by Cindy Cooper
Editor’s Note: Urgent circumstances call for early publication of this story planned for our Winter 2010 edition on women of courage.
Aminatou Haidar, known as the “Gandhi” of the Western Sahara for her advocacy for the human rights of her people, sat on a mattress provided by the Red Cross in the Lanzarote airport in the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands. She declared a hunger strike to the death on November 15 and only takes sugar and water.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the airport to express support for the tall woman with a simple headscarf and glasses. Within days, prominent Spanish actors made their way inside the terminal to be by her side and Spaniards in Madrid held a protest rally, said Mouloud Said, the Washington D.C.-based Ambassador at Large for the Western Sahara, in an interview. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights in Washington D.C., which honored Haidar in 2008, declared the situation “urgent” and called upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene.
Haidar, a 42-year old mother of two, has become the fearless voice for the civil and human rights of the Sahrawis, as the people of the Western Sahara are known. Haidar’s hunger strike comes after a series of events that arose when she attempted to return home after receiving an honor in New York on October 20 for peaceful advocacy. The Sahrawis have lived under occupation by the Kingdom of Morocco since a military invasion in 1975. Morocco has treated the Sahwaris with brutal repressive measures and defied international rulings that call for free elections in the resource-rich land. Thousands of Sahrawis have had to flee and live in decrepit refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.
Haidar, now Chairwoman of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders, was arrested in 1987 at age 21 for a nonviolent protest and was imprisoned in secret detention centers for four years, during which time she and 17 other women were tortured. She was arrested again in 2005 after being violently attacked by Moroccan police at a peaceful demonstration and was held for seven months in a “black prison” until international pressure resulted in her release.
On November 13, Moroccan authorities detained Haidar at the Laayoune airport in Western Sahara, denied her the right to return to her home, confiscated her passport and forcibly removed her to the Canary Islands. Moroccan authorities claimed that Haidar had improperly filled out her re-entry documents by failing to check “Morocco” as her home country. Haidar believes that Spain has been complicit in permitting Morocco to remove her to that country without travel documents, said Ambassador Said. “This lady has done nothing wrong. Morocco doesn’t like the way she has organized internationally,” he said.
After five days on a hunger strike, Haidar, while weak, is firm in her insistence that Morocco must return her passport and recognize her right to return home. “The Moroccans are testing the international community to see if they can get away with this. If they can, they will do more things,” commented Ambassador Said.
From Honor to Hunger, Demanding An End to World Passivity
Less than a month earlier, Haidar stood before a small group in the elegant wood-paneled Rockefeller Room of the Harold Pratt House on the Upper East Side in New York to accept the prestigious Civil Courage Prize of the Train Foundation. The award, given to those who demonstrate “steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk,” cited her “courageous campaign” for the political self-determination of her people and against abuses of prisoners of conscience. The keynote speaker at the award ceremony, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, noted that Haidar, who holds a baccalaureate in modern literature, is also a woman’s rights advocate. “The first thing tyrants do,” said Fund, is to “silence … the voices of women.”
Speaking through a translator, Haidar described a “humanitarian tragedy suffered by the Sahrawi people.” In addition to the thousands who have had to flee, repressive measures have frustrated education; fisheries and phosphate mines have been pillaged; and, human rights activists have been killed, beaten, and had their homes looted. “Campaigns of kidnappings and arbitrary arrests have hit all Sahrawis without regard to age or sex: old people and young people, women, including pregnant women, and even infants,” said Haidar. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am myself a victim of this crime against humanity,” she said.
Nearby at the awards event, Irish filmmaker Simon Hudson of Stoney Road Films showed pictures of the desolate conditions in Sahrawi refugee camps and underscored that world attention to their plight has been scant. Moroccan authorities have refused to allow him to film in Western Sahara, he said.
Haidar, who has been recognized with human rights awards from the European Parliament, Amnesty International USA and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, used her remarks to call upon the international community “to renounce its attitude as a passive spectator with regard to the abuses of the Sahrawi population.”
Events now may force that to happen. In an interview in October, Haidar said, “I am sure when I go back that I will be arrested at the airport.”
As her prediction came true, the events are spurring international pressure, according to Ambassador Said.
Monika Kalra Varma of the RFK Center said, “The situation is all the more urgent because Aminatou suffers from serious health problems.” The RFK Center asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to begin an immediate investigation, and invited citizens to submit email letters of concern through its website.
“Doctors are very concerned,” said the Ambassador at Large. “There needs to be pressure on Spain and Morocco to act.”
November 20, 2009
Cindy Cooper is a journalist in New York.
Also see “America’s Secret African War in the Western Sahara” by Major Carlos Wilson in the 1989, Vol. 11, of On The Issues Magazine.
See “Beginning with the Children: To Teach Peace” by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.