by Karen Thomas
published in The Big Issue in the North (Manchester) 2-8 July 2001
If you could keep just one of your two children and had to abandon the other, how would you choose? Big Issue in the North meets a woman who faced this stark dilemma &endash; the heartbreaking choice that confronted Meryl Streep in the movie Sophie's Choice. From Karen Thomas in Tindouf
She is tall, sad-eyed and imposing, her white sari gleaming brightly under a fierce noon sun that bounces angrily off the brittle Sahara sands that threaten to engulf the Sahrawi refugee camps, deep in the Algerian desert.
Mama Sidi is the most senior female official of the Polisario Front, the liberation movement fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, from exile in the Algerian desert. A campaigner for Sahrawi independence and for women's rights in Sahrawi society, Mama Sidi's public profile belies her personal history of searing heartbreak &endash; 17 years ago, she was forced to make a decision that no parent should ever have to make.
Born 38 years ago in the Western Sahara city of Smara under Spanish rule, Mama Sidi clearly remembers the 1975 Moroccan invasion. Thousands of Sahrawi families abandoned their nomadic dwellings and livestock as Moroccan troops advanced south across the Sahara, fleeing across the brutal desert to Algeria. Hundreds died en route.
Mama Sidi's family chose to stay and she joined the Polisario Front while only a teenager. In 1976, she was among several women arrested by Moroccan troops.
"Looking back at the things I saw when I was jailed by Moroccan soldiers as a teenager, I feel that I will never die," Mama Sidi says, casually, almost joking. "If the things that happened to me then did not kill me, then nothing else will. We were taken by force, and our families knew nothing of our fate."
To the jailed Sahrawis, the women's prison was a centre to annihilate the Sahrawi people. Mama Sidi's fellow prisoners included elderly women and young girls, some jailed without trial as suspected Polisario members, others seemingly detained at will.
"There was one very young Bedouin girl &endash; barely a teenager &endash; taken from her family in the desert by the Moroccan soldiers," she recalls. "When they brought the girl to prison, the women protested, demanding that she joined our cell. As we feared, the soldiers had raped her and brutally tortured her with electric shock treatment.
"I remember an old woman of 70 born in a tent, who had lived all her life in the desert. When she came to prison, she had never been inside a building in her life. Knowing no better, she kept referring to the prison as 'the palace' &endash; she knew nothing about politics, or what was happening to our country, or about Morocco and the Polisario.
"The soldiers threw her into our cell. She was so confused that we were frightened. Eventually, we asked directly whether she had been raped, but she said no, everything was fine &endash; except that the Moroccan soldiers kept doing something to her that made her shake. She didn't know what it was, only that it was very unpleasant. The soldiers had been giving her electric shocks. In the end, she completely lost her mind."
Eventually, a group of male and female prisoners on started a hunger strike to demand the right to a free trial. "During that hunger strike, twenty-five of us died and we didn't gain anything," Mama Sidi says. "The soldiers just laughed at us and told us to stop wasting our time. There is no law here, they told us."
After her release from prison, Mama Sidi continued her political work among Sahrawi women and married a fellow Polisario activist. But in the early Eighties, Moroccan troops launched a new security clamp-down in the occupied territories. Mama Sidi's husband fled to Algeria to avoid arrest, leaving her behind with their two small children.
Then, in 1984, Mama Sidi was warned of a warrant for her arrest. "I knew exactly what going back to prison would mean, so I decided to escape to neighbouring Algeria," she says quietly. "By this time, I was the mother of two small children &endash; two boys called Naih and Ahmed and my husband had already reached the refugee camps in Algeria."
Horrified by the thought of returning to prison, Mama Sidi decided that her only option was to leave the Western Sahara and take her chances on escape &endash; but that meant crossing the Sahara desert on foot, with only the food and water she could carry.
Naih was then five and Ahmed just two. Knowing the brutality of a desert that had claimed the lives of so many Sahrawis before her, she realised that there was no way that she and two small children could survive the perilous trek through the Sahara.
She decided to take just one of the boys, and to leave the other behind in the Occupied Territories with her sisters &endash; but deciding which child to leave was painful beyond words.
In the end, she decided to take Naih and to leave Ahmed who was too young to walk, let alone trek through the Sahara desert. "It was an impossible decision, but I had to make the best choice," Mama Sidi says, her face a mask of tension.
From the day she left the Occupied Territories, Mama Sidi was unable to contact her son from exile &endash; she heard nothing from her family, and didn't know whether Ahmed was alive or dead. Fifteen years passed, fifteen missed birthdays marked only by the changing seasons as icy, sand-laden winter storms made way for the searing heat of summer.
The story has a happy ending, however. "Two years ago, however, everything changed," Mama Sidi says. "Ahmed managed to escape from the Occupied Territories and to join me here in the camps. He is now 19 and is living with me again. It's more than I could ever have hoped for. I still can't believe it."
Mama Sidi refuses to acknowledge how hard her choice has been. "All Sahrawi families have personal experiences and stories to tell about Moroccan brutality," she shrugs. "What happened to me is not unique &endash; I have worked with so many others in the National Union of Sahrawi Women who have similar stories. My story is the story of the Sahrawi people in general."
She points out a care-worn older woman, sitting quietly nearby. "This friend left her sick and elderly mother in the Western Sahara 25 years ago, and for 25 years, she had no news &endash; no telephone calls, no letters, nothing. Last week, she received news that her mother had died."
© K Thomas, June 2001