Why you should care
Aminatou Haidar is the face of her people’s struggle for freedom, but she worries young activists could soon go to war.
Late one night in 1987, Moroccan policemen arrived at a house in the occupied city of Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, and demanded to speak to Aminatou Haidar. It would only take 10 minutes, they told her panic-stricken family; but those minutes stretched into days, weeks, months and then years. The 20-year-old was disappeared without trial to a secret facility not far from her home, where guards tortured her, subjecting her to starvation and threats of rape — the price for painting graffiti and circulating leaflets calling for a free Western Sahara.
The day she was released, more than three years later, she was unable to stand, her body almost broken from the ordeal. But Haidar was not deterred from activism and since has become a leading voice of resistance to Moroccan repression in the territory, regarded as Africa’s final colony. “It made me stronger and more determined, and I was even more conscious of the necessity to lead a struggle for self-determination,” she says.
To Sahrawis, the formerly nomadic peoples native to the region, Haidar is the “Gandhi of Western Sahara,” a tireless advocate for peaceful resistance who brings international attention to their much-forgotten plight; to the Moroccan government in Rabat, she’s a dangerous agitator and separatist who continues to defy what the kingdom calls its “southern provinces,” though no other country recognizes this claim.
Now, at age 53, she’s become a voice of restraint — pitted against a new generation of pro-independence activists who Haidar fears are too eager to launch a full-scale war, with tensions rising along the world’s longest militarized border.
I will not [deny] that a war can start anytime.
Since Morocco invaded the territory in 1975, triggering a 16-year war with the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement, those supporting independence have faced systematic discrimination and surveillance. Police ban demonstrations or assault protesters, and activists are convicted via “grossly unfair” trials, according to Amnesty International.
Around 170,000 Sahrawis live in exile in refugee camps in western Algeria, separated from their homeland and families by the world’s longest fortification — a 1,700-mile wall that snakes through the desert frontier. A United Nations–sponsored cease-fire in 1991 promised a referendum to decide the future of Western Sahara. The vote has yet to materialize, and Morocco now says it will concede no more than regional autonomy within the kingdom.
Several uprisings have rocked Western Sahara in the years since the cease-fire, including the 2005 “Independence Intifada” when Haidar was beaten by Moroccan police. The brutal attack left her with blood streaming from her head and required 12 stitches.
“Images of a bloodied and beaten Haidar galvanized Sahrawi resistance and shocked many foreign observers,” says Jacob Mundy, a professor at Colgate University who writes on the Western Sahara conflict. “She was quickly catapulted to center stage because she is such a sympathetic figure and an effective communicator.”
Haidar’s leadership of human rights coalition CODESA and advocacy for political prisoners and the disappeared have won her numerous international accolades, including the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, but her focus has never strayed far from her homeland. And today her main preoccupation concerns the growing divide between Sahrawi leaders and their younger counterparts.
Like most of her generation, Haidar’s childhood was marred by loss — an uncle and a cousin died in the war — and she abhors the thought of renewed fighting. But those born after the guns fell silent have spent a lifetime in hopeless obscurity, jaded by a lack of opportunity and a moribund peace process.
A survey in the Algerian camps in 2014 found that more than 60 percent of refugees younger than 40 want to return to conflict, which accords with Haidar’s concerns that young people are being driven to desperate measures.
“It’s not only the camps but in the occupied territories, and they even talk about attacking the Sahrawi ‘traitors,’” she says, referring to what the youth call pro-Moroccan sympathizers.
An outbreak of fighting could have perilous consequences for the Sahel region, already a hotbed of armed groups and extremists, who she worries will recruit disaffected young men. Haidar spends her days meeting with young Sahrawis and is in constant communication with other activists over social media and WhatsApp (her phone was buzzing frequently during our interview in London before she put it on silent). In person, Haidar speaks with characteristically quiet confidence, her sharp features accentuated as she brushes back her blue floral shawl — the traditional Al malahfa worn by Sahrawi women — to punctuate her conversation.
“I try to say that there is no advantage in war,” she says. “We have lost a lot of loved ones and a lot of people, and the nonviolent and peaceful way has enabled us to bring light to our cause.”
Mohamed Mayara, a Sahrawi journalist who first met Haidar in 2013, says Haidar is “still a very important figure,” even though a new guard of activists is waiting in the wings.
A rare glimmer of hope crept into the independence movement in 2017, when the U.N. appointed former German president Horst Köhler as envoy for Western Sahara, who within months brought the Polisario and Morocco to the negotiating table for the first time in six years.
Yet following two much-hyped summits in Geneva, Köhler abruptly resigned in May, citing health concerns, making him the fourth envoy to fail to secure a political settlement. Haidar’s younger activist colleagues maintained their weary cynicism, their suspicions confirmed that political negotiations are a dead end. They joked that U.N. envoys were only appointed as interns.
“I will not [deny] that a war can start anytime,” she says. “It’s a matter of time really, especially if the international community and the U.N. don’t appoint a new special envoy rapidly to put up the pressure on Morocco and the Polisario to meet again.”
Not for the first time, the prospect of a free Western Sahara, with all the civil liberties denied to Sahrawis under occupation, has receded beyond the desert’s horizon.
Haidar remains sanguine as she ponders the years to come and what they might bring for her son and daughter, now in their mid-20s. Even in her darkest days, visions of a brighter future did not abandon her, and on occasion her thoughts drift to the other activists who were rounded up that same night in 1987. Some have never been seen since, she says, and without bodies, their families have no idea whether their loved ones are alive or dead.
Still bearing the scars of torture, Haidar’s health is poor. She suffers from arthritis and spinal problems. But she dismisses the idea of retiring to a quieter life without a moment’s hesitation: “Only death will keep me silent.”
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