Rabat – Losing members of his family in the devastating battles between Morocco and the Polisario in the 1970s, and his forced relocation to the Tindouf camps lends gravitas to the testimony of former leading Polisario member Mustafa Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud.
In an open letter to Morocco, Mustafa Salma told the government Sahrawis trying to come back to Morocco have few options but to return to the Tindouf camps.
In his letter, he cites the inhumane conditions and the human rights violations in Tindouf, as well as the obstacles the Sahrawis face in trying to return home.
Nearly 40 years after the conflict that killed Mustafa Salma’s family members, among countless others, thousands of desperate refugees are still living in muddy camps in the desert, away from civilization and modernity. The camps are in a desert town called Tindouf, in Algeria, close to the Mauritania border.
Mustafa Salma, who has been a critic of the Polisario leadership since his self-imposed exile in 2010, uses his writings to depict “the nightmare” he experienced in the camps.
He recalls the killing of his two little sisters in the 1970s war and the forced displacement of thousands of Sahrawis from Morocco’s southern provinces to the Tindouf camps. He says that with the exile of the Sahrawi population, the Polisario intended to gain sympathy in the international community in order to fulfill its separatism claims.
After many social media posts, Mustafa Salma’s open letter is, he says, a cry for help from thousands of Sahrawis stranded in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, “waiting for the possibility to return to their homeland.”
Mustafa Salma shared the open letter with Morocco World News. In the document, he denounces the world’s silence on the situation of innocent Sahrawis, both in Tindouf and Mauritania, who seek to return home.
“The official speech of Morocco has long described the Tindouf population as detainees, a description that did not come out of the blue.”
Mustafa Salma elaborated his argument, condemning the lack of freedom of movement that detains Sahrawis in the camps of Tindouf.
“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return,” he said. The former Polisario member emphasized that the UNHCR also considers the right of voluntary repatriation as a “durable and most desirable solution, as it ideally allows refugees to resume their normal lives in their homeland and to restore their cultural and ethnic ties within their country.”
Despite all [UN] provisions that prove freedom of movement should be legal, the Polisario Front finds the return of any Sahrawi from the camps to their homeland a “betrayal” and criminalizes the act.
Mustafa Salma recalled that Sahrawis caught trying to leave the camps get sentences of 10 years in prison or more.
The former Polisario member believes that Algeria is solely responsible for limiting the UNHCR’s work by putting in place “obstacles” for Sahrawi refugees.
“Its role is limited to assisting Sahrawis without legal protection and without being able to protect refugees from prosecution and violations,” Mustafa Salma said in his open letter.
The activist recalled an extract from a much-lauded speech by the late King Hassan II of Morocco, when he vowed that Sahrawis wishing to return to their homeland would not be prosecuted.
The “homeland is merciful and forgiving,” said King Hassan II in 1988 to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the Green March.
The statement encouraged Sahrawis to walk in their thousands away from Polisario-controlled territory and towards the defensive wall Morocco built, seeking a peaceful return through UN-organized trips.
Morocco, however, decided in the early 2000s that its consulate in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, 1,500 kilometers from Tindouf, was the only legitimate crossing point for Sahrawis seeking a return to their homeland, according to the activist.
Sahrawis did not complain, however, because the procedure was smooth and quick with applicants waiting for a maximum of 20 days to receive a response.
Mustafa Salma regretted that the procedure is now slower, and people seeking to return home have to wait several months “without a response.”
Putting their lives in danger to seek a chance
Without directly asking for a solution from Morocco, Mustafa Salma explained the challenges Sahrawis undertake to make it to Nouadhibou, Mauritania.
“It is no secret” that Sahrawis receive serious penalties if they come back to the camps after traveling from Tindouf to the Mauritanian city. The Polisario Front considers such an act as “fleeing.”
He said that Sahrawis cannot afford to keep living in Mauritania, as they cannot pay expenses, including rent. The only solution for them is to return to the camps if their situation has not been resolved.
“The longer the wait, the greater the pressure.”
Mustafa Salma wrote the open letter to call on Moroccan authorities to assist Sahrawis seeking return. He argued that all royal speeches refer to Sahrawis held in Tindouf camps “our sons and Moroccan nationals held on Algerian soil.”
The speeches also emphasize the right of return in accordance with the principles of human rights, according to Mustafa Salma.
“We hope and wish that Moroccan authorities resolve this issue and take the necessary measures to accelerate the access of Sahrawis returning from the camps to their homeland to restore their normal lives and dignity.”
He said that it is “unfair” for Sahrawis who meet all the legal requirements to wait for months.
Mustafa Salma argued that denying Sahrawis the right to return only serves the interests of Polisario and Algeria and their wish to prolong the conflict.