One man describes a harrowing dash through a mine field, his pregnant wife in tow, as they raced to escape from the very rebels who were supposed to be protecting them.
Another talks of unmarried pregnant women and unwed mothers, including rape victims, being held in a special prison for adulterers — ostensibly to protect them from relatives bent on redeeming the family’s honor.
The stories, recounted by five Western Saharan refugees on a Moroccan-sponsored trip the US, cast a new spotlight on a largely ignored three-decade-old conflict between the rebel Polisario Front and Morocco over a mineral-rich region to which both lay claim.
But in a war for independence that has gone largely unnoticed outside of the region, the testimonies also represent the latest salvo in a battle where propaganda increasingly plays a greater role than bullets.
“There is no future under the Polisario. There is no freedom of movement. There is no freedom of speech,” Said Abderahman said in an interview. He is one of the refugees whose trip to the US was sponsored by the lobbying group, Moroccan American Center for Policy.
“If you dare to talk they take you and put you in jail, and they bring you to a public place and they accuse you of being a thief, in front of society,” he said, speaking through a translator provided by Morocco’s UN mission in New York.
Morocco and Mauritania split Western Sahara when Spanish colonizers left the territory in 1975, but a year later they went to war over it. In 1979, Mauritania pulled out and Morocco took over the whole Western Sahara. But fighting continued between the estimated 15,000 Polisario guerrillas and Morocco’s US-equipped army, leaving thousands dead.
A UN-negotiated truce in 1991 called for a referendum on the region’s future, but that vote never happened because the two sides could not agree on voting lists. The stalemate has been monitored by UN peacekeepers.
Over the years, Morocco has pressed the UN and the world community to allow it to annex the territory, promising considerable it autonomy and a share in its mineral wealth. The autonomy offer is backed by the US and France. More than 50 countries, however, recognize the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
In March, the two sides ended a fourth round of talks under UN auspices, blaming each other for their standoff, but agreeing to consider easing restrictions against people traveling by road to visit family in the disputed territory.
Tens of thousands of residents who fled the fighting remain displaced, living in camps in Algeria.