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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
06CASABLANCA316 2006-03-24 12:53:00 CONFIDENTIAL Consulate Casablanca
Cable title:  

WESTERN SAHARA: PERSPECTIVES OF CBM PARTICIPANTS

Tags:   MO PBTS PGOV PHUM PREF PREL 
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1. (SBU) Summary: During a three day visit to the Western
Sahara, Poloffs and Cairo-based Regional Refugee
Coordinator Cheyne had the opportunity to talk to
participants in UN Confidence Building Measure's (CBM)
family exchange visits from both sides of the berm (Septel
from Cairo). On the
morning of March 8, 2006, Poloffs and Refcoord met, at
Smara airport, families being prepared for their return to
Smara camp in Tindouf, after a five day visit to the city
of Smara in the Western Sahara. Most families spoke openly
and emotionally about their experiences in the camps and to
family visits in Smara. All were quick, however to state
their determination to remain in Tindouf until there is an
independent Western Sahara. By contrast, when Poloffs and
Refcoord spoke to Smarans returning to the Western Sahara
from their five day visits to Tindouf, they were far less
forthcoming in sharing observations of camp life. Poloffs,
Refcoord, and MINURSO Poloff Carmen Johns, also visited the
home of a family who has chosen to remain in Smara after
arriving on a CBM flight from Tindouf. Head of UNHCR
operations in the Western Sahara, Laith Khalaf, also gave
updates on a story of a woman and child (ref B)who have
been the only visitors from the Western Sahara to ask for
asylum in Tindouf. They, however, ultimately returned to
their home in Western Sahara. End Summary.



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Off on the Road to Smara


--------------------------





2. (SBU) On the morning of March 8, 2006, Poloffs and
Cairo-based Regional Refugee Coordinator Cheyne visited
families participating in CBM family exchange visits at the
Smara Airport as they waited for clearance to fly back to
Smara camp in Tindouf. Poloffs and Refcoord had the
opportunity to talk to different family groups including
one young teacher who spent more than ten years of his life
in Cuba. Despite the level of emotion encompassing them,
those involved were unanimous in their praise of the CBM
visitor exchange program as well as the phone services
provided by UNHCR. Participants were also unified in their
response to inquiries about returning to live in the
Western Sahara, responding they would return only "when"
the Western Sahara is independent. Some spoke eloquently
of their desire for dignity, liberty and humanity in the
Western Sahara and expressed the importance of freedom.
Others voiced concern that staying in the Western Sahara on
one of the CBM visits would be a political statement and
that the flights are strictly a humanitarian effort and
should be respected as such.



3. (SBU) Differing opinions arose only when individuals
from the group were asked about life in the camps. When
questioned about schools or health care answers ranged from
"excellent" to "nonexistent." One young woman sitting
with her sister and sister-in-law and cradling a very small
child said that it was "different," then corrected herself
saying life is "great" in the camp, there is good health
care and good teachers. "In the camps we are free." At
the same time her sister, also holding a baby broke down
into tears and was unable to answer the same question. The
second family, by contrast was clear that there were no
schools for the children where they were living and that
health care was not adequate.



4. (SBU) A small family of three (an adult woman, her
mother and uncle) had come to see an elderly parent in
Smara. Initially, the patriarch of the family did much of
the talking and when his niece began to respond to a
question about returning to the Western Sahara, her uncle
quickly and abruptly silenced her. When asked about work
the uncle stated that he would do whatever day labor was
available, a common response from men in the group. The
young woman said she had been educated at a university in
Algeria and currently works in the administration office of
the camp. When asked why the rest of the family did not
join them for the visit, the older man said there
were about 200 of them in the camp and there was just not
enough room for everyone on the flights - the same reason his
niece gave for her husband not accompanying her. The
conversation ended abruptly when a man from another family
sternly advised in Arabic "don't talk politics", as a
reminder or warning.



5. (SBU) When Poloffs approached a young boy of
approximately twelve years of age for his perspective on
the visit he was immediately joined by his father who had
been sitting nearby. The father commandeered the
conversation speaking of the need to find a humanitarian
solution to the issue, the excellent quality of schools,
and the number of educated people in the camps. He
stressed, however, that the people in the camps have been
living as refugees for 30 years and that the
camps are not their homes.



6. (SBU) The last person with whom Poloffs engaged in
conversation was a 33 year old teacher. He stated he had
been sent to Cuba when he was ten and educated there for
ten years. He returned to Tindouf in 1995 to teach. The
man appeared more comfortable speaking Spanish than Arabic
and did so with a MINURSO Civilian police officer throughout
the
conversation. While he spoke he layered on clothing, given
to him by his family, that exceeded the UNHCR baggage
allowance. (Note: Each participant is given a small
plastic tote bag that they are allowed fill and carry on
the plane. If the contents of the bag spills over the top
it is UNHCR's policy to let the owner wear the excess if
possible or have it returned to their family locally.) The
man claimed a number of children were sent with him to Cuba
but he had no idea of how many had gone altogether.



--------------------------


From the Flip Side Of the Berm


--------------------------





7. (SBU) At noon the same day, Poloffs and Refcoord met
with a group returning from their five day visit to Camp
Smara in Tindouf. It was immediately apparent that this
group was far less emotional then the one in the morning,
confirming what was said earlier by UNHCR coordinator was
normally the case. The returning Smarans seemed far less
eager to speak with us, much less candid, and in some cases
downright evasive. While the visitors from Tindouf
disagreed on some aspects of life in the camps the Western
Saharans agreed on nearly everything. The one exception
was the extent of damage caused by recent flooding.
Responses ranged from very little damage to severe
devastation. In response to questions about emergency
relief supplies and food being adequate, the response was
halting at best with a caveat that if there was not enough
friends and neighbors helped out whenever possible.



8. (SBU) In general, it was clear that these participants
were keen to side-step any potential trouble and fearful of
any repercussions. When questioned about the quality of
life in Tindouf, many responded in an indirect but telling
fashion. On more than one occasion the curt response was
"I was able to see my Sister" or brother or father, and
nothing more. When Poloffs asked about the work of male
relatives or schools or health care, more often than not we
heard the same response, "we never discussed that."
(comment: An intriguing response considering nearly all the
visitors claimed to have done nothing but talked with their
relatives for five days.)



--------------------------

--
Confirmation and Criticism From Another Source


--------------------------

--



9. (SBU) The reticence perceived by Poloffs to speak about
the situation in the camps by those living in the Western
Sahara was echoed in comments by a National
Geographic reporter, Karen Lange, who recently visited the
Western
Saharan CBM participants in Tindouf. Lange claims that when
she asked to meet with them after their return home to the
Western Sahara they told her that they were not comfortable
doing so.
According to Lange, "they were scared at the prospect of
meeting with me" in Moroccan controlled territory. Lange
also confirmed what we heard from various sources that
young people not involved with the
CBMs were protesting in the Western Sahara, looking for a
chance to express their preference through a referendum for
Independence.

Lange also met in Tindouf with family members who had visited
the Moroccan side of the berm. In her words, the visitors
were decidedly unimpressed by what they saw; rather than
being struck by the level of development in the
Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, or commenting on the
disparities between the two sides, Lange said the returnees
talked about how the Moroccan Sahara, with all of its
changes, no longer seemed like their own. Lange commented to
Polcouns, &There must be nostalgia at work here, a longing
for a remembered home.8



10. (C) Lange claimed also that while in Tindouf she heard
that approximately 9,000 visitors pass through the camps
each year, some journalists and others solely to express
solidarity with the Sahrawi people. She reminded that this
journalistic coverage
and commitment from the outside clearly helps sustain the
Polisario. She also mentioned that a crew from London's
Channel 4 television had been forced to leave the Western
Sahara for
attempting to film demonstrations. The film crew was
surprised by the ejection as they had made proper
arrangements with the GOM and were not intending to be
provocative, the reporter said (comment: post has not heard
anything further about this supposed ejection of the British
television team).



--------------------------


Some Campers Come Home


--------------------------





11. (SBU) In addition to speaking with those returning to
their respective homes at the airport, Poloffs, Refcoord,
and MINURSO Poloff visited a family from the camps who a
few weeks earlier had decided to remain in Smara while on a
CBM visit. According to UNHCR, the head of household,
Aziza and her four small children arrived in Smara and
requested permission to stay. The GOM has provided her
with a new, furnished home, enrolled her two oldest
children in school, and is providing her with a monthly
stipend equivalent to USD 150. Aziza and her children
represent almost a third of the visitors who have decided to
stay in the Western Sahara, fourteen in all.



12. (SBU) Aziza, 31 and blind since birth, sat quietly
during the visit cradling her one and half year old
daughter, who is clearly undersized for her age. Her
answers to questions were short, not more than a word or
two, and often flushed out by two cousins from Smara who
were in attendance during the visit. According to Aziza,
she, her sister, brother, and mother were taken by the
POLISARIO in 1979. The women and children of the city who
were out in the fields were taken but the men who had
stayed in the village were left behind. Aziza and her
father had not seen each other in nearly 27 years. Her
husband, a POW in the camps, escaped Tindouf nine months
earlier taking a route through Mauritania and ending up in
Smara. When asked if she feared repercussions for her
siblings and their families still in Tindouf she responded
"of course, it's normal." But as yet, according to the CBM
phone calls she receives regularly since her decision to
stay, there has been no backlash at all and the rest of the
family remains on the CBM waiting list.



--------------------------


And Some Decide It's Just too Rough


--------------------------




13. (SBU) By contrast there has been only one visitor from
the Western Sahara to travel to Tindouf and decide to
stay. (ref B) In January 2006, a woman, seven months
pregnant, arrived in Tindouf to visit her aunt and other
family members. She requested asylum for herself and her
small son. According to the UNHCR director, two weeks
later her husband arrived at the HCR office in Boujdour, her
home in the Western Sahara, saying she wanted to return.
The woman had initially decided to stay in Tindouf because
she had nothing in Boujdour, no job, not enough food, and
no home. She returned, however, only two weeks later because
according to her, the situation was far worse for her in
Tindouf, including a lack of health services, and she feared
for her health and that of her unborn child.



--------------------------


Comment


--------------------------





14. (SBU) Poloffs were pleased to see participants on both
sides so clearly overjoyed with the CBM visits.
Participants also seemed adamant about treating the visits
as a humanitarian mission and not an opportunity for
propagandizing. Unfortunately however, there still appears
to be fear and skepticism on both sides of the berm about
repercussions. In Smara, people claim that there are
police staged outside each and every home hosting the
Tindouf visitors 24 hours a day for the duration of the
trip, presumably to prevent any politicizing of the
program. On the Tindouf side we heard from the GOM, UNHCR,
and MINURSO that fears of "keeping family members hostage"
in the camps while the rest of the family visits the
Western Sahara may be justified. Indeed everyone we spoke
to from Tindouf had family who had remained in the camps.
However, considering stories like Aziza's and her visit
turned relocation with all four of her children, may lead
one to question if some family members remain in the camps
simply because of the sheer size of the families. As one
head of household put it, I have over 200 family members
left at camp, there simply is not enough room on the
flights for all of them "yet."
GREENE