citybeat (2006-31)

Of a militant nationalist group, a Moroccan land grab, and those caught in the middle

The TWRA hopes to stop the spread of rabies in the state

Wednesday, July 26

Tragedy in the Sahara

While traveling to visit family in 1980, Casablanca resident Abdellah Lamani was taken prisoner by armed militants and held in Algeria for 23 years, forced to endure hard labor, beatings, torture and near starvation. Eight-year-old Ma Oulainie was forced to watch her father’s torture, then was torn from her family and forced to live in Cuba for 14 years. And Ali El Jaohar, a mechanic in the Moroccan Army, was captured as a POW and held in Algerian prison camps for 23 years before his release in 2004.

Theirs are but a few of the stories to be heard Monday, Aug. 7, at downtown’s Marriott Hotel, when several former Sahrawi refugee/POWs will meet with local evangelical leaders to share their experiences in North African desert camps operated by the Polisario, a nationalist group seeking control in contested regions of the Western Sahara.

“They’re reaching out to different groups, with the ultimate goal of getting support from the U.S. government,” says spokesman Carrie Annand, a representative from the Daniel J. Edelman Company hired by the Moroccan government and the Moroccan American Center for Policy.

The politics of the Western Sahara aren’t well known to most Americans, but here’s a primer: the Polisario had its origins in the early 1970s, when some of the natives of the Spanish-controlled Western Sahara began violently resisting Spanish colonization. Spain eventually withdrew in 1975, but in doing so, turned over much of the territory to neighboring Morocco. The time since has been a long, continuous power struggle—sometimes involving military action, but mostly political machinations, since a ceasefire in 1991—between the Moroccans and the Polisario for control of the region. In the meantime, the Polisario have found allies in the Cuban government and in neighboring Algeria. Algeria is home to several Sahrawi refugee camps, where indigenous Sahrawi fled with the onset of conflict; but many who have since come from those camps say they are no longer refugee camps, but rather prisons, and that foreign humanitarian aid shipments to the people who reside therein are confiscated and smuggled away by the Polisario.

Another witness to the actions of the Polisario who will appear Monday at the Marriott is Bachir Edkhil. A student during the Spanish occupation of the Sahara, Bachir was an early leader in the Polisario—he helped give the organization its name—but has since renounced it, and now actively campaigns for the refugees’ release.

Clearly, though, the larger issue isn’t black and white. Although it is seeking the release of prisoners and refugees, the Moroccan government (a co-sponsor of the Marriott program) has interests that can hardly be called altruistic. Annand admits that “Morocco has a better chance to reclaim the territory” in the Western Sahara should the Polisario grant freedom to the Sahrawi in their keep.

This territorial dispute has made for strange bedfellows in international politics, with Westerners on both sides of the fence politically, and of widely differing religious persuasions, supporting either side. In general, though, Western liberals have tended to side with the Polisario. Conservatives, on the other hand, including many Christian evangelicals, more often side with Morocco, perhaps in part due to the Polisario’s links to Communist Cuba, and perhaps owing to fears that it may have sympathies with Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

They may all be missing the point: Amnesty International has reportedly condemned both the Moroccans and the Polisario for significant human rights violations. As is the case in the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts, our sympathies are perhaps better directed not toward one side or the other, but to the people who find themselves caught in between.

The program by the former Sahrawi refugees will begin at 1 p.m. at the Marriott on Hill Avenue. The Rev. Rob Scheck, president of the National Clergy Council, will address an assembly that will include several local church leaders. While you may not agree with everyone you hear at the Monday afternoon conference, you’ll surely learn something about human tragedy in a part of the world most of us hardly know exists.

Not a Pleasant Way to Die

"The raccoon rabies virus is 99-percent fatal,” says Phyllis Rollins, president of the East Tennessee Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (ETWRC). “It’s not a pleasant way to die.”

For more than 10 years, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), the agency which sets the parameters under which animal rehabilitators can operate, has been working to slow and, with any luck, stop the spread of rabies reservoir species in Tennessee. At the same time, however, ETWRC members feel that current bans on rehabilitation are creating a new problem.

“We were once allowed to rehabilitate bats, foxes and raccoons,” Rollins says. Now, because of current restrictions, the ETWRC says that many otherwise healthy animals are being killed for unnecessary rabies tests.

The rehabilitators, a group largely consisting of volunteers, care for injured, ill and orphaned animals, eventually reintroducing them back into the wild. They’ve also helped the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with vaccination procedures.

“You’re being forced to kill all of these animals,” Rollins continues. “There’s not been an increase in rabies. It’s like they used that as an excuse to change the permits. There’s been a real knee-jerk reaction.”

State officials have documented instances of rabies outbreaks for more than 30 years, according to Walter Cook, the captive wildlife coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Back in 1974, the American Veterinarian Association placed a ban on pet skunks throughout the state, an early attempt to regulate the transportation of animals in hopes of minimizing the spread of rabies.

“At the time the only recognized reservoir for rabies was in skunks,” Cook says. “It was the only animal they had concern for at that time.”

But, this past February, it was announced that a fox had tested positive for rabies here in Knox County. In 2003, TWRA first documented positive rabies tests in Johnson, Carter, Sullivan and Bradley counties. The fox in Knox County got the public’s attention, and the ban on raccoon, bat and fox rehabilitation, which had been instituted in July 2005, began to be enforced with more vigor.

On June 2, TWRA agents, under the direction of Walter Cook, raided the home of a rehabilitator in East Tennessee. Six raccoons were confiscated and killed, so that their brain stems could be tested for rabies.

“Yes, animals are euthanized to test for rabies,” Cook says. “We’re not epidemiologists, but when we’re advised by epidemiologists, we know that this is what we need to do.” Current rehabilitation bans are done in accordance with the Southeast Wildlife Disease Union, the CDC, USDA Wildlife Services and the Tennessee Department of Health.

“If you go to see a doctor, and he tells you what you need to do, then it’s a better idea to do what the doctors are saying,” Cook goes on. “It’s just one of those things. We’ve got to do what we can to stop the spread of disease. I wish we could do something more palatable.”

Over the past 10 years, there has been a 75 percent reduction in raccoon breeding statewide, with only seven counties out of 95 reporting isolated cases of rabies. But many critics of current bans on rehabilitative efforts believe that Cook and the TWRA are not approaching the rabies threat properly.

“If this was an all-out rabies epidemic, then I wouldn’t be concerned,” says Rita Dietz, a local rehabilitator. “But this is not an epidemic. [The TWRA is] trying to get rid of the wildlife rehabilitators, because they resent having to deal with us. It’s a combination of the paperwork and the fact that they have to inspect us every year. They are all about hunting and fishing, and they don’t want to be involved in anything else. If you look on their website [ ], you won’t find anything about rehabilitation.”

The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, however, discourages wildlife rehabilitation, because it increases the chances of human exposure to zoonotic disease agents, those agents that are transmissible from animals to humans.

“The bans appear to be working very well right now,” Cook says. “It would be nice if we could go back the way things were. We’re not being reactionary.”

Some states, such as Alabama, have implemented bans similar to those in Tennessee. Others, such as Connecticut, where raccoon-strain rabies is prevalent throughout the state, still allow rehabilitation efforts to continue.

“It’s disturbing to us as rehabilitators,” Dietz says. “It’s really a shame, because a lot of healthy animals are being killed inhumanely.”

“It’s for their protection,” Cook retorts. “We don’t want the pubic to be at risk of being bit by a rabies-vector species. Sometimes, an infected animal will show no signs of infection.”

On Aug. 8, from 3:30-4:30 p.m., representatives of the ETWRC will be guests on the Phil Williams Show on NewsTalk Radio 100.3, so the debate can continue. And Phyllis Rollins will deliver a presentation to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission in October, in hope of overturning current rehabilitation bans.


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