afrol News, 14 November - The report about systematic mistreatments of Moroccan prisoners of war in the Sahrawi refugee camps caused shock and disbelief when it was released by France Libertés earlier this year. afrol News can now reveal that several of the key accusations made in the report were false.
According to the France Libertés report, Moroccan prisoners of war have been "the only labour force" in the Sahrawi refugee camps. In conclusion, "all the projects funded by donors, whether they be institutions or NGOs, therefore use an illegal labour force." The report in particular mentions the organisation Oxfam, which was supposed to have used the forced labour of prisoners of war to construct hospitals.
An investigation into the matter however proves these allegations were false. "Oxfam was not involved in any way in the construction of the hospitals in either Rabouni or Tifariti," an Oxfam spokesperson told afrol News.
The UK-based organisation was taken by surprise when confronted with the allegations by France Libertés. After an enquiry by afrol News, the organisation ordered a full-scale internal investigation to find out whether prisoners of war or even forced labour had been used in the refugee camps on Algerian soil, controlled by the Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario.
Two Oxfam subsidiaries had been engaged in these impoverished camps; Oxfam UK and Oxfam Solidarity. Internal investigations soon concluded that these two subsidiaries had no case to answer regarding the France Libertés report. Oxfam had not been involved at all in the hospital constructions mentioned in the report, the investigations concluded.
Oxfam Solidarity had not been involved in construction works in the Sahrawi camps at all, the enquiry established. The subsidiary had gone through its Western Sahara records and interviewed its local staff.
Oxfam UK, on the other hand, had been involved in several water projects, including equipping boreholes in El Aaiun camp, work on open wells in Dakhla camp and the exploration of water resources around Tifariti, afrol News was told.
However, it was concluded that "at no point" had Moroccan prisoners of war been involved with Oxfam's work. Asked by afrol News how the organisation could positively be sure of this, Oxfam referred to reports from local staff that had participated in the recruitment of labour for the construction works.
The local Oxfam representative had not recruited through Polisario - as the France Libertés report mentions as the normal procedure of engaging labour - but through Sahrawi village elders, who had forwarded the job offer to their younger kinsmen. Workers had keenly offered their services to Oxfam.
During the works at the wells in Dakhla camp, Oxfam's local staff further recalled that the workers communicated with them in Spanish language - Western Sahara is a Spanish ex-colony - and not in French, which is spoken among Moroccans. Finally, proper payment had been given. The Oxfam spokesperson simply could find no reasons for the allegations being made by France Libertés.
Also on earlier occasions, the France Libertés report - produced by the two experienced researchers Afifa Karmous and Pauline Dubuisson - has been criticised for not getting its facts rights. Several Sahrawi refugees, living in the camps, were outraged by the tales of labour division in the report - France Libertés claims all works are done by Moroccan prisoners and none by the refugees. Several refugees recall their own hard labour, much of which was done on an unpaid, voluntary basis.
Polisario, the detaining power, also is bewildered by the claims that Moroccan prisoners had been used to construct "all buildings" existing in Rabouni, the military bases and in the refugee camps. This "is an exaggeration," the liberation movement holds. "All the refugee population and, above all, women," had participated in the heavy construction works after the camps were established in 1976.
France Libertés' report was based on individual interviews with 338 Moroccan prisoners and group interviews with some 700 prisoners, made by the two researchers in only two weeks, while covering an enormous area with very poor infrastructure. Other voices than the prisoners' were not recorded in the report, which was termed an "international enquiry". These facts early led sceptics to question the methodological basis of the entire report.
The report indeed made shocking reading, especially as it came from an organisation that always had defended the Sahrawi people and their quest for independence. The Moroccan prisoners of war had told Ms Karmous and Ms Dubuisson that torture, ill-treatment, malnourishment and forced labour had been the reality for them since their capture in the 1970s.
"Every prisoner" had experienced heavy torture - by Polisario and even Algerian military personnel - at detention. Killings, torture and ill-treatments continued right up to these days, the report concluded. "Right up to 1998, an average of 2 to 3 detainees died and had to be buried every night," France Libertés concluded on the consequences of torture and maltreatments.
This farfetched conclusion and other negligence in the report gave ammunition to the Polisario's official denial of its content. As Polisario pointed out, the report had alleged that "between the end of 1975 (beginning of the conflict) and 1998, there were 17,000 to 25,000 persons who would have so far been killed, knowing that the total number of Moroccan prisoners of war captured by the Polisario Front has never exceeded 2,300."
While systematic torture and killings were the most shocking accusation of the French report, the alleged use of forced labour by Polisario and international organisations was given most weight. The alleged used of forced labour was put in connection with embezzlement of humanitarian aid from foreign organisations. Also on this "theft" of humanitarian aid had been revealed through interviewing only one source: the Moroccan prisoners of war.
This issue was then used as the pretext of the group's conclusion: France Libertés was to immediately "stop its support for development projects" in the camps, and the French group urged all other international organisations to follow its example. Other organisations contacted by afrol News - which do not want to be named - however held they did not recognise the situation portrayed by France Libertés' report and had no intentions of pulling out of the Sahrawi camps.
The France Libertés report nevertheless documented that the about 700 prisoners interviewed by the group were constantly suffering as consequence of their extremely long detention. Their general discontent and the signs of the physical and psychic ill-being observed by France Libertés had been a timely reminder of the need to liberate the prisoners, held despite several UN Security Council resolutions calling for their immediate liberation.
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