What does it mean to live under colonialism today? Despite numerous UN resolutions affirming the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people, Morocco with international support continues its illegal and atrocious occupation. From about the age of 14, Saharawi journalist and activist Malainin Lakhal has been fighting for his people’s liberation. In Nairobi this week, he told Pambazuka News editor Henry Makori his experience.
Pambazuka News: How can you describe the current situation in Western Sahara?
Malainin Lakhal: I think the best way to describe the situation in Western Sahara is that it really reflects what is happening in the United Nations, how weak the UN is. It really reflects how the international community has failed to impose its own laws, international legality and respect for the people’s right to self-determination. This is what is happening in Western Sahara.
We are a very clear issue in terms of legality, in terms of all the resolutions adopted by the UN and the African Union. It is a clear case of colonization. There is a people called Western Sahara. There is a colonial power called Morocco that is occupying that country and still the UN and the international community are unable to impose a solution which is clear: give the people the opportunity in a referendum to decide on self-determination. This is how all issues of decolonization were resolved. The people decide what they want to do with their fate, with their future, with their country.
Pambazuka News: When and how did you start your involvement in the liberation struggle in Western Sahara?
Malainin Lakhal: I found out about the situation in my country when I was a teenager of 14 or 15 years old. That was in the mid-1980s. I say I started founding out because back in the 1970s and the 1980s when I was a kid in school we did not have any information about what was going on in Western Sahara. It was a complete media, military and political siege imposed in the Saharawi occupied zone where I was born. In the newspapers or radio you could find nothing about what was going on. Back then it was war. People were being killed. Many people of my country disappeared for years. But there was no information.
In 1987 there was a big intifada [uprising] in the capital of Western Sahara Laayoune. I could understand that something was wrong. For example a lot of my senior friends in school disappeared; we are talking about hundreds. Suddenly in two days about 400 disappeared. They were arrested and put in secret detention camps in Laayoune. The families could not know where their children were. They couldn't ask about them. If you were a father or mother and you went to ask, you could be arrested too. So that was the atmosphere in the occupied zone then: A complete military, political siege; colonizing people by force.
In 1987, it was that big blow to my generation that awakened us to see that we were not Moroccans; we were not being treated as Moroccans. We were different. As kids we could see we were different. We spoke differently, we wore different clothes, we had a different culture, we had different families. And the other people were new in the country; they hated us. You could hear from the Moroccans that Western Sahara was a desert; there was nothing to do in it.
I started seeking information, understanding our history, the legal issues. There were a lot of issues that I did not know back then. The problem of my generation is that we were born amidst the conflict. So positions were already there. There was the armed struggle between the Saharawi liberation movement POLISARIO and Morocco. Our people, like my parents, couldn't speak. They couldn't tell us anything out of fear because if you spoke you could disappear. Many families in Western Sahara disappeared and were killed by the Moroccan army because they just expressed rejection of Moroccan presence, even without any active resistance, just speaking their minds.
Our generation did not get any information from the adults. We had to find it out ourselves, sometimes one small piece of information from the BBC, on the radio, that was big news and we spread it. So, our main aim was to get information and to spread it among our generation. That was done at a big risk because if the Moroccan authorities arrested you with a piece of newspaper or anything written on the issue you disappeared.
It was a tough time in the 1980s but also an eye-opening experience. I think my determination to fight against the Moroccan presence comes from that reality. I was a kid kept ignorant of my own history, the suffering of my own people for too long, 14 or 15 years. And when you get to know it you are disgusted; you get angry knowing that those people were imposing their ways on us. I couldn't accept that.
Pambazuka News: Once you discovered the reality of living under occupation, what did you do beyond getting angry? Did you get into some movement, into some action?
Malainin Lakhal: Yeah. The first thing that I did with a few of my friends was to seek information, try to understand to be able to defend ourselves and then spread the information, secretly of course, among other Saharawi students. In the late ‘80s we started organizing ourselves in secret student organizations, for example using lots of graffiti to raise awareness about events; not raising awareness among the older generation because those ones lived through the Moroccan invasion and knew what was going on.
We were telling our generation: you are Saharawis, not Moroccans; you are colonized. We were using the walls of institutions, schools as a newspaper to raise awareness among the population. And that drove the Moroccans crazy. They were always trying to paint over what we were writing. But that also helped to give our students movement popularity. People were eager to read what we wrote and tried to find out any new graffiti.
Later when I joined university in Agadir in Morocco in 1989 I had access to more information because there were many student organizations active from the ‘60s and ‘70s and some of them were in favour of the Saharawi struggle. Those organizations, particularly those with leftist tendencies, provided me and my friends with a lot of books which I couldn't find inside Western Sahara. One of the things we did at university was to reproduce the information. It was in the ‘80s and we did not have the Internet. Sometimes we had to write articles by hand and make like 20 or 30 copies to distribute like tracts.
There were a lot activities to raise awareness, but we did not as students opt for violent resistance because our understanding was that we had an armed liberation movement, POLISARIO, which was entitled to engage in armed struggle against Morocco. As civilian students, we had other means. Knowledge was the main weapon we used. That experience influenced my current activities: I write, I try to spread the word.
Pambazuka News: Did you ever get into trouble with the Moroccan authorities while doing these things, spreading the word about the occupation?
Malainin Lakhal: Of course. The first time I was arrested was on 4 January 1992 when Moroccan political police found out about my involvement in one of the secret student organisations. I was arrested with five or six other students. It was not really an arrest but a kidnapping. They arrest you in the middle of the night from your house or wherever. They don't give any information to your family about your arrest and if the family has the courage or contacts to ask, they will say: No we don't have this guy. We don't know what happened to him.
That was my first experience of arrest. I was held for about two months. No charge, nothing. Right from day one they took me to the police station and tortured me, beatings, no questions. Their purpose was to scare you and break you. But in my activism we had read a lot about these experiences and we had prepared ourselves for possible arrest and torture. Basically I was aware of their tactics – how they try to scare you, to make you despise yourself by treating you as an animal. Many detainees were sexually abused. It is not something you want to talk about.
Whenever anything happened after 1992, even if I was not in the city in Laayoune, I would be arrested for hours and they would tried to find out if I knew what had happened in this or that place. They would ask about who was funding us, because they were thinking that we were receiving money. They didn't understand that you do not need money to defend your country. You don't.
Pambazuka News: So you became a marked man wherever you were?
Yes. But I was not the only one. Most Saharawis who show resistance or who had an opinion were marked. We are talking about the ‘90s. I was lucky because I was arrested in ’92 when the UN mission was already a few months there. I was arrested among about a hundred students and other young Saharawis. So, they couldn't hide that, one hundred people disappearing. POLISARIO then refused to cooperate with the UN mission, saying we can’t continue the peace process while Morocco engages in such repression. So I was lucky. They began to release us in groups.
I was lucky because if it had been in the ‘80s …. like I told you in 1987, 400 people disappeared, 72 of them held for four years in terrible conditions: imagine four years blindfolded, always with handcuffs behind their back, thrown to the ground without any blanket, eating dirty food with sand; imagine women for four years they couldn't change their underwear, they couldn't change their clothes. The experience of Saharawi prisoners in the ‘70s and ‘80s was really, really terrible. You can’t describe it.
Pambazuka News: As a journalist what do you think of media coverage outside Western Sahara of the Saharawi struggle, about these terrible conditions over the years?
Malainin Lakhal: I don't think there is any serious coverage of the issue of Western Sahara in the international media, especially not in the mainstream media. Those ones are controlled by the West, controlled by France, Saudi Arabia, by the friends of Morocco. One thing that people may not know or ignore is that these dictatorships, these colonial regimes, defend each other. So you will never read anything negative about Morocco in French media; or if you do it will be very light criticism of Morocco or because they can’t hide it any more. You will never read anything against Morocco in the Arab world. In Africa, we don't really have very strong media, media that can shape public opinion.
We are an African issue. We should have the support of all African people, all intellectuals in Africa. Our struggle is similar to the struggle of apartheid South Africa or the struggle of all African nations that were under colonization. We still live in this condition that ended in Africa in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We are still there.
And the Western media, as a journalist, I always compare them to vampires. They only follow blood. They are not interested in any just cause if there is no bloodshed, or if it doesn't serve their interest; the interest of money because in the end they are all companies and not there just to inform you and me or the people, no, no. They defend the interest of the money that stands behind them. I can say that about all the media in the West.
Pambazuka News: You mentioned this earlier, but you can give a bit of detail. The Moroccan occupation is a violation of international law. Numerous UN resolutions affirm the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people. Why, do you think, the UN or, if you like, the international community, has failed to enforce its own resolutions?
Malainin Lakhal: Well, as I said in the beginning, what is happening in Western Sahara is failure of the international system to respect its own laws. Morocco is getting away with it because it is supported by a permanent member state of the UN Security Council. So, if anyone tries to impose resolutions that are very clear to everyone, France will use its veto power. That is how it is. They have used the veto many times to violate international legality. This is why in Western Sahara we understand that our fight is, in fact, against the French. The French government which supports this illegal occupation of Western Sahara is our real enemy.
By the way, it is not only our enemy; it is the enemy of all African nations. The French government impedes the freedom and development of Western Sahara. Everyone knows that Paris controls many African countries and politicians who defend France instead of defending the interests of their own people. This is our problem. We are fighting against a corrupted system; we are fighting a kingdom that is skilled in corrupting people, because Morocco is number one in corrupting people. If you read French books you will find out how Moroccan kings and politicians have bought French support.
Pambazuka News: How can you describe (a) Saharawi women’s suffering under occupation and (b) their own involvement in the liberation struggle?
Malainin Lakhal: The Saharawi woman, like in many African countries, is a very influential member of society. She is independent, participates in the family and social life. The goal of the POLISARIO movement was to unify all Saharawis under one banner, which is to liberate the country. Second, is to liberate and empower women and youth to take over because the older generation was ignorant, having had no access to education. Their participation was limited to the armed struggle. The liberation struggle raised the rates of education and the Saharawi woman has always been part of the struggle. In the refugee camps they have built everything. They participate in the political activities; they hold political positions like the men. In the occupied zone they are involved in the struggle: in demonstrations, a lot of the activists who are arrested are women and girls.
Like in many struggles, the Moroccan authorities use sexual violence against women activists to stop their resistance. We hear a lot about rape, sexual torture to scare the women. We have a lot of Saharawi women prisoners and those who have disappeared. We have many women who are arrested, even when they are pregnant. Sometimes they lose their unborn babies. There is a lot of suffering. The use of sexual abuse as a weapon against activists is really a crime against humanity, in my view. And they get away with it. We have never heard of any Moroccan policeman or official who was arrested or charged with these crimes, even though we have victims and witnesses who tell these stories.
Pambazuka News: A lot of Saharawi people were born during the occupation. You have given me your own experience that growing up you did not have much information about the oppression under Moroccan colonialism. Has the situation changed now? How do young people, especially, learn about the struggle and get involved?
Malainin Lakhal: From the ‘90s there was a big revolution in knowledge and awareness among the young generation about the issues, not only because of what we did but also with the revolution in the media and information technologies. The first Saharawi website was created in 1999, and from then anyone with Internet connection could find information. The POLISARIO front has a very good radio service broadcasting in North Africa and reaching even France and Spain. The Saharawi national radio also plays a huge role in educating the people. But it is the Internet that has brought real change in the ways the new generation gets to understand issues.
Pambazuka News: Morocco was re-admitted to the African Union in January, and of course Western Sahara is a founding member of the continental body. Do you think the AU is doing enough for Western Sahara? Are there things that could perhaps be done better?
Malainin Lakhal: First of all, the admission of Morocco to the African Union was a big mistake. I have said this many times and I say it again. I think that a few coming years will prove me right. You do not admit a cancer into your own weak body. This is how I explain it. Morocco is a cancer. The Moroccan regime is a colonial power. It is not and should not be seen as an African government, no, no. It is not.
It is a monarchy that has problems with all its neighbours. It tried to invade Algeria in 1961. It has problems with Western Sahara, which it invaded in 1975. It has problems with Mauritania, refusing to recognize Mauritanian independence for nine years, 1961-69. It only recognized Mauritania because Mauritania joined the Moroccan colonial adventure in Western Sahara. This is the system we are talking about, a system that is far from all our African principles and goals. It doesn't care about Africa. Morocco left the OAU in 1984 because it was angry with the positions that the union adopted. That is not someone with whom you can have a conversation. I think that the African Union will experience a lot of problems with Morocco in a few years, now that it is back in the AU.
Number two, the OAU/AU did a lot for Western Sahara. The union’s involvement in the dispute goes back to the ‘60s. Back then Africans were the only nations, of course besides other revolutionary regimes, who championed the independence of all African people from all foreign invasions while Western Sahara was colonized by Spain. So it was clear: Spain was a foreigner and Saharawis were African people who should get their independence. Even Morocco in the ‘60s was always defending the independence of Western Sahara. It was only in the ‘70s when the Moroccan king, for many reasons, changed the position and decided to invade Western Sahara to save his kingdom from a military coup. The OAU recognized Western Sahara, it recognized their fight and their government.
The AU should do more since this is an African issue. But the AU faces a lot of problems in imposing its own resolutions, not only in Western Sahara. In many issues when the West is against an African position it is impossible to impose action on the United States or France.
As Saharawis we should reach out to as much African support as possible. I can give you an example. Senegal supports the colonization of Western Sahara. They support Morocco. But this is against the AU principles. It is because Senegal - the government not the people - is under the influence of France. The Senegalese people, the intellectuals, the youth should say no, we cannot support a government that supports colonialism in Africa. We need more involvement, more activism in Africa, not only in favour of Western Sahara but in support of many African issues.
Pambazuka News: Perhaps any final thoughts?
Malainin Lakhal: The issue of Western Sahara should be understood not just as a Saharawi issue. It is not only an African issue, either. It is a case where people’s rights are violated, no matter who these people are. Now it is Western Sahara, tomorrow it can be another people. If all Africans, all people, turn a blind eye to this, tomorrow when they face similar violations no one will care.
We have a very famous Arab fable. There were three bulls in a jungle, one white, another black and the other red. A lion wanted to eat them all, but he couldn't because they were united and strong. So he started dividing them, saying to the white bull: How about you helping me to eat the red bull and you will be my friend? The white bull said, Ok you eat him. In the end there was only one bull left.
The lion is the West. He has eaten us one after another and we are laughing. Where is Gaddafi? What is happening? How could we accept that France comes to Ivory Coast and arrests former President Laurent Gbagbo, whatever the reason? This is an insult to Africans that the West can come to Africa and play the policeman freely. This is what is happening in Western Sahara. A lot of people think that it is not their problem. But it is.