LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara – Keltoum El-Khayat left home barefoot at age 15, along with five other teenagers, telling her parents she was going to stay the night with her aunt. Instead she joined a war against Morocco for the independence of a Colorado-sized chunk of northwest African desert called Western Sahara.
It was the start of a circuitous 31-year odyssey against the backdrop of the Cold War that would take her to Algeria, Cuba, Spain and Sweden, and finally deposit her on the other side of the conflict, back in Western Sahara as an adviser to the Moroccan government she was sworn to oppose.
Her former comrades call her a turncoat, but El-Khayat says her change of sides stems from a sense that the conflict, one of Africa's longest, can only end in compromise, and from her disillusionment with Polisario, the guerrilla movement that recruited her in 1975.
That was the year that Spain, Western Sahara's colonial ruler, gave up the phosphate-rich desert territory and Western-backed Morocco moved in to claim sovereignty over it while its neighbor, Moscow-backed Algeria, supported Polisario's war.
The recruiters in Laayoune, the territory's main city, "told us if we stay in Laayoune, there would be genocide, so we joined," she recalls. They appealed to the youngsters' nationalism, she said, telling them Morocco was after their wealth and that if independent, they could become as rich as Kuwaitis.
So she left home on a warm December afternoon with nothing but the bright sari-like dress she was wearing.
Polisario promised the war would be short, but the Moroccans were determined to hold onto what they felt had been stolen from them by Spain. Morocco poured about 100,000 settlers into Western Sahara, and built a 1,600-mile barrier of sand and stone walls with bunkers, barbed wire and several million land mines to keep out the rebels.
During the eight-year shooting war that ended in a cease-fire in 1991, thousands died on both sides and Western Sahara, with a population of less than 400,000 excluding settlers, hemorrhaged refugees. An estimated 160,000, almost entirely dependent on international aid, still languish in deplorable conditions in tents and mud huts in five camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf.
The international community didn't accept Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and some 60 governments, mostly of African and other Third World countries, recognized Polisario. The stalemate has remained, despite strenuous American-led efforts to break it — efforts made more urgent now that Washington counts both Morocco and Algeria as allies in its war on terrorism, straddling potential infiltration routes across the Sahara.
Even if the parties agree to a referendum that would decide the fate of the Sahrawis, as the people of Western Sahara are called, another big question remains: who gets to vote, and for what? Neither Morocco nor Polisario agree to the other having sovereignty over the territory, and Polisario says if settlers have a vote, they would unfairly tilt the numbers in Morocco's favor.
El-Khayat quickly exchanged her sari for fatigues and was trained as a guerrilla, but apparently never saw action between her recruitment and the end of the shooting war in 1991. She got married in her Tindouf refugee camp and had a daughter then began climbing up Polisario's political ranks. In 1983 she was sent to Cuba for five years, divorced her husband and remarried, went to mainland Spain, then Stockholm, then Spain's Canary Islands where her new husband joined her.
In the early 1990s, the couple defected. El-Khayat's second husband, Mohammed Bouossla, is now a senior official at the Moroccan Interior Ministry, while she is one of nine vice presidents on a royal council established by King Mohammed VI in March to advise on ways to achieve autonomy.
El-Khayat, now a mother of three, began having doubts about Polisario early on — in 1976 in Tindouf when 70 youths died under torture, she said. Her second husband and two brothers were imprisoned for a few years, and an uncle died in a Polisario jail, she said.
"In Polisario, it's absolutely forbidden to express any view other than theirs," she said.
She says many Polisario rebels have defected to the Moroccan camp, and many Sahrawis fear independence will only push them into autocratic Algeria's orbit. Meanwhile, Polisario has been losing diplomatic ground as many of the governments that once recognized it have withdrawn their support and pinned their hopes on a negotiated settlement.
However, unemployment, poverty and government neglect continue to breed recruits to Polisario, and Mouloud Said, a Polisario representative in Washington, says support for his movement is increasing.
"We have more people today protesting with the Polisario Front than we ever had. We have more people in the prisons today than we ever had," he said in a telephone interview.
He acknowledges Polisario has had defectors, but calls them people who "want to sell their conscience and principles ... for material gains."
Mohammed Daddach, a Polisario supporter in Laayoune, spent 25 years in a Moroccan jail, 14 of them on death row, and says human rights violations are rampant as Moroccan security forces suppress Sahrawis independence campaigners.
"The only solution is a referendum," he said.
El-Khayat says independence is unrealistic.
"After 30 years, we realized that Morocco isn't so bad. African countries were being torn apart by wars. At least Morocco is stable," she said.
"Our struggle had been to achieve peace, security and democracy. Morocco is on the path to democracy. This is what the Sahrawis want. They have suffered a lot."