Hassanna Aalia

Western Sahara

Non-violent protest against occupation

He was born just over thirty years ago in El Aaiún, the most important city in the occupied territories of Western Sahara. In May 2005, within the framework of the mobilizations against the Moroccan occupation that took place in El Aaiún and other cities, he began to be involved in the struggle for the rights of the Saharawi people. He was still a teenager.

Since then, his commitment has cost him more than fifteen arrests, the first time in October of 2005. Aalia has developed his activism through numerous associations and groups that fight peacefully in the occupied territories. His objective has been, and continues to be, “to denounce the serious violations of human rights and break the information blockade exercised by the Moroccan occupier,” explains the activist.

In his career, a turning point was the participation in the Gdeim Izik camp, in the fall of 2010. After the violent dismantling of the protest, he managed to escape and hide in a friend’s house in Al-­‐Aaiún for two months. In January 2011 he decided to leave to visit his family, but he was arrested. He was tortured for three days and sentenced to four months in prison without enactment. He did not go to prison, but was provisionally released, and from that moment he left and entered the country on several occasions.

In October 2011, he left the Western Sahara for the last time, to go to the Basque Country to participate in a project with activists from the occupied territories.

In January 2012, he requested international protection from the Spanish government, and in February 2013, a Moroccan Military Court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment. The Spanish government denied asylum to Aalia in January of 2015, in a clear demonstration, according to the activist, of the support of Spanish government to Moroccan occupation. Finally, in October of 2016 the National Court recognized him as a refugee, revoking the decision taken by the Asylum and Refugee Office regarding his request for international protection.

To this day, Aalia continues to fight from the Basque Country in defense of the rights of his people. He participates in several campaigns and coordinates work for different associations and NGOs. In addition, he works together with other Sahrawis advocating at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

» Entrevista

> You started your fight for the rights of the Saharawi people while you were still a teenager.

All creatures born on the territories occupied by Morocco are aware that they live in an occupied country. When we were children, we always had many questions: why do we have a different culture from Moroccans? Why are there so many military blockades in our cities? Why do teachers treat us differently? Why is a part of our family in refugee camps? Why can’t we see them, like the rest of the families? For example, Moroccan families come together during their holidays, but we always lack someone. When we asked our parents these questions, they were afraid to answer, and that led us to wanting to know more and investigate.
I finally got involved in 2005. I was studying in an institute in El Aaiún when, in the month of May, a new peaceful uprising began. The Moroccan military entered many houses of Sahrawi people, torturing and abusing women and children. And we, as students, organized support for these families. This is where I started a long history of detention and torture.

> How was your experience at Gdeim Izik?

It was amazing. I won’t ever forget it. For the first time, the Sahrawis managed to live among us, under our tents. The tents are very important in our culture that is attacked daily in the occupied territories. Gdeim Izik was a before and after, not only for me, but also for the struggle of the Saharawi people. We managed to send a very clear message to the Moroccan occupier: we are an organized people. With these fabrics we organized one of the biggest protests in our history. And we also sent a message to many people, many people who can get up to defend their social and political rights.

> Several voices point out that Gdeim Izik was the spark of the Arab Springs.

Yes, for example Noam Chomsky said that Arab Springs began in Western Sahara. After Gdeim Izik, I traveled twice to Spain. The second time was in October of 2011, when I stayed, but I had also come in March for a period of three months. On the way back, I had a long stop in Madrid and I found out that there was a protest on Plaza del Sol, and I went. And there I found people with tents occupying the whole plaza. And I thought: well, that Gdeim Izik’s camp is not finished yet, it still exists in other places and in other towns that are rising up.

> How do you value the support and solidarity received in Spain?

The greatest solidarity we have at this moment comes from the peoples of the Spanish State. There are hundreds of associations and NGOs that work with the Saharawi people and give support to the refugee camps. And there are also many campaigns against the Moroccan occupiers.

> What responsibility does Spain have in the violations of human rights suffered by the Saharawi people?

The government of Spain is responsible, together with Morocco, for our suffering. Now, many politicians in Spain want to turn the cause of the Saharawi people into a humanitarian cause, and in fact there is a lot of humanitarian aid from the state. But the Saharawi people need political support to end the illegal occupation of Morocco on their territory.

> When you were recognized as a refugee, you said that you would celebrate it “once all the Sahrawi prisoners and refugees are free.” What is the situation of the Saharawi prisoners?

To this date* we have more than 70 political prisoners. They are in several Moroccan prisons, and also in the Black Prison, in El Aaiún. Due to torture and ill treatment, political prisoners have many diseases. Last year, a fellow of Gdeim Izik’s group, Mohammed El Ayoubi, who had suffered various tortures, including sexual violence, died. Many of the political prisoners are not allowed to study and are denied health care. They also have difficulties seeing their families, either because they are denied visits or they are imprisoned far away from the place where their relatives live. The Sahrawi prisoners have started many hunger strikes during these years to claim their rights. So far they have not achieved anything, but they continue to fight inside Moroccan prisons.

> What are the future prospects of the Sahrawi struggle?

We need a strategy that goes beyond making our cause a humanitarian crisis. The most important thing is political work. For this reason, we denounce the serious violations of human rights suffered by the Saharawi people and we are working on new international campaigns against the theft of our natural resources, especially phosphates and marine resources. With these campaigns we have managed to get many European, Latin and foreign companies out of the territory of Western Sahara. The Court of the European Union (EU) has clearly ruled that the Western Sahara is not Morocco, and therefore the EU should not be able to sign agreements that include the waters of this territory. But last week, unfortunately, we returned to check that the interests are above the rights, since a fishing agreement had been signed that includes the waters of Western Sahara.

> What do you expect from the international solidarity movement?

Obviously it is important to continue supporting the refugee camps, but the goal is to achieve freedom in our territory. Pressure must be put on the government of Spain and other countries to pressure Morocco to leave Western Sahara.

* This interview was held on February 20, 2019.