|By Mark Huband
Mustapha Sirji swayed from one foot to the other. The towering mud walls of the Martyr Mohammed Lasyad Prison rose around us out of the Algerian desert.
Forgotten by the country that had sent him to war, he had spent twenty-one years locked in a desert jail which echoes with the sound of prayers as the burning sun sinks beneath the barren Sahara outside.
“I ask the others if I am a human being here, or if I am an animal,” he says, his eyes glazed. “We are Muslims. We believe in God. We pray. We are not rocks. We are living in this inferno. We are the forgotten victims of this drama. We have our lives to live. I have lost my youth. We have lost our families. Every time we receive letters somebody has died. How long is this going to go on? Please, will somebody notice us?”
Mustapha Sirji and his comrades are among twenty-three hundred Moroccan soldiers taken prisoner by the Polisario Front, a guerrilla army that fought for more than fifteen years to establish an independent state in the former Spanish colony of Spanish Sahara. Spain actually granted independence in 1975, but within days neighboring Morocco occupied the mineral-rich region. And the war that cost Mustapha Sirji his freedom began.
That conflict has now reached a stalemate, and there is no more fighting. Instead, all sides are awaiting the results of a UN-brokered effort to organize a referendum on the future of what is now known as Western Sahara. The people of the area, most of whom belong to the nomadic Sahrawi tribe, will be asked whether they wish to gain full independence or become part of Morocco. As preparations for this vote drag on, the Polisario has withdrawn to small strips of territory along Western Sahara’s eastern and southern borders, and across the border, in neighboring Algeria. But they have taken their Moroccan prisoners with them, and all efforts to arrange their release, despite the fact that hostilities have stopped, have so far been unavailing.
Five prisons in the Tindouf region of Algeria are home to the Moroccan POWs. The Mohamed Lasyad Prison, said to be the most decent of the five, is a large sandy courtyard surrounded on three sides by a twenty-foot wall. On the fourth side is a rocky outcrop. Dome-shaped huts line the wall, built by the prisoners themselves. The courtyard is where the five hundred men do what they have been doing every day for twenty years: praying and playing football.
“Nobody really wants to talk with you,” Mustapha Sirji told me. “We have had a few visitors before—some people brought food—but they leave and we never hear from them again. They all say they will raise our case with the outside world. But they never do, and so we are left alone again. Forgotten again.”
Under international humanitarian law, the continued imprisonment of Mustapha Sirji and his comrades is a grave breach, that is, a war crime. Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 states that prisoners “shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.” The obligation is restated in the 1977 Additional Protocol I, which lists the “unjustifiable delay in the repatriation of prisoners of war or civilians” as a grave breach; this means there is universal jurisdiction over violations. The obligation on any side holding prisoners to arrange for their prompt release and repatriation does not depend on a formal peace treaty having been signed, although a belligerent is entitled to make sure that its adversary has genuinely stopped fighting and does not intend to resume the conflict; otherwise, repatriating prisoners would be analogous to reinforcing the enemy’s army. If that risk is not present, under international law the duty to repatriate is clear. Prisoners, however, do have the right, in the view of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to refuse forcible repatriations. Such situations arise where a change of government in the POW’s home State might make return dangerous.
That is not the situation of the Moroccan pows. They are desperate to go home. And yet, despite the fact that a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front was agreed to in September 1991, the Moroccan prisoners of the Polisario continue to languish in camps like Martyr Mohammed Lasyad Prison, just as Iranian prisoners spent years in detention in Iraq after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Representatives of the Polisario claim they would gladly free the detainees, but the Moroccans have refused because, as a roving ambassador of the Polisario put it, “that would mean they would have to give us the Polisario POWs they are holding. But they won’t, because they don’t want to recognize Polisario or admit that this is a war.”
The result for men like Mustapha Sirji, most of whom were taken prisoner in their twenties, is that while they are alive (the prisoners do not complain of ill-treatment), they have have had their youth stolen from them. Illegally detained and now entering their forties, they must face the prospect of having their middle age stolen from them as well.