Monday, 16 July 2012

Mine victims, by Nick Jubber

In a flaky pink apartment block in the Nahader district, a girl with henna on her hands pulled back the metal door and ushered me up the stairs. In a large room fringed with cushions, I sat on the woollen rug of a guest room while Mohammed Ali, director of the local mine victims’ association, prepared tea on a coal stove. I had come to listen to Ahmed, a student in his early twenties who was involved in a landmine accident a couple of years ago.
  ‘I was visiting my friend in an area south-east of Laayoune, about three hundred kilometres south,’ said Ahmed. He was an angular young man in his early twenties, his square-cut face softened by his glasses. ‘I was in the Land Rover with my friend’s father, Mohammed Nadher. He kept camels and around three hundred goats and we were driving between his tent and the field where he kept his goats when the back wheels went over an anti-charge. I remember running – about fifty metres away – I just ran – it was only when I was away from the explosion that I understood what had happened. My friend’s father was lying on the ground near the car. I pulled him away but the explosion had torn his feet open so he couldn’t walk. His sons heard the explosion and they came to find us, followed by the police who took us to Mohammed’s tent.’
  An ambulance came, much later, carrying Ahmed and Mohammed to the military hospital in Laayoune.
  ‘But,’ he explained, ‘they only looked at our injuries. I was burned all the way up my leg. They refused to do anything for us, so we were taken to another hospital, and by this time it was too late to save Mohammed’s foot so his toe had to be amputated.’
  It was only after several months of recovery that Mohammed went back to his flock; but now, unsteady on his feet, he was unable to herd them as well as in the past, so he sold up and moved to Laayoune.
  ‘What about you?’ I asked. ‘Did you have any after-effects?’
  ‘I hear a buzzing in my ears sometimes,’ he said, ‘but I am strong, I’m not afraid.’
  For Mohammed Ali, it was clear who was to blame.
  ‘The Moroccan government,’ he said, ‘doesn’t even publicise the mine situation – there are no posters about it, they never mention it on TV or radio, so people aren’t educated about it. Especially people who live in the desert – they need to know about the mines but many of them don’t even know what a mine looks like.’
Saharawi landmine victim (in the camps).
Photo by Bernat Millet
  Mohammed and Ahmed talked angrily of the Moroccan government’s failure to sign the Ottawa accord guaranteeing reparations to victims, or to make substantial efforts to map the mined areas.
  ‘It’s not only Morocco who planted the mines,’ said Mohammed, ‘Mauretania, Spain and the Polisario have all been responsible, but it is Morocco that has the authority here and they do nothing to help us. We’re Saharawi – we love the desert, it’s part of us. I like to spend my time in the city but also in the desert. But we have to be so careful when we go into the desert because of the mines.’
  ‘Without the desert,’ said Ahmed, ‘we are like fish out of water. But how can we use the desert when we are afraid we may step on a mine?’

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Mohammed Salim – the Sheriff of Gudaym Izik (Gdeim Izik), by Nick Jubber

 One of the activists who had taken part was sitting on the carpet at Abdelhadi’s, the house I went back to after the demonstration on Avenue Smara. He was called Mohammed Salim. I sat down next to him and asked him to tell me about his experience.
  ‘I loved it there,’ he said.
  He was sitting with his legs stretched out on the woollen rug. Our host was preparing tea, the wash of hot water against the glasses mingling with the crackle of the coals on the stove as we talked.
  ‘I was unemployed,’ Mohammed Salim explained. ‘I was unhappy because it’s so hard for us to find work, so I joined the camp. I found freedom there, I was enjoying the desert more than seeing the Moroccan faces around us in the city. I was in the security attachment, I was like a sheriff.
Saharawis at Gdeim Izik protest camp.
Photo from Territorios Ocupados Minuto a Minuto
  ‘On the 28th day, I was woken by the sound of the attack – guns and helicopters, people shouting. I saw the gendarmerie coming in with helmets and plastic shields. There were vehicles all around us – tanks, trucks, everything. It was confusing. You could hear gunshots, you could smell gas. I saw two gendarmerie picking up an old woman and beating her with batons, dragging her by the hair. I saw them grab a woman with an infant and throw her into a truck. They were shouting at us: ‘you dirty Saharawis.’ They called the women bitches. They used shameful words, they didn’t care, they kicked the women with their boots.’
  Mohammed Salim managed to jump into a Land Rover and get himself back to Laayoune. But he was so angry about the way the camp had been destroyed that he joined a group of demonstrators protesting outside the central police station.
  ‘They didn’t care about our protest,’ he said. ‘They shot six of us, including me. They got me in the shoulder. But they wouldn’t treat me in the hospital so I had to use traditional medicine – hameiria and sheep’s grease – to ease the pain. Can you imagine how much it hurt? I could hardly move my arm. I didn’t get any proper treatment until a year later, when I went on the UN programme to the camps in Algeria and they treated me in the hospital.’

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Exodus, by Nick Jubber

If there was one subject all the Saharawis I met in Laayoune wanted to talk about, it was Gudaym Izik (Gdeim Izik) – the protest camp set up in November 2010.
  ‘I was in the first group,’ explained Ali Salem, a veteran activist in his forties. ‘We went to an area called Gudaym Izik (Gdeim Izik), twelve kilometres to the east of the city, and set up a camp. At first there were thirty-five tents, but over the days it grew. People came out from Laayoune to join us and we had 20,000 by the peak in 6,600 tents. We called it our ‘Exodus’ camp, it was a protest against the social marginalisation and the lack of decent jobs, decent housing, legal rights. But it became something more than that – people came to the camp to go back to their roots, back to what being a Saharawi is about. We wanted to show the world we can live on our own, we can live away from civilisation, we belong to the desert.
Gdeim Izik protest camp on Nov 5, 2010.
Photo by Tenerife con el Sáhara
  ‘Many young people joined the camps – people who had been irresponsible in the town, they just hung about doing nothing with their lives, but in the camp they were transformed. They set up committees for nutrition, hygiene, security, administration. They helped organise the food. Going back to their roots brought something out of them. There was no crime, no complaining. People lived in the tents together. As long as you were Saharawi you didn’t care if you weren’t related.’

  ‘It was like a utopia,’ said his friend Mohammed. ‘Rich and poor joined in, people from different cities, young and old.’
  ‘They tried to do the same in other cities,’ said Ali, ‘in Dakhla, Smara, Goulmime, but the police arrested them, harassed them, took them to prison. But Moroccans who were living here, and also some Saharawi bloodsuckers who’ve benefitted from the system, were anxious. They saw a young generation who wouldn’t let them carry on benefitting from our resources. So one morning at 5 am the people in the camp were woken by the sound of helicopters and voices telling them in Hassaniya: ‘You can go home now, your complaints are being answered.’ Then the forces moved in, they burned the tents and destroyed equipment, people started panicking. They chased people, beat them up, especially the young ones. Or they told them, ‘come in the van, we’ll take you back to Laayoune’ – and instead they took them to prison.’
Destruction of the protest camp by Moroccan authorities
on Nov 17, 2010. Photo by Ceasefire Magazine

Saturday, 7 July 2012

ARTifariti 2012: can an artist promote freedom?

The Reina Sofía Museum, in Madrid, hosts the presentation of ARTifariti 2012 with a roundtable on art, conflict and human rights.

Performance Gdeim Izik (students of the Art School of Mostaganem).
International Encounter of Art Students and Saharawi Refugees

After the Arab Spring, which was born in the Western Sahara, is it possible to have a proactive type of art, at the same time transformational, that provokes real social change?

The American philosopher Noam Chomsky suggested to the world that the waves of protest that originated in North Africa had really started in Western Sahara at the end of 2010. In fact, the organisational scheme that was imposed in the freedom squares and that Evru collected for the project "The book of the squares" for ARTifariti 2011, had previously designed in the  camp of dignity of El Aaiun, Gdeim Izik, brutally dismantled on November 8 by the Moroccan forces with terrible consequences. The same patterns were repeated, as if in a chain revolution, in Western Sahara, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen... The popular action managed to modify the course of history in many of this places. And among the people demonstrating in the squares, there were cyberactivists and artists who used the Internet to spread their messages and images of change.

Last June 29, in the space REDES of the Reina Sofía Museum, the seminar "Art, conflict and human rights. ARTifariti" took place. At the same time, and supported by a video edited by Jan Busowsky, ARTifariti 2012 was presented. The 6th edition of the International Art Encounters of the Western Sahara will be starting next October 20. Its commissioner, Isidro López-Aparicio, has launched a defying proposal: "The ideal project, the one we are looking for, will free the Saharawis from their exile in the refugee camps. While we wait for this one, every proposal that contributes to give them a voice, take the to the present time and help them to get out of the isolation the have been immersed into through the art will be welcome."

Apart from the invited group, made up of creators who in a certain way have already made their revolution, such as Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, Esther Ferrer, Gao Brothers, Santiago Sierra, Democracia, Gilles Fontolliet, Mohammad Shaqdih, Los Torreznos, Miquel Barceló, Antoni Muntadas, Andreas Kaufmann, Alain Ayers, Daniel G. Andujar, Left Hand Rotation, Tom Hall and the "bus of Art"; any artist could present a proposal.

Documentary by Jan Bosowsky and Isidro López-Aparicio

Can art really detonate these changes? This was the core of the debate that took place after the presentation with Isidro Valcárcel Medina, Pablo España, poet Bahía M. Awax and Isidro López Aparicio.

Since 2007, ARTifariti has been promoting contemporary artistic practices as tools of demonstration, transformation and activation of a specific social, cultural and geopolitical context. A yearly encounter whose central theme is the conflict that derived from the "decolonisation" of the Western Sahara and the continues violations of collective and individual human rights in this territory. ARTifariti is part of an international group of activities and projects that examine the relationship of art and human rights while promoting the art linked to a local community and outside the study room or the museum.

The project is framed in a multi directional and interdisciplinary structure that is thought to address creative spaces at different levels: international encounters of students, diverse actions, communication technology labs and seminars about contemporary arts and culture. Every year, international and local artists share projects that link art and social commitment in an open encounter that aims to enrich and ensure the continuity of the social network in which it is structured.

Isolation. Isidro López-Aparicio

Please note: information and pictures taken from ARTifariti's blog.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Salaam's Story, by Nick Jubber

  Back at the house of one of Ahmed’s friends, I was shown photos of other demonstrations – an old man with blood on his lips; a woman’s bare red back, rashed by a police baton; a youth with a red gash on his forehead from a stone thrown by a policeman. The range of ways in which people had been attacked was telling, as was the volume of the material. 
Nick making Saharawi tea
  But it was the stories they told that struck me more forcefully than the pictures, and none more so than Salaam’s.
 She had been taking part in demonstrations since she was fifteen, when her mother had to go and pick her up at the police station after she was kept in overnight.
  ‘Of course we take part in demonstrations,’ she told me, ‘we must! It is our land as much as the men’s. And a lot of the men can’t take part because they will lose their job if they are seen at the demonstrations, or maybe they are already in prison. You must understand, we are different from women in Morocco. Our status is different. We have respect in society. If you are a woman in Morocco, your husband will beat you all the time and you cannot complain, but it isn’t like that here. In Saharawi culture, if a man beats his wife it is very shameful. We will go to our family and the man must do a lot to get us back.
  ‘Once I stood in front of fifty policemen, we were demanding freedom, work, our resources, the opportunity to bury our martyrs. They shouted back at us. They said, ‘you’re mercenaries’, and the deputy police chief hit me with his baton, they knocked me over and pulled off my milfha. You know, in our society, this is a great shame. They surrounded me, dragged me away from the others and pulled me by the hair and threatened me with rape.’
  ‘Are you ever nervous before the demonstrations?’ I asked.
  ‘Never! I feel hatred against them. When fifty policemen are facing you and I am only a single woman. I don’t feel scared, I feel hatred for them. Women are more involved than ever now,’ she said, ‘that is since Gdeim Izik. It was a breakthrough, it changed the mentality for women, now a lot of women who used to sit around gossiping, they talk about the political situation.’
Saharawi girls, by Nick Jubber

Monday, 2 July 2012

First Steps in Laayoune, by Nick Jubber

    It’s hard in Laayoune to ignore the military presence. Every corner produces another military kiosk, and every time you cross the road you have to watch out for another artillery-loaded truck roaring round the corner. Wandering under schoolyard murals of the Moroccan army or portraits of King Mohammed, you can feel the weight of a city living under the heavy cloak of oppression. But in many ways, it’s the most innocuous details that are most telling: the empty teahouses, the lack of young men loitering about, the uncracked roads, the huge public squares with their squat palm trees and bougainvillea, gaudily sprayed about like an uninvited guest’s faltering attempt at charm. And occasionally, more specific signs of the political situation seep through – from the heavily gated compounds of the rich Moroccans who’ve made their fortunes off Western Sahara’s resources to the pink Lux minivans, their back windows taped with signs for the UNHCR “Saharawi Family Visits Programme” – underlining the population displacement caused by the Moroccan invasion of 1975.

A house in Laayoune, Nick Jubber

  On a hot street of orangey-pink hardware stores and tailors’ workshops, where the bench outside the local eatery was full of men in workmen’s overalls and the air pulsed to the beat of jackhammering, I met a group of Saharawi activists.

   ‘You chose the right day,’ said one of them, called Ahmed. ‘There’s a demonstration this afternoon.’ He looked at his friends, before adding with a dark grin: ‘but it would be the same if we met you tomorrow. Most days, there’s a demonstration.’

School murals in Laayoune showing the Green March
and the Moroccan invasion, Nick Jubber

   This one took place on Avenue Smara, one of the longest roads in the city. Wearing a white djellaba, Ahmed sat beside me in the back of a car. Beside him was Salaam, a young woman in a midnight blue milfha, who carefully folded a pair of gloves over her hands and tightened her head covering so she wouldn’t be easy to identify.

   ‘Wrap your turban tighter,’ she told me – I’d been given a black one to hide my face and told to keep my giveaway white hands under the window.

A schoolyard in Laayoune with the Moroccan flag, Nick Jubber

  A dozen dark blue police trucks lined the road. Helmeted officers stood outside them, holding plastic shields and gripping their batons in their fists. The white vans of the auxiliary forces were parked in the side alleys. As we drove down the road, you could see the crowd gathering – jaws were stiffening, lips were being bitten, brows were being creased. Secret policemen swarmed between them - ‘You see the men on the motorbikes,’ said Ahmed, ‘that’s them – watch out. If they find out about you they’re gonna give you hell.’