Gdeim Izik a page of the Saharawi struggle for independence, experienced by two girls aged 20, N’Guya El Ouassi and

Hayat Rguibi
37 years and 5 months after the first shots against the Spanish colonizer, a popular uprising of unprecedented size occurred in the occupied part of Western Sahara under the nose of the Moroccan occupier. Its brigades of police, gendarmes, its various security forces (DST, RG), its military and its army of spies didn’t see it coming. In a few days the camp went from a dozen tents to thousands housing 20,000 Saharawis of all generations. N’Guya and Hayat describe this new development in their young lives as activists. I had never talked with them since January 2009, when they had told me

how they got involved in the struggle for independence, the arrests and tortures that they had endured. A brief encounter of a few moments in Salé during the summer of 2011 had not allowed more than joyous and moving embraces on seeing each other again. Today I discover some young women who are more serene, whose reflexion has been nourished with new experiences resulting in enthusiasm rather than being suffered as ordeals, experiences which have reinforced their determination to fight to live free.
Hayat / The image which comes immediately to mind when one mentions Gdeim Izik is the violence of its dismantling by the public forces. The aeroplane which threw out tear gas, the burning of the tents. N’Guya / For me it’s the same thing, I was shocked to see women unable to do anything for their babies’ suffering as they suffocated, others who had lost children as they fled from the armed men. It was terror in the devastated camp. That brutal annihilation did it spark off your resistance and that of the Saharawis? Hayat / As soon as we put up tents, we demonstrated the will of our people and its unity. We revealed to the world the reality of our daily life. We shone a light on the 35 years of lies by Morocco, our support of the Polisario Front and the decision to pursue resistance. Continuing today is part of that logic. What was your involvement in the camp? N’Guya / We got there on the 10th day, at that stage there were 400 tents. It was well organized. We took part in the section of layout and cleaning installed in the tent of the “Municipality”. Each morning we would go and clean the laneways between the tents. We were also part of the welcome and support for journalists and sympathisers who entered secretly. We took them to families who had been attacked by the forces of order while they were getting to the camp. We discussed with the people what sorts of resistance would lead to satisfaction of the demonstrators’ demands. What were the main demands of the participants in this camp of dignity? N’Guya / They were socio-economic demands: the right to work for all and for the young graduates from institutes and from secondary school, the right to suitable accommodation, the refusal of the exploitation of the natural resources of our country, in particular phosphate, seafood and fish. What did you experience that was different from your usual life? Hayat / We enjoyed weeks of serenity between Saharawis, we felt ourselves free, alone, far from Moroccan eyes. Anyone could express themselves freely on what

they were feeling, whether on political subjects or anything else, without the fear of being spied on. We were united, there were no differences between us. We had also demonstrated our capacity to organize ourselves: to provide security, cleanliness, food distribution, medical care… We are proud of this experience which gave courage to everyone and made fear fall away. And since, what fears have you had? Hayat / Once the terror of the dismantling had passed, we were immediately aware of the benefit of this experience and the pride of having overcome the fear of the occupier. Nearly everyone is talking since then of the Saharawi cause. The reality of the savagery of the Moroccan government and its troops came out into the open. Even pro-Moroccan people began to change their minds. We are just waiting for another opportunity to demonstrate once again our will. Since then, the demonstrations, which have taken place in all the towns, see the participation of all generations, and this, despite the repression to which they are subjected. What happened in the evenings and the meetings? N’Guya / Colonisation has tried to make Saharawi culture disappear. Camp life allowed it to take centre stage, to provide a renaissance of some aspects of it, and to re-discover our ancestral ways. We shared all our things, we grouped ourselves in tents to talk about the cause without fear because the young people who were guarding the camp were there to ensure our security and not to spy on us. We played the games that our parents used to play such as sigh and others which are starting to be lost. The old men and women had a major role : the Saharawi women sewed the tents, they taught young city-dwelling girls how to do it and taught them how to put them up. The men took part in the practice and safeguarding of our language, because the young ones have mixed Hassania with the Moroccan dialect, which is obligatory in school, as well as with Arabic. They showed how to play the games specific to men. What happened for each of you when you were expelled from the camp? Hayat / For me, it was the first night that I spent in my mum’s tent, the other nights I was with my friends and comrades. I had a feeling that something was going to happen. At 5 am I was woken abruptly, my mother was shouting on one side and my brothers on the other. I gave my mother her mobile phone and each of us left by ourselves. I didn’t understand because everything had been discussed and organized with the authorities to continue, and this attack was like a betrayal. I asked myself whether it was reality or a nightmare happening before my eyes : the group approaching with guns and knives, the clouds of tear gas and fire hoses spraying hot water. That morning I read in the eyes of the Saharawi, even though the sides were not equal (trucks and an arsenal against unarmed people), a great determination and the conviction of the legitimacy of our demands, because they defended their tents until the last minute.

N’Guya / That morning I was frightened when I saw the police forces advancing with their arms. Children were crying, I was upset, it was a day of massacre. The fear which had overwhelmed me, diminished as we got closer to the town and my determination recuperated. I thought that it would be the last day of Morocco and Western Sahara. The whole world would denounce this aggression, the international community would help us get our independence. What did you do next? Hayat / We didn’t hide, we continued our work, by picking up in the town the remains of the munitions used against the demonstrators from the offensive weapons of the police forces : cases, capsules…every trace that we could find to give to the researchers from Amnesty International. In December 2010 you were delegates taking part in the 17th International Festival of Youth and Students in South Africa, tell us what happened at the airport in Laayoune. Hayat / After our departure for the airport the police arrived at my parents’ place and searched the house as well as that of a friend. They confiscated the computer, CDs and documents. We knew we were on the point of being arrested, but we wanted to show we were not frightened. The delegation had as its objective to demonstrate to this festival the present situation experienced by the Saharawis and the whole host of people who had been arrested. Using offensive weapons, rubber bullets, and above all the attacks by Moroccan civilians incited by the authorities who asked them to go and save their army. Hayat / The airport as we arrived was in a veritable stage of siege. The airport services searched the bags of the whole delegation except ours. We were called to an office. Two police searched us and our luggage. About fifty plainclothes policemen with lots of equipment surrounded us and bombarded us with phototaking. During this time the aeroplane had taken off without us. Afterwards they made us leave, a van was waiting to drive us to the Royal Gendarmerie in Laayoune. N’Guya / Once we arrived there, the gendarmes called a woman in plain clothes, she made us go into the toilets and undressed us and searched us and she found a memory card on Hayat. We got dressed again and they took us to an office where the interrogator was. He put the card into the computer and saw photos of the visit to the SADR camps. In particular there were pictures of Khadija Hamdi, members of the National Assembly and videos of Gdeim Izik. Hayat / We had also filmed testimonies of minors explaining the trafficking taking place in schools, to incite the students to take drugs sold to children. The man transferred the data on the memory stick to the computer then he broke it and insulted us copiously.

N’Guya / The interrogation by policemen began. Their idée fixe : the group of 70 people who had participated in the conference in Algiers, were the people at the origin of the decision to create the Gdeim Izik camp. They showed us photos of people old and young that they had taken during demonstrations and asked us if they had taken part in Gdeim Izik, and one of Enaama Asfari, suggesting that he gave us money to do this work! After the interrogation they took us to another room where a man with a bayonette told us we would be killed with that weapon. Another tells us it will be with an ordinary knife which he was holding in his hands. Then they blindfolded us before another person came into the room. They played our testimony recorded in the computer where we spoke about the situation in our country, our experience and the repression which continues in the occupied Sahara. He says to us : “Now ask your NGOs to come and free you from our hands. You will see if they are capable of doing anything for you!” Then they took us to another room and removed the blindfold. A man in plain clothes from the Secret Services, Rabir, read a report with all the information about our families and they left us alone in the room. The walls were spotted with blood. We stayed there until the next day. We had to sign statements without reading them. A police van took us to the court where the instructing magistrate charged us in the presence of Saharawi lawyers with: formation of a criminal band using a knife using butane gas cylinders intelligence with an enemy power destruction of public property     

Hayat / I replied “ We are only defending the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people, it is you have are armed, we were in a peaceful camp, we have nothing to do with these charges”. He ordered our transfer to prison. We got into another police van where there was a Saharawi detainee, in the direction of the “Black Prison” of Laayoune. On our arrival all the male and female staff were present outside the door with the director. We were taken to the women’s quarters. As soon as we got there we understood that our arrival had been prepared. The warders began a search of our clothing and bodies. We were made to go into a room where there were common law Moroccan detainees. They had been warned by the administration, because we were immediately violently attacked verbally. The day after that attack we decided to go on hunger strike to demand the status of prisoner of opinion and to ask to be protected from aggression by these women by being moved to a cell apart with the two Saharawi women arrested in the Gdeim Izik camp : Fatma Sabi and Zara Lansari. They were isolated from each other in cells with common law prisoners and were not able to report the bullying they suffered. They were made to clean the whole of the women’s quarters and peel potatoes served in the prison. The next day the director and his deputy came to see us to say: “Don’t talk of rights we don’t have to do anything about your opinions and your demands. You should accept this life and the situation.” We replied that our claims were legitimate and denounced

the behaviour of the administration towards the two Saharawi women. They refused to listen to us : “You are little bitches and we will not respond to your demands and you will shut up or pay dearly”. After three more days of hunger strike they accepted to put us together, isolated from the other detainees. Two days later two more Saharawi women, Khaidouma Joumani “Ghalia” and Fadal Jaouda were imprisoned with us. After their arrival a committee from Rabat accompanied by the director came to visit us in our cell. They began to speak to us and ask what our demands were. I told them : “We have nothing to do with the charges laid against us because we express the demands of the Saharawi people peacefully”. I added, “How could a woman over 60 like Fadala and the other woman possibly do what they are accused of?” The director shouted : “Be polite!” I answered “It is you who is not polite” then he slapped me and took me to sign a statement. After this attack I decided to start another hunger strike and N’Guya too through solidarity. We said that we would only stop when we could see our lawyers and our families because it was now a week that we had been arrested and hadn’t seen them. After three days we had the right to a visit in very poor conditions : four barriers separated us and two warders beside us and also beside our families. In the meeting room there was a lot of noise and we couldn’t hear each other. During our detention we only had the right to a visit lasting a quarter of an hour per week. We couldn’t read or write and had only a quarter of an hour to walk in the courtyard in the sun a day. Food was brought to us by our families but the warders stole whatever they fancied. We didn’t have access to the room where there was a television, nor to a phone booth, which was prohibited to common law Saharawi detainees. They were not allowed to talk to us. We asked the director for notebooks to write our journal and books to study and he refused and replied: “You think that we are going to help you become Aminatou Haidars?” After a month and a half two of us were released, the other two a month later, but us two, we were both still held. Our detention lasted over 5 months. Has this painful experience brought you anything positive? Hayat / We used to remember tales of the former disappeared or prisoners under the years of lead and we could gauge that things have changed, despite the arbitrary – absence of rule of law. That gives us courage for what follows. N’Guya / Since we started being activists we have often been arrested. We have been threatened with prison and we were frightened by it, now we treat it as a normal thing in our life under foreign occupation and consider that our cause deserves sacrifice. Were you tried? Hayat / We were given provisional release 14 months ago. And the charges remain suspended, hanging over our heads as for many Saharawi, it is one way

they have of putting pressure on us to stop our activities. What activities have you taken part in since your release? N’Guya / We demonstrate almost daily, we have been twice to the Saharawi camps in Algeria, and we have been invited to meetings with young people in Sweden and Spain. Laayoune, 13 July 2012 Testimony recorded by Michèle Decaster Secretary General of AFASPA