"Since 2005, I’ve been engaged in the peaceful intifada of freedom and independence. But what I’m doing is nothing special; it’s what most Sahrawi women are doing: resisting repression and occupation in a non-violent way.""

Western Sahara conflict
"One day we will be free"

Sultana Khaya, 41, has been peacefully resisting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara for many years. Because of her campaign to assert the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, she was assaulted and raped. She has been under house arrest for over a year. Interview by Elisa Rheinheimer

Ms. Khaya, you’ve been under house arrest since November 2020; the Moroccan security forces prevent you from leaving the house. Have you been given a reason for this?

Sultana Khaya: No. Today is the 487th day that I’ve been stopped from leaving the house that I share with my mother and my sister. The Moroccan government has told human rights organisations that I’m not under house arrest. But if I try to go out, I’m beaten. During the first few months, men in military uniforms were positioned around the house, but since February 2021 they’ve been police officers in civilian clothing. There’s a shift change every 12 hours. When people wanted to visit us, they were prevented from entering the house. That didn’t change until 16 March 2022, when a group of U.S.-American human rights activists managed to gain access.

How is it affecting you, being locked in all the time? Have you developed routines to make it more bearable?

Khaya: Every day between 12.30 pm and 2 pm, my sister and I stage a "demonstration" on the roof of our house. For a quarter of an hour, we wave the Sahrawi flag to symbolise our campaign for self-determination. Rain or shine – we’re up there. We film it and broadcast it to the world. It’s a way for us to show that the peaceful Sahrawi resistance goes on. I’m doing it on behalf of all Sahrawi women.

How do the Moroccan security forces react to that?

Khaya: Of course, they do what they can to stop it. For them it’s a scandal if our flag is flying in the occupied territories that they regard as their nation. They come early in the morning or late at night. Then they beat down the door in a show of force, tie us up, grope us. In December, they held a soaked cotton pad to my face and I lost consciousness. And the last time they injected me with something; I don’t know what it was. The worst thing is just before they arrive: the fear at the moment when I hear them kicking the door down.

Algeria: Sahrawi refugee camp (photo: DW/Hugo Flotat-Talon)
A life without prospects: more than 170,000 Sahrawis live in five refugee camps in south-west Algeria, which are administered by the Polisario liberation organisation. They are the longest-running refugee camps on the African continent. Apart from sand and dust, there is not much here. In the camps, people hope for a better future and the independence of Western Sahara. But after so many years of waiting, they feel the world has forgotten them

Daily harassment by Moroccan guards

How do you manage your everyday lives in these circumstances?

Khaya: Our power supply has been severely restricted since April 2021. We use a camping stove, gas and a charging pack for the mobile phone that lasts for a while without electricity. SInce they’ve cut off our power, the fridge doesn’t work either. My 86-year-old mother is the only one of the three of us allowed to leave the house, so she has to go shopping every day.

She also brings 10 litres of water. That’s not much for the three of us to cook and wash with. But she wouldn’t be able to carry any more. It’s very difficult to get hold of medication. The only way to get some is secretly through friends. And if they find it when they search her, it’s confiscated. They would take away our last paracetamol.

You are President of the League for the Defence of Human Rights. What sort of things were you involved in before you were detained?

Khaya: Since 2005, I’ve been engaged in the peaceful intifada of freedom and independence. But what I’m doing is nothing special; it’s what most Sahrawi women are doing: resisting repression and occupation in a non-violent way. We are being tortured, but we are not giving up. Because I was displaced from my homeland and there are no universities in the occupied territories, I decided to go to Morocco to study French.

There, I took part in a demo for the Western Sahara at the university – after all there are also Moroccans who are on our side. Not many, most Moroccans aren’t interested or they’re afraid of their own regime. But there are a few, and a left-wing Moroccan party also supports the Sahrawi right to self-determination. At this demonstration, I was attacked so violently by a man that I lost my left eye.

But they didn’t put the aggressor on trial, the man who robbed me of my eye, instead they threw me in prison! For eight months. I can’t say how often my ribs were broken. Some of my associates were detained for a year, and two Moroccan co-demonstrators died.

Have you considered leaving your homeland and applying for asylum?

Khaya: I would never do that. I’m suffering greatly, but no more than Sahrawi women have been suffering for 40 years. I’m not planning to leave the country. I want to live and die here. I was in a hospital in Barcelona, where I received a prosthetic eye, and I had a residence permit in Spain. But in November 2020, I decided to return to the occupied territories. A day later they placed me under house arrest. The Moroccans hope they can silence me. But they’ve achieved the opposite.

Fish market in Laayoune (photo: Ane Nordentoft/Transterra Media)
Fish market in Laayoune, the largest town in the Moroccan-administered territory of Western Sahara. The rich fishing grounds off the Atlantic coast are one of the reasons for Moroccan claims to the territory. According to the constitution of the exiled Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario Front, Laayoune is to become the capital of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic after a referendum. "The Sahrawis have shown huge patience," says Sultana Khaya. "Their reserves of patience haven’t been used up yet. The peaceful struggle for the land is still worthwhile. Despite the suffering and the difficulties, as a woman in the occupied territories I believe the peaceful path is the best"
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