There is worrying news these days from Western Sahara, the territory occupied since the mid-1970s by Morocco (which claims sovereignty over it) after the end of Spanish colonization. This is the last African decolonization. Since the outbreak of hostilities, the part of the Sahrawi people under Moroccan occupation (only a small strip of land is self-governing, while the majority lives in exile in large tent camps in the Algerian desert) has been subjected to a situation even more inhumane than “normal.”
On November 13, the armistice that had lasted for almost 30 years was broken by Moroccan aggression, and since then, as il manifesto has reported several times, a low-intensity war but with very high human and political costs is ongoing. On Wednesday, the news circulated—and was denied—that the Secretary General of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, had escaped a drone attack. However, Dah Al Bendir, chief of staff of the Front’s gendarmerie, lost his life in the raid.
We spoke with Sultana Khaya, a Sahrawi activist who has become a symbol of her people’s struggle, to hear about life under occupation. Khaya is the leader of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and Against the Plundering of Natural Resources organization in Boujdour, a city in northern Western Sahara under Moroccan control. In 2007, she lost her right eye following an aggression suffered at the hands of police at the Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech.
In the occupied territories, Sultana has become a prominent figure, always on the front lines against the occupation: she has organized and participated in demonstrations and denounced and documented the abuses of the occupation forces, especially against Sahrawi women. At the international level as well, she has become a symbol, also joining sessions of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Recently, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have denounced the situation in which she and her family are living.
In a Zoom meeting together with translator and activist Chaikh Alhala, Sultana greeted us with a Sahrawi flag behind her back, the same flag she would miraculously manage to raise on her roof a few hours after our conversation.
“I returned to my family’s home on November 19, after a trip to Spain. While I was away from home that day, Moroccan security forces raided the house and violently struck my 84-year-old mother in the head, later preventing us from transporting her to the hospital in El Aaiun [the designated capital of the Sahrawi state]. From that moment on, the security forces have not left my house, stationed nearby non-stop, day and night.”
Have you ever left the house during these months?
I managed to get out very few times, and to walk only a few meters before being stopped and threatened by Moroccan security forces. Despite the fact that I have not been convicted and am not formally subjected to a detention regime, I am living under siege and am completely impeded from exercising freedom of movement, just because I am recognized as a Sahrawi activist and I’m trying to stand for our aspirations for independence on a daily basis.
(The conversation breaks up every now and then. Alhala explains that the situation in Sultana’s house is so unbearable that she has to constantly check that there are no problems with the Moroccan forces outside the window.)
Your family is also affected, right?
Yes. In over 140 days of siege, every moment has been marked by suffering and harassment. We are constantly suffering threats and attempted attacks by Moroccan security forces. My sisters have also been attacked and beaten several times. One of them, who was pregnant and came from El Aaiun to be with us, lost her baby because of the stress she had to endure.
What has changed since the November 13 ceasefire violation?
The situation has become untenable within the occupied territories of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan authorities committed to forcibly repressing any voice in favor of self-determination. Every day we witness beatings, arrests and convictions after trials that are clearly irregular, marked by confessions extracted through illegal and inhuman practices, such as torture.
(Alhala tells us that the two are in the same town, in Boujdour, but in different houses: of course, she can’t go to visit Sultana either, but she is receiving international solidarity, as well as from the Saharawi territories.)
My situation has prompted not only local residents to show their sympathy and support, but also many Sahrawi activists from other occupied cities (such as Smara, El Aaiun and Dakhla) to come here to express solidarity with me and my family. Any attempt to visit me was immediately targeted by the Moroccan security forces.
It is also an important year in Morocco, as there will be elections. How much will the Sahrawi issue weigh in the political-electoral debate?
Certainly, the Sahrawi issue is part of the political debate in Morocco, but unfortunately all the most representative forces are against the independence movement. There is only one left-wing Moroccan party, Annahj Addimocrati (The Democratic Way), which is close to our cause and with which we have established solidarity ties. However, it is an extra-parliamentary political party, although an important one, which has always boycotted elections in recent years, in clear opposition to the Moroccan power system, the so-called makhzen.
In Italy, several municipal councils (in particular in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany) are expressing solidarity with the Sahrawi people, and the drive towards getting organized has taken root, despite the difficulties due to the pandemic. What more can be done?
I want to thank all the free people showing solidarity, everywhere in the world, who are at our side. These days, an international solidarity campaign is starting, aiming to put an end to the siege to which my family is being subjected. But I want to make it clear that I am not only interested in ending the repression against me. What I want is the liberation of the occupied territories and the self-determination of the Sahrawi people.