James Baker, Francisco Bastagli – the Special Representatives of the UN’s Secretary General all have a tendency to come out in favor of Sahrawis after the end of their mandate. And it’s not a recent trend either, it’s been going on from the very beginning.
Below you’ll find an excerpt from Olof Rydbeck’s 1990 memoirs, translated from the Swedish original by Western Sahara Info. Rydbeck was the very first Special Representative to Western Sahara in 1976-77, and he toured the area as well as Tindouf when the invasion (or liberation, depending on viewpoint) of Western Sahara was still a work in progress, with the refugee exodus reaching its climax. An aristocratic career diplomat, Rydbeck had served as Sweden’s representative to the UN, and also been the head of Sweden’s national public radio. In 1979 he was appointed head of the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, a job which he held until his retirement in 1985. He died in 1995.
To the best of my knowledge, these recollections have never been published in English, despite the political content and rare first-hand testimony. Like his latter-day successors, Rydbeck is scolding in his criticism of Morocco (and Mauritania), for reasons best gleaned by reading the text itself. Boumédiènian Algeria, on the other hand, unexpectedly found grace with Rydbeck, despite his conservative political outlook.
"The presidency in the [UN Security] Council alternates every month, and my turn came in October 1975. The most important question dealt with during my presidency was Morocco’s decision to send 350,000 people across the border to Spanish Western Sahara – the so called Green March – in order to stress its claim to the area. There existed an obvious risk for clashes between Spaniards and Moroccans. On the request of the Spanish ambassador, I summoned the Council on October 20. When I turned over the chairmanship to the Soviet ambassador Jakov Malik, at the turn of the month between October-November, the council was waiting for a report from the Secretary-General [Kurt Waldheim], who had been charged with finding a solution to the conflict through contacts with the parties. We got both one and two reports, but the initiative in the council fizzled out. The Green March, which consisted of a lot of people moving a kilometer or two into the Spanish Saharan part of the desert and then back, took place with no incidents.
Barely a month later, on November 14, the Spanish struck an agreement over Western Sahara with Morocco and Mauritania. The Spaniards declared that they would leave the area on February 28, 1976, at the latest, and meanwhile a shared three-party administration was created. This agreement ignited a fierce battle in the General Assembly, where Morocco and Algeria faced each other. The results of the hot debate in the General Assembly were absurd, in that two resolutions were approved, that were to some extent wholly incompatible. But they had in common that the views of the Saharaoui population would be surveyed, even if the two resolutions pointed to different methods for this consultation.
I accepted in the beginning of 1976, with the consent of the [Swedish] government, to become the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Western Sahara question, after Gunnar Jarring had declined. Combat and disturbances had broken out, and the question was posed if it was at all possible, under these circumstances, to reliably consult the population, of which a large part had reportedly fled into Algeria. My mission was, therefore, to try to determine the conditions for the population’s right to self-determination to be exercised, and to bring suggestions to the Secretary-General on what role the UN could play in this context.
I first held talks in Madrid with the Spanish government. The decision to leave Western Sahara after “the Green March” and to strike the agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, had been taken at the time when Franco was at his death bed, and there was great insecurity and worry for the future in Spain. From my talks with Foreign Minister José Maria Alreiza and others, I got the strong impression that they deplored this rash step, but that they were impatiently looking forward to the day when they could finally wash their hands of Western Sahara. Their military forces were already withdrawn.
On February 7, I flew from Madrid to the capital of Western Sahara, El Aaiún, followed by staff from the UN and one of my own co-workers at the UN representation, John Hagard. The visit lasted until February 12, when I returned to Madrid.
A “visiting mission” from the UN had visited the colony the previous year, while Spain was still in full control, and in its report it had been able to deliver convincing proof that the population, when the Spanish had left, wished that Western Sahara would become an independent state. The UN group had been met by large and enthusiastic crowds that demanded independence with a loud voice. The Spaniards had put no obstacles in the way of the UN representatives to meet whomever they wanted, nor had they blocked the demonstrations. When I and my small staff arrived we were met by sparsely populated manifestations who tried to look like a crowd and shouted with disciplined fervor: “long live King Hassan”. Morocco had taken charge and given directions. I received a number of delegations, all of them declaring with one voice and in identical words that they were Moroccans, or, in the Mauritanian sector, Mauritanians. I was flown with my staff in Hercules aircraft to the cities of Smara and Dakhla, and some of the “crowds” that greeted us enthusiastically on arrival had traveled on the same flights as we. When I received youth groups in El Aaiún and Smara, their spokesman turned out to be the same individual. Generally, one saw very few young people. The old sheikhs in their light blue burnouses were bitterly complaining that their sons had either been seduced or kidnapped by the Algerians. These serious and concerned old men had traditionally been the practitioners of the tribal and familial authority that the young generation, partly raised at Spanish schools and universities, now had broken away from. They surely cared less about who held highest authority over them, Spain or Morocco, but you could feel their deep unhappiness over how the whole of their inherited society had broken down.
One of the groups that visited me consisted of miners from the phosphate mines in Boukra. They were of course just as Moroccan as all the others. But on the way out, one of them slipped me a piece of paper. I hurried to stick it in my pocket, but too late. When the group left the room I heard loud voices outside, and I sent out a couple of members of my staff to see what was going on. They brought the man with the paper back with them. Some of the other members of the group, who had seen him give me the note, had threatened to kill him, and he refused to go back out again. The note turned out to contain a petition from Polisario, the Saharan liberation movement, to the UN. It was obvious that the man felt he was in mortal danger. I summoned the three so-called governors, a Spaniard, a Moroccan and a Mauritanian. The Spaniard, a Lieutenant Colonel in his fifties named Valdes, I had come to trust already from the start, a wise and honest man. The Moroccan was the director of the comedy act that had been playing since early morning until evening, in order to fool me. The Mauritanian didn’t say a word, it was Morocco that ran the place. I reiterated that the Secretary-General and I had been given absolute guarantees from the concerned governments that anyone who so desired would be able to see me, speak to me or hand over petitions. If they wouldn’t give me immediate assurance that this man would remain unmolested, I would immediately break off my mission and return to New York, and report to the Secretary-General. The Moroccan tried to convince me that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and the miner from Boukra that he had nothing to fear. Valdes then intervened, and said that the man could stay with him for the night, and that he would himself put him on the first flight to the Canary Islands next morning. This was also what happened, and I later received word that the man had arrived unharmed in Algeria via Spain. I later asked Valdes what he thought about the death threat. The man wouldn’t have survived the night, he said, he would probably have been found dead on some street the next morning, if he hadn’t been protected.
Before Spain’s capitulation, El Aaiún had had about 40,000 inhabitants, they told me, but now there were perhaps 4,000. The figures for the two other cities, Smara and Dakhla, were 1,000,instead of 5,000 and 4,000 respectively. All these “crowds” that had been mobilised for my visit were thin rows of docile remaining Saharaouis or flown-in Moroccans.
We knew already when we were there, that battles were being fought in and on the border of the territory. Security was extremely precarious. When we drove in from the airport in Smara to the city, the road was lined with Moroccan soldiers – but they weren’t a guard of honour. They all had their backs to the road, facing the desert with their guns at the ready. The last day in El Aaiún I insisted on taking a tour by foot through the city; I’d been locked up in the hotel the whole time and wanted to have a look at the city by ocular inspection. The Moroccans were making trouble, but I won in the end. When my staff and I passed through the nearly empty city, we were surrounded by a wall of security people, and on the roofs along our route, shooters sat prepared.
It was obviously out of the question to consult the Saharaoui people under these circumstances, and my report to the Secretary-General left no room for doubt on that matter. However, it was decided that I would make a second trip, this time to Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. The order [of the destinations] had been set through negotiations between the Secretary-General and the concerned countries. I ended up visiting only Algeria.
Immediately after arrival to Algiers on March 30, I had a conversation with Foreign Minister Bouteflika. He insisted that it was necessary for me to go to Tindouf in the Sakahar desert, close to the border of Western Sahara, to meet Polisario representatives. Well aware that a visit by me there could create problems with Morocco, I had in collaboration with Waldheim tried to get one of Polisario’s representatives to come up to Algiers instead. I was told that this wasn’t doable, for transport-technical reasons. Before I decided to go, I had a telephone conversation with Waldheim, and we both agreed that I couldn’t refuse. I simply had to meet the Polisario leadership.
It was all young people. No one could be mistaken of their firm resolution to fight for their cause. Everybody at the same time agreed that there was no way we could go through with a referendum or some other form of consultation of Saharaouis, under present circumstances. Close to Tindouf was one of the big camps for refugees from Western Sahara, and I was invited to see it. In a big tent city, one of several, thousands of people were living. I couldn’t tell how many thousands, but my guides claimed it was 15,000 in this camp alone.
My visit concluded on April 2, with an audience at the President of Algeria, Houari Boumedienne. That was the first and only time in my life I have received a guard of honour, and it wasn’t just any guard of honour. They were soldiers in the most splendid uniforms, holding long lances in their hands. Boumedienne had a natural and quiet dignity that impressed.
As I flew back to Geneva, according to plan, I was met with the news that I was no longer welcome in Morocco and Mauritania. In words so strong they bordered on insults, the two governments explained that I had overstepped my mandate during the visit in Algeria. But my mandate came from Waldheim, and I had been in contact with him the whole time. Additionally, Waldheim and I had from the very beginning both made clear to the Moroccans that I had to meet representatives of Polisario in order to fullfill my mission. I think it was the publicity that Polisario got from my visit in Tindouf, that made them realise that further media attention for my mission was not in their interest. Better then to bring it to a swift halt, and to discredit me as much as possible."
(Excerpt from Olof Rydbeck, I maktens närhet. Diplomat, radiochef, FN-ämbetsman. Bonniers, Uddevalla 1990. ISBN: 91-0-047951-9. Pages 252-257. All spellings and transliterations are Rydbeck's own.)