" My situation is yet another example of the will of the Sahara people to continue the struggle until we achieve our goal...My fight is not just for my two sons; it is a fight for all Saharawi children so that they can live free and in happiness.
"My hunger strike is a clear reflection of the will of the Saharawi people especially the women who have played a leading role since 1970. Yes I am weak physically but not morally."
Video message – played at 35th European Conference of Coordination and Support to the Saharawi people (EUCOCO) in Barcelona.
Aminatou Haidar is a human rights campaigner and political activist who has been advocating the Western Sahara’s right to independence from Morocco since the 1980s. She is the President of the Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) and has brought the cause of the Western Sahara to the international stage through her work.
The Western Sahara: Africa’s last colony
The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony before being annexed by Morocco in 1975. Ever since then, this territory’s sovereignty has been fought over between the kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front - the national independence movement of the Saharawi people.
There have been several diplomatic attempts to resolve this issue but all efforts came to a deadlock sooner or later. This bleak outlook did little to faze Aminatou Haidar and, with the odds stacked firmly against her, she has been on an unrelenting quest to put the Western Sahara and its people on the map.
Haidar was imprisoned twice as a result of her activism. The first time was in 1987, after taking part in a demonstration calling for the Western Sahara’s right to self -determination. Three years of imprisonment followed and Haidar endured torture at the hands of the Moroccan authorities in the process. The second time was in October 2005 and again, this was due to her participation in a demonstration. On this occasion, however, Haidar’s efforts did not go to waste. She drew the attention of the European Parliament who decided to pass a resolution for her release.
This was a great achievement both because it helped raise awareness of the Saharawi issue at international level and because it speeded up her eventual release in January 2006. These experiences also demonstrate the lengths Haidar is prepared to go to in honour of the Saharawi cause but perhaps the best example of this was the hunger strike she went on in 2009.
The hunger strike that captivated the world
In November 2009, on her way back from the United States, Aminatou Haidar was refused entry into Western Sahara by Moroccan authorities as she failed to confirm Moroccan nationality on her landing card. Haidar was questioned for 12 hours and her passport was confiscated. Eventually she was expelled from the country and flown to Lanzarote airport where she was left to fend for herself.
And that she certainly did. The weeks that followed saw Haidar put her health at risk by going on a hunger strike in protest of the treatment she had been subjected to.
Days into the hunger strike, the strength of her convictions did not falter. The Spanish government offered her refugee status or Spanish citizenship to allow her to travel home but she refused because she did not want to be “a foreigner in her own land”.
The strike lasted for 32 days and came to an end as a result of mounting, and eventually crushing, international pressure on the Moroccan and Spanish governments. From the French president to Amnesty International, a host of influential public figures and organisations got involved and called for a speedy resolution to the situation.
On 18th December 2009, Haidar was allowed to return home to Laayoune with her political beliefs intact and her conscience clear.
The Sahrawian Ghandi
Aminatou Haidar has received a number of awards and prizes including the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Civil Courage Prize and she was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Haidar has inspired, and continues to inspire, men and women of all faiths throughout the world. What makes her remarkable are the values she upholds more than anything else.
It would be hard to match her integrity, courage and selflessness in her fight for justice. So much so, in fact, that she is widely referred to as the Sahrawian Ghandi. Whether she is worthy of this title or not, one thing is certain, she is a truly inspirational Muslim woman.