The United States has become the first nation in the world to recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. The Trump administration announced the major policy shift on December 10 — International Human Rights Day — as part of a deal that saw Morocco become the fourth Arab nation to normalize ties to Israel in recent months. In this special rebroadcast of a Democracy Now! exclusive documentary, we break the media blockade and go to occupied Western Sahara in the northwest of Africa to document the decades-long Sahrawi struggle for freedom and Morocco’s violent crackdown. In late 2016, Democracy Now! managed to get into the Western Saharan city of Laayoune, becoming the first international news team to report from the occupied territory in years. Many of the Sahrawis in this film are currently under police siege or in hiding.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! exclusive: “Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.”
Western Sahara, where peaceful protesters, led by women, are beaten in the streets. Thousands have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the Moroccan occupation.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] He jabbed right at my eye with his baton. I was yelling at him, “Hey, you Moroccan! You pulled out my eye!”
AMY GOODMAN: Where natural resources are plundered, from phosphates to fish.
HMAD HAMMAD: [translated] I say that our damnation comes from the natural resources we have here. If it wasn’t for these natural resources, Morocco never would have invaded Western Sahara.
AMY GOODMAN: Where a massive wall divides a people, the Sahrawi, the native population, denied a vote for self-determination.
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] If we don’t speak out, especially us, as victims who have suffered all of this, if we don’t speak out and defend our cause, this problem will remain.
AMY GOODMAN: Western Sahara — the center of a four-decades-long struggle for independence from Morocco, its neighbor to the north. Morocco has occupied the territory since 1975 in defiance of the United Nations and the international community.
The story of Western Sahara is one of colonialism, plunder and resistance. It’s also a story rarely told in the international media.
And it’s here in Western Sahara where the scholar Noam Chomsky says the Arab Spring first began in late 2010, before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
NOAM CHOMSKY: The Moroccan forces came in, destroyed tent cities, a lot of killed and wounded and so on. And then it spread.
AMY GOODMAN: But the struggle in Western Sahara dates back much longer. For nearly a century, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain. But the Spanish occupation ended in 1975, setting off a regional fight. On October 31st, 1975, both Morocco from the north and Mauritania from the south invaded Western Sahara as Spain withdrew.
Days after Moroccan troops invaded, King Hassan II ordered hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens to enter Western Sahara in what became known as the Green March. Mauritania would withdraw less than four years later, but Morocco has remained to this day.
Just days after the Moroccan invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately told President Gerald Ford he hoped for a, quote, “rigged UN vote” at the Security Council to confirm Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara.
About half of the Sahrawi population fled the invasion to neighboring Algeria, where they settled in refugee camps in the middle of the desert. The Moroccan invasion set off a 16-year-long war with the Sahrawi liberation movement known as the Polisario Front. Morocco’s army, with the help of U.S. military aid, drove the Polisario to Western Sahara’s Eastern Desert. Morocco then created the world’s longest minefield and built the second-longest wall on Earth, with the help of U.S. weapons companies Northrop and Westinghouse.
The nearly 1,700-mile wall divides Sahrawis who remain under occupation from those who fled into exile.
The Moroccan government began decades of torture, disappearances, killings and repression against pro-independence Sahrawis living in the occupied territory.
In 1991, the U.N. sponsored a ceasefire and promised Sahrawis a referendum on self-determination, organized by its peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO. Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize the vote, and the U.N. Security Council has refused to implement its own referendum plan or allow MINURSO to monitor the human rights situation in the territory.
And the international media has largely ignored the occupation, in part because Morocco has routinely blocked journalists from entering Western Sahara.
But in late 2016, Democracy Now! successfully broke the news blockade. We were in Marrakech, Morocco, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. With U.N. credentials and U.S. passports, we decided to take a chance and attempt to do what no foreign television crew has done in years: report from Africa’s last colony.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! We’ve just landed in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, hoping to report from here, occupied by Morocco for more than 40 years. We’re at the airport now. We’ll see what happens.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m speaking quietly on the plane because journalists, even Western journalists, are rarely allowed into Western Sahara. We don’t know if this is the moment we’ll be turned back, as so many others have been.
Maybe it’s the U.N. press badges around our necks. Maybe it’s our U.S. passports. Or maybe it’s just that our arrival was so unexpected. But after a check of our documents and a few questions, we’re waved through customs.
Outside the airport, we climb into a car driven by Jamal, our translator and guide.
JAMAL: It’s very nice to meet you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, who are the plainclothes officers at the airport?
JAMAL: Those are security officers. Some of them belong to different departments.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamal says we’ve been observed by local police, the Moroccan secret service and intelligence agents.
JAMAL: So, welcome to Laayoune. This is Laayoune. Actually, the airport is so close, so nearby, that you could walk.
AMY GOODMAN: We arrive at the Hotel Salwan, knowing that the receptionist is obliged to inform the police of our presence. We check in quickly and immediately prepare to interview Sahrawi activists in one of our rooms. We don’t know how many hours — or minutes — we’ll have to record before the authorities arrive.
Soon, a small contingent of Sahrawis enters.
Our first interview is with journalist Mohamed Mayara. He speaks in hushed tones about the torture and murder his family faced at the hands of the Moroccan authorities.
MOHAMED MAYARA: My father was among four brothers who were kidnapped directly when Morocco invaded the Western Sahara. So, he was arrested on February 27th, 1976. I was 2 months [old]. He was kidnapped, and then they sent him to a secret jail, well known by the Sahrawis, Agdz in Southern Morocco. He spent one year and six months, and he was killed under torture.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of risk do you take speaking to a Western journalist like me?
MOHAMED MAYARA: I have a daughter who is 7 years old. So, I told her when she asked me about my father. So, I tried to tell her that my father was kidnapped and tortured and etc., but I tried to teach her that one day I will face the same fate. So, I’m always waiting.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you take that risk?
MOHAMED MAYARA: Because I think this engagement, this is the duty of freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: The work of Mohamed Mayara’s citizen journalist group Equipe Media is documented in the film 3 Stolen Cameras. It shows the gruesome fate of a Sahrawi cameraman who was pushed off a rooftop by police after he was spotted filming a bloody crackdown on a peaceful protest.
SAHRAWI CAMERAMAN: [translated] Suddenly, an undercover policeman had detected me on a rooftop. They suddenly appeared and pushed me over the edge. As I fell down on the street, I broke my leg. Other policemen dragged me on the ground. A bit further down the street there was a burning tire. They pulled me over it. It was no accident. They wanted to demonstrate their power and show what happens to those who try to break the media blockade.
AMY GOODMAN: Facing this kind of violence against those who document Morocco’s crackdown on dissent, it’s remarkable that these Sahrawis were willing to speak with us.
We also meet journalist Hayat Khatari.
AMY GOODMAN: Can media operate here in Western Sahara? Can you have your own media?
HAYAT KHATARI: [translated] We are very much harassed. The most recent episode was when my sister Nazha al-Khalidi had her camera confiscated. And then they arrested her. And she was brutally treated by the authorities over 24 hours in the police station. That’s apart from when she was trying to videotape a peaceful demonstration at the beach of Foum el-Oued.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s now past midnight. Not long after we finish our interviews, we get a phone call. The hotel receptionist tells us the police are in the hotel lobby, demanding to see us. We make our way downstairs. Two men in plainclothes tell us to sit down and warn us against reporting in Western Sahara. We go back upstairs, and, soon after, we learn a pro-Moroccan government website called Sahara Zoom had published details about our trip, including information about the interviews we had done in our hotel room that night. The message was clear: We’re watching you.
This is a Democracy Now! special, “Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.”
AMY GOODMAN: That is Sahrawi singer Mariem Hassan from her album El Aaiun on Fire (El Aaiun Egdat). This is a Democracy Now! special, “Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.” I’m Amy Goodman.
It’s day two of our trip to Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. Despite warnings against reporting from here, we set off for the offices of a human rights group. We carry all our possessions with us, assuming our hotel rooms could be searched or we could be deported at a moment’s notice. Everywhere we go, we’re followed.
AMY GOODMAN: We just left our hotel. And a man with a motorcycle just outside, as we came out, he started texting. And now he’s a little bit behind us, keeping a careful distance. We’ve got security on our tail. We’ve made a right and a left and a right. We made a U-turn, and the man on a motorcycle is right behind.
Everywhere we drive are the posters, the billboards of the king. That’s the Moroccan king, King Mohammed VI.
JAMAL: Right here. Right here. This is the door, so…
AMY GOODMAN: We have arrived at the only Moroccan-accepted nonprofit here in Laayoune. There’s clearly security sitting right next to the door. And the motorcyclist, the so-called security, is right behind us.
AMY GOODMAN: The human rights organization has a long name. ASVDH stands for the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State. The walls of its office are lined with posters and photographs showing the names and faces of the imprisoned, the disappeared, the now dead.
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] My name is Elghalia Djimi. I’m a former victim of forced disappearance. I’m the vice president of the Sahrawi association here. That’s where we are right now. It’s our association that traces the files of Sahrawi disappearance victims. Today, November 20th, marks the anniversary of my forced disappearance, which took place in 1987.
AMY GOODMAN: Elghalia Djimi, describe what happened to you.
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] What happened to me happened to all the victims. Specifically, the pictures that I saw from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, they made me feel that I lived the same thing, that I underwent the same conditions, but in darkness. At that time, there was nobody to take pictures of us. There was nobody to talk about us.
AMY GOODMAN: Elghalia Djimi shows us her arm, left scarred after her captors unleashed a dog on her.
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] I still bear the marks of the dog bites, right here.
AMY GOODMAN: Who did this to you?
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] It was the Moroccan state and the Moroccan police, the secret police. The same thing they did to me, they did to my grandmother before, in 1984, when she was kidnapped. And so far we don’t know anything about what happened to her. I was stripped naked completely. The worst part of the torture, as a Muslim and an Arab, was that I was stripped naked. I lost all my hair because of the chemicals they used on my head, which they left on me for two months and 27 days.
AMY GOODMAN: Elghalia Djimi sinks to the floor as she continues to describe her torture in Moroccan police custody.
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] One of the torturers would put water onto my face, which was covered with a rag, until I started asphyxiating. And then he would slap my face until I would breathe again.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you saying they waterboarded you?
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] Yes. They poured water on my face until I asphyxiated. And then one of them who was at my feet would beat me with a baton. Then, in the same area, they had a small hole filled with water where they put me. And then they would bring an electric generator, and they would electrocute me using that technique, in my fingers and in my ears. They threatened me with rape, to kill me with a pistol to the head, and to brainwash me.
AMY GOODMAN: You were tortured 30 years ago. Do you feel you are taking a risk when you speak out?
ELGHALIA DJIMI: [translated] I am not afraid. I took a vow that we have to talk about this issue. If we don’t speak out, especially us, as victims who have suffered all of this, if we don’t speak out and defend our cause, this problem will remain.
AMY GOODMAN: Our interview is interrupted when our guide Jamal receives an urgent phone call. We’ve been summoned to appear before the most powerful man in Laayoune. We get back into our car and head for his residence. Once again, we’re followed by a man on a motorcycle. Are we about to be deported?
Time after time, journalists are turned back as they try to enter Western Sahara, like 12 Spanish reporters deported from Laayoune’s airport after their arrival in 2010, including the renowned radio reporter Àngels Barceló.
ÀNGELS BARCELÓ: [translated] Every time they turn us away, we should go and tell the story on air, go and say, “Today we have tried it again, and today the Moroccans have sent us away again.”
AMY GOODMAN: And the Spanish journalist Bernard Millet.
BERNARD MILLET: [translated] They inspected all my gear — cameras, photographs — and they made me erase photos that, according to them, were incriminating.
AMY GOODMAN: And human rights observers are deported, as well, like European parliamentarian Willy Meyer, Spanish lawmaker Xabier Ron, a Norwegian delegation held on a bus and expelled in 2016, and many others. All of them tried and failed to do what we had somehow managed — to make it into Western Sahara to report on the occupation.
JAMAL: We’re going to see the governor of Laayoune. His name is Yahdih Bouchaab. He’s the wali. Actually, we call him the wali. It’s a much superior position to the governor. He’s appointed by the king.
AMY GOODMAN: The wali is a Sahrawi and former member of the Polisario Front. He now works for the Moroccan monarchy, overseeing a security apparatus that seeks to crush the Sahrawi independence movement. We arrive at his fortified compound and are escorted inside by armed guards — afraid we’re about to be expelled from the territory.
JAMAL: So, this is the residency of the governor, the wali. OK, let’s go please.
AMY GOODMAN: Inside the wali’s residence, we’re seated, served tea, dates and nuts, as the wali tells us, in no uncertain terms, we’re not allowed to practice journalism in Western Sahara.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: If you have the authorization, I would be more than glad to provide this interview. Second position, if I am retired, I can even come to your station in the U.S. and to deliver that interview. I would be more than glad. But now, as far as you have no authorization.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the wali’s warnings, I continue to question him.
I quote from a Human Rights Watch report titled “Keeping It Secret,” about Morocco’s efforts to block access to MINURSO. That’s the U.N. mission for a referendum on the status of Western Sahara.
AMY GOODMAN: ”MINURSO staff members, including military observers, are subjected to constant surveillance by Morocco. This, and internal pressure from MINURSO, made them reluctant, even frightened, to speak to our organization” — which is Human Rights Watch — “except on the explicit condition of anonymity.”
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Very exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: “Moroccan security forces” — this is Human Rights Watch.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Very exciting. Human Rights Watch — is that Bible?
AMY GOODMAN: No, but I’m — are you —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Is that Qur’an?
AMY GOODMAN: Are you — no, I’m asking: Are you disagreeing with this?
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: I disagree completely.
AMY GOODMAN: They say —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: They are working for an agenda here.
AMY GOODMAN: “Moroccan” —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Wait, wait. What they have said about the other party?
AMY GOODMAN: “Moroccan security forces tried” —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: About the Polisario?
AMY GOODMAN: —”to prevent Human Rights Watch” —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: — “from entering the U.N. headquarters, stating that entry was forbidden to non-MINURSO staff unless it had been cleared with local Moroccan authorities first. Moroccan authorities’ harassment of Human Rights Watch, as well as their strict surveillance of its activities” —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Very important. Very exciting. [laughs]
AMY GOODMAN: — “impeded the organization’s ability to conduct a thorough investigation of human rights in” —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Anything. They say just anything just to make — to make things exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you one other question, which is of concern to many people in the human rights community, which is the issue of the protests here being cracked down on and people being beaten or arrested.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: That’s a good thing. If you are talking about peaceful demonstration, I am with. Completely, I am. I appreciate to see people demonstrating and to give their — to provide their opinions.
AMY GOODMAN: But people got injured.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: People got injured. People —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: You will see by yourself.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying people are not being hurt in the demonstrations?
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: You will see who was hurt by those demonstrations. It’s not demonstrations. It’s completely the anarchy.
AMY GOODMAN: As I continue to press him on human rights, the wali loses his temper.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: You talk about — about — about human rights? Human rights, even in United States you don’t have them. You have more than 1 million people living just in the underground in New York. And they are eating rats. And yeah —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: Rats. And when they are sick, they are eaten by the rats.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s true.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: “Democracy Now”? You have to work on it in Guantánamo and everywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a very important point.
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: That’s it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s —
YAHDIH BOUCHAAB: I think I was very happy to see you, because —
AMY GOODMAN: With that, we’re dismissed — and warned against continuing to report from Western Sahara.
During our discussion, the wali repeatedly mentioned the close U.S.-Moroccan relationship, which dates back to 1777, when Morocco became the first nation to recognize the United States. While the U.S. has never recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Washington has played a pivotal role in shoring up Morocco’s occupation.
In addition to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hoping for a rigged vote at the United Nations Security Council regarding Western Sahara, President Jimmy Carter’s State Department in 1979 gave $200 million to the U.S. company Northrop Page Communications to build an “intrusion detection system” for the nearly 1,700-mile wall Morocco built in Western Sahara, which is lined with an estimated 7 million land mines. A year later, Carter provided Morocco with $230 million in military aid. It’s been a bipartisan affair ever since.
King Hassan II with President Reagan in 1982.
KING HASSAN II: Moroccan people and American people will be ready always to mix their blood for the dignity of man.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: His majesty briefed me on the latest developments in his efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Western Sahara, and I expressed my admiration for his support.
AMY GOODMAN: After the Cold War ended, Morocco became a key U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror. In 2004, President George W. Bush designated Morocco to be a major non-NATO ally of the United States, opening the door for more military deals. And the money has flowed both ways. The state-owned Moroccan phosphate company OCP, which operates in Western Sahara, donated as much as $12 million to the Clinton Foundation prior to the 2016 election.
And the wali proudly pulled up a photo on his cellphone from January of 1992, showing Donald Trump, his soon-to-be wife Marla Maples and Moroccan King Hassan II at Trump’s prime property, the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Jump forward a quarter of a century to now-President Trump’s disgraced Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Prior to his resignation, Pruitt took a controversial $100,000 trip to Morocco in December of 2017, where he met with the head of Morocco’s state-owned mining company. Pruitt’s trip was arranged by a lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, who accompanied Pruitt and helped set up meetings for him.
As we drive through the streets of Laayoune, everywhere are signs of occupation. The city was built up under Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco and has been occupied by Morocco since the mid-’70s.
We pass the United Nations’ MINURSO compound, where just over 200 U.N. peacekeepers monitor the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario, but are legally prevented from intervening to stop human rights abuses.
And we drive past the high walls of the notorious Black Prison, where generations of Sahrawis have been detained, tortured and disappeared.
One of them is Sahrawi independence activist Hmad Hammad, who welcomes us into his home. Over tea, he describes his torture at the hands of the Moroccan authorities during his years spent as a political prisoner.
HMAD HAMMAD: [translated] They linked electrodes to my ears, and something to my underarms and to my tongue, and then other sensitive parts. I was bound. And when they used that manual generator, I would hear it cranking. Rrr. Rrr. Rrr. Each time they cranked that generator up, I felt that my heart was going to burst out of my body.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara an occupation. What was your response?
HMAD HAMMAD: [translated] My answer is clear. We are a people. We have a homeland. We have a culture. We have all these things that constitute a country. We are very different from the Moroccans. It’s impossible for us to be Moroccans. We have no common history. There is nothing that links us to them whatsoever. I say that our damnation comes from the natural resources we have here. If it wasn’t for these natural resources, Morocco would never have invaded Western Sahara, with the support of Spain and France.
AMY GOODMAN: Western Sahara is a territory rich in natural resources, which Morocco has exploited since the 1975 invasion, despite international court rulings establishing that the kingdom has no sovereignty over the territory. Morocco controls the majority of the world’s reserves of phosphates, a mineral used in fertilizers that’s critical to feeding the world.
Phosphate is transported more than 60 miles along the world’s longest conveyor belt, from mines in the desert to the port of Laayoune, where it’s loaded onto cargo ships bound for the U.S., Canada and countries around the world.
Western Sahara’s fishing waters are among the richest on Earth, supplying the European Union with much of its seafood.
Foreign energy companies continue to explore for offshore oil — even though the U.N. says the prospecting violates international law.
Even Western Sahara’s sand is sold, loaded onto ships bound for European resorts.
A pair of recent rulings by Europe’s highest court declared Western Sahara is not a part of Morocco and that European Union trade deals cannot include products from the occupied territory.
Ships carrying phosphates from Western Sahara have been held up in ports in Panama and South Africa, after the Polisario challenged ownership of the cargo, claiming it belongs to the Sahrawi people.
Sahrawis are fighting the plunder through peaceful demonstrations and through the courts.
When they hold protests in their refugee camps in Algeria, thousands turn out to oppose foreign companies profiting from the occupation — like the European oil and gas driller San Leon Energy.
But when Sahrawis protest in occupied Western Sahara, they’re routinely met with violence by Morrocan authorities.
It’s still day two of our trip to Western Sahara. As we cross town to meet with more Sahrawi independence activists, once again we’re followed by a man on a motorcycle. We arrive, making our way past pro-independence graffiti, and meet an icon of the Sahrawi resistance.
Sultana Khaya drapes herself in the red, white, black and green flag of Western Sahara. Just holding this flag in public is enough to get an activist beaten and arrested.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] My name is Sultana Khaya. I was born under Moroccan rule in the occupied city of Bojador. I live just like any other Sahrawi woman who was subjected to torture and beatings. And in my opinion, my case was milder than many others.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2007, Sultana was peacefully protesting with fellow college students at a university in Marrakech, Morocco, when police surrounded her.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] May 9th was an anniversary that all Sahrawis should celebrate. We were a group of 500 Sahrawi students. We left the university campus marching, peacefully, waving flags and chanting, “There are no alternatives to self-determination!” They sealed off the street, and we were besieged in it.
AMY GOODMAN: As tear gas spread, Sultana was beaten by police, one of whom singled her out for more abuse.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] One of them recognized me. And he jabbed right at my eye with his baton. When he did that, I bent over, and I could feel my eyeball in my hand. I was yelling at him, “Hey, you Moroccan! You pulled out my eye!”
AMY GOODMAN: Sultana’s ordeal continued in an ambulance as she was tortured on her way to the hospital.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] I told them I had a hemorrhage in my eye. He tried to put his finger into my eye socket. I didn’t get any medical treatment ’til the next morning at 11, when a group of Moroccans came to me telling someone to sew up my eye, because when I was in the ambulance, another woman was crying and telling me, “Your eye is gone!” They were trying to sew up my eye so other women could see it and think twice before getting involved in activism. They wanted to make an example of me.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have confidence that Western Sahara will become an independent nation?
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] That’s for sure, because the determination of the people is invincible. What we’ve got is true. We’ve lost many men and women over this. One day it shall be liberated.
AMY GOODMAN: Even losing her eye has not stopped Sultana Khaya from continuing her protests for Western Saharan independence — as we will witness for ourselves even during our short stay in Western Sahara.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Sahrawi singer Mariem Hassan from her album El Aaiun on Fire (El Aaiun Egdat). This is a Democracy Now! special, “Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.”
On day three of our trip to Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, we invite a Sahrawi activist to our hotel. Hamma el-Qoteb is stopped by the hotel’s receptionist as he tries to enter. She calls authorities to report an unregistered visitor, forbidding him from coming upstairs. After we push hard and threaten to leave the hotel, she relents, saying he could speak to us “for five minutes.”
Hamma el-Qoteb arrives clutching a photo of his brother, who was forcibly disappeared in 1992. He’s been searching for him ever since.
HAMMA EL-QOTEB: [translated] This is my brother Hafed el-Qoteb, who was abducted November 7th, 1992, by Moroccan plainclothes police at 5 in the morning. It was because of his involvement in the demonstration at the Nagjir Hotel, November 6th. They woke us up very early in the morning. And the situation was very ugly. Plainclothes policemen came to our house, and they abducted him.
AMY GOODMAN: Where was he taken to?
HAMMA EL-QOTEB: [translated] The information that we have is inconclusive, because we didn’t see anything. And the rest of the people who were abducted with him — around 500 people — were blindfolded. My brother and our neighbor’s son — we don’t know anything about them. Hundreds were released, but about 200 were kept there.
AMY GOODMAN: How did Hafed’s disappearance affect your family?
HAMMA EL-QOTEB: [translated] It was a land mine that exploded within the family. His presence was the glue that united us. My father had diabetes. And because of the insults he heard on that day of the abduction, he became paralyzed — and remained that way for the rest of his life. My mother would not dare to enter the home again, and she stayed with my other siblings for a year.
I call upon all the free world and all the people in the world to help us reveal the truth about my brother’s whereabouts. I call upon the Moroccan government to reveal the fate of all of our sons.
AMY GOODMAN: On October 9th, 2010, tens of thousands of Sahrawis, fed up with decades of occupation, erected a large protest encampment in the desert outside Laayoune. Known as Gdeim Izik, the camp preceded the Arab Spring and quickly grew to include whole families living among thousands of tents. This is human rights activist Naama Asfari laying out the protesters’ demands.
NAAMA ASFARI: [translated] Freedom of speech, freedom to demonstrate, the right to housing, the right to work, but in the legal context of the territories of Western Sahara as nonautonomous territories.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on Democracy Now!, renowned author and activist Noam Chomsky called the Gdeim Izik uprising the start of the Arab Spring.
NOAM CHOMSKY: The current wave of protests actually began last November in Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan rule after a brutal invasion and occupation. The Moroccan forces came in, carried out — destroyed tent cities, a lot of killed and wounded and so on. And then it spread.
AMY GOODMAN: On November 8th, 2010, Moroccan forces used tear gas, clubs and water cannons to force the protesters from their tents, before firing live rounds and setting the camp on fire. The Polisario says the raid killed 36 people, with many hundreds more injured and arrested. Many were tortured in custody, including 23 activists who were accused of contributing to the violence. They were tried, convicted and given harsh sentences in July of 2017. It was the latest chapter in a long history of repression against Sahrawis at the hands of Moroccan forces.
Many of those detained were represented by the Sahrawi lawyer Mohamed Lahbib Erguibi. He’s a former activist who was disappeared in Moroccan prisons for 16 years. He’s also the brother of the recently deceased Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz. Erguibi is one of just four Sahrawi lawyers permitted by Morocco to try cases in court.
MOHAMED LAHBIB ERGUIBI: [translated] The first stage of the arrests were made there, and they were brutal beyond imagination. They used an extensive number of strange tools for torture and beatings. Some of the prisoners were even forced to drink their own urine. They showed up before the interrogation judge covered in blood.
AMY GOODMAN: Why was Gdeim Izik such a turning point? What happened? Why were people protesting?
MOHAMED LAHBIB ERGUIBI: [translated] Gdeim Izik was a turning point because it was a very genuine form of mass protest like Western Sahara has never witnessed, nor has the rest of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Some have called it the first Arab Spring, before Tunisia and before Egypt.
MOHAMED LAHBIB ERGUIBI: [translated] Yes, without any doubt, this was the beginning of the Arab Spring. Every media outlet, after Gdeim Izik, could only talk about how well organized, well managed and well prepared the protest in Western Sahara was. And from here it spread to Tunisia and Egypt. So, of course, when the American academic noted that this was the beginning of the Arab Spring, he was correct.
AMY GOODMAN: After leaving Mohamed Erguibi’s office, we drive to a restaurant near the airport for dinner. As usual, we’re followed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we set down here at a restaurant near the airport in Laayoune. We came into a vast, empty restaurant. And within about 15 minutes after we ordered, about a hundred, mainly men, some women, dressed in traditional West Saharan dress, carrying Moroccan flags, all came in, and they sat down all around us. One has an English sign that says, “Shame on you.” When our translator Jamal got up to see what was going on, plainclothesmen, not in traditional dress, came up to him and said they want to speak to Amy Goodman when we’re done. Our car has been hemmed in by a number of cars, and we also hear there was a protest in another part of the city where one of the people we interviewed was beaten up.
JAMAL: He just called me. He said that he was beaten up now at the peaceful demonstration in Smara Boulevard.
AMY GOODMAN: Who?
JAMAL: Hamma el-Qoteb.
AMY GOODMAN: Who we talked to yesterday?
JAMAL: Yes. He was now participating in a peaceful demonstration, and he was beaten up.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the people here came over very close to us and took pictures.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re eager to leave, so we can find out what happened to Hamma el-Qoteb and other protesters across town. But the moment we stand up, we’re followed out of the restaurant by the crowd. Outdoors, we’re surrounded on all sides and prevented from driving away. The pro-Morocco protesters unfurl large, custom banners printed on vinyl. They’re starkly reminiscent of a banner photographed at a Moroccan state-sanctioned protest against U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March of 2016, after he used the word “occupation.”
Back at the restaurant, one of the vinyl banners with red and black lettering has a photo of me interviewing a Sahrawi activist, with the caption “Shame on you.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing here outside of a restaurant that we came to near the airport called Omaima. And a group of 50, 60, 70 people in West Saharan dress have descended on the restaurant carrying signs that say “Shame on you,” “Journalist are a person of Algeria,” “Yes for the American-Moroccan friendship” and “Dismembering countries goes hand in hand with strengthening the ISIS.”
I thought we’d start by talking to one of the organizers, who is a freelance journalist who trained in Rhode Island. So, if you could tell us your name?
BASHEER DAHY: Yeah, by the way, I’m not one of the organizers. So, I’m just volunteering with the people, my fellow Sahrawis, to talk to you about what they think of your visit and about general issues related to the issue of Western Sahara.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you know that I was at this restaurant?
BASHEER DAHY: Well, you know, this is a small town, and everybody knows everybody. Whenever a foreign delegation comes to the area, so everybody is aware of this.
AMY GOODMAN: It was an empty restaurant. We just came in five minutes before.
BASHEER DAHY: No, this is a — this is a restaurant which is well known to the people. And, for example, when maybe one of my cousins was there, he would notice foreigners, he would immediately check why they are here. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And you were just sitting with 60 people in West Saharan dress?
BASHEER DAHY: No, no, the people are gathering. They told me to volunteer with them for the interpretation.
AMY GOODMAN: As we speak with Basheer Dahy, a number of men in plainclothes stand on the perimeter, taking photos and video, speaking on cellphones. A local activist would later identify some of them as members of the Moroccan Interior Ministry, including at least one official who has been accused of torturing many Sahrawis.
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] I’m Ben Abd Al-Selka, regional coordinator for the National Front for the Defense of National Integrity in Laayoune. I came here to represent my organization, to say that we Sahrawis are in our territory, and we will do anything to defend it.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. But how did you know I was here?
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] Because I’m always following the news, and this is something that concerns me. I’m required to know this.
AMY GOODMAN: Was I in the news at this restaurant?
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] No. This is normal. We are always aware of who comes to our territory when it comes to the national cause.
AMY GOODMAN: Who told you that I was here?
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] This is the main restaurant in my city. I came to visit it, and suddenly I saw you.
AMY GOODMAN: And you carry Moroccan flags with you everywhere you go? It’s very customary to be giving out Moroccan flags in the restaurant?
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] Of course. I’m representing an organization whose main goal is to defend the national interest. The flags are always in our homes, always on our persons. Our flags are always ready, thank God. Always prepared.
AMY GOODMAN: I saw one person carrying all the flags and giving them out.
BEN ABD AL-SELKA: [translated] No, no. We were basically helping him. Do you understand me? Some of us are responsible for the national flags, others for communication. Our work is always organized and ready.
AMY GOODMAN: Now it’s getting dark. We’re getting increasingly nervous. The sun sets on the restaurant Omaima as the pro-Morocco protesters prevent us from leaving for over an hour. It’s a clear effort to intimidate us and to keep us away from the protest across town.
When we’re finally able to escape, Jamal receives a call. A number of Sahrawi activists have been badly beaten. We race to the home where they’re gathered to recover from their injuries.
Inside, we find a number of women tending to an activist named Aziza Biza, who’s retching and vomiting from her injuries.
AMY GOODMAN: Should she go to a hospital?
JAMAL: She said she can’t go to a hospital, because they will not admit her, and she’s also too scared to go there.
AMY GOODMAN: The activists have recorded video of their protest — and the subsequent beatings by Moroccan forces — on cellphones and camcorders.
What our cameras couldn’t capture, citizen journalists’ could.
We begin downloading their footage, as activist Mina Bali describes what happened.
MINA BALI: [translated] Because of your presence here, we wanted to have a protest and show you how things are here — and how we are treated.
It’s been about two years since any journalists have accessed the territory.
We came chanting slogans, making peace signs with our fingers, as usual. And then they intervened against us in the street.
They were a large group. They pushed us into a narrow street. They took me. One of them grabbed my hair, and he started beating me. He wounded me here, under my nose. He grabbed my breast and continued beating me against the wall.
Aziza was with me, and he struck her in the kidney and hit her head against the wall. And then she fell on the ground at my feet.
And Ghalia Yimani was being dragged there. And Sultana Khaya.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to go with the women to see their bruises. They’re going to show me. And then we’ll see what we can show the camera.
AMY GOODMAN: We follow Sultana Khaya into a small bedroom. She pulls back her melhfa — her traditional Sahrawi robe — and shows me fresh bruises on her leg, both arms and on her breast.
AMY GOODMAN: Sultana, describe what happened to you?
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] All of us were participating as Sahrawis in the peaceful demonstrations for our right to self-determination. I was trying to gather my sisters for the protest at 5:00. And the whole area was besieged.
They were insulting us, beating us, dragging us and using violence, to let us know that we weren’t going to be able to protest.
They tried to single us out, and pushed us into narrow streets where they could beat us without anyone observing.
What you saw today is nothing compared to what we’ve witnessed, over and over, since 1975. But the news never gets out.
As Sahrawi women, we’re not backing off until we get our final victory and liberate our homeland. The beatings will not deter us from continuing the fight. And even if we die, it will be a sacrifice, so that our sons and future generations can live in the freedom that we’ve been denied.
AMY GOODMAN: Other Sahrawis have been injured, as well. Mahfouda Lafkir shows us black-and-blue bruises on her arms.
MAHFOUDA LAFKIR: [translated] They hit me on the thighs, slapped me on the face and beat me underneath my eye.
AMY GOODMAN: Ghalia Yimani pulls back her melhfa to show us gruesome injuries. Both her arms and both breasts are badly bruised. Like a number of these women, she’s been sexually assaulted.
AMY GOODMAN: Down your arm, you have black-and-blue marks, and on your breast, right up to the nipple. The police grabbed her, and you see all of the marks, of the black-and-blue blue marks and the red marks.
GHALIA YIMANI: This one. Ow!
AMY GOODMAN: Very, very painful.
GHALIA YIMANI: [translated] Once they intervened against us, one of them pulled and twisted me by my breast. And I was screaming out loud, “Hey! You’re hurting my breast!” But he didn’t care.
AMY GOODMAN: Next, we meet the man who risked his safety to film the assault on protesters from a nearby rooftop. Hamoud Lili is a citizen journalist with the group Equipe Media.
HAMOUD LILI: My name. Hamoud Lili.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you’re watching here?
HAMOUD LILI: [translated] This is Ghalia Yimani, when a man in plainclothes was pulling her into a narrow street where they could beat her up. This street, where they usually beat people, has never been recorded before. They forced them here because they knew people were using their cameras to document everything on the main street. So I was lucky to get a clear shot of what was happening to Mina Bali and Aziza Biza. But unfortunately, this informer saw me and then notified all the others.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
HAMOUD LILI: [translated] I tried to move to the next window, out of sight, but my hiding place was revealed. When they saw me, they tried to break down the door, and they stormed the building. The house owner went outside, and they beat him up. I fled the house. I closed the door to the rooftop and jumped to another house to save the camera gear. And that was my exit.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are you a media activist? Why do you video?
HAMOUD LILI: [translated] Because there’s a total media blackout across the region, and there is no international media to cover everything that’s happening to the Sahrawis. And we volunteer as activists, so we can transmit the suffering to the outside world through our cameras.
AMY GOODMAN: Back in the living room, Aziza Biza has stopped vomiting from her injuries and is propped up on pillows. She’s able to speak with us, with her husband and teenage son sitting beside her.
AZIZA BIZA: [translated] They started beating me up out there and kicking my stomach. Then they tried to strangle me by my melhfa. I felt something around my throat, and I couldn’t breathe. Then I fainted. I don’t remember anything. I just remember that I found myself here.
AMY GOODMAN: You said they kicked you in your kidney?
AZIZA BIZA: [translated] Yes. And also they kicked me in my head, which already had stitches from a previous beating, and then kicked my ribs.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet you still came out for another demonstration. Why is it so important to you?
AZIZA BIZA: [translated] It is very important for me, because I want the liberation of my country, because I want to live like other women in the world, in freedom, and to see my children and my country free.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for?
AZIZA BIZA: [translated] I call on the free world to help us free our country, to get liberated, so that we can live our lives like normal women around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: After leaving the activists, we return to our hotel. It’s dark. We’re certain we’re under heavy surveillance.
DENIS MOYNIHAN: There goes another new car. Should we turn off the light?
AMY GOODMAN: Soon there’s a commotion outside our room on the boulevard below. Cars are making U-turns outside of our hotel, their drivers clearly alarmed over something happening further up the street. Jamal gets a phone call from Mohamed Mayara of Equipe Media. He describes the police violence he’s witnessing nearby.
MOHAMED MAYARA: I’m seeing police throwing stones and raiding houses. It’s not far from you.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go upstairs.
AMY GOODMAN: We climb a set of stairs to the hotel’s rooftop. We spot protesters on a sidewalk below, a few hundred feet away. They begin to scatter just as the hotel’s night manager demands we leave.
JAMAL He says you’re not allowed to be here on the roof.
AMY GOODMAN: We quietly descend and return to our room. From our window, we spot about a dozen men throwing stones, then turning and running away. Moments later, police in riot gear arrive, charging the protesters and throwing rocks of their own.
As the night wears on, the confrontation between Sahrawi activists and the police winds down. We heard later there had been arrests.
We spend our few remaining hours at the hotel taking precautions to protect the footage we had recorded over our trip to occupied Western Sahara, then make our way to the airport.
JAMAL: All right, now we’re leaving the hotel.
AMY GOODMAN: At the gate, we pass through a final gauntlet of Moroccan Mukhabarat, or intelligence agents. As we head to the plane, one of them says, “I hope you had a good time in Moroccan Sahara.” “Moroccan Sahara,” the term the Moroccan government uses, but no country in the world officially recognizes. Morocco occupies Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony.
For Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with John Hamilton, Mike Burke and Denis Moynihan.
This has been a Democracy Now! special, “Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.” On December 10th, the United States became the first nation in the world to recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. The Trump administration announced the major policy shift as part of a deal that saw Morocco become the fourth Arab nation to normalize ties to Israel in recent months.
“Four Days in Western Sahara” was directed by John Hamilton and produced with our news director Mike Burke and Denis Moynihan. Special thanks to María Carrión, Julie Crosby, Miriam Barnard, Brendan Allen, Hugh Gran and all those who helped us along the way. All music by the late Sahrawi singer Mariem Hassan. I’m Amy Goodman.