On 8 November eleven years ago, the experience of 28 days of peaceful encampment in Gdeim Izik ended with the violence of the Moroccan army. We interviewed one of the young protagonists of that experience.
I met Hassana Aalia a few years ago, when I was living in Barcelona. She had just arrived and there was a big campaign for her to be granted political asylum. She succeeded and now we spoke on the phone for a long interview.
Hassana, tell us your story
My name is Hassana Aalia, I am 33 years old, a Sahrawi from the capital El Aaiún. I had the good fortune or misfortune to be born and grow up in a militarily occupied territory, where human rights are systematically violated by the Moroccan occupation. From the time we are children, we are aware that we live in an occupied country, with a different culture. Half of our population, half of our families, live in refugee camps in Algeria; all of us in the occupied zone have an uncle, a grandfather, a relative in refugee camps. From a very young age, we started to suffer, to understand what the situation was like, from the first mistreatment to torture.
What happens in the schools in the occupied zone, do the children mix?
You can’t imagine how the teachers (almost all Moroccan) treated us differently from the beginning. We had different accents and they labelled us immediately. I remember how they divided us into two different rows and then bullied us, calling us dirty and stupid, even beating us. I remember that our grades were always the lowest. I will never forget how much I suffered inside the classrooms of the school I attended. In 1999 there was a big demonstration and the Moroccan army used the schools to set up camps.
How many were there in a class?
We were a minority; at least three quarters of the pupils were Moroccan.
Was there solidarity among the children?
There were children who came up to us; I remember some of them saying to us during recess: “But why are they treating you like this? Some of them realised the injustice.
But did you play together outside the school?
It must be understood that in the occupied Western Sahara there is a kind of apartheid similar to that of South Africa, which relegates the Sahrawi population to certain areas of the cities, isolating them. On the other hand, the Moroccan regime continues to encourage the arrival of settlers and there are fewer and fewer of us. It is dramatic.
I studied until I was 19, always suffering the same discrimination. And I didn’t stop studying, but I was forced to drop out because of my activism at school for rights and for our cause. I remember how the police would enter schools looking for young Sahrawis who were involved in the liberation movement. I remember how the teachers would point out where each of us lived. In my entire career as a student, I only had one Sahrawi teacher and she told us that she could not say anything about the treatment of the children because she could lose her job. Many Sahrawi workers lost their jobs because they demanded justice and denounced the mistreatment they suffered.
When did your activism begin?
Around 2005, when I was 16 years old: in May of that year there was a big wave of demonstrations and protests. Thousands of people took to the streets to demand self-determination for the Sahrawi people. I remember those days well, the strength and determination was impressive; everyone was there, families with children, young people, old people. It was the first time in many years that so many of us had gathered together. From then on, because of my activism, I started to “enter” police stations, where I suffered all kinds of torture and ill-treatment that you can’t even imagine.
Was your activism open or clandestine?
At the beginning it was clandestine. We did peaceful actions, writing on walls, hanging our flags, handing out leaflets, putting up banners in schools, recording videos and music, and demonstrating in the streets with our faces covered so as not to be recognised. In October 2005, during a demonstration, the police came and arrested me for the first time. I had always heard about torture, but there I experienced it firsthand. I left the next day with many consequences on my body. I had to take care of myself at home for a long time.
Since then, I have been arrested several times. The hardest was in 2008, when I was missing for a week. Nobody knew where I was, my mother told me that she was looking for me everywhere, in hospitals, in prisons, waiting for hours in front of the police station. She was terrified that I would become like those young people who remain missing for years.
What happens in families in these situations, do parents tell their sons or daughters not to get involved?
In reality, emotions are mixed. On the one hand, there is the fear of losing their children and seeing them suffer. Mothers, in particular, have to look for them, they can no longer sleep, they feel bad, very bad. But on the other hand, there is the pride of knowing that a son or daughter is in prison for our country, for our struggle. Of course, many families are afraid and, knowing what those who fight risk, they don’t want it to happen to their children.
In this struggle, they are easily “recognised”. Is it difficult for there to be infiltrators?
Certainly, there are; in every struggle there is someone who sells out, but over the years I have always seen it grow. At the beginning it was clandestine, but since 2008 we have decided to fight openly, freely.
Then there was the Gdeim Izik camp.
Yes, it was an exceptional, extraordinary moment, the camp of dignity. It was a non-violent and peaceful action that brought together between 20 and 30 thousand Sahrawis of all ages. We left our cities, our homes, to go to the desert with our tents and stay there until we got the right to live freely in our territories. We set up more than 8,000 tents, which we call haima, because in Sahrawi culture the haima is very important. We sent a clear message to Morocco: we are a well-organised people. It was incredible to see the many happy faces of the Sahrawis, because it was the first time we had lived together, united, in freedom. For 28 days we did not see any settlers. We were free from our oppressors. No one who has lived that magnificent experience will ever forget it.
It started on 10 October 2010, 10-10-’10 and ended on 8 November, at six o’clock in the morning, when the Moroccan army attacked us with force. The repression was unexpected and brutal. They burned, they shot, from vehicles and helicopters. Already on 24 October, I remember very well, they had killed a 14-year-old boy when he tried to enter the camp.
How did you manage the camp with the military siege, which I imagine started immediately? How did you get food and water?
There you saw the solidarity of the people. The first few days they let people in and out, but in the last week people were not allowed in. We knew this could happen, we were prepared, but nevertheless the solidarity among everyone was extraordinary, we shared everything we had. I repeat, it was extraordinary, and I still get emotional when I say it. It was the same with the cleaning, the surveillance and the construction of toilets. We also opened a school for children, held cultural activities and concerts.
Did Morocco take you by surprise when you started?
Of course, but they were convinced that we wouldn’t last more than a week, that we would get tired, that we would miss something. A previous attempt had failed because the military arrived almost immediately and dismantled the few tents we had; the second time we grew quickly and it worked. Within three days there were already hundreds of tents. At that time there was a negotiation, a negotiating table with the Moroccan government, but I remember that one of our comrades, who is now in prison, sentenced to life imprisonment, said: ‘We will only get something as long as we stay here. If we go back home, we won’t get anything… We have to go on’. People wanted to go on, the joy was great, even without running water, the feeling of freedom was wonderful.
With the Gdeim Izik camp, we managed to break down two walls: that of fear and that of the information blockade, the silence of the world’s media. The international channels took notice of us.
That awakening at dawn on 8 November was a terrible shock. Families couldn’t breathe, people were running, falling down, they were so scared. Everything was destroyed. We tried to protect the women, the elderly and the children somehow with the cars we had. You could see the smoke from El Aaiún, and people were walking towards the city with the few things they had managed to save. That day there were demonstrations in the city until noon. The police and the army tried to stop us, but there were so many of us. The police invited the settlers to come out on the streets against us. It was very tough. The repression that followed was brutal. In December I was also arrested. I remember that in one of the torture rooms there was blood on the walls, everywhere. When I got out, I started travelling to tell people what had happened. In 2011, a new arrest warrant was issued for me and I fled to Spain, seeking political asylum. In 2013, a trial was held against me, which ended with a life sentence for rebellion. Only the pressure of international solidarity led Spain to grant me political asylum.
Since then, I have travelled around Spain and beyond to tell the story of the Sahrawi struggle, denouncing the conditions of my people and especially those who are imprisoned in Moroccan jails for political reasons or, worse, who have disappeared. The trials against us have been a farce, illegal and without guarantees.
All the political prisoners of Gdeim Izik are in Moroccan territory, in the north, thousands of kilometres away from their families. The torture continues: sexual violence with bottles, nails pulled out, wounds, burns.
Can you move freely in Spain?
I’ve been in Spain for ten years, but for the first six I couldn’t leave, I was waiting for political asylum. It was not easy: in 2015, the Spanish government (probably under pressure from the Moroccan government) wanted to expel me from the country and Morocco demanded my extradition. Only the mobilisation of Spanish civil society, human rights organisations, NGOs and local administrations led to my asylum being granted in 2016. Now I can move and travel around the rest of Europe, to talk about the situation of our people. I can go anywhere, except Morocco.
I am the only one sentenced to life imprisonment for rebellion by the Moroccan military court who is free and out of the country. I live in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country, but I travel all the time, wherever I am called. I have also been to Geneva, to the United Nations. I also hope to go to Italy. Let’s move on.