Nestled in the west of the Sahara are refugee camps where people are held and not permitted to leave. Here, a word against the leaders could land someone in prison.
These are the conditions in Tindouf, on the borders of Algeria and Morocco and controlled by the independence- seeking Polisario.
The society is 80 percent women who participate in government. The country has a high literacy rate and sends pupils overseas to continue education. Yet they endorse slavery, torture people who speak against the government and imprison unwed mothers.
When the Center for Religious Liberty held its lecture, “Dangers in the Desert,” students were provided with an in-depth look at a site said to house some of the worst human rights violations occurring today.
The session wasn’t a history lesson for eager students, but a call for awareness and tangible help.
“Americans can develop the region and help the U.S. government take a position in support of Morocco,” speaker and civil rights attorney Leah Farish said. “Many Texans speak Spanish, so they would have an advantage over the language barrier.”
The camps were opened in 1976 when Morocco and Mauritania clashed for control of the western Sahara and its populations. But the Sahwari people who live in the desert resisted both nations. Their front group, the Polisario, has held the land since then, blocking some of the Sahwari from leaving or seeing loved ones in Morocco.
The vast desert has become a massive, sandy Berlin Wall.
Nancy Huff, former teacher and founder/ president of the nonprofit organization Teach the Children International joined forces with the Polisario to help them fight for independence and assist the poor Sahwari. But she realized that the Polisario were not interested in dialogue with Morocco, the strongest nation in the region.
As she learned that the Polisario was teaching children to hate the Moroccan king, she knew it was time to change sides.
“That was an a-ha moment for her,” Farish said.
The lecture discussed the history of the struggle and the Morocco and U.S. stance that the region should become autonomous with Morocco.
Hamdi Cherifi, president of Al Intimae NGO for the development of human rights and coexistence in Laayoune , also spoke of Tindouf.
In an interview, he told a story of an ex-polasario Sahwari man who traveled from Morocco to Tindouf to see his family. The man had made comments supporting an autonomous government with Morocco, and his words caused with three months of captivity instead of the embraces of his family. The man has been prohibited from ever seeing his family.
“The international community and (our NGO) need to apply more pressure on leaders to let these people free,” Cherifi said.
The people want and need the help for freedom.
“The majority of the Swahri people want the Moroccan proposal of autonomy,” he said.
Politicians and leaders continue to debate the issue as more and more violations occur. That’s why Farish, Huff and Cherifi are telling their story to anyone who listens.
Sophomore psychology major Jasper Gates was surprised by the lecture.
“I didn’t even know,” he said. “I was taken aback that we didn’t know about the rights violations. My heart was broken for these people.”