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Those who couldn’t be there

Western Sahara
Human Rights
The disappeared

Just a few of the disappeared remembered at the World Social Forum in Tunis. © Giedre Steikunaite

A mother holding a framed picture of her child walks the streets in protest. She knocks on institutional doors; she seeks. She is Honduran, Guatemalan, Tunisian, Algerian, Aboriginal, she is Saharawi. Her tragedy is personal, yet shared the world over by thousands of mothers and fathers whose loved ones have been made to vanish. They disappeared in narco villas in Mexico, in interrogation and detention centres in North Africa and southern Europe, at the bottom of the Mediterranean in unmarked graves. They disappeared in the system.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis. The event gathered hundreds of activists and organizations; but thousands more could not attend, for their whereabouts are not known.


Absent was the father of Abdelmalek Mahamdioua, Algerian member of Collectif des Familles de Disparu(e)s an Algerie (Collective of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria, an organization that documents forced disappearances and offers assistance to victims of state violence). During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the army abducted Abdelmalek’s father, together with 21 others, from a street. Witnesses say they saw all the men being hurled into a room that was then set on fire, but the government wouldn’t confirm or deny these first-hand accounts.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at the World Social Forum – those who could not attend, for their whereabouts are not known

‘I want truth and justice,’ Abdelmalek says, giving out pamphlets in the rain. ‘And I want to know why they took my father, because they took him for nothing.’

That why is designed never to be revealed, if it exists at all. Abdelmalek’s father is one of the 8,024 Algerians whom the government has so far officially recognized as having ‘disappeared’, although families believe there might be three times as many. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, passed by the Algerian government in 2005 without public consultation, ensures that no government or military official, or member of the armed militias that fought the government, is held accountable for the murders and forced disappearances of the 1990s. Such impunity protects the perpetrator and further criminalizes the victim: the law permits imprisonment of up to 5 years and a 250,000 dinar ($2,500) fine for any attempt at independent search for the truth about the disappearances.

Despite this, families organize demonstrations and speak out in public, two decades on. An online public memorial contains the names and, where possible, pictures and life stories of the thousands of Algerians whom the state made ‘disappear’.


Absent were the more than 500 ‘disappeared’ Saharawis and the dozens of Saharawi political prisoners in Moroccan jails. ‘They were imprisoned because they were fighting for freedom and human rights,’ says Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a youth activist from Smara refugee camp in Algeria, where people expelled from Smara village in occupied Western Sahara made their temporary home in 1975, when Morocco occupied the area and enforced its military regime. Forced disappearances – kidnap and imprisonment in clandestine detention centres – was one of the terror tactics used against the Saharawi civilian population.

While some people died in detention and others were eventually released, the fate of hundreds is not known. Faces young, old, and older in mostly black and white photographs are all that remains of these people.

In January this year, 22-year-old Saharawi political prisoner Abdelbagi Aliyen Antahah died of torture inside a Moroccan prison; in March, Saharawi political prisoner Ahmed S’bai started an open-ended hunger strike to protest against physical and psychological torture. ‘Our struggle is daily,’ Mohamed says. ‘We want to live in freedom, without occupation, without violence. We want our rights.’


Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores. Absent were the thousands of those – nobody knows how many exactly – who disappeared, whether on the sea or after having reached their European destinations.

A Tunisian mother is holding a picture of three young men. The one in the middle is her son, who disappeared 4 years ago. He was 17 when he crossed the Mediterranean by boat and phoned his mother to tell her that he had arrived safely in Italy. There has been no news from him since. It was stories such as this one that the Carovana Italiana per i diritti dei Migranti per la dignità e la giustizia (Italian Caravan for Migrants’ Rights, Dignity and Justice) highlighted on their journey from Lampedusa to Turin last year.

Ayman, a Tunisian in his 20s, is a survivor. ‘I chose the life of harraga,’ he says, referring to the attempt to cross the Mediterranean by boat in search of a better life in Europe. Two and a half years ago the boat he was in capsized and he spent more than 12 hours in the water trying not to drown, watching others around him disappear into the deep. Italian coastal patrols were around, he says; they saw what happened and did nothing to save the people. ‘Since then, every day I think about it: Why?’ Ayman says, his voice barely audible as he speaks staring at the ground. A mother suddenly leaves the room, crying. ‘She says Ayman is lying and the boat never capsized,’ explains Imed Soltani of Association La Terre Pour Tous (The Land is for Everyone Association) which works with families of Tunisian migrants who disappeared. ‘Her son was in that same boat.’

Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores

Activists point out that EU border agency Frontex’s new operation, Triton, that limits rescue efforts to a 50-kilometre zone off the Italian coast (leaving anyone outside this area to tend for themselves, a left-to-die policy), is meant to reduce arrivals and deter boat refugees. While many rescue operations have indeed been carried out, non-assistance in emergency cases remains systemic. The Med is now a cemetery was an oft-repeated phrase at workshops on migration during the World Social Forum.

In response to the increasing number of deaths at sea, Watch the Med, an online mapping platform to monitor the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU, launched a citizen initiative to support migrant and refugee people at risk of drowning. The Alarm Phone (+334 8651 7161), which people in emergencies are urged to dial after sending distress signals to European coastguards, is a hotline that ensures the documentation of every capsized boat or push-back attempt and puts pressure on the coastguards to launch or speed up rescue operations.

‘But the real issue, of course, is not the Alarm Phone. It is the freedom of movement for all,’ says Charles Heller, one of the minds behind the project. ‘Just take a ferry from Tunis to Naples and go,’ a member of the audience comments. Just as EU passport-holders do.


Absent, too, were the thousands of Central Americans whose trips up north – to Mexico, to the US – are cut short en route; trying to escape poverty and violence in their own countries, they are the favourite prey of the narcos (drug cartels) who control migratory routes on Mexican soil. ‘Currently, human trafficking is more profitable for them than drug trafficking,’ says Marta Sánchez Soler of Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano (MMM, Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), an organization dedicated to finding migrants from Central America who disappear in Mexico. Ransom is demanded for kidnapped migrants who have relatives in the US or whose families in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua still have land or houses to sell; others are kidnapped to serve as labour force for the narcos – either in marijuana fields (profits from the latter are going down due to the legalization of marijuana in several US states, Soler says, while cocaine is on the rise) or random narco-related jobs – hitman, for example.

Kidnapped women are forced to cook for the narcos and are often sexually abused

The above-mentioned Italo-Tunisian Migrant Caravan takes inspiration from the work of the MMM, which has been organizing the Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas (Caravan of Central American Mothers) for the last decade. Working closely with grassroots committees of Central American families looking for their disappeared, the MMM has found 200 people and reunited them with their families. This, Soler says, is the main goal. The Caravan – which carries 40 mothers and takes a different route through Mexico every year, depending on the security situation, covering around 5,000 kilometres in three weeks – is designed to bring the issue of migrant disappearances to the public, to involve Mexican society in the struggle, and to denounce the government’s policies that make the disappearances possible, as well as its lack of action to prevent them. It also empowers the women. ‘From victims, the mothers turn into guerreras [warriors],’ Soler says. ‘We convert a tragedy into a social struggle.’

Since 2006, when the US and Mexican governments started the so-called ‘war on drugs’, violence on the Mexican side of the border has escalated. Since then, 70-120,000 people have gone missing; they either died en route or ‘disappeared’. Given the violence many of these people are fleeing, the term ‘migrant’ is not accurate to describe them. ‘They are not migrating, they are being forcibly displaced,’ Soler says. A woman with three little children explained why she was trying to enter Mexico without a visa (which is unaffordable and often unattainable for Central Americans): ‘The gangs killed my oldest two children and I am not going to wait until they kill the others.’ Another woman in Honduras, whose husband was murdered after joining a gang, received a bag of money shortly after his funeral. ‘We will bring you this every week until your children reach the age of 12,’ a gang leader told her. ‘You have to feed them well because they are now ours. We will come and take them.’

When not on the Caravan, the MMM works at a grassroots level to find people who have disappeared but are thought to be alive. By collecting pieces of personal information, they get clues that may lead to the person. ‘A mother tells us that she sent money to her child on the migrant route and she has the receipt. It contains a location, an address, and the name of a Mexican who withdrew the money, because undocumented migrants cannot do it. So we start looking for this person who could provide us with more clues,’ Soler says. ‘There was one guy who liked cockfights a lot, and we found him in a cockfight. If we hadn’t asked the families what this person liked doing, they wouldn’t have told us. [Such personal approach] gives us good results.’

Those good results bring families together. ‘The reunions are very, very beautiful,’ Soler says. ‘Everybody cries, everybody is very emotional, the mothers are very happy and much calmer.’


Mothers across the ocean are also fighting for their own family reunions. Aunty Hazel, an Aboriginal woman from Gunnedah in Australia’s New South Wales, last saw her 18-month-old grandson in January 2014. Another grandchild has been gone for 4 years. ‘Every day I have to give strength to my daughter not to take her life,’ Aunty Hazel says. ‘Her children were taken away by the system.’ These are the new Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their communities by the Australian government in the name of ‘protection’. They, too, were absent. ‘We do need protection, but not from ourselves – we need to be protected from these governments,’ Aunty Hazel says.

The new Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their communities by the Australian government in the name of ‘protection’ – they, too, were absent

She is an activist with Grandmothers Against Removals (GAR), a grassroots movement against the ‘unprecedented theft of Aboriginal children from their families’ by ‘so-called “Child Protection” agencies.’ Figures show that, 7 years after the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations for stealing them, the theft is not only ongoing – it is on the rise. That ‘sorry’ was worth an increase of children’s removals from their families by 65 per cent; currently, around 15,000 Aboriginal children are being held away from their families. It’s the Department of Community Services that decides that Aboriginal communities are not good enough to take care of their children and in court, they don’t have to provide evidence to their claims – a social worker’s opinion is enough to take a child away. Those opinions, based on the Western model of child-raising, do not take into account the fact that in Aboriginal communities child-raising is done communally. ‘One child was taken away because she was seen running outside barefoot,’ says an activist with GAR. ‘Babies are being pulled from their mother’s hands while breast-feeding.’

Apart from personal tragedy, such policies are referred to as cultural genocide; child removals are 10 times as likely in Aboriginal communities as in white ones. Upon return, the stolen children are often unrecognizable to their own families; raised in an environment that has denied them their roots and their heritage, they come back without a sense of belonging. ‘With this hole in their heart they will never be full,’ Aunty Hazel says. She grew up in a mission house – a colonial settlement meant to control Aboriginal people’s freedoms – where she had to ask permission from a white English manager every time she wanted to do something. Indigenous Australians were told not to protest against white colonialism and oppression and stop demanding their rights, as ‘they’d come and take ye children’ as a punishment. Even an excuse was not necessary. ‘Sometimes you wake up and you don’t find one of your little cousins,’ Aunty Hazel recalls. As a child, she used to cry listening to her grandma, who was of the Stolen Generation. Today, she cries for her own grandchildren.

‘Maybe you don’t stop them but don’t let them stop you,’ says Aunty Jenny, also a member of GAR. ‘I’ve been fighting since I was 17. I am 60 now. You have to keep fighting.’ But who are you appealing to? ‘To the people who care.’ Are there any left? ‘I hope so.’


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