TINDOUF, Algeria — In the hope of ending one of the world's longest running wars, Christopher Ross, a special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General, is holding a summit meeting with Morocco and the Polisario Front, a separatist group linked to Al Qaeda and other anti-American and anti-Israel groups, in New York.
Since the mid-1970s, the Polisario Front has demanded its own state—which just happens to be the southern half of Morocco, a longtime ally of the United States. Backed initially by Libya's Colonel Moammar Khaddafi, the Polisario has used bombs, demonstrations and diplomacy to try to win the territory it claims. Now backed by Algeria, which hosts the separatists' safe havens, consisting of five refugee camps, on its soil, the Polisario turns a blind eye to terrorist recruitment in its camps.
The first order of business of the summit should be to ensure that the Polisario grants amnesty to its dissidents, who are only asking for democracy and human rights. The Polisario's nemesis, King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, has already granted amnesty to all who return from the rebel camps.
If the UN's Christopher Ross wants to be taken seriously as a peace maker, he should demand the Polisario pardon all of their political prisoners, including the two brothers who simply want to press for democracy and human rights. Next, the Polisario should renounce terrorism.
Since the Polisario's initial demands, facts on the ground have changed. The Moroccans have built a 2,000-km-long wall of sand and sensors that has halted Polisario incursions since the 1980s, and they have invested billions in building the economy of its southern cities. As a result, Saharans are flocking to new jobs and homes in Morocco's south — the territory the Polisario is claiming.
Meanwhile, Saharans loyal to the Polisario have suffered for three decades in pitiful refugee camps in the Algerian desert. When asked, they cannot believe that all of that suffering was for nothing; they stand by their "rights." Both parties have been deadlocked for decades.
This seemingly small conflict, however, has enormous implications for Europe, North Africa, North and South America. Morocco is fewer than nine miles from Europe. Desperate refugees in the Polisario camps are being recruited by drug smugglers and Islamist militants, according to Moroccan and Mauritanian intelligence reports. These drugs and bombs are already turning up in Europe. Since 2002, almost two dozen Europeans have been kidnapped, and either killed or ransomed by Islamic groups in North Africa. For North Africa and North America, the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (known as AQIM) threatens to destroy the stability of Mauritania, Mali and Niger, as well as to provide safe havens for al Qaeda affiliates to metastasize and become more lethal and global. If the Sahara becomes the next Afghanistan, the prospects for Europe, North Africa and North America are grim. Finally, South American nations, including Columbia, complain that North Africa has become a new profitable supply line for the same drug barons they are fighting in their own hemisphere.
To understand the stakes in this war, consider the strange, sad saga of the Sidi Mouloud family -- three brothers, whose lives should have been identical but instead were as different as East and West Berlin.
In 1979, three brothers -- Mustapha, Mohammed and Hafiz -- were living in Morocco. One night in 1979, Polisario forces kidnapped them, along with their mother, from their home near the Moroccan city of Layounne. Their father, beaten unconscious, was left in the dirt. (Polisario officials deny that the brothers were kidnapped, saying that the children left due to a marital split.) All three brothers ended up in a Polisario refugee camp, with no sanitation or running water, in the remote Algerian wastes.
Mohammed Sheikh Ismaili, the eldest, managed to escape in 1982 and now lives in Morocco with his father. He has enjoyed a reasonably prosperous life as a business owner.
The others, too young to cross the Sahara's expanse, were forced to try to make a life in the camps. They attended schools there, and rose to positions of relative prominence. Mustapha ultimately became the camp's chief of police, a rare salaried position; while his brother, Hafiz, became the principal of Spanish-language school in the same camp.
With the introduction of mobile phones in the camps, the two brothers began to talk to their family in Morocco. Eventually, Mustapha decided to risk a visit. Saying he was driving to a market in Mauritania, he made his way to his family home in Morocco.
Thanks to a lifetime of Polisario propaganda about the evils of Morocco, he arrived fearful and anxious. After a week, he told his older brother: "In the camps I saw with one eye and heard with one ear; now I see with two eyes and hear with two ears." In short, he realized that the war was pointless, and that Morocco has a relatively prosperous and open society, especially compared to the one-party dictatorship that brooked no dissent in the camps. He freely expressed his views to a Spanish newspaper as well as to Moroccan and pan-Arab media. The Polisario branded him a traitor and said it intended to try him for violating his oath as a Polisario police officer.
Mustapha returned to the camps last month, vowing to set up a reform-minded pro-democracy group there. Instead, he was arrested and, when I visited the camps in October, Polisario officials repeatedly denied any access to the prisoner by journalists.
When I evaded my Polisario minder and visited Mustapha's brother, Hafiz, he was frightened but willing to talk through a translator. He said he feared for his brother's safety and for the security of his own job. He said he knew that retribution for expressing an honest political difference from the party line would be swift and harsh -- for his brother, for himself and for other members of his clan. They expect to be tortured and could easily be killed.
If the Polisario fails to pardon its dissidents, and persists in swelling the ranks of Al Qaeda, the Moroccan-Polisario summit will simply be another UN-sponsored talk fest that accomplishes nothing as the region draws more and more Islamist radicals bent on creating another base for Al Qaeda.