Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nothing but Roses: Communal Reparations Programs in Ouarzazate Province

According to Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER), “It is, in fact, well-established that a great number of citizens were victims of abduction, detention, torture, and assassination either because they were affiliated with a political group or a Resistance Movement group, or because they were considered traitors and collaborators.”* Political prisoners were incarcerated for years, and sometimes decades, in detention centers located mostly in very remote regions of the country. A major work of the IER has been to investigate cases of prisoners who were forcibly disappeared and arbitrarily detained in these prisons, often without trial or any recourse to justice.

The existence of these prisons did not only affect detainees and their families, but also the communities in which they were located. Because of the extrajuridicial nature of the incarcerations, the government had reason to keep these locations secret. Thus, the villages, cities, and regions received little to no government investment during the Years of Lead. Roads and buildings deteriorated. Potable drinking water sources were rare. Few schools or medical facilities were established. Illiteracy soared. There is even one village I know of where, after a bridge was washed away during flooding, the entire village was cut off from access to the nearest city, leaving the villagers ignored by the government and stranded for weeks.

Citizens came to believe that they were being collectively punished by their own government, for a crime they had not committed: the crime of concealing human rights abuses. This is why the IER has decided to take a “communal reparations approach” in the equity and reconciliation process. Entire communities in 11 different regions can now benefit from government investment and development projects conceived by local organizations themselves. Here’s how it works:

1. Representatives from the Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH) visit communities where former detention centers are located, or regions that saw political unrest, and thus are considered “victimized communities”. Representatives explain that these communities are eligible for reparations programs

2. Communities work together to set up their own local organizations, which poll the residents in order to diagnose the most pressing needs/demands.** Then these orgs come up with proposals for specific development projects, including budget and timeline. Most projects are mandated for about 4 years.

3. Once projects are approved, then funds, resources and personnel are disbursed to the community to manage the projects. Reps from CCDH follow up and offer support, and reps from local organizations are invited to various training workshops held around the country.

So what exactly are these reparations projects and how do they help heal the nation from four decades of human rights abuses?

Recently I took a trip to the province of Ouarzazate to find out.

After 12-hour train and bus rides, I arrived late at Hotel Zahir. What it lacked in comfort, it made up for with the friendly staff, who took pity on me as a woman traveling alone to such a remote city. At first, they thought I was part of a movie being filmed in the region (Ouarzazate is known as the “Hollywood of Morocco”, with films such as Babel, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, and Lawrence of Arabia having been shot at the very legit film studios inside the city.) But no, I explained. I’m just here to do some research.

What are you researching?

Oh, you know…human rights.

Human rights?

Yeah, like…the prisons here and stuff.

Oh. Be careful.






Standing in the date palm field which has become a symbol

of peace and reconciliation to the people of Tinghrir.

The next morning had me up bright and early to meet my guides and companions J and Mohammed Elhoukari, a representative from CCDH Ouarzazate. That first day, M. Elhoukari drove us to various cities and villages which have started development projects under the auspices of the CCDH’s Reparations Program, as well as international donors. He explained that out of 38 proposed projects, 10 were selected in the Ouarzazate province.

Some of these projects include building preschools, cultural activities & centers & libraries, promotion of rural women (professional and literacy), agriculture, potable water, health programs, promotion of eco tourism, artisan expositions, sanitation services, bakeries and weaving workshops to teach skills, libraries, and civic education. We first visited the 625-person village of Askoura, where a former Kasbah had been a secret detention center from 1984-1990. Their irrigation and water project takes a brilliant “participative approach”. In addition to donations from other financial partners, each family is asked to contribute a small sum (about 50 dirham per family = $6.50), so that they feel included in this process, with an investment in its success.

Visiting Askoura's community association AATDC

We also visited a fascinating project in Tinghrir, which had been the location of an anti-government rebellion in 1973. 500 families share plots on 80 hectares of land, where they work together to irrigate and cultivate date palms for commercial agriculture. The CCDH and the Fonds Catalian d’Espagne have donated 150 date palms, at about 35 Euro per palm, which will eventually yield over 16,000 palms. Think: microenterprise + sustainable agriculture + community participation + government reconciliation and reparation = how to heal a community!

In the Zagora province, community members chose to take a gendered approach. Because many men left the province (out of fear of government crackdowns) and many youth immigrated to larger cities (because of the lack of economic and social opportunities), much of the burden of daily life fell on women. Consequently, women have been recognized as bearing much of the weight of the Years of Lead. Illiteracy amongst women in these regions is as high as 80%, women’s health services are feeble, and domestic violence has been exposed as a serious issue. After running a diagnosis of the local needs, the Réseau association Zagora pour la démocratie et le development (RAZDED) created a “multi-functioning space for the empowerment of women” and a “Centre d’Ecoute”. At this center, women come in for legal advice and counseling. Their representative told me that 253 cases of domestic violence have been brought since 2005. While this might not be a high number relatively speaking, the cases are increasing every year, which, while exposing a serious issue, speaks to the fact that women in the community are more willing to step forward and tell their stories than ever before. Slowly the bar is being raised for feminine empowerment, and the center hopes to write a book of legal counsel for women in the future.

Local representatives also recognized that the younger generations are growing up with a lack of juridical culture (knowledge of their rights and duties as citizens), a lack of knowledge of local history and violations, and a lack of familiarity with the constitution. This is due, in part, to the disenchantment (and sometimes fear) of their parents and grandparents towards government. However, without informed, participative citizenry, the country risks falling into dictatorship. A project to reinforce citizenship and human rights trained 60 teachers to give interactive workshops at 3 different schools (in Agdz, Zagora, and Tagounit). 66 students, ages 13-16, were chosen to attend 2-day workshops to learn about human rights, child rights, and citizenship. The Years of Lead were explained in context, culminating with a field trip to Agdz prison. One of the most laudable ideas of this project is the fact that human rights and citizenship are so strongly linked. Youth are not only informed about local and national politics, they are encouraged to think critically and participate. This is a giant step for a government that was at one time an island unto itself, ruling above the heads of any of its citizens. This reinforces the idea that I have learned through my research throughout the world that the root of transition begins with education of children. Period.


Two of the most famous prison sites are found at Kalaat M’Gouna and Agdz. Because of the harsh prison conditions, 32 prisoners died at Agdz, then after the remaining detainees were transferred to Kalaat M’Gouna, another 16 died before the prison was shut down in 1991. Prisoners were routinely subject to torture and put in solitary confinement for up to months at a time. These are also two of the most beautiful regions I’ve ever visited in Morocco, known for their wild roses (whose famous essence is used in the perfumes of Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy). When former King Hassan II was questioned by a journalist about the existence of the secret sites, he famously responded, “There is nothing in Kalaat M’Gouna but the roses.”***

Kalaat M'Gouna sits atop a hill above the town, forever a testament to horrors that occurred and hope that is possible.

The day before I arrived, the prison at Kalaat M’Gouna was visited by Mohammed Nadrani, a former detainee famous for his drawings and art depicting his years at the site. When he arrived at the prefect’s office, he recognized one of the police officers as his former prison warden. The space between them was electrified as they stood looking at each other, described Elhoukari, as they both had just a moment to decide how to write the end of their personal political histories. They decided in a split second to opt for release over continued enslavement to bitterness and they hugged and cried right there in the office.

I spoke with representatives at Agdz and asked why they didn’t just choose to destroy the prison, whose halls are full of ghosts of horrific memories. The response was mutli-faceted. The community certainly discussed it, but decided not to raze the detention center, first, so that the new generation would know what happened there. There will be no subtlety in the retelling of the country’s narrative. Community leaders are not interested in sugar-coating the past and asking people to forgive and forget. No, as Elhoukari said, « La mémoire doit rester devant nous pour que ca ne passe encore. » (Memory must stay before us, so that it does not happen again). Also, Agdz hopes to draw international attention to the Memory Site, to keep the plight of political prisoners on the international human rights agenda (probably also one of the reasons why they welcomed me so warmly).

Nadrani started drawing in prison, as a form of catharsis. His pictures were published in a book entitled Les Sarcophages du Complexe (2005)

Above all, the community hopes to use the former secret prison as an open space for community. That which was once closed and taboo will be transformed into a space of light and human development. This is a metaphor for the entire IER process. This is what equity and reconciliation is all about: not sweeping the brutal past under the rug, but instead bringing it into the light and transforming it into something meaningful, useful, and helpful. Communities that were marginalized come together for creative collective solutions.

Most interesting to me were the “Projects of Memory”, which had are designed to keep history alive though what Elhoukari called “Positive Memory”. Instead of blaming perpetrators or inciting anger and bitterness towards the government, these communities seek to honor the legacies of victims and strengthen civil society. One project includes painting a mural depicting the history of the region; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The most important projects, in my opinion, deal with transforming former detention centers into “Positive Memory Sites”, museums, and cultural centers; public spaces where free expression is no longer taboo. Cultural, educational and economic activities will be held inside the centers, as a strong statement that these communities are forging on, not ashamed of what happened, and no longer afraid. “We should not forget what happened here,” Elhoukari told me, “Memory and transformation lead to ‘positive preservation’.”

I wish I could hold up individuals like Elhoukari and Nadrani and his prison guard the women of Zagora and the students in the Human Rights Clubs. I wish I could bring them on stage in front of our leaders who are making wars and punishing communities for the sins of extremists. I wish I could bring them in front of the cynics who say that development and peace aren’t possible because hatred is too ingrained and solutions are best from the top-down. I wish I could line these humble souls up on a stage and tell the world, “Look! Here are living examples from quiet, forgotten villages and towns who are doing REAL WORK to heal themselves and their communities!” They’ve let go of bitterness, and in exchange have picked up books and shovels and hammers and nails and paintbrushes and hope.

The world may never know about these freedom fighters. I didn’t until just a few weeks ago. To be honest, it is easy to become disenchanted and angry when dealing with human rights issues every day. And I cannot mention this history without mentioning those political prisoners who are still locked up in sites around the country. But meeting these individuals has restored my faith in the human spirit, and even (dare I say?) in the work of the Moroccan government. Healing the scars of the Years of Lead is not easy, not going to satisfy everyone, and not nearly finished. However, I applaud the government for the work done in these communities. Now, instead of secrets and scars, just roses.


*Kingdom of Morocco Equity and Reconciliation Commission. Final Report Volume 2: Establishing Truth and Responsibility Regarding Human Rights Violations. P. 44. Published by Le Conseil Consultatif des Droits de l’Homme. Rabat, Morocco.

**This is the most important step towards addressing problems, the CCDH representative told me: “When managing reparations programs, it is most important to do a diagnostic of the community’s needs. In one community, we were offering education and electricity and water…but our diagnostic showed that the community’s #1 desire was for a cell phone network. After that, we were truly able to connect with them.” Reinforces the classic idea that healing always starts with listening!

***In another interview towards the end of his life, Hassan II admitted his knowledge of the secret prisons, but diplomatically avoided assuming responsibility or apology.

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