UN dove brings hope to desert's lost tribe looks to UN dove

Robert Fisk in the Sahara witnesses the second-coming of Baker the peacemaker

Wilaya Smara camp, south-west Algeria - It was a scene from the days of Empire. The people of the western Sahara clapped and ululated as the tall, square-headed, sweating, silver-haired sahib strode into their midst, the representative of the greatest power on earth. In theory, this was the United Nations. In reality, it was the United States.

"Iraq No, Morocco Yes. Why?" a billboard asked above James Baker's head. Was he not the US Secretary of State who ordered Iraq to end its occupation of Kuwait seven years ago? And would not the same James Baker, now special envoy to the UN Secretary-General, now have come to order Morocco to end its 22-year occupation of the western Sahara?

So it was that the supplicant refugees - the 140,000 Saharawis in Algeria whose Polisario guerrillas had harried the Moroccan army for 16 years until their 1991 ceasefire - stood in the desert sandstorm outside Tindouf as Mr Baker, slayer of the Iraqi army and nemesis of Saddam Hussein, arrived in majesty.

He emerged from his jeep sporting a peaked UN cap; perhaps aware that this made him look like an incongruous baseball star, he took it off within seconds.

And there, bronzed beneath the sun, stood the man who would decide their fate, he who faced down the Beast of Baghdad, a sudden flourish of his left hand freeing half a dozen white doves which fluttered above us to cries of approval from the sand-blasted masses. Many are the ageing British proconsuls - sent to the far corners of Asia to adjudicate on tribal frontiers - who would have understood the gesture.

We didn't see these doves back in 1991, of course, but this was the new model James Baker, peacemaker extraordinaire. He came ready to listen - or so he repeatedly told the exiled and Ruritanian "government" of the western Sahara - to the Saharawis and Moroccans, the Algerians and, no doubt, to the United States of America.

What the Polisario want is their own independent state in the western Sahara, along with its phosphates and rich fishing grounds. But King Hassan of Morocco, Commander of the Faithful, is still offering the Saharawis only limited autonomy.

Algeria, the Polisario's traditional supporter, does not want to give King Hassan any territorial victories, but it is now distracted by a savage internal war.

Much more to the point, King Hassan remains one of Washington's faithful allies in the Middle East. He is one of the few Arab leaders who is still on speaking terms with the Israelis now that the "peace process" - initiated way back in 1991 by a man called James Baker - is dead.

Is Mr Baker, therefore, going to support the demands of the destitute and sick refugees - people whose east European support dried up with the collapse of the Iron Curtain - against America's royal friend in Rabat?

Pathetically, the Saharawis in their blue and black robes, shrieking their welcome from the sides of the track through the desert, their ramshackle army wiping the sand from beneath their tin helmets, believed that the steel-hearted Mr Baker might be swayed by their obvious emotions.

"Surely when he sees our people like this, he will understand our suffering and our need for independence," a Polisario factotum, cowled in a black shawl, vouchsafed to us. As he spoke, a flurry of American military personnel - blue-bereted, but with very large US shoulder flashes - pushed their way through the crowd. "Mr Baker is a powerful man - and we need a powerful man to help us," he said. Nearby another billboard proclaimed: "Mr Baker - remember Big Fish versus Small Fish."

But powerful men understand weakness as well as strength, and it was the Big Fish of Morocco who opened the Maghreb to Israel (even if it is now planning to close the Rabat-based secretariat in charge of Middle East economic summits). And it was Algeria which organised the final return of America's embassy hostages in Tehran a long decade ago.

Despite the presence of a well-maintained Russian BMP armoured vehicle - crewed by Polisario men - close to James Baker's jeep, Algeria has no desire for a continuation of the war.

It must have come as a relief for Mr Baker when he entered the straw- roofed chamber of a stone desert house to meet the sheikhs of the Polisario's four refugee camps in south-west Algeria, the nearest the Saharawi people have come to democracy in exile.

Tired and unsmiling, he later emerged from talks with the Polisario's "president", Mohamed Abdul-Aziz, to say all the right things: that he was impressed by his welcome, that it was a tough problem but not a hopeless one - "or else I wouldn't be here" - and that this was merely a fact- finding trip.

He welcomed the "very, very generous humanitarian gesture of support for my mission" - the release of just 85 out of 2,000 Moroccan prisoners, some of whom have been held for 21 years in the desert, by the aforesaid "president".

Then he went on to add that if the UN's own peace plan - which includes a referendum of Saharawis in Algeria and in Moroccan-ruled western Sahara, prisoner exchanges, and a reduction of troops - could not work, then he would have to advise the UN Secretary-General on "what other steps could be taken".

And there's the rub. For what is likely to have interested Mr Baker is the degree of war-weariness of a people who left their homes 22 years ago for the most arid desert in the world. Left their homes to live in heat and dust, drinking the filthiest water the UN has ever come across in its history of refugee assistance, their teeth and bones brittle from lack of vitamins and too much nitrogen in the water. War-weariness is a vital element of refugee morale.

After all, were the Palestinians not weak and war-weary when Mr Baker invited them to make peace with Israel in 1991?

Suggested Topics
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam