Aminatou Haidar: the Sahrawi Gandhi

Posted by on 15 mrt, 2013

Aminatou Haidar is featured in the prize-winning documentary Sons of the Clouds, in which Spanish actor Javier Bardem narrates the story of the nearly forty-year old Western Saharan conflict. Haidar combines her struggle for the rights of the Sahrawi people with a firm belief in nonviolence. ‘I want to contribute to a better society for all.’
Movies that Matter, March 2013

Our initial appointment for a phone interview failed. I tried to reach Sahrawi human rights defender Aminatou Haidar in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, but instead of reaching her in person, I was forwarded to voicemail boxes. The day after, she attributes this to ‘daily tactics from the Moroccan secret services to obstruct the freedom of expression of Sahrawi human rights activists’. 

‘Repression against Sahrawi’s is increasing,’ she says.

She feels sorry for her children, a teenage boy and girl, who suffer intimidation from Moroccan civil servants. ‘My son is expelled from school by his teacher for two weeks. For a similar incident his Moroccan classmate isn’t expelled. Moroccan policemen insulted my daughter, calling her a “filthy Sahrawi”. Sahrawi’s are still second-class citizens. Children are innocent. It is unacceptable that they pay for our activism.’

Referendum on self-determination

Aminatou Haidar has received many human rights awards for her nonviolent protests, which have earned her the nickname ‘Sahrawi Gandhi’. Her way of talking is passionate, her words are well chosen. Haidars’ lifetime devotion is to make the long-awaited referendum on self-determination, in which the Sahrawi people can decide on their own future, a reality.

Spanish colony
The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975. During the decolonisation, Spain supported the representatives of Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario in their quest for self-determination. When general Franco fell ill – and died later – Spain wanted to avoid internal chaos, and deceived Polisario by handing the territory to Mauritania and Morocco.

Historical error
‘An historical error’, says Haidar. 

Many Sahrawi’s fled into the Algerian desert around Tindouf, where early 1976 they were bombed by Morocco. A war followed between Polisario, Morocco and Mauritania, from which Mauritania withdrew in 1979. Polisario and Morocco continued their struggle until 1991, when the international community pressured Moroccan king Hassan II to ease his dictatorial policy.


Under UN guidance, Morocco and Polisario concluded a truce and agreed on a referendum on self-determination to be organised by UN mission Minurso. Today, the inhabitants of the Western Sahara are still waiting for this referendum. And 200,000 Sahrawi’s still live in Algerian refugee camps, while in the occupied territories Sahrawi families are outnumbered due to the Moroccan settlers policy.

Detention and house arrest
In 1991, Aminatou Haidar was among a group of prisoners who were released from a Moroccan jail after international pressure on king Hassan II. Participating in a nonviolent demonstration against the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara, she and her friends had disappeared in 1987. For four years, her family was not informed of her whereabouts. There was no arrest confirmation, no charge, trial or explanation.

During her imprisonment, Haidar was gagged, starved, deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shocks, severely beaten – and worse. 

She still suffers health problems from her secret imprisonment: stomach, nerve and tooth problems and back pains. A more recent imprisonment in 2005 and subsequent hunger strikes aggravated her condition. ‘I pay a heavy price for my engagement, but I survive. My detention in 2005 shed the light on Moroccan torture practices against Sahrawi detainees and the existence of secret, “black” prisons. Since then, the horrible living conditions in these prisons have somewhat improved.’

Growing pressure on Morocco

Haidar’s expulsion from Morocco to Spain in 2009 was followed by a hunger strike that lasted several weeks. The Moroccan authorities didn’t allow her back into the country because she refused to state her nationality as ‘Moroccan’. After growing international pressure on Morocco, Haidar returned and stated: ‘This is a triumph, a victory for human rights, for international justice and for the cause of Western Sahara… and it’s all thanks to your pressure.’

House arrest
Moroccan police immediately placed Haidar under house arrest for a few weeks; journalists were obstructed from contacting her. 

‘I am willing to sacrifice to let Sahrawi’s and Moroccans live in freedom,’ Haidar says. ‘Both our cultures are paying the price. I want to contribute to a better society for all; constructive, lawful, nonviolent, and based on principles of equality and equal opportunity.’

Steps forward
Though the conflict appears to be in a stalemate, Haidar remains positive. ‘UN envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross was the first envoy to visit the region, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture visited too. Many international organisations documented the Moroccan disrespect for human rights. And Minurso is now reconsidering its mandate. It is the world’s sole UN mission without a mandate to protect local citizens and enforce respect for human rights.’

Natural resources
‘The non-renewal of fishery agreements with Morocco by the European Parliament in 2011 is another step forward’, says Haidar. International law prohibits exploitation of natural resources in circumstances where the local population can’t benefit. ‘Morocco’s sole interest is our natural resources. If the international community continues to increase pressure, Morocco will eventually go through with the referendum.’

Democracy and decolonization

Haidar hopes that the Saharan conflict will benefit from the regional democratic changes. As a matter of fact, what has become known as the Arab Spring was preceded in October 2010 in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, when Sahrawi’s put up their tents in Gdeim Izik, outside administrative capital Laayoune, to protest against their perceived marginalisation. Violence broke out when the Moroccan security forces forcibly dismantled the camp; eleven members of the security forces and two Sahrawi civilians were killed. 

Activists sentenced
In February 2013, 23 Sahrawi activists were condemned to heavy sentences before a military court in Morocco. According to Amnesty International, the trial was flawed from the outset and did not meet international human rights standards. 

Haidar stresses a difference between the Arab and the Sahrawi Spring. ‘The North African people revolted against repressive regimes. For Sahrawi’s, Morocco is an illegal occupying force. Our issue is decolonisation.’

New generation
The ‘Sahrawi Gandhi’ is hopeful about the new generation of activists, but worried too. ‘Our youngsters lack a future and don’t tolerate socio-economic marginalisation any longer. They are depressed. These elements encourage the youth to use violence to draw international attention to the continuous Moroccan repression. My organisation CODESA wants to educate this generation in nonviolence, but is denied an NGO permit.’

The need is high for a future perspective on this conflict, concludes Haidar. ‘We ask the international community to exert pressure on Morocco so that the country respects the basic socio-economic rights of the Sahrawi’s and finally holds the referendum.’

Biography Aminatou Haidar
Aminatou Haidar (Akka 1966) is a human rights activist working for the long-awaited referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people on the future of their homeland. She is President of the Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA). Between 1987 and 1991 she was held in secret Moroccan detention centres, where she was subjected to torture and abuse. She was again imprisoned for seven months in 2005, after attending a demonstration. Among the many human rights awards she received is the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2008.