Bachir Edkhil: "The childhood of the Saharawi children has been kidnapped, they are children with no identity of their own and no future

The Hispanist of Maghreb origin advocates promoting dialogue between peoples and, in this interview, sets out his vision of Africa and the problems in the Mediterranean
The Saharawi poet Bachir Edkhil, who was one of the founders of the Polisario Front

PHOTO/BACHIR EDKHIL  -   The Saharawi poet Bachir Edkhil, who was one of the founders of the Polisario Front

Bachir Edkhil was born in the city of El Aaiún when the Sahara was under Spanish rule. His family resided there, however they were of Bedouin descent. Edkhil is a Hispanist of Maghrebi origin, an activist in favour of sustainable and responsible development that emanates from the bases of the pyramid where those most affected can participate satisfactorily in the solution of their problems inherent to underdevelopment and lack of means, accepting constant self-criticism as the best way of evolving as a people.  

Their voice is usually heard in radio programmes and television debates. In collaboration with the Mohamed V University, he organises academic congresses "between two shores" to promote dialogue and understanding between peoples and nations of the south. His work has also encouraged various organisations and associations to defend the most basic rights of individuals, especially of the Saharan population, given that Bachir Edkhile is a tireless fighter for freedom and tolerance. This has led to the creation of primary schools, computer training schools, adult literacy courses, and teachers in various specialities, aimed mainly at women, whom he considers to be an essential nucleus for development. 

Edkhil currently works as president of Alter Forum, one of the main NGOs in the Sahara, although he does not give up his passion for poetry. He is also a diplomat of the Academy of Diplomacy of the Kingdom of Spain.

 ¿Cuál es su opinión sobre el movimiento saharaui por la paz?

I would like to expand on the answer to this important question, so that the reader can approach, a little, a simpler understanding of the intricacies of the problem and the background of the internal distensions of this movement throughout these almost five past decades. As well as some reasons for the appearance of these divergent voices, or with opinions different from the official Polisario. 

It is true that all this internal terror was buried and hidden until very recently, and thanks in particular to the whatsapp groups, people are beginning to receive reliable information about what was happening in these camps. On an international level, it is rare to find articles that are discordant or that give an account of the reality of what was experienced, or rather, suffered there. The image of this conflict is that all the Saharawis are in the Tinduf camps as refugees, and in the Sahara there are only "settler-occupiers" of the territory. While the reality is quite different from that.  

I believe that many people with good faith - especially in Spain - are deceived by the image of the Polisario, which has been spread everywhere (some Spanish media support it, on foot, as if it were an absolute truth that does not accept to be questioned); others dedicated to teaching and academic activism do not question this fallacy either and make an effort to copy and paste everything that the Polisario exposes. Almost all of them stress the same poor and outdated notions of an obsolete and outdated discourse. While anyone who dares to criticize, or leave the ranks of the Polisario, is hanged as a traitor or sold out.  An atrocious campaign is launched against them, as is currently the case with the leaders of this new group whose "crime" is to take the floor and express their opinion.

Un hombre saharaui sosteniendo una bandera del Frente Polisario en la zona de Al-Mahbes, cerca de los soldados marroquíes que custodian el muro que separa el Sáhara Occidental controlado por el Polisario de Marruecos
PHOTO/AFP - A Sahrawi man holding a Polisario Front flag in the Al-Mahbes area, near the Moroccan soldiers guarding the wall separating Polisario-controlled Western Sahara from Morocco

This exotic image, of a good boy who never broke a plate, spread and defended by large networks, and huge amounts of money, is supported by a very well elaborated and cunning speech, well presented. It suggests that he is small and victimized and democratic; whereas the reality is different: Polisario is a political-military organization financed and protected and prepared by the Algerian secret services. It is not in vain that these camps are in Tindouf territory. It is a full-blown totalitarian system. A product of the Cold War that was unable to adapt to the new times and seek viable alternatives.

Run by octogenarians for life, mostly foreigners to the disputed territory. For more than four decades they have been crushing the same discourse and weaving an unrealistic smoke screen; selling the misery of a population, from at least four countries, turned into a very profitable business. Behind that beautiful face hides another much more hateful one. He has many deaths and murders to his credit, mainly of Saharawis from the former Spanish territory, (labelled "sons of the male chauvinist"), or of Mauritanian aid workers. It is a very radical system, it seems an even more horrific replica of George Orwell's Big Brother, where everything is controlled and manipulated. Even foreign friends in solidarity, outraged by the dreadful conditions of these "proles" who are forbidden to demonstrate or show any discontent, are not spared.
 
The Polisario, in its beginnings and before Algerian interventionism, was an organisation that was initially justified by the Spanish colonial presence in the Sahara, or Spanish province number 53; it was later erased from the annals of official Spanish history in North Africa. It seems, for the time being, that it is fashionable for some Spanish courtrooms to insist on denying these rights to Spanish citizens who carried the Spanish blue card.  

That said, since the end of 1974, attempts have been made to democratise this organisation in a civic and responsible manner, but history is repeating itself and they soon become victims of the terror initiated by the new Polisario, which does not show itself to the gallery. In the dungeons of Rachid (Hamada) many Saharawis and non-Saharawis died. There was even a women's prison dedicated to single mothers ( Gueret Buel-la ). Of those women who are presented as the "most liberated" in the Arab world, they are nothing but child factories in the middle of nowhere and the most effective propaganda. All this has been hidden from the public opinion. And the Polisario, the "good Arab" -who is not so Arab- who fights against the "bad" Moor, is always praised. It is even appreciated that there are still good "Moors" who oppose the "bad Moroccan". These currents of opinion predominate. They are not interested in a lasting peace in the region.
 
So this new movement arises at a time when there is neither war nor peace, but there is no lack of threats and promises that never happen. I believe that it is an initiative that aims to move this status quo, which has been frozen over the years and only benefits those who have turned the "cause" into a round business. You can never solve this thorny problem without going through a diversity of opinions and ensuring the right to opinion. There is only room for the democratic path that excludes no one. So far the only one who has a voice is the eaten up and frozen Polisario. All other voices are silenced or ignored because they are not violent or armed with weapons and bombs. This mistake, unfortunately, is made by some media, specifically Spanish media, as noted. It seems that someone has an interest in keeping the tension in this region latent, and at a slower pace, or they continue to be furious, as a way of revenge for battles or wars lost in the past. Unfortunately, no one can change geography or erase history. However, the intelligent and sensible try to see the good side of things.

The emergence of this new movement, like others before it, is one more link in many attempts at change. In this respect, it is worth mentioning, for example, the mass movement, since the end of the eighties, of more than twelve thousand people, who have returned to their lands of origin, known as "aidin,". These people threw in the towel, disappointed and aware that this project, apart from being a deception, had reached a dead end; others either returned to their countries of origin, such as Mauritania or Algeria, while third groups make up the current diaspora of Saharawis in European or American countries. All this shows that the ship is slowly sinking, apart from the accentuated implosion of that organism. It is also a practical confirmation that Polisario is neither the sole nor the legitimate representative, as it claims. Nowhere is there a party or organisation, however majority it may be, that defines itself as the sole representative.  Only totalitarians dare such an outrage.

As for the widespread image of the Polisario in the world as a force for the defence of human rights, this is another obvious deception. It suffices to look at the Constitution (2012) of the Rash- Polisario binomial, articles 33 and 34, to realise that this totalitarian organisation does not recognise associations or political parties or any form of expression other than that of the single party, in the style of the former Soviet Union. However, in the face of opinion, an endless number of acronyms are presented as a simulation of civil society, which does not exist in reality. More clearly, there is no such thing.  

Do you see a possible negotiation on the Sahara by Algeria and its president as a hopeful prospect, and do you think that a firm agreement could be reached that would benefit all parties?

In the last three or four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, the participation of the neighbouring states, Mauritania and Algeria, together with Morocco and Polisario, is emphasised. This can be translated between the lines that the international organisation finally reaches the conclusion that the real parties to this mess are basically Algeria and Morocco. Whereas Polisario is merely a small organisation apparently run by Moroccan and Algerian Saharawis (most of whom were born in Morocco and are the children of Moroccan officers or security forces), which is subject to the real power of the Algerians. It cannot take the initiative and has no power to change anything. So if Algerians and Moroccans do not understand each other, there will be no change or resolution of the conflict. Let us not forget that it is a conflict based on a mismatch of powers and on geopolitical interests and games in the region.

The rhetoric of the referendum, and right to self-determination, raised by all sides, apart from being impossible, is unrealistic, owing to monumental errors and miscalculations on the Polisario side, and to its supposed legitimacy, the electoral body has been diluted in the desert sands. This makes it impossible to hold this referendum. The Tindouf camps are a kind of multinational of Bedouins from all the Maghreb countries, and the tribal roots-the only point of connection-are followed as an essential element of identity. This calls into question all the borders of the neighbouring countries. Algeria is aware of this.  Most of its sites are located on Algerian Saharan land. These same Algerian Saharawis are in the majority in the Tindouf camps.  In other words, peripheral Algerian citizens participate as militants in the "cause" of the Polisario.  

Refugiada saharaui en el campamento de refugiados saharauis de Bojador en las afueras de Tinduf, al suroeste de Argelia
AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI - Sahrawi refugee in the Boujdour Sahrawi refugee camp outside Tindouf, south-west Algeria

In other words, the electoral body left by Spain, numbering some 74,000 people, has been altered and buried by the increase in the number of people from other countries. It is true that they are of the same tribal origin, but they are not refugees in their countries of origin. This measure not only involves the neighbouring countries, owing to the presence of their fellow citizens in the conflict, but also makes any solution impossible. For not being able to determine a viable and legitimate electoral body. It also poses a danger to the integrity of those same states by "lending" their citizens to causes outside their own borders.
 
It is owing to this shameful confusion that the Peruvian Pérez de Cuellar, once UN secretary general, met the late Abdel Aziz, president of Polisario, in 1985, in a jaima (Bedouin room) near the "12 October" prison school, when he discovered that the leader did not speak Spanish. This is when the five criteria for identification are proposed. Experience and time proved them to be a real fiasco.  

As an example, to understand the mess the conflict has become, let us suppose, for a moment, that Polisario were to take over the territory of what was once a Spanish province, what would happen to the Algerian Sahrawi people of Tindouf and its surroundings? What would happen to their land?

Some "illustrious and brilliant" and theoretical Moroccan Saharan leader of the Polisario defines the Saharawis as "any person wearing a black turban". More or less, this includes the transhumants, of some nine million square kilometres, and citizens of five countries in a conflict, in principle one that could have been easily resolved if the opinion of the Saharawis in the colony had been taken into account. And not to have massacred them and excluded them from the outset of the organisation's designs. 

All this unrealistic verbiage is buried by the United Nations in its call for a realistic, just and mutually accepted solution by all parties. Let us note that it does not say the two parties, but the parties. So the solution can only be found by Algeria and Morocco in particular, the two real parties to this dispute, which has lasted nearly half a century and in which all the Maghrebi peoples and countries are losing. And the future of these children born in the world's most inhospitable desert is being mortgaged.       

Terrorism

Africa is a victim of terrorism and of the most radical Islamist groups, this is accentuated in the Sahel, but it is known that these groups have recruited young Saharawis in the refugee camps. What do you think about this threat which is increasingly radical and which has a knock-on effect on the young?

Unfortunately, terrorism is very real. It is a real and dangerous threat. As long as there are failed states and organisations that legitimise the use of force as the only means of achieving their objectives, we will continue to be in a state of instability, and a breeding ground for terrorism of all kinds. North Africa is very large. And it has a huge identity problem. The term "people" has not yet come into its own and what really predominates is tribal identity in the first place.

It has a relatively very young population. It needs work and ways of true development that take into account the particularities of the region and the most legitimate desires for a dignified life for people and social groups. Most of these international and even national programmes, which are designed in offices far from the context, are often not viable because they do not take into account the real and basic needs at the base of the pyramid. I think that this is where we must look and approach, in order to provide viable solutions, pragmatic solutions and in accordance with the real needs of the populations without falling into populism or the creation of assisted and waiting societies. 

It should not be forgotten that all these people are very well informed, thanks to the social networks and other means of information available everywhere, which are the result of the galloping globalization, which is more commercial than anything else. There is not a single shanty that does not have at least one satellite dish on its roof. These programmes cause call effects and various needs apart from the necessary ones. These media, on the other hand, are the most appropriate and free means through which Jihadist terrorist thought infiltrates, in the name of Eden, which believes it is embraced at the first corner, and in the explosion of the first bomb. It is the true Trojan horse of evil of the 21st century.

Let us not forget that in the Tindouf camps, apart from poor infrastructures and the ineffectiveness of real programmes and lack of resources, young people are cloistered in a totalitarian ideology that justifies violence as a legitimate means. This huge number of young people do not see any way out of this impasse in the middle of nowhere. These young people need urgent and logical ways out in order not to fall into pure terrorism, as some of their friends have already done by joining the cause of the Maghreb's al-Qaeda and other organisations of this kind. It is urgent for Morocco and Algeria, with the consequent support of the Western countries concerned, to reach a fair solution to guarantee peace in the region.

El presidente argelino Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI - The President of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune

What do you think about Turkey's ambitions in the Sahara and the Sahel? Much of the region around Libya is fertile ground for cooperation and coordination between Ankara and active terrorist organisations. What can we expect from Erdogan?
 
With Erdogan's arrival in power, Turkey aspires to return to the Ottoman role in its golden ages. Not only on the religious level but also on the level of supremacy. However, this whole region is in the sights and influence of all the most powerful countries in the world, so it is impossible for it to have its hands free to achieve its goals. Let us not forget that North Africa, apart from being very rich and strategic, is the one that is geographically closest to Europe. And its stability is paramount. This justifies the military presence of some Western countries in the Sahel. However, it can be seen that this part of the world is currently becoming the focal point of the fight for the interests of both sides.

And in all wars, whether buried or not, all means are of course available. Terrorism cannot be absent in a chaotic situation, with underdeveloped peoples and some corrupt rulers and multi-sectoral crises and racial conflicts. Let us look at the latest "sweet" blow in Mali. This shows the fragility of the situation in the Sahel, in particular, and the discontent of the peoples with the measures of their own states.

So far, regrettably, all these Western programmes appear to ignore or fail to take into account the effects of the extreme poverty that affects over 50 percent of the population, according to some recent statistics, apart from tribal struggles, which have been aggravated by the incipient nationalism, which has been taken advantage of by Jihadist groups that are proliferating excessively. These problems cannot be solved by violence or by any kind of hermeticism. Faced with such a situation, Turkey, undoubtedly, cannot fail to see this situation and take advantage of it for its own benefit. 

You have created a political party and also an NGO, an association - Alter Forum - which is the most representative of the Sahara, which has taken care of the literacy of about 35 thousand women and works on guidelines of social economy, activism, social leadership and entrepreneurship. Do you think that the social cause and the shortcomings of the Saharawi population are often forgotten simply because of the focus on blaming? What do you think are the needs and shortcomings of this population?
 
In the previous answer I alluded to that a little bit. There is a Moroccan saying that goes something like this : "the cat does not run away from the wedding house". I have the impression that many rulers believe that with force and armies they will be able to maintain, today, an embarrassing, precarious situation based on the most absolute underdevelopment and the most extreme poverty. If Westerners have achieved a certain stability in their countries, it is thanks to social policies and the introduction of the concept of citizenship, regardless of race or colour or any other distinction. We in North Africa have, in some countries, good elites but they sin, sometimes, in drawing up their programmes, from a certain distance from the real needs at the base of the pyramid. It is in practice where the path is lost and the main objective is distanced. It is evident that without programmes that have a direct influence on the change towards an improvement in the lives of people on the periphery, things will continue to become more complicated and violence will be used as always.

A real rule of law has no peripheries and is not Jacobin in its administrations. The stability of our countries is at stake on those peripheries. This is where the state has to act with more determination and forcefulness. All the movements that wear down states usually emerge or take root on the peripheries. This is the most fertile ground for the proliferation of revolts or violent movements of a radical or Jihadist nature. Worse still, if their ideologies are based on racial and tribal nationalism and religion. As the thinker Sygmunt Bauman said, "people do not want to surrender their identity" and suffer a serious "contradiction between tribal identity and citizenship". 

If we look at the current conflicts in the world, we see that they are almost always peripheral and borderline. This observation invites the practice of policies that involve the citizenry and that are not policies of assistance and outstretched hands. In my book 'Writing on Dunes', years ago, I insisted on the importance of the social economy, in Bedouin and transhumant societies, as a suitable and appropriate means of productivity due to its closeness to their idiosyncrasy and way of life.

Of course, there is a need for good vocational training, in particular, with the aim of finding an active and productive citizenship and not ghettos in the cities themselves. Some late president once said with absolute certainty "that people do not want to go to Eden with empty bellies.

In conclusion, as far as my personal experience is concerned, I was fortunate enough to secure the selfless and efficient support - for which I am grateful - of eminent researchers and university lecturers from all over the world, particularly Latin Americans, Spaniards, Belgians, French and also Africans of course, to set up the "Al Andalus" Saharan Institute (AFESS), with the aim of studying all these phenomena and situations and programmes in an academic manner, and which could help bring real stability to the area. It is a way of contributing another grain of sand in the right direction.   

: Fotografia de archivo, un grupo de bomberos y soldados malienses camina junto a un edificio destruido y coches quemados el 13 de noviembre de 2018 en Gao, después de que un coche suicida pasara la noche en el que murieron tres personas
PHOTO/AFP- A group of Malian firemen and soldiers walk past a destroyed building and burnt-out cars on 13 November 2018 in Gao, after a suicide car spent the night in which three people died

What do you think is the best solution for the Saharawis in the Tindouf camps? Do you think that there is good will on the part of Morocco for a Saharawi autonomy according to principles to be negotiated by both parties? Do you think that the Polisario could strongly oppose it if other NGOs decided to start a negotiation dialogue with Morocco?

Firstly, in the Tindouf camps there is a regrettable and very catastrophic situation that needs to be resolved urgently.  The needs of this disinherited and defenceless population are immense, and Polisario is incapable of solving them. On the other hand, it does not have NGO-type civil associations but a group of people, active militants of the organisation itself who claim to defend the rights of women, workers, etc. But the reality is different.

It should not be forgotten that the Moroccan side includes the 73% of Saharawis counted by the UN. They participate, each time, in Moroccan elections with full rights. In the Moroccan parliament there are 37 elected Saharawi parliamentarians. All the town councils, in the Saharan zone, that is to say, in the real Saharan cities, and not simulations in the middle of nowhere, are governed by Saharawis of origin and also the presidents of the deputations and regions in their entirety. These facts do not seem to interest those people who believe that the Saharawis, especially those from the Spanish province, are in the camps of Tindouf. In Tindouf, they have never exceeded 18,000 souls, while all the others are Saharawis from peripheral countries or nationals of those same countries, depending on how you look at it.

The best solution, in my humble opinion, is real autonomy with full rights in Morocco. This is the most pragmatic and possible and most practical solution. Each neighbouring country has its own "Saharan". When this option is achieved, it will be possible to think of a Maghreb that is more cohesive, more peaceful and more profitable, even for European countries that are concerned about stability in the region and guaranteeing their multiple interests. That is, if no one should be excluded regardless of their status, tribe or country.

What is ALTER-FORUM's willingness to work? How did its perspective on the conflict change after leaving the Polisario and taking other directions?

Polisario gave away the sacrifice of its people and signed peace in 1991 in exchange for an illusionary and ill-considered 'Peace Plan'. This marked the end of the "party" and there is no war and no peace. Nor are there any tangible results. All in exchange for nothing. And for three decades now, the same proclamations and eternal threats of war have been made. Living eternally on humanitarian aid, with my hand outstretched towards the infinite and without any kind of resolution, I don't feel like being eternally tied up in the middle of nowhere, waiting for nothing. Living on outdated slogans and from other times, bearers of dogmatic and illusory thinking, is not my thing. Ethnonationalism does not convince me now or ever. Life is too short to give it away. That does not suit me, so I decided, with a lot of determination, to end the nightmare painted in pink, sung and set by xenophobic, ideological feelings or by pure exoticism, to return to my land of origin.

My goals are still the fight for the dignity of people, first the citizen and then the people. I have stopped creating in wars between flags, but in a peace for all, and the right of all people to live with their dignity and freely. I participate in the civil society, Alter Forum, which already has an excellent and healthy path. It has the lead in the field of social economy and exemplary leadership, in terms of the implementation of a culture of work, once absent or unknown in Bedouin societies. I am talking about a work that is organised and correctly renumbered.

The first project was set up by us in a town, Smara, located at the heart of the desert where there was no factory. At the moment it is the capital city of the social economy in Morocco and now the Saharan Institute "Al Andalus" is looking for solutions adapted to the reality and idiosyncrasies of the population, which serve to give importance to and change the precarious situation at the base of the pyramid. I believe that without full citizenship there can be neither peace nor progress. The building is not built from the top, or roof, but from the bottom. I also believe in a plural and decentralised country where the law rules equally over all. There we go.

Niños saharauis en el campamento de refugiados de Smara, en la provincia argelina de Tinduf
PHOTO/AFP - Saharawi children in the Smara refugee camp in the Algerian province of Tindouf

What do you think the future holds for Saharawi children today? Should the influence of the Polisario and terrorist groups on young people be a concern? How do you think the situation is affecting young people born in Tindouf?

They are children who are born without any identity of their own and without a future. It is a childhood that has been abducted. And exploited. On the one hand, they are stuffed with racist and exclusionary proclamations and ideas, based on hatred, as if they were born for an eternal war, instead of being taught correctly by peaceful coexistence and being normal citizens. Many of them, very young, are destined for the army, as free cannon fodder; others, even at school age, are chosen as bearers of the revolutionary banner in foreign countries. A particular "diplomacy" carried out by children in order to gain adherents to the cause. It is a political weapon disguised as humanitarianism, especially those who go on a programme called "holidays for peace". In fact, it is a very effective method for endearing Spanish families to the Polisario cause.

Some of these children stay in European territory adopted by families in Spain or Italy. When they grow up, already with a western education, especially the girls (now women), when they return to the camps they are kept under pretexts justified by tradition or family pressure. Another group of these children that deserves to be remembered is the wanderers throughout the desert region, in search of opportunities and outlets to improve their precarious economic situation. In recent years, crime has increased there, and mafia groups of all kinds have been created. It is a man's land without law and order. Of course there can be no shortage of those who are caught up in international terrorism or fundamentalism. It is a very dangerous situation and could affect the whole region if it is not remedied efficiently and with pragmatic programmes and solutions.

They are our children and brothers who cannot and must not live forever, in a desert, without a destination or livelihood. They only work for the benefit of a handful of leaders who prefer their personal interests to those of that innocent crowd abandoned without any kind of shelter. No one can live eternally on humanitarian aid while their land is one of the richest in the world.