The Case of a Woman Held in Tindouf: Deafening Silence of International Media

Since last August, the family of Mahjouba Mohamed Hamdidaf, a young Saharawi woman with Spanish citizenship, has held her hostage in the Polisario-controlled Tindouf camps in Algeria.

Mahjouba is a 23-year-old young woman who became a Spanish national in 2002 after being adopted by a Spanish family in 1999. As soon as she arrived in the Tindouf camps last August, her biological parents confiscated her passport and prevented her from returning to Spain.

Since then, there has been relative silence regarding the event, and little was known about her fate. But in recent days, the Spanish daily El Mundo broke the news and shed light on her situation.

Meanwhile, a petition was organized, signed, and submitted to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs urging the Ministry to take the necessary steps to bring Mahjouba back to Spain.

Since El Mundo published the story, it has been making headlines both in Spanish and Moroccan newspapers. As soon as I heard about Mahjouba, my first reflex was to check search engines and see if the case has been reported by major media agencies, such as Agence France Presse (AFP), the Associated Press (AP), and Reuters. These media outlets are known for reporting extensively about the Western Sahara conflict.

To my surprise, after searching for over five days, none of these agencies has so far bothered to report it.

Although I am aware that these news agencies have a bias in the way they report on the question of Western Sahara, I was expecting them to report about the case of Mahjouba, since it is a clear human rights violation taking place in the Tindouf camps.

Case of Mahjouba vs Aminatou Haidar

These news agencies’ silence stands in stark contrast with their extensive coverage of the smallest events that take place in Western Sahara. One should remember how AFP, AP, and Reuters hammered Morocco on the case of Aminatou Haidar, who was prevented from entering the Moroccan territory in November 2009, to realize how these media outlets have a selective and biased way of reporting on this specific issue.

In addition to their overall reporting about the Western Sahara conflict, these media agencies often take Polisario’s side in a subtle way and systematically represent Morocco as a culprit that is “occupying” this disputed territory.

However, the case of Mahjouba is far worse than that of Aminatou Haidar, who was dubbed by these media agencies as the Ghandi of the Sahrawis.

From a strictly legal point of view, the case of Aminatou Haidar was one of disrespect for Moroccan law, which prompted the Moroccan authorities to make the unfortunate decision to prevent her from entering Layoune. Indeed, as she landed in Layone airport on November 13, 2009, Haidar put on the customs entry form that her nationality was Sahrawi while she held a Moroccan passport and was being paid by the Moroccan government in her capacity as a civil servant.

But the outrage orchestrated by the media made people overlook this aspect and gave her case publicity. Legally, there is no country called Western Sahara, and as a holder of Moroccan passport, the Sahrawi activist had to abide by the law. Ever since, Aminatou Haidar has gone from being a low profile personality to an acclaimed “fighter” for human rights.

In the case of Mahjouba, we are witnessing a case of sheer violation of international law and a young woman’s basic human rights. Mahjouba did not provoke the Polisario or any other entity by violating the laws enforced in the Tindouf camps. She was simply and unlawfully deprived of her passport and deprived of her freedom of movement and her right to return to Spain.

This is a blatant violation of international law, which guarantees the right of every human to have freedom of movement and travel. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his or her own country.

Mahjouba is the tip the iceberg

This brings us to the issue of freedom of movement within the Tindouf camps. In fact, contrary to common belief, the Saharawi population is deprived of this basic human right. But yet again, this issue goes unreported by most major news agencies, because it does not fit their bias.

According to a report published by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in 2009, nine out of ten Sahrawis want to obtain a visa to a foreign country and leave the Tindouf camps. But the hopes of most Sahrawis are dashed by the strict control enforced by the Polisario leadership on freedom of movement within the camps.

According to the same report, although Sahrawis can enter Mauritania with a Polisario identity card, they are deprived of doing so freely. In fact, in order to deter them from going from Mauritania to the Moroccan-controlled Sahara, every Sahrawi wishing to visit Mauritania has to leave behind family members or substantial assets. The Sahrawis are also not able to travel to a foreign country without express permission from Algeria and the Polisario leadership.

This violates a number of articles of international law, such as articles articles 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 15, 26, 27 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

Separation of children from their Saharawi families

What is more, is that the case of Mahjouba brings to the forefront a more worrying and serious issue: the reality of the suffering inflicted by the Polisario leadership on countless families who are separated from their children at a young age in order to be sent to Cuba or adopted by foreign families.

The reaction of the Mahjouba’s family can be understood as a reaction of a distressed family that wishes to be reunited with one of its children. This case is just the tip of the iceberg, and is reflective of the situation of despair in which thousands of Sahrawi families live as a result of their forcible separation from their children.

It has been reported for several years that Polisario has been sending Sahrawi children to Cuba against their parents’ will, a move that deprives these children of the natural care and assistance of their biological parents. One can only imagine the suffering inflicted on these Sahrawis because of their young age. They are separated from their biological parents, deprived of their warmth, assistance and care, and are forced to learn a new language and follow a special training.

According to Juan Vives, a former Cuban secret agent who published a book entitled “El Magnifico” in 2005, Sahrawi children sent to Cuba study in schools established specially for them that follow a strict ideological orientation. In addition, they suffer from inhumane treatment at the hands of the Cubans.

“Children were obliged to work in the fields in the morning and go to school in the afternoon. Some did not cease to cry, calling for their parents. It was inhumane. Some arrived so young to Cuba that they hardly remembered from where they came. And it is very inhumane,” Juan Vives said.

This policy, practiced by the Polisario for almost four decades, is a blatant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Silence of international media

But all these cases seem to be not newsworthy for AFP, AP, and Reuters, whose bias in the issue of the Western Sahara pushes them to systematically focus only on the Moroccan side and overlook the human rights abuses of Polisario. This brings into question the neutrality of these media agencies and pushes one to pose legitimate questions about the reasons that prompt them not to report on an issue as serious as depriving a young woman of her passport and her right of freedom of movement.

Are these media agencies serving a specific political agenda through their biased and selective reporting of the Western Sahara conflict? Is there an Algerian or Pro-Polisario lobby within these groups that dictates what should be reported and should be overlooked?

These are legitimate questions that we may never find an answer for. But the case of Mahjouba once again shows that Morocco has two adversaries: the Polisario and Algeria, but also a hostile foreign media that has already chosen which parties to defend.

This highlights necessity that the Moroccan authorities be more alert and redouble their efforts in order to make their voice heard, defend the righteousness of their position on the conflict, and bring to light the overlooked human rights abuses perpetrated by the Polisario inside Algerian territory.


Samir Bennis
Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France. He also holds a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Toulouse I, a Master’s degree in Iberian studies ...