Opinion: Time to return to Morocco

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.

This month, the U.N. Security Council will have an opportunity to do something to resolve this situation when it again considers whether to extend the mandate of the U.N. mission responsible for peacekeeping in the Western Sahara (MINURSO). To the council this may be just an agenda item, but to me and to those of my people still trapped in Tindouf, this is about freedom and the right to a life of dignity.

Extending the MINURSO mandate will only perpetuate the unbearable status quo for my people: degrading conditions for those in the camps and continued suffering for those who love and care about them in Morocco.

The council has before it an alternative option that in my view is the optimal solution: adopt the autonomy plan proposed by Morocco in 2007. The plan is a credible and viable resolution to the impasse. By adopting it the council would end the misery of my people in the camps, give separated families a chance to reunite, and afford Sahrawis the opportunity to lead our lives in our homes under our terms.

I have lived a long life, and I have witnessed change overcome the unchangeable. I have seen the Berlin Wall crumble and the Soviet Union collapse; I have seen Saddam when he went down and Mandela when he went free. If the U.N. and the international community choose to take action, to do the right thing, perhaps I may yet see freedom for my people.

Sheikh Ahmadou Souilem is a former leader of the Polisario who returned to Morocco from the Tindouf refugee camps in July 2009. This opinion piece was distributed by the Beckerman public relations firm on behalf of the Moroccan government.