The statements come from a Moroccan citizen who says he faced oppression in Tindouf for 40 years.
Rabat – More than 80% of the population in the Tindouf camps run by the Polisario Front is composed of Tuareg people and people who come from countries across the Sahara Desert, including Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Chad.
The statistics come from Hamada El Bihi, a former Polisario member who says he faced oppression in Polisario-run camps in Tindouf, Algeria for 40 years.
The returnee who used to support Polisario said the population of Sahrawis, who are from Laayoune, Es-smara, or Boujdour, represents less than 20% of Tindouf camp residents.
El Bihi, the president of the Laayoune-based Sahara League for Democracy and Human Rights, argued that the rest of the residents in Tindouf are Tuaregs and nationals of neighboring countries, such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, in an interview with Maghreb Arab Press (MAP).
Former Polisario leader Mustafa Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud spoke with Morocco World News about his thoughts on El Bihi’s remarks.
Touching on history, he said that “geographically, the eastern and southern regions were battlefields in the Sahara conflict. The Sahara did not have large cities. Most of the residents were nomads. The colonial division divided the Sahara between France and Spain, which led to the division of Sahrawi tribes between Morocco (Oued Noun), Algeria (Tindouf), and Mauritania.”
Mustafa Salma said, “when the conflict began and Mauritania sided with Morocco and Algeria with Polisario, people traveled from Algeria, from northern Mauritania, and from southern Morocco, joining their relatives in Tindouf and creating what the Polisario Front calls as ‘the Sahrawi people.’”
“The population includes tribes from the region, especially the Rguibat tribe, which is the largest in the Sahara region,” said Mustafa Salma.
Tindouf camp’s population is also divided into two parts: Sahrawis of Spain and Sahrawis of France.
“The identification process conducted by the United Nations stood at a figure of just over 84,000 voters, divided equally between the southern provinces and the camps,” Mustafa Salma said.
However, “If we consider that the camps population represents half the number and we deducted those who came to the camps from Mauritania and from Algeria,” he estimates the number of inhabitants from Sahrawi origins at one-third.”
El Bihi, who returned to Morocco in 2014, backed his argument with Polisario’s approach of inflating the number of inhabitants in the Tindouf camps to “perpetuate this conflict and obtain more aid from donor countries and international organizations.”
The Sahrawi said he spent 40 years in the camps without the right to vote in any election.
El Bihi also recalled memories of witnessed oppression and arbitrary arrests, targeting opponents and human rights activists.
The activist recalled the arrest of a 70-year-old man without legal basis or consideration for his age.
El Bihi referenced the case of Mohamed Salahi, a civilian kidnapped by an armed group from north Mali and detained by Polisario.
Drug traffickers kidnapped Salahi while they were waiting for a drug shipment. Polisario arrested both the drug traffickers and Salahi. Prison guards, however, opened the doors for the kidnappers at night to facilitate their escape to Mali. Salahi refused to escape and as a consequence received a five year prison sentence from a “military court” in the camps earlier in June.
Since then, the family of the prisoner and activists in the camps have been rallying to call for his immediate release.
The Polisario Front and its backer, Algeria, have long faced accusations of aid embezzlement as malnutrition and diseases such as anemia heightened in the camps.
The UN Secretary General’s report of October 2019 renewed concerns over the situation in the camps, to no productive avail.
El Bihi condemned Algeria and Polisario’s continued refusal to allow a census of the population in the camps despite the “pressing calls by several international organizations.”
The former Polisario member argued that tens of thousands of Tindouf residents, including men, women, and children, are held against their will in the camps and exploited by “the gang of separatists who made this a real business.”
For the Moroccan Sahrawi activist, Polisario has been “selling” lies to perpetuate the conflict to serve its agenda under orders from Algeria.
“These two parties have no will to resolve the Sahara issue because they have no interest in doing so, unlike Morocco which has expressed a serious ambition to close this dispute definitively,” El Bihi said.
With the continued accusations and hostile remarks from Algeria, Rabat-Algiers relations will likely not see a clean diplomatic page turn in the near future.
Algeria’s government escalated tensions with Morocco with hostile comments targeting one of its diplomats in Oran.
Recently, a spokesperson of the Algerian government accused a Moroccan diplomat in Oran of working for Morocco’s intelligence community as a spy.
Morocco strongly condemned Algeria for the accusation, describing it as “ridiculous and baseless.”
The Sahrawi man who secured freedom after 40 years of life in the camps called on Moroccan citizens, held against their will in the camps, to stand firm and revolt against the “corrupt” leadership of the Polisario Front to come back home.
El Bihi also called on Moroccan media to continue to refute “propaganda” promoted by the Polisario Front, which is run by the Algerian regime.
He said that people showing opposition against the Polisario Front are subject to unfair trials before “military courts,” which constitutes a violation of international law and conventions.
El Bihi, who has brought the situation of Sahrawis in Tindouf before UN meetings, including the 4th UN Commission, condemned the “silence” of international organizations regarding the “fear and repression created by the separatists.”