In Stockholm, Democracy Now! sat down with one of the winners of this year’s Right Livelihood Award: Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar. For over three decades, Haidar has led a peaceful campaign to resist the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, which is often called Africa’s last colony. Morocco has occupied Western Sahara, a small region just south of Morocco in northwest Africa, since 1975. Thousands have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the occupation. Peaceful protesters, led by women, are routinely beaten in the streets. Despite this violent repression, Haidar has led countless hunger strikes and demonstrations and unflinchingly documented the abuses against the Sahrawi people for more than 30 years. She is a former political prisoner who was jailed for four years in a secret prison. In granting her the award, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation cited her “steadfast nonviolent action, despite imprisonment and torture, in pursuit of justice and self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.” Haidar says it’s time for the international community to push for an end to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. “My message is: Let’s put an end to our suffering. Let’s put an end to this injustice. Let’s give a voice to Sahrawi people, let them choose their future.”
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Open Channel in Stockholm, Sweden, where Democracy Now! broadcasts every weekday.
We turn now to one of the winners of this year’s Right Livelihood Award: the Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar. For over three decades, Haidar has led a peaceful campaign to resist the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, often called Africa’s last colony. Morocco has occupied Western Sahara, a small region just south of Morocco in northwest Africa, since 1975, in defiance of the United Nations and the international community. Thousands have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the occupation. Peaceful protesters, led by women, are routinely beaten in the streets.
Despite this violent repression, Aminatou Haidar has led countless hunger strikes and demonstrations and unflinchingly documented the abuses against the Sahrawi people for more than 30 years. She’s a former political prisoner who was jailed for four years in a secret prison. In granting her the award, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation cited her, quote, “steadfast nonviolent action, despite imprisonment and torture, in pursuit of justice and self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.”
I sat down with Aminatou Haidar just before she won the Right Livelihood Award, and I began by asking her to explain what’s happening in occupied Western Sahara.
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I would want to let them know about the situation of my people, the Sahrawi people. It’s a people that is separated, one under Moroccan occupation and the other one in Sahrawi camps. They live in difficult conditions. And I come from the occupied territory under Moroccan occupation. Western Sahara is an ex-colony, an ex-Spanish colony, the last colony in Africa. Since ’75, it is occupied by the kingdom of Morocco. This has been a tragedy for us. It has led to a lot of suffering, deprivation of our rights, torture, disappearance, arbitrary detention, the deprivation of our social, economic, cultural, political rights.
I have spent four years of my life, eye-bounded, in a prison, a secret prison, without having had a trial. Nothing. During that whole period, I was cut from the outside world, no connection with my own family. But my case is not a unique one. It is similar to thousands, hundreds of my land, men and women in Western Sahara.
It is a territory where international observers are not welcome. It is forbidden to them to have access to Western Sahara. When there are delegations of journalists, civil societies, parliamentarians, they are expelled from Western Sahara. Four days ago, a parliamentarian delegation from the Basque Country in Spain couldn’t get out of the plane, and they were expelled to the Canary Islands.
But at the same time we’re talking about violation, about repressions, but we must also talk about our resistance, our determination. We are determined to continue our peaceful struggle to make sure that our rights to freedom and independence are fulfilled.
AMY GOODMAN: Aminatou, can you tell us your personal story, where you were born, where you grew up, and then what happened to you?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I was born in the south of Morocco in a county that, unfortunately, I have never seen up to today, because I grew up in Western Sahara in the occupied territories. I grew up under bombs in a situation of war.
AMY GOODMAN: And then explain what happened to you, how you became active, when you were first imprisoned.
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] When I was 15 years old, I started to understand that there was a war. I started to understand that my people were separated into two territories. I started to understand that a part of my family was in a refugee camp, that they had to flee for their life. And from then on, a sense of suffering grew up in me. I wondered what I could do to help my people. And when I was 17, I really understood the situation, and I started to commit myself for the struggle for my people. At that time, it wasn’t possible to be an activist publicly, so I was being discreet. I was hiding myself, just like all my compatriots. I was studying in high school.
And when I turned 20, a commission of the U.N. of the African organization was going to visit Western Sahara. It was in ’87. A referendum was to be organized. And me, together with other students, we took the decision to organize a big demonstration to make sure that our message would be heard, to make sure that our voices would be heard, to tell people that we were here in Western Sahara, that we wanted our freedom, that we were against Moroccan occupation, and also to help our parents, our brothers, who had disappeared since ’76.
So, before the arrival of this commission, the Moroccan government — arbitrary kidnapping — and I was a victim of this crime against humanity. I was 20 years old. And my eyes were bounded. I was in a secret prison, tortured. Imagine me during four years not seeing anything, being humiliated, psychological and physical torture, attempt of sexual violence, attempt against my life. I had no connection whatsoever to the outside world, no contact with my family. No sentences, no trial. Nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how, ultimately, were you freed?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] In '91, thanks to the peace agreement that was signed by Morocco, the occupying power, and the Polisario Front, which represented from the Sahrawi people. So, in that peace agreement, a ceasefire was included, and the liberation of political detainees and war prisoners, an exchange of prisoners. And thanks to that, I was liberated, together with a group of Sahrawi, 324 people, and among them 74 women. And we know that more than 500 Sahrawi are still — well, we still don't know where they are. They are still the victims of disappearance.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Aminatou, how long have you been imprisoned? And was it for that one time, or were you picked up again?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I was detained again in 2005 and spent seven months in a prison in Laayoune because of my activities. Because once we were liberated, well, we had left a small prison to find a big prison, an open-sky prison, in Western Sahara. So, the police was after us. They would ask us about different questions. We couldn’t travel abroad. And personally, I spent years without having traveling documents, until 2005. And thanks to the intervention of the State Department, the American State Department, after the visit of an American delegation in Laayoune — this delegation met me and other activists, and they learned that I didn’t have any passports and that that was the case of other Sahrawis. And they intervened, and a few months after that, Moroccan authorities gave me a travel document.
But a month after that, they beat me in the middle of the street. They arrested me. And on a wrong report with false accusations, false charges, the Moroccan judge ordered my arrest, and I was sent to prison, and I was on a trial with another group of human rights defenders. And that was after the intifada was launched. The intifada is a series of peaceful demonstration for the independence of the Sahrawi people.
It was thanks to us human right defenders that we succeeded to make the situation of the Sahrawi known, the situation of our occupation. We managed to make our voices heard, and Sahrawi left a situation of terror that Morocco had kept upon them during 10, 20 years, 30 years. It’s thanks to us that Sahrawi follow a peaceful struggle. They know how to demand their rights without using violence. So, we disturbed the Moroccan government, so we were arrested again, because they wanted to scare other Sahrawi, and they wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be as many protests as there were at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: When we were in Western Sahara, when we were in Laayoune, we met activists like Sultana Khaya, who had her eye gouged out by Moroccan police, Mina Bali, who was beaten in a demonstration along with Sultana and others. Are women particularly targeted? And how are they dealt with? We had video of them being sexually abused in the street by the security forces.
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Yes. As I said earlier, my case is not unique. Sultana Khaya, a young Sahrawi woman, sacrificed one of her eye. And the only crime she committed was that she demanded the right of independence for her people. Same thing for Mina Bali. And today, we have another woman, a young Sahrawi, who has two children, and she is in prison today. She was sentenced to six months imprisoned, because she protested against a false trial against her cousin.
Those Sahrawi women are victims of repression. They are courageous women. They are determined. We are an exception in the Arabic Muslim world because we are respected within our society. We are in the struggle. Nothing stops us. And the Sahrawi woman is seen as the spine of the pacific resistance, the driving force of the struggle. She is and has been present in the struggle in the occupied territories, in the refugee camps. And it has a lot of value. And Western countries must acknowledge this.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you demanding now?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I am calling upon the international community that should apply international law, and the United Nations should be coherent with their values, the reason why they were funded. The injustice against us happens because some international powers act with complicity. So my message is: Let’s put an end to our sufferings. Let’s put an end to this injustice. Let’s give a voice to Sahrawi people, let them choose their future.
And my message is that the situation is serious. We need to avoid war, because young Sahrawi today do not believe in a peaceful struggle anymore. There are mines around them. There are terrorists all around them. We need to guarantee our rights. We are a people that deserves to be free because of our values. We are a courageous people, a determined people. We have conducted a peaceful struggle since the ceasefire, during 28 years now. We are a people that respects other religions. We are a tolerant people. We believe in coexistence. We believe in democracy, in equality between genders. We have a moderate form of Islam. I think that international law should be applied as soon as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. special envoy to Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, quit his post in May. The U.N. has taken a step back, clearly, in resolving the conflicts. What prospects are there for a resolution?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Exactly. That’s why I’m concerned. That’s what worries me most. The former envoy, Horst Köhler, made sure that things started to go forward. And that is also the case of the American ambassador, Christopher Ross. They managed to make sure that negotiations went on. But they didn’t get the support that was needed. They didn’t have the support of the international community, the United States and France.
France is our big problem because they block the peace process in Western Sahara. France doesn’t want the MINURSO to get a greater mandate so that the MINURSO can monitor human rights. I really urge the United Nations to nominate, as soon as possible, another special envoy to start negotiations again to make sure that we find a peaceful solution.
AMY GOODMAN: The Polisario Front is holding its 15th Congress on December 21st, 19th through 21st, the first under its new president, Brahim Ghali. The leadership has accused Morocco of blocking a solution to the conflict and says it’s reviewing the ceasefire that has been in effect and that all options are on the table. Do you think there’s the possibility the Polisario will pick up arms, return to war? And what would this mean?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Unfortunately, it is quite possible. The Polisario Front is under the pressure of young generations, under the pressure of young people who do not believe in a peaceful fight anymore, a peaceful struggle anymore. And that’s the reason why I try to say loud that measures should be taken to avoid a new war.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re now in Sweden, which was poised to recognize the Sahrawian government, until Morocco blocked the grand opening of the famous Swedish company IKEA, and then Sweden backed down. How unusual is this? And how does Morocco influence these kinds of decisions? What did that mean to you?
AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] We’ve always been supported by the Swedish people and by the Swedish government, and the Swedish attitude is a friendly one. But I can’t hide that I’m very disappointed, and all my compatriots are disappointed, because after the decision of the Swedish parliament in 2012, a decision to recognize the Arab Sahrawi Democratic Republic, what happened, the Swedish government didn’t adopt that decision of the parliament. It never recognized the Sahrawi republic, after pressures from Morocco. And that was detrimental to the image of Sweden. It’s a pity to see a democratic country like Sweden giving way to the pressure of an occupying power and not supporting the victim, the Sahrawi people, not caring about the law, not respecting the will of the Swedish people. Because the parliament represents the voice of the Swedish people. And that was my message today.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Right Livelihood laureate, Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar. She was celebrated Wednesday night for her decades of resistance against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Go to democracynow.org to see our hour-long “documentary”:”:https://www.democracynow.org/2019/1/1/four_days_in_occupied_western_sahara, Four Days in Occupied Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.
When we come back, as Medicare for All and free college have become key issues of the U.S. 2020 presidential race, we’ll look at Sweden’s thriving welfare state. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Norwegian songwriter, vocalist, guitarist Ane Brun performing “One” at the Right Livelihood Award ceremony Wednesday night here in Stockholm. To see all the performances and all the speeches of the Right Livelihood laureates, go to democracynow.org.