Western Sahara: Aminatou Haidar, the 'Gandhi of Western Sahara'

Photo: AllAfrica
Independence fighters in Western Sahara, 1977

New York — Aminatou Haidar, Sahrawi human rights defense icon was paid a glowing tribute by an American newspaper, labeling her the "Gandhi of Western Sahara" in a long portrait of her career and fight for peace.

In its Saturday issue, the newspaper "OZY" dedicated a long article to Aminatou Haidar, president of the Association of Human Rights of Sahrawis (CODESA).

"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," wrote journalist Ruairi Casey.

"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," he added.

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.

She says, as the journalist quoted her that: "It made me stronger and more determined, and I was even more conscious of the necessity to lead a struggle for self-determination."

To Sahrawis, Haidar, the "Gandhi of Western Sahara," is 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" 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 Sahrawi activists who Haidar fears are too eager to launch a full-scale war, with tensions rising along the world's longest militarized border.

Haidar remains sanguine. 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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