Incredible Distortions…..

 Janet Lenz


After reading the recent "Google Alert" concerning the Saharawi refugees living in the desert of Algeria, I am angered, sickened, and stunned that such distortions can be presented to the public as if it is actual information.

I have been personally going to the refugee camps in Algeria's Sahara Desert since 1999. After 17 trips in the past 6 years, personally leading teams of Americans there totaling almost 500 people, I believe I have seen the true face of the people, their leaders, and their children. We have lived with their families in their tents and muddy houses, played with their children, eaten their food, and spent countless hours building relationships and crossing all the barriers between our two worlds, including cultural, religious, language, and political differences.

I have also been responsible for bringing Saharawi children to the US for the past six summers, coordinating their stays with host families for 6 to 8 weeks each year. These children have been in my own home much of that time, and they have come from a variety of family circumstances….everything from the President's own children to land-mine victims who continue to live with their families in nomadic desert life. Children talk…and their candid thoughts, feelings, experiences, and knowledge have done far more to educate our American host families than any Google articles could ever convey.

If the allegations in the article concerning the Saharawi being forced to live in refugee camps by the Polisario were true, we would have seen, heard, or sensed it. It is not true. What we have seen and heard again and again from everyone there with whom we have lived and spent time, is an amazing little nation of people who have chosen to put aside their individual pursuits and identity….even their former tribal divisions….to preserve their national identity as the people of Western Sahara, and to prepare themselves to be able to return to their homeland with all the infrastructure and organization and systems in place to again inhabit their ancient homeland as a democratic, peaceful Arab nation unlike any other.

They strive to keep that hope alive. This is an impossible hope that flies in the face of their unrelenting Moroccan aggressors, who continue to inhabit the land and homes of the Saharawi. The Moroccan government is the criminal here……the ones forcing a peaceful nation to have to choose either to live in "freedom" under their own leadership in an impossibly harsh desert, or to be forced to live under Moroccan domination, losing their identity as a nation, as a people, as individuals. As communication via internet now becomes possible between those Saharawi who have had to live under Morocco's rule all these years and their Saharawi families living in the refugee camps, the cruelty, persecution, and inhumane control those who stayed in their homeland suffer under is being exposed. And in truth, the inhumane conditions those Saharawi have suffered under in the desert all these years is the fault of the Moroccan government. What the people themselves and the Polisario leadership have been able to accomplish in the midst of this tragedy is nothing short of miraculous. They have survived a situation that no human should have to bear. They have not only survived….but they have excelled as people of character, intelligence, and humility. To think that an entire people group could be "fooling" hundreds of Americans living among them over a period of 6+ years is unimaginable.

I have spent time with many Saharawi who were educated in Cuba. The majority of them return to the camps to serve their people with the skills they acquired through Cuba's education. Is Cuba their top choice for their higher education? NO! But it is offered to them. It is a possibility for becoming what each wants to be…a skilled, contributing member of society, making an impact of the lives of others.…Refugees don't have many choices for higher education. Is the opportunity to become a doctor worth the hardship of becoming one? Obviously, for many, the sacrifice of living in Cuba is just another sacrifice in the context of a life of sacrifice they have seen their grandparents and parents choose in order to remain a nation. No one likes it. No Saharawi parent wants to see their child go so far away for such a long time. There are no financial options to fly their child home for visits, when daily life in the camps consists of humanitarian rations. Sometimes those rations are the only bartering material for medicines, and thus, sometimes, those choices have to be made as well.

What Cuba does with the Saharawi young people who take the opportunity for education should not be an indictment on the Polisario. It is an indictment on Cuba. And it is an indictment on all those countries that could well offer education to Saharawi young people, but who do not. What choices to they have? Stay in the camps with their families and live on humanitarian aid, go to some other country (Algeria, Spain, etc.) and find a manual labor job to try to supplement for their families, or take advantage of an education that can serve to help their people in very important ways.

Is the Polisario perfect? No. Is it without corruption? Is any government or leadership on this planet without corruption? Of course not. But is it responsible for forcing its people to live as refugees in the desert? Never. That rests on Morocco's shoulders….and all those nations that continue to look the other way and allow the lies of Morocco's leadership to be presented as truth.

Morocco's invasion began a war. In war, prisoners are taken. On both sides. The fact that the Polisario has just released the last Moroccan prisoner of this war should be deeply respected. They have chosen to hand over their last "bargaining tool" in this war. In good faith. As a valiant effort to show the world their desire that injustice should be righted. To show the world that they have given everything that is theirs to give for the sake of peace and their freedom. Yet Morocco continues to imprison, torture, and cruelly control the Saharawi who are forced to live under their corrupt regime. Those hundreds of Saharawi who remain "missing" under Morocco's authority have no voice calling for accountability by the world community. And their blatant human violations continue against the Saharawi as well as their own people.

The Saharawi want NOTHING more than freedom. But TRUE freedom….back in their homeland under their own rule…..the leadership they formed as a small nation living together in the desert…..the leadership they call Polisario. Not a "freedom" that means coming under the rule of the regime that forced them from their own homes, spraying them with napalm, taking their fathers, uncles, brothers who gave their lives to win back their country and their freedom. Not a "freedom" that would disperse them among other nations, where they would have to daily battle so as not to lose their identity. And the life of sacrifice each family &endash; each individual &endash; continues to bear is what they deem to be the higher, most noble choice they make. The alternative choice….."kissing the hand of the king who tried to destroy them…" is no choice at all.

Janet Lenz
Director of Saharawi Programs
Christ The Rock Church
Menasha, WI USA


* Aid child POWs, editorial in the Washington Times, 20.09.05