Fatma el-Mehdi is a Western Saharan activist who has been a refugee in Algeria for more than forty years. She is the secretary general of the National Union of Sahrawi Women. She was recognized as a Woman PeaceMaker in 2016 by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego, California. Muftah spoke with her in the Smara refugee camp near Tindouf in southwestern Algeria. The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Muftah: In March 2018, you organized a three-day international conference on non-violent civil resistance. What are the key messages that you took from the conference?
Fatma el-Mehdi (FM): There are four. The first one is the natural resources, that is the importance of preventing exploitation of phosphate, oil, fish and other natural resources on Western Saharan soil by Morocco. Second: human rights. To extend MINURSO’s mandate and to include monitoring of human rights. MINURSO [the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara] is the only UN peacekeeping mission that does not include a human rights monitoring mandate, that’s because of the Security Council, because of France. Third, the issue of the Sahrawi political prisoners. Fourth, how to present cases of human rights violations committed by Morocco, including the separation wall, to the international courts by using the UN system. These are four issues we learned about during the conference.
In addition to Sahrawi activists from the refugee camps and occupied Western Sahara, there were speakers from Palestine, South Africa and Tunisia. Were there any takeaways particularly regarding the Palestinian and South African experience?
FM: All are different but we think we can learn from them, from their experiences. For example, how can we think about maintaining our Sahrawi culture? Because of Morocco, all the citizens who are leaving the Sahrawi territories have different names, totally different from the Sahrawi context. So, how can we start changing these names, for the Sahrawis to have the names that they want to have. Also, how can we mobilize our people to talk about their rights, their social and economic rights. You know, the Sahrawi people they are the poorest in the region, not only those in the camps in Algeria but also those living in the occupied territories. They don’t have the opportunity to work. You know, in the past 42, 43 years Morocco didn’t build any universities; in the whole of Western Sahara there are no universities.
Not even for Moroccan citizens?
FM: No. If they want to study, to continue their studies, they have to go to Morocco. And this is something that is affecting women more than men. Because they have their families they cannot leave, they have to travel to Morocco, etc. This is one of Morocco’s policies: to leave the people ignorant, even Moroccans. But at least the Moroccans can go to their country to study.
Do you think the message of non-violent resistance resonates among the younger Sahrawi activists?
FM: Yes, because I think we have very good arguments in favor of Western Sahara independence. And we need to convince young people that there is another kind of strategy, there is another kind of weapon that can be stronger than the weapons of war. To convince them not to go back to the war [The end of the armed struggle between Morocco and the Sahrawis was agreed upon in 1991 under auspices of the United Nations, which continues to be monitored by MINURSO]. I think this kind of thinking is very important for young people. During the three days of the conference I noticed that they were really happy to understand and commit to doing things peacefully – and this is very important. So we need to amplify all this information.
Are there any efforts to engage Sahrawis in the diaspora in Spain, France, other countries?
FM: I think our organization, the National Union of Sahrawi Women, is very important for people who are living in Spain, France, Mauritania, Algeria – all of them are organized under the Polisario [the Sahrawi government in exile]. We have a structure where all of them are included in our work. Polisario is organizing some of the life of the Sahrawi diaspora. We have a minister of diaspora. And many in the diaspora are supporting the intifada in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.
How about increasing the engagement of people in Morocco?
FM: You mean Moroccans? We have tried but the problem with the Moroccan people is that they don’t have the capacity to talk about it. It is an issue that is only addressed by the King, the King is the only person who can talk about it.
Several years ago, the government of Sweden expressed its intention to become the first European nation to recognize the Polisario and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). What do you think about that?
FM: Sweden’s social democratic party says it will continue to support the right of the Sahrawi people. And the issue of recognition is something that they have on the table. They need to make sure that if they take further steps that they are positive and not negative. They have the experience of recognizing Palestine. They must consider whether if this is the most they can do for the Palestinian people. Similarly, for the Sahrawi people.
If Sweden were to recognize SADR, how do you view its importance and potential effect?
FM: We think that it would be very important because that would motivate other EU governments to do the same. Because that is the experience we have in the African Union, of the which SADR is a member. SADR should have the same opportunities, the same rights, as any other country. I don’t know if you followed the last summit for which Morocco – which just rejoined the African Union after it left in 1984 – tried to prevent the SADR delegation’s participation. They didn’t succeed.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been very important in bringing down the Apartheid regime in South Africa and has been gaining traction in Palestine. Is Palestine an inspiration for you?
FM: For us? It depends, because when we look at what they have achieved, it’s not so good. They have been working very hard, but they haven’t achieved a lot. Every day they have less power. Take the example of Jerusalem. They say that the Al-Aqsa mosque is still Palestinian but everything is surrounded by Israel. When I look at the popular support the Palestinian receive though – it’s amazing. They are very active, sharing their experiences, trying to help other people.
We have tried to have our people united. This is something that many countries don’t like. We need the Polisario as an umbrella, while having all our differences and different opinions. The Palestinians have many groups, many political factions, that see each other as obstacles.
As an aside, we didn’t receive support from the Palestinian government for our conference. They didn’t respond to our request. But we know the government is the government and the people are the people. We need solidarity from the Palestinian people and they need solidarity from us. The position of the government will not stop us from being in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
You have called for more visibility about the Sahrawi issue in the Arab world. The Sahrawi cause has not captured the imagination of the Arab world, has it?
FM: No indeed, many Arabs know little about the Sahrawi issue, including Moroccans. For example, I met this Moroccan student studying in Cairo. She came to the camps for her studies. Her parents only knew about Western Sahara from the speeches of the King. Western Sahara is still one of the ways the government can make the Moroccan people think about issues other than their own.
Are you hopeful that there will be a referendum on independence?
FM: What I know is that we are very committed. Each day we are more and more committed. We do not accept living in a country that is not ours. Even for the people who are living in Spain and France – they are not happy because they are not on their land. We also don’t want to be Moroccan. Moroccans themselves are suffering. We are happy as were are at least fighting for our rights. This has given our life value; to have an objective in life, to struggle, to fight.
These days, the Sahrawi struggle has a new significance. For example, we have made many new achievements on the legal front. We have the December 2016 decision of the European Court of Justice. On February 23, 2018, a court in Port Elizabeth, South Africa ruled that a ship with 55,000 tonnes of phosphate from Western Sahara destined for New Zealand belonged to the Sahrawi people. On February 27, 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that Western Sahara must be excluded from a fisheries deal between EU and Morocco because it is a separate territory.
Are you hopeful that with the latest ruling by the European Court of Justice, as well as the appointment of the new UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara that there will be more progress towards a referendum?
FM: I think the new Special Envoy is something good, something really important. First, because it shows that the United Nations is still working and trying to look for a solution for Western Sahara. It is also important to have a former president [UN Special Envoy Horst Köhler is a former president of Germany.]. He has met with several countries in the African Union, even those that have good economic relations with Morocco. All of them said, they are very interested in stopping this conflict. Western Sahara is an African issue and they believed a more active role on the topic was necessary. Köhler has also met with the AU Special Representative for Western Sahara. So he is trying to contact many people, including members of the UN Security Council, in order to understand their position on the topic.
You mentioned that Morocco considers Western Saharan not an as African issue and only wants to address it through the UN?
FM: Yes, Morocco has been trying to separate these two issues. They always have said to the Africans: this issue will have you divided. So it is better for you to leave it to the United Nations. Morocco does not want the African Union to play any role in Western Sahara.
There has been criticism of the summer peace programs that are held every year, in which Sahrawi children from the refugee camps are hosted for two months by families in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. What’s the reason for this criticism?
FM: Within the Muslim and Arab World, critics have claimed we are damaging the image of Islam because we send our children to be with families who are Christians or even atheists. [More than 9,000 children, ages 8-12 participate in the peace summer program every year, eds]. I was one of the people who faced these criticisms. My daughter became seriously ill so I sent her to receive treatment in Spain. She ended up living with a Spanish family, and stayed there for 15 years. The Aljazeera channel once interviewed me and asked me why I did this. “You are a Muslim. Why have you sent your daughter at a very young age to live with a family that is not Muslim?” I responded: When my daughter was dying I found a Catholic family that was willing to receive her. I did not find a Muslim family that would do this. If you believe in solidarity, as Muslims, then why don’t you help your fellow Muslims?
You know, we don’t have support from the Arab world. Only from Algeria and from Libya when Ghaddafi was still alive. Morocco says we are trying to damage the image of Islam, because Sahrawi women can travel with their husbands. They can study in mixed schools. Because Islam for us is not only superficial, but more profound. For us, Islam means collaboration, support, study, and working hard. We are very active and our critics from the Arab world don’t like this. We are not accepted, politically, culturally, or religiously.
You spent nearly all of your life here in the camps. If you look ahead 25 years from now, what would you expect, what would you hope for where you will be? And what you’ll be doing?
FM: I came here as a seven-year old. Really, I think only about fighting. Until we will win our struggle it is difficult to think about the future. But I hope the Sahrawis can have their own place and their own rights and even peace in their land. I am happy to have the capacity to fight.
What do you hope for your daughter?
FM: For my daughter? I have two daughters. One finished her studies. She is a social worker. And the other one is in her last year of nursing school. My older daughter is working with disabled people. And my younger one is volunteering at the hospital in the summer. So they are trying to support society. I hope they will live in peace.
Everywhere freedom has a prize. We are not an exceptional case. All the liberation movements have won in the end. We will win. We will not be an exceptional case. We believe in justice. If our cause was not just, maybe we would not have continued until now. Our cause is just and, in the end, we will win.