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Opinion: Time to return to Morocco

Western Sahara refugees should return to Morocco.

A Sahrawi refugee and her daughter collect water at a camp in Tindouf, south of Algiers, Dec. 19, 2009. (Louafi Larbi/Reuters)

DAKHLA, Morocco — Reading recently about the remarkable journey of 13 Western Saharan (Sahrawi) refugees from the camps of Tindouf in Algeria to their homeland in Morocco reminded me of the same journey I myself made a few months ago.

What would make these people risk death under the unforgiving sun of the Sahara rather than remain in the Polisario-controlled camps in southern Algeria? The answer is all too obvious: Life in Tindouf is so unbearable, and disillusionment with the Polisario so bitter, that they were prepared to risk their lives to escape.

I understand this because I know it first hand. Before my own return home to Morocco, I was a senior leader of the Polisario for decades. I began my mental and intellectual return years before my actual escape from Tindouf — at the point when I became convinced that the Polisario has not been protecting the real interests of the Sahrawis people whom they claim to represent. On the contrary, for 34 years the Polisario and Algeria have used refugees like those 13 escapees as pawns in a geopolitical game that distorts reality and opportunity for the Sahrawis in the camps.

For more than 30 years, tens of thousands of Sahrawis in the Tindouf camps have been separated from their families in Morocco and deprived of basic human rights and freedoms. The Polisario refuses to allow the accountability provided by a census in the camps; refugees’ movement outside the camps is strictly limited; they have been prevented from integrating into the society around them, which means, obviously, they can’t vote, or even find work to improve their own lives. Sahrawis in Morocco, on the other hand, live in a healthy economy with a broad range of services and protections.

Returning home to Morocco was a decision I took neither lightly nor casually. Returning home was a very personal act years in the making, taken out of deep conviction and profound belief that the time has come for the unnecessary conflict in the Western Sahara to end; for Algeria to cease its destructive meddling in our affairs; and for Polisario’s current leadership to wake up from its 30-year nap and to look after our people responsibly.