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Migrants made to cross Sahara army minefield

Originally featured in The Guardian (23rd October 2005)

A pile of sardine tins stamped 'Maroc', discarded beside a desert track, mark the passing of African migrants abandoned in the wilderness by Moroccan security forces.

Zalik Zein, a soldier with the Saharan independence group Polisario, has been tasked with tracking down the migrants. He squats beside the tins and turns them over. 'The Africans came this way,' he says and points to a nearby fold in the ground. 'There are mines there.'

Rashid Boniface Tetty Wayo from Ghana spent four days wandering lost in the desert before he stumbled across a nomad encampment. He is one of 95 sub-Saharan Africans from Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria and Ghana who are being given shelter in an abandoned school building in Birlehlu in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Birlehlu is controlled by the Polisario, who have been seeking independence from Morocco since it annexed the territory in 1975. 'The Moroccans are not Africans,' says 24-year-old Rashid. 'They call us black locusts.'

Rashid spent two years in Morocco, one of thousands of migrants who have massed in the country in the hope of reaching Spain, either by boat or by scaling the fences surrounding two tiny Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast.

On the night of 6 October, Rashid and 500 illegal migrants attempted to rush the barbed-wire fences that protect the Melilla enclave. They got over the first fence but were spotted by Spanish border guards as they tried to climb the second. According to AP reports, six of his fellow Africans were killed in clashes with Moroccan security forces. Rashid says he was captured by Moroccan soldiers who slashed his pockets with knives and robbed him of his wallet and mobile phone. He was held in a police station for hours and then handcuffed to a fellow migrant and put in the back of a truck. They were driven for four days south across the desert to a Moroccan military encampment on the 'Berm', the 2,400km-long earthwork fortification dividing the Moroccan and Polisario zones of Western Sahara.

He says that a group of 15 were each given two bottles of water, four pieces of bread and a tin of sardines. They were then pointed to a narrow corridor through the minefields marked with piles of stones and told to walk straight, without stepping left or right, into the desert. After three days, they ran out of water. The area in which they were abandoned is a former battlefield littered with US-made unexploded cluster munitions and French and Spanish landmines. 'We just wanted to find work and send money home,' says Lamin Kamara, a 20-year-old Gambian who was five days in the desert.

In one corner of the Birlehlu school room hastily converted into a first aid post, two Bangladeshis, Arufsindar and Oronmindar, huddle beneath foil blankets, dehydrated and in shock. They have been wandering in the desert for more than eight days. They are being treated by doctors from the Spanish charity Médico El Mundo.

The Bangladeshis paid a people-trafficker in Dakha several thousand dollars each to smuggle them to Europe, but their dream of riches ended in Morocco. They claim they were whipped with belts by soldiers before being abandoned in the desert.

Soon Arufsindar and Oronmindar will be transported to Tifariti, another Polisario outpost, where they will join 40 other South Asians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, who have been living in a warehouse for seven months.

Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou denies that Morocco has abandoned migrants in the desert, but the evidence is plain to see. 'It is only a matter of time,' says Zalik Zein, 'before we start finding bodies.'

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