The Great Wall Of Africa

As our small plane descends toward Al Ayun, the capital of the Western Sahara, I can just make out rings of stone and brush dotting the desert floor. A Sahrawi, as the inhabitants of this region are called, tells me the stone enclosures are built by nomads to protect caches of food and water from foraging animals.

Al Ayun is a fairly big town of perhaps 75,000, but everyone seems to know everyone else, and few ignore the traditional courtesy of inquiring about a friend's health up to a dozen times before proceeding to further conversation.

Yet lurking beneath the surface hospitality of this former Spanish colony is tension between Sahrawis on one hand and Moroccan immigrants and soldiers on the other. In 1975, when Spain withdrew to concentrate on its domestic problems, the Western Sahara was quickly claimed by its neighbors, Morocco and Mauritania, according to a tripartite agreement with Madrid. Morocco occupied the northern two-thirds of the region with soldiers; Mauritania took the far-less-desirable southern third. Neither country took into account "the will of the Sahrawi people," as called for by the Madrid agreement. Morocco also encouraged the emigration of thousands of unemployed Moroccans. Fighting broke out between Moroccan troops and Polisario Front guerrillas declaring independence, and tens of thousands of Sahrawis fled to Algeria, where, more than a decade later, they still live in camps.

Drawing its fighters from the refugees and funded by Algeria (and Libya until 1985), the Polisario staged daring attacks that drained Mauritania's resources. Finally, in 1979, the country relinquished its claims to the region. King Hassan II of Morocco, however, has not.

In the eyes of Moroccan authorities, Sahrawi men and women are automatically suspect, and hundreds accused of sympathizing with the Polisario have languished in prison for years. The Sahrawis are easy to recognize: Their skin is darker than Moroccans', and both sexes wear flowing blue robes with veils for protection against the sun. They also have the noble bearing shared by many nomadic peoples. Although the Sahrawis are Muslims and speak an Arabic dialect, many view Moroccans as foreign colonizers--no better than the Spanish before them--exploiting rich resources of fish and phosphate.

Both Hassan and the Polisario have accepted a U. N. proposal to hold a referendum by February to choose either independence or "official" annexation by Morocco. But most Sahrawis don't trust the King to hold a fair vote or, if he does, to honor the results.

During a six-hour ride in a crowded Peugeot taxi from Al Ayun to Smara, a town of 20,000, one of my six fellow passengers, a young Sahrawi, tells me in Arabic: "You won't find many Sahrawis on the street in Smara." He doesn't elaborate, but later in the afternoon, when the taxi pauses on the nearly deserted road for Muslim prayers--and the Moroccan soldier traveling with us moves out of earshot--he continues: "We are scared. The King is visiting next week, for the first time in more than two years, and Sahrawis are afraid of being arrested to prevent demonstrations. We stay mostly indoors these days."

'MOROCCANIZATION.' King Hassan, who succeeded his father in 1961, is known as a fierce, cunning ruler feared nearly as much by his own people as by the Sahrawis. And his insistence that the "Moroccanization" of the Western Sahara is "an irreversible process" hardly reassures Sahrawis. His claims of sovereignty over the territory are based on 400-year-old links between the kingdom and the Western Sahara's numerous nomadic tribes. But the Polisario say these were merely a series of temporary trade pacts and military alliances.

Sahrawis doubt that Moroccan troop strength in the Western Sahara will be reduced to less than 65,000--as called for by the U. N. referendum plan--before the vote. Many of the current 120,000 troops are stationed on a 1,200-mile wall of sand and stone that Hassan built to protect the Western Sahara's towns and phosphate mines. Polisario guerrillas roam freely in the Mauritanian desert, although their base camps tend to be in Algeria.

Karim, a 25-year-old officer in the Moroccan army, has been stationed at the wall for the past four years. He knows some who have been there since its construction began in 1980. Karim spends months on end gazing east across the dunes that extend almost 3,000 miles to the Red Sea on the other side of the African continent.

Construction of the wall was an incredible feat. For a start, the desert sand didn't pack well, so clay, which had to be imported from the north, was mixed with it. The wall is about 11 feet high with command posts every two miles or so. The concept is ancient but effective. The Polisario have occasionally massed enough fighters in one place to pierce the wall, only to be picked off by air strikes and troops before they could hit any strategic targets inside the region. In fact, despite its medieval appearance, the wall is crammed with U. S.-supplied high-tech gear, including electronic sensors that are said to detect movement up to 12 miles away.

For soldiers along the heavily mined wall, there are moments of terror--as guerrillas mount a mortar attack on one of the many radar stations--followed by weeks of boredom. The desert stillness is broken only by the arrival of a supply convoy or by sandstorms, which can limit visibility to a few feet for days on end. The monotony is crushing, and soldiers are allowed a month of leave for every three months spent along the barrier.

The wall serves as a shield for the country's huge deposits of phosphate, used in fertilizers and detergents. Morocco, the world's biggest phosphate exporter, fears an independent Western Sahara would undercut its position in already depressed markets.

LIP SERVICE. When asked what will happen if the referendum favors independence, a government adviser in Smara smiles. "The Moroccan administration and troops would not hand over the country just like that," he says. "Why should we? We control all the economically useful areas of the Western Sahara. Instead, we would sit down and negotiate with the Polisario." Translation: Morocco would keep the appearance of dialogue without giving up much.

Morocco and the U. S. have long-standing ties that were bolstered by Morocco's participation in the Desert Storm coalition. That friendship could affect what happens in the Western Sahara. Laments one young Sahrawi in a deserted back street of Al Ayun: After the gulf war, "we fear that the U. S will support wjatever the King desires."

So no matter how the referendum turns out, Moroccan rule in the Western Sahara will probably be as enduring as the nomads' stone circles.

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