Malainin Lakhal made the dangerous escape journey through the Moroccan Berm 11 years ago. Malainin’s contribution here provides an insight to that perilous escape journey, which many Sahrawi activists are forced to make when their lives are in extreme danger from the security forces. Watch a podcast.
I think of myself as a freedom fighter with a laptop - I am an activist, a dreamer (a poet!) and journalist in the Sahrawi refugee camps, where I set up the Sahrawi Journalists and Writers Union with a few other friends to tell the world the story of the resistance and survival of the Sahrawi people. (Other media include the press service SPS RASD and the new local TV funded and assisted by Spanish NGOs called RASD TV.) But the Moroccans called me a ‘trouble maker’. I was born and raised in the occupied city of El Aaiun. I was four years old when the Moroccans invaded us.
© Paulo Nunes dos SantosIn 2000, I was forced to flee Moroccan occupied Western Sahara because the regime began hunting me down for my resistance activities as a human rights activist. I had to make a dangerous crossing over the berm, through the heavily land-mined sand wall that the Moroccans built to divide my country, to the safety of the refugee camps. Had they caught me, I would have faced harsh imprisonment and beatings, if not torture and disappearance forever.
They wanted me because I was active in the Sahrawi students’ movement in Moroccan universities – I had studied English Language and Literature at Ibn Zuhr University in Agadir. They had detained me more than three times and shown me the colour of their torture methods and hatred. In 1999 I helped organise the biggest popular uprising in Western Sahara - for more than three months we were able to ‘liberate’ our city from Moroccan control. We had daily demonstrations and sit-ins, but there were violent scenes from the Moroccan military and secret service.
For just over a year I had to work undercover, but then my friends and family told me it was time to leave. Once I reached the refugee camps, I first worked as a teacher, then a translator, then I found an opportunity in 2003 to join the Saharawi Press Service to launch the English page of SPS, and from then on I continued to focus on my work as a journalist-activist, to help the guys inside the territory get the story to the outside world.
It started in 1975 when the Moroccan invasion started. They wanted our land, our Atlantic coastline and our natural resources. Their war made it clear they wanted to exterminate the Sahrawi people. That was clearly declared by the Moroccan king in the speech where he declares his ‘Green March’, but the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people were organised before the invasion, thank God.
Our liberation movement was constituted in 1973 so we were able to put up resistance to the Moroccan invasion. Morocco infamously called the invasion the Green March, which was made up of ordinary Moroccan citizens, most of whom were misled by propaganda or driven to participate by force on 6 November 1975.
But six days before the march, Moroccan military tanks were already erasing any resistance in front of them. The phosphorous bombs, the fighter jets, the soldiers and the secret service did the dirty work to prepare the ground. The Spanish administration didn’t resist; they signed what they call the Madrid Tripartite Agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to split the country between these two African regimes. Morocco started sending settlers - ordinary Moroccans given incentives to resettle on our land - to change our demographics.
When our women and children had fled east towards Algeria, they set up the first refugee camps. A year later, in 1976, we proclaimed our nation-state in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. We have the only refugee camps in the world in which there is a nation state. Our population is split into two - half of us are in the refugee camps, the other half live in the Occupied Territory where Morocco suppresses us and systematically violates all our human rights.
So far, the Moroccan government has refused and confused all possible peaceful resolutions to the conflict. A referendum should be the solution to the conflict, according to international law and all United Nations resolutions. All that we, the Sahrawi people, want is that simple human right of self-determination that we should have had when the Spanish colonial administration in our country began to end. Other colonies were given that right to vote, except us. To this day, Morocco keeps refusing to cooperate within the UN, thanks to the unconditional help of France and the United States. It is because of these two powers and because of Spain that the Moroccan kingdom has succeeded in avoiding complying with international law. More about this dynamic can be seen by watching this Democracy Now! investigative documentary that features huge Spanish civil society protests and includes famous actor Javier Bardem.
Sahrawi people bear no enmity towards the Moroccan people. We think of them as an oppressed people living under an absolute monarchy that has spent billions of dollars on its defense budget to steal our land, rather than spend that money on its own people and infrastructure. The question about the Western Sahara conflict is a question about the Moroccan king himself. We know that the Moroccan people themselves, especially the settlers in the occupied territory, are not those responsible for the occupation. They are tools used by the regime to make the occupation demographically substantial and real. So our problem is not with the Moroccan people or the Moroccan settlers. The Polisario Front has clearly said in peace talks at the UN that it is ready to offer some of these settlers the right to Sahrawi citizenship.
Morocco wants to silence us; it wants us to go away, to abandon our land, to delete our history from the desert geography. But we are only demonstrating for the right to vote and choose our destiny. We are freedom fighters - we want the right to choose our destiny. We want Morocco to stop violating our human rights and our territorial rights. Our human rights organisations talk about more than 500 people who have disappeared, of 151 Saharawi prisoners of war who are still not accounted for by the Moroccan authorities, of 20,000 victims of arbitrary arrest and thousands of victims of torture. And these are only the cases that these human rights organisations can document - there used to be many more that were not recorded. But now we have an active network of human rights advocates and university students who risk their lives to get the information out to organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
© Paulo Nunes dos SantosWe have always been in a war against Moroccan colonialism; the only difference is that we are now using new weapons - the demonstration, the sit-in, the word. Sahrawi political prisoners and activists in the occupied zones are giving their blood and bodies as weapons and sacrifice for the sake of freedom. And they need help; they need from us to watch their backs, to support them and to make the world hear their stories. The youth need also to learn more about our history, our tradition, our values and our culture, because this is another weapon in the ongoing war. The Moroccan regime worked hard and invested millions to try to destroy Sahrawi culture, values and identity.
Will we vote for independence or for ‘integration’ into Morocco? Well, the answer might be the latter. But the fact that half our population resolutely suffer the hardship of the refugee camps, and the other half in the Moroccan Occupied Territory risk their lives with regular Moroccan detentions and torture suggests that our people want full independence. This is what Morocco is so scared of. This is why Morocco keeps making the peace talks muddy.
© Paulo Nunes dos SantosWe just want the right to vote. Then, finally, we will all know the answer to the question of the Western Sahara. We have to fight for our right all the time because people like me are not only journalists, but also human rights activists and freedom fighters. We are struggling for a basic human right, the right to self-determination, to democracy, to freedom of expression, to the right to a safe life, and to independence - and these are rights that all human beings must have and defend. And you have to know that if we lose them today because we are weak and because you did not care, you will lose them tomorrow because our case will be a precedent.
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* Malainin Lakhal is secretary general of the Sahrawi Journalists and Writers Union, based in the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.