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“More than 400 Sahrawis are missing”

Interview. Abdeslam Omar Lahsen, president of AFAPREDESA

AFAPREDESA is the association founded by the families of missing sahrawis that works against the violation of human rights with a special focus on finding those who disappeared after being arrested by the Moroccan police. Emmaus Stockholm had the honour to receive its president, Abdeslam Omar Lahsen. Through a extensive interview he explained how the current situation is for the missing saharawis and their families, the biggest challenges that the association faces right now and how he sees the future of Western Sahara.

 

AFAPREDESA (Asociación de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis) is the association’s name in the Spanish.  What kind of bonds does it still join you to Spain?

A century of Spanish presence in the zone. We share Spanish as an official language together with Arabic. We have coexisted many years with Spaniards. So, we have built very kind, respectful and supportive bonds. This relationship is not extensive to the different governments that Spain has had since its democracy started. There have been some parties with a very clear supportive posture of Western Sahara’s independence that they forget it as soon as they take part of the government.

On the other hand, our name took inspiration from the several associations that were created in Latin America after the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships to try to find all missing citizens during that period. In fact, we have created a very strong bond with the Argentinian organization “Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo”, collaborating both associations internationally.

How was AFAPREDESA founded?

AFAPREDESA was born on August of 1989 due to the discovery of clandestine centers in Morocco and the occupied territory in Western Sahara where many missing Sahrawis were confined living under terrible conditions. A guard who worked in one of these clandestine centers anonymously sent a letter to some missing Sahrawi’s families. It caused a great impact among the population and opened a door to hope because folks from Western Sahara would have the possibility to finally know the destiny of their missing relatives. These families decided to join efforts by founding AFAPREDESA, that basically focuses on investigating and finding missing Sahrawis and condemning this situation internationally.

How is the situation currently? How many missing Sahrawis are there now?

Actually we have a list of around 400 missing Sahrawis. After some pressure, Morocco has admitted that 43 of these 400 missing citizens have died and the rest live in different refugee camps or even in other countries. We are investigating the causes of these 43 deaths and the veracity of the others’ destiny because the information provided by the Moroccan authorities is vague and unclear.

In the other side, we are not sure about the reality of these numbers because the kidnapping methods used by the Moroccan authorities nowadays are very different from the past. Many Sahrawis are kidnapped on the streets or during demonstrations, tortured and released a few days or even hours later. Many of these cases are not even reported because Sahrawi population gets terrified and doesn’t know how to report the situation properly or who is the most competent organisation that can help them to do that.

It makes the cases’ counting very complicated for us. Nevertheless, we can consider all cases as ‘missing’ ones because according to the new UN Convention for Protection of Missing People 2007, any disappearance not recognized by the Government is considered a forced disappearance, regardless its length.

In 2013 we localised several common graves in both Morocco and in the occupied Western Sahara, but we couldn’t work on the exhumation process together with the Red Cross International Committee due to the Marocco’s pressure. Finally, some experts from Vasque Country were able to exhume the first 8 corpses and identify them, two of them were kids. In this case Morocco admits that four of these people died in Moroccan military dependences. After that, another 8 bodies were exhumed, three of them were women.

In the occupied territories we have localized at least 15 common graves where we haven’t been able to initiate the exhumation works yet due to the Moroccan pressure. One of these common graves is the biggest one even found, with 60 bodies that were buried alive.

Since its independence in 1956, Morocco has admitted more than 900 disappearances in total. We are convinced there are a lot more- and more of two thirds of these are Sahrawis.

 

Does AFAPREDESA any kind of protest similar to the one made by “Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” in Argentina?

There are group works that we lead together with several organisations in the UN and are continuously working on different activities. There is also a committee against forced disappearances. Morocco is part of the agreement for the protection of the victims of forced disappearances.

There are also spontaneous movements leaded by the population. Despites the repression during demonstrations in occupied territories and even in Morocco, activists keep demanding truth and justice to Morocco.

AFAPREDESA has its headquarters in the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Is there any case of coronavirus there?

We don’t have any reported cases at the moment. However, since the coronavirus was recognised as a global pandemic, the Sahrawi authorities have acted rapidly: all the borders and visits to the refugee camps are guarded and a sensibilisation campaign has been initiated in schools and workplaces. However, we are aware that this kind of pandemics spread quickly reaching all corners of the world we are especially concerned about it. Our capacity to respond to this crisis is not the strongest one since our resources are limited, our culture is very collective –Sahrawis do almost everything together and show affection through physical contact basically- and this is the first time we face a pandemic.

An international conference has been celebrated just a few days ago in the refugee camps to evaluate the current situation of Western Sahara and to elaborate on plans for the future where youth are the main actors. What are your expectations with this meeting?

The forum’s celebration is a miracle due to this current global crisis. But it is very important to keep in mind the concept of solidarity. This was also the message that we wanted to transmit within this meeting. Sahrawis have shown an immense patience and capacity to survive. Most of this young people have grown up in refugee camps and are still waiting for the UN’s self-determination compromise to be achieved. This commitment was taken on 30 years ago, more than $1,500 million were invested in this mission and it should have been reached in 16 weeks. Unfortunately, it didn’t go forward.

This situation is especially frustrating for young people and many of them are thinking about taking weapons back. The situation is very tense now: the Polisario Front doesn’t accept delays in the negotiations with UN anymore. We should avoid an armed conflict because this is what Morocco wishes and expects as well.  

Thus, this meeting opens an alternative for a peaceful solution because it defends an active solidary position as a strategy to face the current situation. This solidarity must be turned to political actions. The way to do it is to let the youth participate in relevant institutions such as the UN Human Right Council. We don’t usually see so many young faces every time we participate in meetings with the UN. Maybe is time to change this tendency if we also want to revert the situations of Western Sahara.

Emmaus Stockholm interviewed you some years ago. In that interview you shown your disappointment about the lack of support and compromise that Sweden has shown regarding the conflict in Western Sahara. What is your point of view some years later?

We are deeply disappointed. Sweden has recognized Western Sahara a State independent from Morocco and took on compromises in terms of human rights and humanitarian help. However, we see how that humanitarian help has eventually disappeared. Something is obviously failing, and we believe that youth can do a lot taking political actions by remembering Sweden its compromises with Western Sahara. Sweden has shown its support just on paper but its behaviour on practice is very passive. We lament for instance that Sweden hasn’t taken advantage of its stay in the UN Security Council to change its attitude and take real actions that support Western Sahara.

However, in the same interview you showed your positivity and hope thanks to the EU court’s sentence that forbid Morocco to trade with goods coming from Western Sahara. Unfortunately, this clause is not being respected and the EU still buys products to Morocco whose origin is in Western Sahara. What is your position about it right now?

The EU itself is not respecting a resolution that they approved, it means that it is legitimising an activity that is illegal. Moreover, the EU is negotiating with associations of Moroccan settlers in the occupied territory, those who violate the International Humanitarian Rights. We consider the situation extremely serious. There is no place for positivity anymore unless the EU itself follows the international law.