Extremism doesn’t spread overnight,” says Khadad. “It grows slowly in places where people are left with no other option.”

The road to Laayoune; a mother and daughter with an empty propane tank.

After two hours of conversation with Khadad and several cups of tea, we prepare to leave. It is 4 p.m., the time we told the Polisario we would be heading back to Tindouf — and, in a land without clocks, they are still right on time, waiting to escort us out of the SADR.

Bachir Mehdi accompanies us to our hotel.

Once we’re settled in with the U.N. convoy we speed past a long line of cars at the SADR-Algeria border.

On the other side of the checkpoint, Mehdi makes sure we have his number. “Let me know the next time you are passing through Rabouni,” he jokes.

“Maybe you will be fishing along the coast by then,” I say.

Inshallah, he says. God willing.

We watch Mehdi’s car join the line of snarling traffic. Without the U.N. convoy, he is just another Sahrawi, at another checkpoint, bargaining for access to his land.

David Conrad (right) is a freelance journalist and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. He is currently based in Boston as a journalism fellow at Public Radio International’s The World.

Micah Albert (left) is a freelance documentary photographer. He specializes in difficult-to-access regions in Africa, the Middle East, and North America.

Historical photos by Jean-Claude Deutsch and Jack Garofalo/Paris Match via Getty Images

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November 2014 Issue Cover
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