In an exclusive interview, we speak with prominent Sahrawi human rights activist Sultana Khaya in occupied Western Sahara. Moroccan authorities have held her and her family under de facto house arrest for nearly 500 days, where she has been subjected to harassment and sexual abuse. A delegation of U.S.-based activists arrived at her home last week to break the siege and ward off police surveillance. The Moroccan government has targeted advocates like Khaya for their work defending the region’s Sahrawi people and advocating for an independent Western Sahara. Sahrawi people have been waiting “a long time for a referendum” to decide their future, says Khaya. U.S. delegation members plan to stay “for as long as we need to be” to ensure the family’s safety, says peace activist Adrienne Kinne.
AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about occupied Western Sahara, I want to turn to an exclusive interview I did on Friday with the prominent Sahrawi human rights defender Sultana Khaya, who has been under de facto house arrest since November 2020, along with her mother and her sister. She’s been forcibly confined to her home for nearly 500 days. The Khaya sisters say they were raped last year by Moroccan agents in front of their 84-year-old mother. The agents also stole mobile phones, destroyed belongings, threw trash, urine and a noxious black liquid into the family’s drinking water storage tank.
Last week, a delegation of U.S.-based activists arrived at the family’s home to break the 482-day siege. In a moment, we’re going to go to our interview, but first I want to turn back to 2016, when Democracy Now! broke the international media blockade by reporting from occupied Western Sahara. During our trip, we spoke to Sultana Khaya, who described losing her eye as a college student after being beaten by Moroccan security forces during a protest in 2007.
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: [While we were] reporting in Western Sahara, Moroccan forces violently disrupted a protest led by Sultana and other Sahrawi women. I spoke to her again just after she was beaten then.
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.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] 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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sultana Khaya in 2016. On Friday, I spoke to her along with Adrienne Kinne. She’s the former president of Veterans for Peace in the United States, a former Army sergeant who worked in military intelligence. Adrienne and three other activists with the Human Rights Action Center helped break the 482-day siege on Sultana’s home imposed by Moroccan occupation forces. A warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of rape and torture. I began by asking Adrienne Kinne about what happened when she entered Sultana’s home last week.
ADRIENNE KINNE: When we showed up here to Sultana’s house, we could see the evidence of the destruction of the Moroccan police. And we knew they had left the corner they had been sitting on for the last 482 days, because people started flooding into the home with rugs and laughter and excitement to see each other and to be free and to be in community with one another. And that has, honestly, been the last three days, two days — I don’t even remember how many days it’s been, but it’s, honestly, beautiful. And people need to know what’s happening here.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you see Moroccan forces outside the house? Is the house surrounded right now?
ADRIENNE KINNE: So, we’ve been watching the house, watching outside. We’ve seen people sitting. There have been attacks against people outside of this home. And there is definitely a presence. We received reports that many cities in Western Sahara are on lockdown, that the checkpoints on the roads have been — there were already so many. I just was astounded at how many there were, but they are strengthening their presence. But they are also, I think, doing it from a bit of a distance, because they know people are watching, and they are trying to figure out their next steps.
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, Adrienne Kinne, if you could put Sultana Khaya on the phone. I’d like to ask her about this last over 480-day siege to her home and if she can describe what has happened to her during that time.
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] It’s not the suffering of just 482 days, but it’s suffering from a long period, since 1975. My story is just one story of all the Sahrawi women, women that’s suffering every day under occupation, Moroccan occupation. I am just a simple example of Sahrawi women. And all the Sahrawi women lost their children under occupation and lost many things, actually. We are suffering under occupation.
My experience with my sister and my mom in our house, my family house was like a prison for us for this period of time. And they practiced all kind of torture against us — rape, torture, abuses, everything you imagine.
I want to thank the American delegation. The just two days, they bring us liberty and the freedom to — just to make the police have a circle, because they’re still in neighborhood, surrounding the neighborhood, but now — but not surrounding the house like before. And now many people try — but sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they fail — to reach the house. But now Sahrawi, many were with us. This delegation, just the four people, and they brought happiness for thousands and thousands of Sahrawi.
I want to thank the American people, and I want to ask to push the American government and the president not to do like the last one, to care and to push to get our rights. We are waiting a referendum since a long time, since 1991. And 30 years of suffering under occupation, and no one care about that.
It was a hard experience, by the way. They practiced all kinds of torture, rape, injection. They injected me twice. There were many raids, six raids on the house. They destroyed all the furniture, everything inside the house. During this 482 days, they practiced all kind of torture against us. And we are just peaceful women, just three women. They didn’t let anyone to enter the house that is related to us. And no one care about us. That’s why many people, they’re surrounding the neighborhood and the house, and we can’t have any support from outside, actually. That’s why our voice, try Morocco to [inaudible] us, and even though we keep resisting and resisting.
During the six raids on the house, they came sometimes 60, sometimes 80, sometimes 120 men, covering their faces. All of them are from Moroccan authorities, different categories. They’re covering their faces. And we believe in the peaceful process. They come to us like soldiers, and they rape us with their fingers — not one, many of them. It become like torture, one of them raping and one with their finger, and they practiced all that kind and sexual harassment and anything. And they destroyed the tank of the water inside the house, without electricity. All this we faced during that period. I can talk and talk without describing the whole story, actually. And also, when they raid on the house, they threw the toxic substances inside the house, which is a poisoned substances with a bad smell. And they destroyed all the furniture.
This is the occupier do it in many places around the world, not Morocco first. Actually they do it in Palestine, in many places. We can’t sleep during all the night. We suffer from insomnia because we are afraid they will raid on us. And all the agents outside the house, they keep knocking on the windows and on the gate not to make us sleep, because they want to play on our souls. When I saw from the window all the people in the neighborhood sleeping, and we are just wake up, it’s a really shame. It’s really hard for us to see this situation and the agents surrounding every night our house.
AMY GOODMAN: Sultana Khaya, why do you think that the authorities have targeted you and your family?
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] They targeted all the Sahrawis. The Moroccan authorities, they targeted all the Sahrawis, not just me. I lost my eye in a demonstration in 2007. I’m a victim, and actually there are a lot of victims from Sahrawi people suffering from 1975, when Morocco invaded us. We don’t have any freedom, or we don’t have anything. We need to prepare freedom and liberty for the next generation, not live like us, under occupation, and we are suffering. We want something for the future, not to keep this process. And we do it in a peaceful way.
AMY GOODMAN: Sultana Khaya, President Trump recognized Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in December, right before he left office. He recognized the occupation in a tweet. But President Biden has not rolled it back. What message do you have for President Biden?
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] Sultana is saying that when Trump tweeted, I was under house arrest. That’s why we become shocked as Sahrawi people here. And we see the Moroccan, when they thought that’s now Western Sahara by Twitter in his hand, become — make more — be more aggressive.
And I want to send a message to Biden that we still believe in a peaceful process. We need just to push the process and push more pressure on Morocco to stop this violation. The ceasefire now is stopped. We have more things happening in this land. We need just our rights, which is referendum. We are waiting from it since a long time. Actually, we need from Biden to stop first the suffering that the Sahrawi people facing. And actually, there is a people here, waiting since a long time for a referendum. And from a long time, this process is still continue. Never a tweet or anything will give Western Sahara. Western Sahara is recognized since a long time. That’s not a government place. We are waiting a referendum, and we still believe in the peaceful process.
AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you — we are talking to you in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The president of the United States, the Secretary of State Tony Blinken, other NATO nations have all reiterated that sovereign lines, the borders of countries, must be respected. Do you see parallels here between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what Morocco has done with Western Sahara?
SULTANA KHAYA: [translated] We are absent in many details around the world. Actually, the case of the Sahrawi happened in 1975, and this situation of Ukraine will happen in 2022. And many people heard about the suffering of Ukrainian people and the situation of invasion of Russia to that country. And we are invaded in 1975. We share the same thing with the Ukrainian people, all the things practiced on us from Moroccan people and from their regime. They throw the napalm, the phosphor, dumping the Sahrawi civilians and everything. All the Sahrawis are each story of suffering, actually. And we want from the world to hear about — we want just to live in a peaceful, each country living in a peaceful. That’s why not a strong country invaded another country. It’s really we become like nothing, actually. We are human. We want — we are believing in the same blue planet. And also Sultana wanted to mention that there is actually a war now between Moroccan and Polisario Front, and that’s why they make the Sahrawi people not to believe in a peaceful process anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with — back with Adrienne Kinne, the past president of Veterans for Peace. As you entered the home of Sultana Khaya with this delegation of volunteers from the United States in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, your thoughts on the parallels between Russia invading Ukraine and Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara? And then, what are your plans at this point?
ADRIENNE KINNE: I have been asked, by children here even, what my thoughts are about what is happening in Russia and Ukraine and what is happening here with Morocco and the Western Sahara. And the only thing — there are so many thoughts in my head. We hoped — we hoped that with the whole world watching what is happening in Ukraine, that perhaps they will see the hypocrisy of what is happening here in Western Sahara. I just implore the press around the world to please come and witness what is happening here in the last occupied African country, that is longing for its own right to self-determination and freedom. And it is the same right that every single person should have. Everybody should have a right to their own home and to their own homeland.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Adrienne, what are your plans? How long will you be staying there in Boujdour, in the house of Sultana Khaya and her family?
ADRIENNE KINNE: We have planned to make sure that, inshallah, people will be here for as long as we need to be, in whatever form that takes.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Adrienne Kinne, the former president of Veterans for Peace, with the prominent Sahrawi human rights defender Sultana Khaya, who’s been under de facto house arrest since November 2020. Last week, Adrienne Kinne and three other activists helped break the Moroccan siege on Sultana’s home in Boujdour, Western Sahara. That’s in northwestern Africa right below Morocco. Sultana was speaking in Hassaniya, which is a Sahrawi dialect of Arabic.
Still with us is Stephen Zunes, professor at the University of San Francisco. His books include Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. On Friday — I wanted to get your response to the significance of what has just happened there in Boujdour, and also ask you about what happened on Friday, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez abruptly changing Spain’s historic position on the conflict in Western Sahara, from supporting a U.N.-led solution that allows for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people to siding with Morocco by supporting a limited form of autonomy over the territory, proposed by Morocco — the move shocking Spanish society, since Spain was the former colonial power there.
STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, Spain’s move was surprising. Spain has generally been part of the international consensus supporting the right of self-determination. Western Sahara is a big cause célèbre in Spain, so there’s been a major negative reaction.
I mean, this autonomy proposal, which the United States has been supporting for some time, in fact, was — the support for this so-called autonomy plan was reiterated by U.S. Under Secretary of State Sherman just 10 days ago — is a joke, really. I mean, it basically allows for continued Moroccan occupation, does not meet the international definition of self-determination there. And as a non-self-governing territory, the Sahrawis have the right of self-determination, which must include the option of independence. So, if this autonomy proposal does get international acceptance, it will be the first time since World War II, since the signing of the United Nations Charter, that a country has gotten away with expanding its border by force and that a colony has been denied the right of self-determination.
And this is particularly bad timing given the increasing repression. I mean, not only has Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch documented the kinds of abuses that we’ve seen in terms of the Khaya family, but Freedom House, a U.S.-based group that has a quantitative analysis of relative human rights records, noted that of 210 countries in the world, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara has the worst score in terms of political rights than any country in the world, save for Syria. And so, the idea that this autonomy is going to give the people of Sahrawi their rights, I mean, we’ve seen what happens when authoritarian states grant so-called autonomy to regions. We think of Ethiopia and Eritrea —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
STEPHEN ZUNES: — Serbia and Kosovo. It doesn’t come out well.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Zunes teaches politics at the University of San Francisco. His books include Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. Go to democracynow.org to see our documentary, Four Days in Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony.
That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.