"You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs," intones King Hassan II of Morocco blandly to a visiting American delegation as white-liveried servants pass trays heaped with succulent pastries. The Defender of the Faithful -- a swart, chunky man in his 51st year -- is referring not to the delicacies but to the fate of some 1,500 Moroccan prisoners captured over the last four years by the Polisario.
Striking from bases around Tindouf, a bleak desert sanctuary 30 miles inside neighboring -- and hostile -- Algeria, the young Saharan guerrillas, self-styled the Fotisario, have been stepping up their forays in armored jeep columns, determined to drive Hassan's 80,000 troops from the former Spanish Sahara.
Hassan seized the phosphate-rich territory in 1975 when the Spanish precipitately abandoned it. Now armed and financed by Algeria and Libya, the Polisario Saharans, many of them educated in Spanish or Moroccan universities, want to create their own independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic and already have won recognition from nearly 40 countries, mainly Eastern European and Third World.
Four days earlier, eight of the visiting Americans, representing the private, New York-based National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Inc., were flown in an Algerian government jet 1,200 miles from Algiers to Tindouf to meet Polisario leaders. Hurting at breakneck speed in Land Rovers over harsh, rocky terrain, we were shown, successively, tent cities neatly laid out, white-washed cinder-block hospitals and vocational training centers for the 40,000 -- the Polisario claim 130,000 -- Saharan refugees who have fled the desert war.
In spacious tents, khaki-clad Polisario militants in their 30s and venerable notables in flowing robes and turbans insisted to a man that they will drive out the Moroccans and found their own republic whatever the cost in manpower, effort or time. At day's end, as if to prove their point, came a display of captured tanks and arms, some of U.S. make, and of Moroccan prisoners, 300 of an estimated 1,500 held at various camps.
The 240 enlisted men, many of them elderly, bald and worn, sat dejectedly on the ground, arms around their knees, bare-headed in the blazing sun. Nearby stood 30 wounded in white hospital garb. Apart were 30 Moroccan officers, their heads protected by blue turbans.
The most prominent was Capt. Abdelhakim El Glaoui, 32, great-nephew of the late Glaoui pasha, "Lord of the Atlas," whose ancestors ruled southern Morocco for centuries, paying perfunctory obeisance to the Shereefian sultans, King Hassan's forebears.
Handsome and erect, despite the wounds received when his tank column fell into a Polisario ambush in January, Capt. El Glaoui was permitted to speak to the writer alone. "We are treated correctly," he said quietly, switching with equal facility from English to French. "The Polisario doctors are humane. But -- " he paused, continuing with a slight shrug, his eyes watching his captors on a nearby knoll, "life is hard. I have completely lost track of my wife and children. All I can say is -- ca va." He seemed grateful for a visitor's handclasp.
Some prisoners, among them one trained in aviation in Texas, have been here four years. Mail is rare; reading materials or recreation still rarer. as far as the eye can see, not a bird flies; no animal moves; a tree far away seems an oddity. "We feel forgotten -- abandoned," says another officer who asks anonymity.
What, King Hassan is later asked, is the royal Moroccan government doing to exchange its prisoners -- or, at least, alleviate their lot? Snapping his fingers at a servant to refill the glasses, the monarch pauses, then replies evenly without annoyance or marked interest. "Why don't you ask the International Red Cross at Geneva? They have all the documentation."
The walls of Hassan's glittering palace here trace his ancestry in unbroken line to Mohammed the Prophet, Founder of Islam, and obviously the king has weighty matters that demand his attention. But in America, a nation of 230 million, the fate of 50 civilians held hostage in Iran is front-page news, on nightly television, in presidential speeches. In Morocco, a nation of 16 million, the fate of 1,500 soldiers fighting for their country seems an embarrassment, avoided or evaded by the regime, a symbol of defeat in a war neither side apparently can win.