Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Aminetu Haidar: In Spite of Everything. Saharawi on Hunger Strike
by ATENEA AVECEDO
Aminetu Haidar was arrested at the El Aaiun Airport (former capital of Western Sahara, a country under Moroccan military occupation since 1975) because in filling out the corresponding entry form she wrote "Western Sahara" as her country of origin instead of "Morocco". The Moroccan authorities confiscated her passport and forced her aboard another aircraft bound to Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain). The Spanish authorities refuse to let her fly back to El Aaiun, where her children are, because she does not have the necessary papers. What might seem a mere red tape issue reveals, on one hand, the toughening of Moroccan policies against Saharawi human rights activists -being Saharawi and refusing to assume one's nationality as Moroccan is considered high treason by the Moroccan regime- and, on the other, the complicity between the Spanish and the Moroccan States. Aminetu Haidar initiated a hunger strike on 15 November as a protest against her current status.
Our senses, habituated to a never innocent violence – normalized through lingering media bombardment – only react when the scandalous aspect of news reaches the border between reality and fiction. Once in a while, almost always later than sooner, the violence that mercilessly strikes women appears in mass media headlines: women retained in Serbian rape camps, young working women slaughtered in Ciudad Juárez, women murdered by either romantic or sexual partners. Less frequently, a specific face repeats itself on the television screens and a name struggles to conquer a corner of our memory. Today such a face belongs to Saharawi activist Aminetu Haidar, a peaceful defender of human rights and international humanitarian rights whose case began to filter out through tiny snippets of information and now expands like a pool of uncontainable blood.
Aminetu – a former detainee in Moroccan secret jails, where she “disappeared” for years – has the willpower that we usually find in those who have lived and suffered enough to thoroughly know both the strength and fragility of the human spirit. The old and vile complicity between the governments of Spain and Morocco, a complicity that impedes Aminetu’s return to Western Sahara, her motherland – under military occupation since 1975 – and that has forced her to start a hunger strike against it, is the same that historically marks all perverse pacts signed to the detriment of people everywhere. Now it is the turn of the Saharawi people, affected for 34 years now by such complicity and surely even more as a former Spanish colony whose national identity was modified and resources exploited until the commercial alliances were consolidated that today define the inexcusable continuance of a shameful conflict.
Now, while Spanish government officials turn a deaf ear to a hunger strike in its second week, it’s useless to give an account of Spain’s violations of Aminetu’s demand to return to El Aaiun. Better to unmask the lie which is being repeated a thousand times to make it into a truth. But even more useful is to point out that what is happening in Aminetu’s case unveils the still concealed factual ins and outs of a political system that claims to be democratic and mistakenly acknowledges: 1) that democracy is simply dictatorship’s antonym, and 2) that societies are satisfied with periodic elections and spaces where they can shout their dissatisfaction even if nothing changes in the real world. Is this the harbor to which the globally celebrated “Spanish transition” has arrived after those very same 34 years? Or is it that the transition process is unfinished and one of its steps consists of a combination of handwashing and complicity with the current occupying power in its former colony?
A democratic government is based upon popular expression at the polls and assumes the commitment to represent the interests of majorities while listening to minorities, but it also acknowledges that democracy is a social construction process that involves the decision of not riding roughshod over the rights of other people beyond its borders. As well, it also consists on keeping a retrospective view motivated by the learning and amending of any errors in its own history. The Spanish government’s attitude in Western Sahara adds to so many other aspects of its foreign policy, that make evident an embarrassing desire to continue looking down on the South with contempt and neo-colonial thirst, both in Africa and Latin America.
In the face of such a devastating scene, people of Spanish descent who, coming from the most human solidarity transcend what they learned in their childhood textbooks full of omissions, set an example and remind us that people and government are not the same thing. In our countries, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, it is disappointing to see rebellious societies with servile governments that don’t know how or don’t want to abandon their role as mental and economic colonizers.
This is Aminetu’s scene of resistance. Those who have experienced the horror of torture affirm that the only refuge against its cruelty is the mind, a place that people feel to be their own, a place where the repressor cannot enter, the haven that saves one from madness. On the other hand, in the black night of the prison without walls that is forced exile or life under military occupation, the body can become the last resource to call for justice. A woman appropriates her body and transforms it into a vehicle of transgression and denunciation. That gesture, both real and symbolic, not only means to appropriate her own life (we don’t get the accounts wrong: in these circumstances her latent death will continue being the responsibility of both the Spanish and Moroccan governments and of international indifference), but above all, to appropriate her own body, a body that has already been disappeared, forced, beaten and forcefully transformed into an instrument of terror at the hands of her torturer occupant.
Our world, still patriarchal, insists on seeing women as part of the collective property of men who are the holders of a people’s identity. For that reason, invaders vent their anger by raping women as an act to tarnish the masculine pride of a nation. Even the left has not been able to cast off the idea of women as either public property (“to protect our mujeres”) or private property, acquired through the sexual act (“I introduce you to my mujer”)*. Aminetu knows that in spite of everything, she only belongs to herself, as we all do, and from that conscience she has been partner, friend and fighter. Indefatigable survivor and owner of herself, she grabs what is within reach of all human beings demanding the observance of a right: the right to her mind, her body and her unredeemed heart.
I will never understand mankind’s ease in cyclically losing with complete indifference its most valuable and gifted people, the very same ones who could rescue it from its miseries. I hope it doesn't happen again this time.
*Spanish for women/woman.
English translation by Manuel Talens, edited by Machetera. Atenea Acevedo, Manuel Talens and Machetera are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, translator and editor are cited.
For more information on the Saharawi struggle and Aminetu Haidar's hunger strike, check out the show aired by Democracy Now on 1 December 2009.