Logotipo de Asociación de ammigos y Amigas del Pueblo Saharaui de Extremadura

  Publicado el 11 de Noviembre de 2015

We were treated like mere objects, terrorists or asylum seekers, writes Malaika wa Azania.

There has been speculation about what transpired in Morocco a few days ago. This is the real story, with facts that can be corroborated by empirical evidence.

Two months ago, I received an invitation to attend the CCDA-4, in my capacity as a member of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) South Africa.

The CCDA-4 is organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), the AU Commission (AUC) and the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Uneca was the organisation with which I was in constant communication. I informed Uneca, almost a month ago, that I would not be able to get a visa in South Africa given the fact that the Moroccan consulate is in Pretoria and I’m a full-time student in Grahamstown.

Another reason was that Uneca hadn’t sent me a letter of accommodation, which is needed along with the invitation letter, for securing a visa in South Africa.

As a result, I requested that Uneca facilitate a visa on arrival for me, which we agreed to.

Uneca then processed my flight tickets and sent me all necessary documents to get to Morocco, specifically an invitation letter, return flight tickets and a communique with the Moroccan Foreign Ministry requesting that I, along with many other delegates across Africa and beyond, be given visas on arrival.

Due to the validity of all documents, I was allowed to board my flights from Port Elizabeth Airport to OR Tambo International Airport and from there to Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and ultimately to Casablanca in Morocco, where the crisis began.

Upon arrival in Morocco, at 12.10pm on Tuesday, Moroccan authorities, in spite of our valid and authentic documentation, refused to give us visas.

For reasons unknown to me, some people in our group were allowed to enter the country while others were denied entry.

I didn’t panic initially, because I have travelled to many countries in Africa, and I know how the procedure of obtaining visas on arrival works. But as the night progressed, I began to worry, for various reasons.

First, despite engaging the organisers of the conference (Uneca), the Moroccan authorities were not letting us through.

They kept insisting that they needed to speak to Uneca, but despite us providing the contact numbers and e-mail addresses of our hosts, literally nothing was being communicated to us.

Second, in our group, we had people holding diplomatic passports, respected, high-ranking officials who were equally being denied entry. Third, the Moroccan authorities couldn’t tell us concretely what the problem was.

We were given all sorts of conflicting stories, none of which made much sense. We were told of names appearing on certain lists, and others not appearing on other sets of lists. And yet we were all in possession of an official list, one sent to the Foreign Ministry, on which all our names appeared.

This list was clearly being disregarded, in favour of elusive ones that kept changing perpetually.

But more worrying for me was the communication factor.

The language barrier between most of us, who speak English, and the Moroccan authorities, who speak French and Arabic, was making communication a nightmare.

We just weren’t hearing each other, and the authorities were being aggrieved by this, and thus, developing an antagonistic attitude towards us.

Eventually, one of the Moroccan authorities suggested that they would keep our passports at the Airport Mohammed V and allow us to proceed to Marrakesh, about two hours north of Casablanca.

It was suggested that we would retrieve our passports upon leaving Morocco.

While the group was entertaining this suggestion, I immediately opposed it vehemently on the grounds that it was setting parameters of further detention, and perhaps even worse.

My argument was that if we happened to run into trouble with authorities while inside, we wouldn’t be able to prove our identities, and that our embassies would not be able to assist us.

This argument angered Moroccan officials, who then made it clear that we would not be granted visas. They kicked us out of their offices, where we had gone to negotiate our release or deportation.

We slept the first night in the area in which we were detained, within the cold airport.

Without any food and water, all 25 of us huddled in corners as we tried to keep warm.

The following morning, we informed Uneca by e-mail about what had transpired. We weren’t given any food or water, yet again.

I asked the Moroccan officials to rather deport me to South Africa, stating that if I wasn’t being allowed into Morocco, then logic dictated that I be sent back home, rather than be kept in detention without any reasonable explanation.

This was dismissed and the brutality was further meted out by officials who wouldn’t even allow us to access our luggage bags to retrieve warmer clothes.

That Wednesday night, I fell ill while in detention. I was battling to breathe due to a heart ailment.

I suffer terribly from mitral valve prolapse, which triggers anxiety attacks in me, particularly when I’m under stress. This attack in particular was brought on by not having eaten, rested or even had water in over 24 hours. I began to experience heart palpitations. My fellow comrades requested medical assistance from the Moroccan authorities, and after their initial nonchalance, a nurse was sent to me.

She couldn’t speak English and I don’t speak French, so for a while, she just sat there looking at me and pouring cold water over my face as I tried to breath steadily. I was too tired even to stop her from pouring water all over me.

The water was in fact making me colder, as the room we were in was cold and I had only a short-sleeved T-shirt on.

I informed the policemen that I had medication in my luggage, but for over 30 minutes, they insisted that I couldn’t be granted access to my luggage.

The nurse then went to get me some pills, relaxants. This was after she couldn’t find my chronic medication prescription, Bilicor 5mg, at the airport pharmacy.

The authorities wouldn’t give me any bottled water, so the nurse, a seemingly apathetic young woman who had long given up on helping me due to our irreconcilable language barrier problems, decided to use a disposed bottle and got me water from the toilet. I refused to drink it as it tasted too salty and undrinkable.

Later, I was allowed access to my luggage, but by this time the relaxants had left me too lethargic. I didn’t even find my medication, despite having taken it in Dubai a few hours before. But I believe that I am the one who misplaced the box.

That night, we were again subjected to sleeping on cold steel chairs and dirty, freezing tiles, huddled in a room without heaters.

I took more relaxants to get me through the night. It was the only way I could sleep.

I was woken up in the wee hours of the night to be given supper, which consisted of two mini muffins and some weakened yoghurt, which I had to save for breakfast, as I knew we wouldn’t be getting anything the following morning. And we didn’t.

By the morning of October 9, there were fewer than 20 of us remaining. Two of our comrades, one from Djibouti and one from Malawi, had been deported.

Four others had been assisted by their governments and were allowed entry. And so again, we sat, waiting for an absolution that was threatening to never come.

After much activity, which included interventions from the South African embassy, I and all remaining comrades were finally given visas.

I asked the officials why they had kept us detained when they could’ve easily deported us or even allowed us in, as they did others before us, and as they ultimately did with us.

With a look of manufactured regret, the customs officer responded: “It was a misunderstanding, madam. A big misunderstanding.”

And maybe it was, I don’t know. All I know is that by Thursday afternoon, when my embassy finally took me to a restaurant, I had not had food since Monday morning.

I had to survive on Stimorol gum that I’d kept in my handbag.

I also know that those officials didn’t have to attempt to manhandle me when I requested that I be deported to my home country.

At one point, as we were being pushed out of the office where we’d gone to request information on the developments regarding our visas, an irate official attempted to physically push me out of the office while I was still talking. I looked at him menacingly and said: “Don’t you dare touch me.”

He didn’t.

Above all, I know too that there’s no worse humiliation than having to use a dirt-infested toilet basin to wash oneself using a handkerchief and hand-washing liquid soap.

I know that for a woman to have to wash her underwear and dry it with a hand-dryer, and use her fingers to pry the plaque off her teeth, is the most humiliating experience. No woman should ever have to go through that.

One of the women we’d been detained with asked us for a tampon, and my heart tore apart.

I could not begin to imagine what it must have been like for a woman going through her menstrual cycle to be deprived of even the dignity of accessing her toiletry bag.

I want to say that one thing I’ve learnt from this experience is that the people of Western Sahara are telling no lies when they narrate to us stories of state brutality that they suffer. Moroccan officials are cruel and see nothing wrong with subjecting young women to sleeping on cold tiles, covered with mere jackets.

They see nothing wrong in starving people and treating them like mere things – objects that can be disposed of at will.

We were treated like terrorists who had gone to Morocco to destabilise the government, or as asylum seekers who were refusing to be deported back to their homes.

And I don’t understand why this was necessary, given that we had in fact pleaded to be returned to our respective countries, where we have loved ones.

But one positive thing came out of this ordeal. Through the small acts of heroism done by our comrades, such as sharing 500ml bottles of water and crispy chips with many of us, I learnt that there’s power in unity and solidarity. All of us stuck together through thick and thin.

When I eventually got my luggage, I gave some of my clothing to two Kenyan delegates who have become valuable friends.

They too shared with me their body lotions and deodorant when I hadn’t been given my luggage.

Unity was forged in that room of our detention. And eventually, we all came out alive, albeit scarred.

I was fetched at the airport by the South African embassy on Thursday afternoon, after the Moroccan embassy had finally processed our visas and let us through.

But I couldn’t stay in Morocco after the trauma of the past few days, and so I opted to be booked onto the next available flight.

The embassy officials took me to a restaurant, where I ate croissants like a starving animal.

I don’t wish on anyone the cruelty of what we experienced in Morocco. No one deserves to be abandoned in a foreign country, and indeed, what Uneca did was to abandon us. We were left in the hands of uncaring officials, cruel men and women to whom we were mere things. Above all this, the people of Western Sahara, who are treated as mere things by this same Moroccan government that breeds diabolical officials, must at all times be supported in their own struggle against repression.

If I am traumatised by a mere three days of cruelty, I can only imagine what they go through 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, in the hands of multitudes of such officials. We dare not remove this picture from our minds as we go through the motions of our own lives. Aluta continua!

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