Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
August 26, 2018
America lost a great American patriot and national leader this week. John McCain, the son and grandson of US admirals, prisoner of war for 5 ½ years during the Vietnam war, died this week at the age of 81. He will be remembered as one of the greatest Senators of our times, a fiercely independent legislator, who always put country ahead of political expediencies.
He will be remembered by all Americans for his selflessness, decency and values like when he refused to be released from the “Hanoi Hilton” prison during the Vietnam war until all others prisoners had been released with him; or when a supporter of his 2008 Presidential campaign stated, “I can’t trust Obama… he’s an Arab”, he responded, “No ma’am, he’s a descent family man, and citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”.
McCain was a defender of American values – especially human rights – around the world, and a strong opponent of waterboarding and other forms of torture of prisoners. He also cast the deciding vote to save Obama care last year, a decision for which he was accused of betrayal by President Trump and members of his own party.
One thing many people may not know is that John McCain saved the lives of 404 Moroccan prisoners of war, believed to be the longest held POWs in the world. They were being held by the Polisario, a rebel group formed with the backing of Algeria and Cuba during the Cold War to fight for the Western Sahara territory after Morocco reclaimed it from Spain in 1975. They had been held an average of 17 years, some for nearly 30, and still held captive even though the hostilities had ended some 14 years before.
In 2005, the Free Them Nowcampaign was launched by the Moroccan American Center with the objective of freeing these last remaining POWs. It documented flagrant violations of basic POW rights and protections as provided by the Geneva convention, accounts of forced labor, torture, mutilations, and summary executions of the Moroccan POWs by the Polisario rebels as recorded by renown international organizations. Thousands of people signed petitions calling on the Secretary General of the Polisario to release all remaining prisoners without condition.
Upon learning of these atrocities, Senator McCain, became personally involved, urging the Polisario “to restore these individuals’ freedom and allow them to return to Morocco to live the remainder of their lives in dignity with their families”. He expressed his hope that “these captors can be swayed, not by political pressures or promises, but by what is undeniably just and humane in the eyes of the world community…”
On May 16, 2005, he wrote to the head of the Polisario demanding the release of the POWs, and citing the indignation of several respected international organizations, including France Liberté, Amnesty International, the International Red Cross and the UN Security Council. In the letter, he wrote, “I add my voice to this call for an immediate release. I do so in my official capacity but also on a very personal basis, as a former prison of war in Vietnam.” He ended it with a quote by Moustapha Sirji, one of the Moroccan POWs:
“I ask the others if I am a human being here or if I am an animal. We are Muslims. We believe in God. We pray. We are not rocks. We are living in this inferno. We are the forgotten victims of this drama. We have our lives to live. I have lost my youth. We have lost our families. Every time we receive letters, someone has died. How long is this going to go on? Please, will somebody notice us”.
The deluge of press that followed around the world, as well as demonstrations in Morocco and Washington, would force Algeria to pressure the Polisario to reconsider its actions.
On August 18, 2005, in an act of transatlantic diplomacy led by Senator Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – and at the request of President Bush – US planes were sent to retrieve the 404 POWs from the Algerian-backed Polisario prisons. Accompanied by Senator Lugar, they arrived in the city of Agadir, Morocco to a hero’s welcome led by King Mohammed VI. Their decades-long brutal suffering had finally come to an end.
Later that year, representatives of the Moroccan American Center met with several of those POWs who came to Washington to attend a ceremony honoring Senators Lugar and McCain and Representative Diaz-Balart for their personal involvement in this tragedy. One of the POWs told us, “When I was captured my daughter was 8 years old. When I came home my daughter’s daughter was 8”. Many had little or no family to come home to, due to death and divorce. The reentry for these prisoners hasn’t been easy since, but for many months after their release we received letters from several of them thanking God they were being given a chance to live the rest of their lives with their families. You can add this story to the legacy of Senator John McCain. Thank you Senator.