"One day we will be free"

"Since 2005, I’ve been engaged in the peaceful intifada of freedom and independence. But what I’m doing is nothing special; it’s what most Sahrawi women are doing: resisting repression and occupation in a non-violent way.""
"Since 2005, I’ve been engaged in the peaceful intifada of freedom and independence. But what I’m doing is nothing special; it’s what most Sahrawi women are doing: resisting repression and occupation in a non-violent way.""

Sultana Khaya, 41, has been peacefully resisting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara for many years. Because of her campaign to assert the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, she was assaulted and raped. She has been under house arrest for over a year. Interview by Elisa Rheinheimer

By Elisa Rheinheimer

Ms. Khaya, you’ve been under house arrest since November 2020; the Moroccan security forces prevent you from leaving the house. Have you been given a reason for this?

Sultana Khaya: No. Today is the 487th day that I’ve been stopped from leaving the house that I share with my mother and my sister. The Moroccan government has told human rights organisations that I’m not under house arrest. But if I try to go out, I’m beaten. During the first few months, men in military uniforms were positioned around the house, but since February 2021 they’ve been police officers in civilian clothing. There’s a shift change every 12 hours. When people wanted to visit us, they were prevented from entering the house. That didn’t change until 16 March 2022, when a group of U.S.-American human rights activists managed to gain access.

How is it affecting you, being locked in all the time? Have you developed routines to make it more bearable?

Khaya: Every day between 12.30 pm and 2 pm, my sister and I stage a "demonstration" on the roof of our house. For a quarter of an hour, we wave the Sahrawi flag to symbolise our campaign for self-determination. Rain or shine – we’re up there. We film it and broadcast it to the world. It’s a way for us to show that the peaceful Sahrawi resistance goes on. I’m doing it on behalf of all Sahrawi women.

How do the Moroccan security forces react to that?

Khaya: Of course, they do what they can to stop it. For them it’s a scandal if our flag is flying in the occupied territories that they regard as their nation. They come early in the morning or late at night. Then they beat down the door in a show of force, tie us up, grope us. In December, they held a soaked cotton pad to my face and I lost consciousness. And the last time they injected me with something; I don’t know what it was. The worst thing is just before they arrive: the fear at the moment when I hear them kicking the door down.

Algeria: Sahrawi refugee camp (photo: DW/Hugo Flotat-Talon)
A life without prospects: more than 170,000 Sahrawis live in five refugee camps in south-west Algeria, which are administered by the Polisario liberation organisation. They are the longest-running refugee camps on the African continent. Apart from sand and dust, there is not much here. In the camps, people hope for a better future and the independence of Western Sahara. But after so many years of waiting, they feel the world has forgotten them

Daily harassment by Moroccan guards

How do you manage your everyday lives in these circumstances?

Khaya: Our power supply has been severely restricted since April 2021. We use a camping stove, gas and a charging pack for the mobile phone that lasts for a while without electricity. SInce they’ve cut off our power, the fridge doesn’t work either. My 86-year-old mother is the only one of the three of us allowed to leave the house, so she has to go shopping every day.

She also brings 10 litres of water. That’s not much for the three of us to cook and wash with. But she wouldn’t be able to carry any more. It’s very difficult to get hold of medication. The only way to get some is secretly through friends. And if they find it when they search her, it’s confiscated. They would take away our last paracetamol.

You are President of the League for the Defence of Human Rights. What sort of things were you involved in before you were detained?

Khaya: Since 2005, I’ve been engaged in the peaceful intifada of freedom and independence. But what I’m doing is nothing special; it’s what most Sahrawi women are doing: resisting repression and occupation in a non-violent way. We are being tortured, but we are not giving up. Because I was displaced from my homeland and there are no universities in the occupied territories, I decided to go to Morocco to study French.

There, I took part in a demo for the Western Sahara at the university – after all there are also Moroccans who are on our side. Not many, most Moroccans aren’t interested or they’re afraid of their own regime. But there are a few, and a left-wing Moroccan party also supports the Sahrawi right to self-determination. At this demonstration, I was attacked so violently by a man that I lost my left eye.

But they didn’t put the aggressor on trial, the man who robbed me of my eye, instead they threw me in prison! For eight months. I can’t say how often my ribs were broken. Some of my associates were detained for a year, and two Moroccan co-demonstrators died.

Have you considered leaving your homeland and applying for asylum?

Khaya: I would never do that. I’m suffering greatly, but no more than Sahrawi women have been suffering for 40 years. I’m not planning to leave the country. I want to live and die here. I was in a hospital in Barcelona, where I received a prosthetic eye, and I had a residence permit in Spain. But in November 2020, I decided to return to the occupied territories. A day later they placed me under house arrest. The Moroccans hope they can silence me. But they’ve achieved the opposite.

Fish market in Laayoune (photo: Ane Nordentoft/Transterra Media)
Fish market in Laayoune, the largest town in the Moroccan-administered territory of Western Sahara. The rich fishing grounds off the Atlantic coast are one of the reasons for Moroccan claims to the territory. According to the constitution of the exiled Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario Front, Laayoune is to become the capital of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic after a referendum. "The Sahrawis have shown huge patience," says Sultana Khaya. "Their reserves of patience haven’t been used up yet. The peaceful struggle for the land is still worthwhile. Despite the suffering and the difficulties, as a woman in the occupied territories I believe the peaceful path is the best"

"In days gone by, I’d be long dead"

How are you conducting your work now, despite the house arrest?

Khaya: Thanks to new media and communication systems, I’m in close contact with fellow activists. Despite all the technical hitches – for example, when the security forces take away my laptop and mobile – it works to a certain extent. I’m aware that the Moroccans are always listening. Even now, during this interview, we’re probably not alone. But the Internet allows me to stay in touch with the outside world.

That also serves a protective function for me. In days gone by, I’d be long dead. In early December, they came and sealed the door to the roof to stop us from getting up there for our daily flag protest. "It’s over with the roof now," they said to me. But we used stones to make a small hole in the wall and we climb out through it. No, it is not over and it will not be over.  

We won’t be denied the air to breathe. The rapes, the repression – I don’t think this is down to the personal wickedness of individuals, but political calculation on the part of the occupying power. I don’t believe that the men who break in here are against me personally, but they’re only doing it to me because I’m a Sahrawi. They’re doing it to humiliate us all.

The Sahrawis have protested peacefully against the occupation for decades. Is that changing now?

Khaya: The Sahrawis have shown huge patience. Their reserves of patience haven’t been used up yet. The peaceful struggle for the land is still worthwhile. Despite the suffering and the difficulties, as a woman in the occupied territories I believe the peaceful path is the best one. But the Sahrawis on the other side, in Algerian exile, have decided to launch an armed campaign.

Sahrawis feel abandoned by the world

You’re referring to the ending of the ceasefire by the Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement based in the Algerian town of Tindouf, in November 2020...

Khaya: Yes, the Polisario has demonstrated that Morocco and the world can’t simply carry on as they are. The liberation fighters are still there – and they’re ready to fight.  That’s also understandable, after all 40 years of peaceful resistance have achieved nothing. The referendum promised to us Sahrawis by the UN has so far not taken place. What we need is international attention.

The United Nations must ensure that human rights are respected here – they’re trampled underfoot every day. If the international community continues to look on without taking any action, I don’t know how much longer things will remain peaceful. We feel abandoned by the world. What I’m demanding from the UN and the international community isn’t much: recognise that we’re living under an occupying power. Ensure that our human rights are respected and that we can live in dignity.

The Western Sahara conflict has been smouldering for decades. View of a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria (photo: DW/Hugo Flotat-Talon)
Flüchtlingslager Awserd in Algerien: Hier leben rund 50.000 Menschen in Zelten, Lehmbaracken und Backsteinhäusern. Die algerische Provinzhauptstadt Tinduf ist 40 Kilometer entfernt. Auch das Hauptquartier der Befreiungsfront Frente Polisario liegt in der Nähe, die seit Jahrzehnten für die Unabhängigkeit der Westsahara kämpft. 1975 hatte Marokko die ehemalige spanische Kolonie annektiert. Danach lieferten sich beide Seiten einen blutigen Bürgerkrieg. Am vergangenen 13. Novemberkündigte die Polisario einen fast 30 Jahre währenden Waffenstillstand auf. Zuvor hatte Marokko zivile Proteste an einem Grenzübergang zwischen der besetzten Westsahara und Mauretanien mit Gewalt aufgelöst. Seither greift die Armee der Polisario immer wieder marokkanische Stellungen an.

The new German government is endeavouring to normalise relations with Morocco. If you could meet the German foreign minister, what would you say to her?

Khaya: I would say to her: please do not take part in the crimes of the occupation, in the illegal exploitation of our natural resources and the human rights violations. Normal relations with Morocco are a good thing – but not at our expense. Our demand for self-determination is legitimate. Either Germany stands on the side of justice – and that’s our side – or it stays out, but don’t support Morocco.

There’s a new United Nations Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura. Are you optimistic that he can make something happen?

Khaya: He will certainly do his best, just like all his predecessors. But whether he can actually do anything, is questionable. MINURSO, the UN mission to prepare for a referendum on the status of the Western Sahara, has been in place for 30 years – but it doesn’t protect us. It’s part of the problem, not the solution. The solution doesn’t lie with a person like de Mistura, but that international pressure is applied on the Moroccan occupation regime. But the latest decision by Spain to side with Morocco shows the opposite is the case.

"Spain sold our land to Morocco and Mauretania"

On 18 March, Spain performed a U-turn on its policy on Western Sahara and now supports the Moroccan plan to allow the territory to become an autonomous province under Moroccan sovereignty…

Khaya: The Spanish government’s new position surprised me less than it disappointed me. On 14 November 1975, Spain illegally sold our land to Morocco and Mauretania and deceived us. And now, in 2022, the Spanish government has done the same. The Spanish about-turn hurts me and many Sahrawis. But I’m absolutely convinced that neither Spain, nor the United States, nor any other country has the right to decide on our future. We will determine our own destiny!

What gives you the strength and hope to carry on?

Khaya: The next generation should no longer have to live as I do, confronted with torture, racism, unjust treatment. This must end. That’s what I’m fighting for – each and every day. And Sahrawi women are very patient and tenacious. It’s in our blood. Even my 86-year-old mother is still fighting. We’re standing up for what’s right. Oppressing us is wrong. I’m certain that one day, the Western Sahara will be free. Today, tomorrow or in 100 years, justice will prevail. I don’t know if I’ll be around to experience it myself, but one day it’ll happen and the thought fills me with joy.

Interview conducted by Elisa Rheinheimer

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Nina Coon