Prisoners trapped in the war that time forgot

Robert Fisk meets the Sahara POWs who are hostage to politics
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The Independent Online
Tindouf, Algeria - No doubt, I said, the prisoners will be playing football when we arrive. Isn't that how the Germans used to show off their British captives in the Second World War, their guards and fellow POWs cheering happily from the sidelines?

That's how the war movies used to show them as well. See how well the prisoners are being treated, the Germans used to say. And when we reached the Polisario camp for Moroccan army captives deep inside the oven-grey desert of south-west Algeria, what did we find?

Why, the prisoners, dressed in blue and red, were playing football. Their guards and fellow-prisoners cheered happily from the touch-line. "See how well they are treated?" one of the Polisario officials asked. And when we arrived, of course - the television cameras completing appropriate shots of smiling players - the game ended as abruptly as it had no doubt begun. Perhaps cynicism has no end in warfare. But this was moral insensitivity that went beyond words.

Some of these Moroccan soldiers have spent 21 years in this walled village camp, their lives eaten away by a sentence without end, pawns - and how accurate the cliche is on this occasion - in the war for the Western Sahara. Polisario prisoners of the Moroccans tell frightful tales of torture but who could not feel compassion for these lost souls?

They sit, unsmiling and silent, amid the narrow alleys of their prison village - an entire nest of onion-domed huts surrounded by a high stone wall - trying hard not to look at us, watched by their guards and by the Polisario officials who accompany us and - no doubt again - by the stool- pigeons in their midst.

Yet when I walk up one of those claustrophobic alleyways, coated in dust and sand, a bearded man appears from a low doorway. "I have been here 21 years," he says. "We receive one letter a month through the Red Cross. I haven't seen my family for 21 years. Please take this. Please. Please."

And he thrusts into my hand a letter in beautifully-written Arabic script. "Read it if you wish but please send it to Morocco for me." I give him my promise.

The letter is thoughtful and pious in its references to God, a document of loss and longing. "My life is one of reflection and memories," the soldier has written to his family on the first page.

"You are the main station at which the train that is my life always stops. So I can think of my family and my country. I possess nothing here but my love for you, and I await the day on which God will bless me and I will be released to meet again my long-suffering mother."

How to respond to such a call for freedom? The Polisario says that the Moroccan prisoners here - 500 out of the 2,000 held in Algeria - are fed better than the 140,000 Saharawi refugees in the desert camps around Tindouf. This appears to be true.

They claim the captives are well treated. The Moroccans say they have not been beaten. The Polisario insists that King Hassan of Morocco is not interested in the release of his men lest he be forced to compromise over the western Sahara; and they may be right.

But how do you explain this to Corporal Boualam Salam Abdislam of the Moroccan Parachute Regiment, captured in a Polisario ambush at Omelduss on 14th October, 1977?

Corporal Abdislam - not the man who gave me the letter - shows me a photograph of a handsome young man surrounded by his family, sitting next to his mother and a beautiful young girl. "This was me when I was 31," he says. "It was taken when I was 31, just before I was captured. Now I am 52."

I can scarcely recognise the frail-looking figure in front of me. "We get all kinds of letters through the Red Cross," he says. "Men get letters from their wives telling them they are being divorced. Men get letters that their parents have died. But what can we do? We must try to survive. What else can we think about? We must remain soldiers."

Another prisoner insists that he remains loyal to Morocco - that "when we go back home, it will be as though these years never happened" - while a third Moroccan beckons from one of those onion-domed huts.

It is hot and stuffy inside, but there is coffee on a table and one of the men there is listening to a Moroccan football match on a transistor radio.

They ask me to take their photograph and send it to their homes. And they ask me to publish their names, so that they should not be forgotten: Sgt Said Edallak, Private Omar Ben Chagga, Private Bouchta Aziz, Private Abdelhak Lakhlifi and Corporal Abdelhadi Najah. I take their picture as they sit with pathetic smiles beneath a tiny window. Most have been here for at least 20 years.

In conversation with James Baker, the UN special envoy to the western Sahara, the Polisario "president" promised to release 85 of these men. The other 1,915 will remain behind in the desert for the next round in the political game which will decide whether the Polisario obtains its independence in the western Sahara - or the limited autonomy Morocco has put on offer. Be sure, therefore, that there will be many more football games in the coming months or years. And many a hollow cheer from the touchline.