1325 PeaceWomen
Design creator
Text writer
"My conscience is tortured by the fact that I do not know the fate of those who have disappeared"

Aminetu Haidar is an activist for human rights and for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, and is known as the “Sahrawi Ghandi”. She was detained for the first time by Moroccan authorities in 1987 and she remained missing for the next four years. During this time, she was a victim of torture procedures which seriously impaired her health. In 1991 she was freed from detainment. In 2005 she was imprisoned again after taking part in a peaceful demonstration for the recognition of the national rights of her people. After serving a seven month sentence, she was released in January of 2006. During her captivity, she was nominated for the Sakharov Prize. In May of that year, she received the fifth Juan María Bandrés Prize, awarded by the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR). For her efforts to condemn the violation of the human rights of the Sahwari people under the Moroccan occupation, she received the Silver Rose Award from the European network of NGOs SOLIDAR in 2007 and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2008. 

Beneath Aminetu Haidar’s colourful mehlfa (traditional tunic worn by Sahwari women) is a fragile and diminutive figure that conceals a strong, determined woman who has become a symbol of the struggle of the Sahrawi people. She has defied the machine that is the Moroccan regime and has withstood the worst torture in the name of the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Born in El-Ayoun (the capital city of the Western Sahara on the Atlantic coast), when the territory was still a Spanish province under Franco’s regime, Haidar. has devoted her life to the fight for freedom.

When she was just eight years old, Aminetu witnessed a historic moment, that would forever change the history of her people. Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, giving Morocco the green light to annex the territory. The United Nations announced the “decolonization” of Western Sahara and Spain was advised to hold a referendum on self-determination, which never took place. The Moroccan occupation led to a war with the pro-independence Polisario Front and an exodus of civilians seeking to avoid the conflict by entering the vast desert.

The war between Morocco and the Polisario ended with a ceasefire in 1991. The Houston Agreement was signed and King Hassan II agreed to hold a referendum in which the Sahrawi people could choose between independence or integration with the Alaouite Dynasty. However, the agreement paved the way for a new dispute this time over the electoral roll, which seemed to drag on indefinitely. Today, the referendum has been dismissed by the international community, which is in favour of a negotiated outcome between the parties.
Today, more than three decades after the end of the war, 200,000 people are still unable to return to their homeland and live as refugees in camps in Tinduf in the Algerian desert, where they are completely dependent on international aid. Western Sahara is still occupied by Morocco, which continues to deny the Sahrawi people’s right to decide their future. While the Sahrawi refugees in the desert suffer terrible hardships, the Sahrawi people in the occupied territories, must cope on a daily basis with the brutality of the Moroccan occupation.

Aminetu Haidar was 20 years old when she was arrested for the first time for defending the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. In 1987 she was kidnapped in the middle of the night and disappeared without a trace and, in this way, became a missing person. During her captivity, she was tortured and forced to remain blindfolded day and night. She was subjected to inhumane prison treatment until her release in 1991.

Haidar recounted her ordeal to the Spanish press: “I remained imprisoned, without trial for four years and was kept blindfolded day and night. The food was not even good enough for animals. I was tortured for three weeks.They electrocuted me, tied me to a chair with ropes, and beat me often. In the middle of winter, they would take us outside and throw freezing water on us. Insects lived on my body. We didn’t know what was happening in the outside world, and our families didn’t know if we were still alive. Every two or three months they brought in wild dogs. There were two people who were with me who still have scars from those dogs. My female inmates and I were lucky not to be raped, although the guards tried. There were many others who were raped and in the most brutal fashion.”

However, Haidar’s harrowing prison experience did not break her will. She continued to fight for human rights by denouncing the crimes committed in Rabat. In 1994, she joined the Committee for Coordination of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances and Arbitrary Detention of the Sahara. Many human rights organizations estimate that to date there are more than 500 Sahrawi people missing. Their whereabouts are unknown, even after more than 30 years. “My conscience is tortured by the fact that I do not know the fate of those who have disappeared,” says Haidar.

In May of 2005, Haidar and fellow activists were brutally beaten for participating in a peaceful demonstration for the rights of the Sahrawi people. She was rushed to the emergency room of the El-Ayoun hospital, and from there she was transferred to prison and interrogated. Shortly after, Haidar was subjected to irregular court proceedings. “The head judge in El-Ayoun altered my file,” says Haidar. She was condemned to 7 months’ imprisonment in the Black Prison, one of the cruellest detention centres of the Moroccan regime. In prison, she relived the brutality of her early prison experience. But, Aminetu says, “I was fortunate because this allowed me to understand the reality inside the prison, after years of working for the liberation of Sahrawi detainees.”

Haidar later circulated photographs which documented the awful conditions of the prisoners. While still in prison, Haidar and her inmates protested their inhumane conditions by carrying out a 51-day hunger strike. While serving her sentence, international public opinion was mobilized in support of Haidar’s release from prison and the European Parliament nominated her as a candidate for the Sakharov Prize.

A few months after being released, in May of 2006, Haidar was able to travel to Spain – before then, Morocco had denied her right to hold a passport – to receive the fifth Juan María Bandrés Prize awarded by the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR). At the award ceremony, she made a speech in which she thanked Spaniards for their solidarity and support of the Sahrawi cause, but in which she also harshly criticized the Spanish Government for its failure to defend the right to self-determination of its former colony. She declared that, “The Spanish Government has a historical, legal and moral responsibility in this matter.”. In saying this, she had in mind, the case of East Timor, which freed itself from the Indonesian occupation in 1999, with support from Portugal, its former colonial power.

Haidar has never given into fear and continues to advocate for peaceful resistance in the cause of justice. She lives in Western Sahara, but often travels around the world promoting her cause and denouncing the relentless repression to which the Sahrawi people are subjected when they are brave enough to declare their identity. Although Hairdar is no longer a victim of direct police harrassment, her family is, and they have sadly been attacked on a number of occasions. The Moroccan authorities also refuse to grant her two sons a passport.

Aminetu Haidar is a symbol for her people and for this reason they call her the “Sahrawi Ghandi”. She has received numerous awards in recognition of her work. These prizes are a “breath of fresh air” because they recognize the legitimacy of her cause and the suffering of the Sahrawi people. They are like colourful melhfas blowing in the wind, demanding the right of the Sahrawi people to have a place in this world.