Liberation News spoke with activist Siham Byah, who was violently separated from her son Naseem by ICE earlier this year and deported to Morocco. Since she has been in Morocco she has been working to be reunited with her son and win asylum in the U.S. or Canada. Byah is also a militant activist with the Hirak movement against the Moroccan theocratic monarchy which is supported by U.S. imperialism.
Liberation News: The death of fish seller Mohcine Fikri in October of 2016 sparked a wave of protests in the Northern Rif region of Morocco, giving birth to the ‘Hirak Rif’ movement. Can you elaborate on the historical relationship that the Rif has had with the central government (Makhzen) and the Moroccan monarchy? Is Mohcine Fikri an isolated case of state terrorism?
Siham Byah: Ever since they sold Morocco out to France in the infamous protectorate, the Moroccan monarchy knew its popularity among Moroccans has taken a huge hit. Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim el Khattabi, or Moulay Mouhand as we call him, was a leader who appeared in the Rif, north of Morocco, with a revolutionary vision for all of North Africa: he studied the leftist ideology and had a vision of a free, democratic North African republic, free of monarchies and oligarchies. Of course he was a threat to the Moroccan monarchy, who bought its way back to lead Morocco after it conspired with the Spanish and the French in 1926 to use chemical weapons against the unarmed civilians of the Rif, in an effort to smoke out Moulay Mohand and put an end to the revolutionary republican ideology. So when Morocco got its official independence, which was similar to the one Pakistan got after the U.S. invasion of 2003, when the USA retreated from it, leaving a puppet president Hamid Karzai … The Alaouite monarchy was and still is that puppet that was left by the colonizers in order to protect their interests and ensure full economic surrender of Morocco. In fact, Morocco, to this day, still has to honor those “privileges” afforded by the monarchy in order for it to continue to exist after the Moroccan independence. The same way Israel “bought” Palestinian land at the Balfour treaty, it is customary for colonizers, when they see they are under a lot of pressure to leave and give back the lands they’ve stolen, for them to try to finagle that “one last deal” so they don’t walk away with nothing. The Moroccan Alaouite monarchy afforded France many advantages over Morocco’s natural resources, and priority in investment, in exchange for making sure the colonizers restore the Alaouites to the throne of Morocco, as opposed to letting Moroccans actually chose the way they want to be governed. As a result, The Riffians were baffled as to how can such a deal be made under their noses, and they protested, rightfully so, that this wasn’t what Moulay Mouhand wanted nor was it what they have fought so hard for. The Moroccan monarchy saw that as a defiance to its very existence, which it was, and responded in kind as is the case with every revolt, by kidnapping, killing, imprisoning, raping and also bombing the region.
Ever since, the entire region is deemed a military territory by a Royal Decree, giving the monarchy the right to militarize it and besiege it economically and developmentally, as it went in and bulldozed every last factory left by the Spaniards who colonized the region, and refused to build any type of infrastructure in there, forcing the majority of its people to migrate abroad. Even those who did and bring back their life savings, cannot get the proper permits to invest in anything substantial in the region. A small mom and pop coffee shop or boutique is okay, anything bigger that could revive the region and create significant job opportunities is strictly prohibited by the monarchy directly.
Further, and as a city with a huge and bountiful fishing port, Al Huceima is a city that was teeming with fishermen and fish mongers, until the king become the sole person that can issue fishing licenses (among MANY other abuses of power) at the willy0nilly, without having to involve the ministry of Fish and Wild game, which SHOULD in theory, be the institution that manages fishing licenses. The king, of courses, issues them to those he, himself has other financial interests with, leaving the local fisherman with NOTHING.
Mohcin Fikri, the fishmonger was not an isolated incident, it was the last in a series of state sanctioned terrorism that the Rif region (and other regions rich in natural resources, and a history of standing up to the oligarchy). Mohcin Fikri’s murder was witnessed by thousands, and was also caught on many cameras in the era of social media. It was the last straw in the heavy luggage the monarchy has been hauling on the backs of the poor.
Liberation News: What are the demands of the Hirak Rif movement?
SB: The main demand was to lift the militarization of the Rif. This is a crucial demand in the sense that it should usher in a new era of reconciliation between the regime and the Rif, as one has always oppressed the other, first by using internationally banned chemical weapons (napalm and white phosphorus) against unarmed civilians from 1924 to 1926, leaving the land unable to grow much anymore, and people suffering from cancer 75% more than the rest of regions in Morocco combined. Lifting the military siege means the locals can develop their cities and town, invest in factories and bring in thousands upon thousands of job opportunities.
The demands were also for a cancer treatment hospital, since every single household has at least one cancer patient, and they have to get on buses and travel between 800 and 1200 miles to get to the nearest center, in treacherous roads, in the middle of the Rif mountains, not maintained the way other roads and highways are in other parts of Morocco.
They wanted a university, so their kids won’t have to dorm for them to get an education, and not only have to live away from their parents, but face a dilemma as to whether or not it even makes sense for them to continue their education. These are the heads of household living in the militarized besieged Rif on meager wages, a child in university is a whole set of expenses they are not ready for at all. Many don’t get to go, and those who do, sometimes get help from their families abroad, which, at any given moment and because they are in a military territory, the government can interfere and accuse them of receiving foreign aid to destabilize the county, accusations that were directed at both Nacer Zefzafi and my personal friend Mohamed El Asrihi who got a Camera and a Phone back in 2012 from a family friend in Holland, and has now been sentenced to 5 years for receiving foreign aid in order to destabilize the country.
So the sum this up, the demands are:
To Lift the Militarization of the Rif by dismissing and cancelling out the militarization Dahir
To Build a Cancer treatment center in the region, accessible to all (It only makes sense since it was this regime that facilitate their genocide using chemical weapons, now it has to at least, provide treatment centers)
To Build a University in the Region, so their children won’t have to travel 1000+kms to get to the nearest university campus
To bring attention to the human development projects Morocco was advertising for the rest of the big cities in the country. Better roads, Hospitals and clinics and schools in every rural area etc.
They also demanded an independent investigative team to look into and get to the bottom of the murder of Mohcin Fikri. Investigating that means finding out who sold him the fish to begin with, and how they got it out of the port, and under whose name is the fishing license (Akhanouch) and will raise an issue as to why this one particular person has his hand in every single economic activity in Morocco, which will bring us to who allowed all these licenses and privileges without a care about the flagrant conflict of interest and the total lack of transparency and accountability the totalitarian Moroccan king enjoys …
Liberation News: The movement has suffered waves of repression from the state, with hundreds arrested since the crackdown on the movement last summer, can you give us an overview of the conditions in which political prisoners are held?
SB: Hundreds is not close to being true. We have gone now to about 2,200 detainee, many people refer to them as the kidnapped, seeing as the regular due process was not applied to them, making their arrests of a political nature, something the Moroccan regime continues to deny. When people from Al Hoceima get their houses raided by 60-80 heavily armed agents (Moroccans don’t have the right to bear arms) and terrorize and beat the entire family to take that one person in the most inhumane and humiliating way possible, some with no shirt or shoes on, shove them in helicopters, eyes bound, head covered in a hood as if they’re taking them to the firing squad, and then beat them threaten them and their families with rape, torture them by the Russian roulette no less and beat them into signing blank statements! Then take them 1,200 kms away to the headquarters of the National squad of the Judicial Police telling them they will never see their loved ones again. Charging them with the most ludicrous of charges, trying to intimidate them by telling them the said charges carry the death penalty!
The known leader (though a lot can be said about his leadership) Nacer Zefzafi was put in an individual cell by himself, whereas those, deemed most dangerous were held in the same prison, in different pavilions in groups, except for him. He spent the entire year and month of his detention alone, not able to communicate with, strategize with or exchange books, jokes or just companionship with his friends that he grew up with.
As for the rest, the prison administration changed its system and decided to not allow families to bring in any more food or hygiene or clothing items to the prisoners anymore. They can only bring them books that are not censored by the regime. A change in strategy that can only be explained by the vindictive nature of this regime and its deep hatred toward Rif and its people. The families now have to take the bus from Huceima at 9:00 PM and travel the 12 hours in dangerous roads overnight to make it outside of the prison by 9:00 AM, only to have to wait for a couple of hours before they can see their loved ones. The visits are two hours long, usually allowing two family members at a time, and only close family, a step brother can’t come, a brother or sister-in-law can’t come, only brothers sisters, first cousins, parents, grandparents and spouses and children and literally nobody else. No friends, no supporters, no extended family members … NOTHING.
The prison administration also finds ways to make their stay unpleasant by making up excuses for them not to use their daily phone allowances that they pay for out of pocket, especially when the prison administration has violated the rights of one prisoner, and does not want the word to get out to their families and attorneys. This has caused MANY unnecessary hunger strikes that could have been avoided.
Further, whenever Nacer Zefzafi and the Investigative Reporter Hamid EL Mahdaouy complain, they get taken to the punitive solitary (Kashou) which is very tiny, hard, with a toilet seat breaking the length of the bench they are supposed to sit and then sleep on.
The 54 detainees in the prison of Okacha have repeatedly complained of “allowed” items brought in by their families that never made it to their cells, and of punitive shake downs for no good reason to just displace and confiscate items previously allowed, under the pretext that it is a new rule.
Further, the prisoners have made several requests to continue their education while incarcerated, a right afforded to them under the Moroccan law, yet the warden continues to not want to honor.
Liberation News: The recent sentencing of multiple leaders of Hirak to 5-20 years in prison has beenthe most recent blow to the people’s movement. How do you envision the future of Hirak, and the solidarity between those on the outside and those incarcerated?
SB: The sheer anger, the disbelieve, the disgust in the street is all you see. Not even those who were royalists and/or paid by the regime to accuse the Rifians of separatism (which they never, not once, asked for) agreed with the sentences and thought they were very harsh. Many are claiming that the 20 year sentences are symbolic of the current king having been on the throne for 20 years now … as for me, I see punitive, unnecessarily harsh sentences against peaceful people for whom the entire world testified to their civility and organization. Much to the disappointment of the regime, who tried to paint them as these separatists, traitors who want to bring Morocco to its knees dragging it into a civil war. Those of us on the outside feel as if the entire country and here I am going to use the word Watan because it really loses its meaning when translated, it is the rape of a Watan, and the beheading of a nation, and the funeral of a people. We see this as a message for those in prison, that they are now isolated and alone, and for us on the outside that this is what awaits us if we follow suit.
Further and even more dangerously, that there is and never was an impartial judicial system, that this is all a charade so Morocco remains on the good graces of the international community. It reminds us who’s boss, who decides and how all other institutions execute and act as its dirty tool that always always always protects its interests!
Since the King is, according to the Moroccan constitution, the President of the Superior council of Justice, and all the sentences and verdicts are rendered in his name. When will said verdicts and sentences ever be impartial or unbiased under these totalitarian laws?
This was a slap in the faces of those watching, reminding them who rules with an iron fist, and that we are totally back to the years of lead and plomb and that there is and never has it been any reconciliation with the Rif.
Liberation News: Has the state repression of the movement strengthened the popular demand for demilitarization of the Rif region? What would demilitarization truly entail?
SB: In fact, the state militarized the region even more tightly than it did before and it extended said militarization to other neighboring cities in the north such as my city of Tangier, where I got a beating at the hands of the auxiliary forces for simply wearing an Imazighen Shawl and holding a phone in my hand, getting ready to take some pictures at the rally. Lifting the militarization decree means the region can see substantial projects that will revive the region economically and otherwise, it means that people won’t be afraid to sneeze for fear they’d be summoned, it means they can live their lives in peace, normally and if they break the law, it wouldn’t be aggravated and brought to a national threat level of charges, and that they’d have a normal police to inhabitants ratio as opposed to what they have now especially after they’ve imprisoned thousands and thousands more are wanted for similar charges and are in hiding, when thousands others migrated to other Moroccan cities, many took the risky zodiac boats crossing the Mediterranean sea in dangerous conditions being chased by coast guards, many of which end up capsizing in the middle of the way, losing the lives of most!
Liberation News: You have been organizing in solidarity with progressive Moroccan struggles for many years from the United States. How has the U.S. and Moroccan government responded to these solidarity protests?
SB: The U.S. afforded us the right to protest the Moroccan tyranny in many cities nationwide, many venues and many different actions. It is when we start to do more than just protesting and start to map out a path to ensure we represent the movement accurately here, and even reach out to Senators, political parties and Congress people to help us spread the word that this is happening in a country that the U.S. supports financially, militarily and politically, using American tax dollars, money that is wasting, oppressing and terrorizing those who protest peacefully and demand legitimate rights, as opposed to helping Morocco thwart foreign incursions or, better yet, redirect them toward internal interests, like meals on wheels, activities for inner city kids, supplies for all students, bringing art and music back, or migrating toward a single payer healthcare system. In addition, we have also been in touch with NGOs that, even though we know might still side with tyranny since they side with the U.S. and Israel against Palestinians, we still pressed ahead with petitions and correspondence to spread awareness and expose Morocco for what it is, and get some politicians and political parties to declare their adoption to this very just cause.
Liberation News: There has been a growing movement in the U.S. around the separation of immigrant families at the border. You have also been fighting for justice and reunification with your son and continue to do so from Morocco. How do you see the connections between the movement in the US and in Morocco?
SB: I actually see this as even bigger and more encompassing of not just what happens in these two countries. The constant unrest in Syria, Croatia, Venezuela and other countries are indicative of two things: That the vampires sucking our blood dry are now fighting each other, with the power balances not what they used to be! That is bound to change the geopolitical economic position of most of the players. I see the USA unhinged about the inhumanities and atrocities it commits in the name of hate and superiority and does not hesitate to even break international law, and go against humanity to instill further suffering and pain on the underprivileged. I see a multilayered attack on the non-whites, on the LGBTQ and on the poor all in one chaotic, confusing time. We are on the verge of a civil war of sorts. One where the supremacists will continue to show their ugliness, claiming it is their god’s given right, totally forgetting how they’ve annihilated 100 million Natives, raped, killed and plundered, sold their little ones, and sent them to boarding schools in an effort to totally eradicate their identity. These people felt they had the upper hand then, and are working tirelessly to go back to that, all the while passing subtle laws and bills that further curtail our liberties and shave so much off our rights, but we don’t notice because we’re so shocked y the blatant hate and racism.
This needs to be bought systematically, with committees that can each focus on ONE aspect no matter what else is going on, and come up with ways to fight back all the while communicating with other committees about their specialty struggle and figure out ways to collaborate and support each other while mapping out an end goal for all, supported by several milestones in each category to be able to systematically fight back the organized and well thought of chaos that the Trump administration throws at Americans.
This said, my situation with my son who was unjustly taken from me the day I was wrongly imprisoned even with an asylum claim pending is a gross miscarriage of justice and is the day humanity exited the premises. To not afford a mom the chance to present her asylum case before a judge, a universal right guaranteed to her by several treaties and conventions that the USA so proudly likes to have the world believe it respects, is inhumane. It could have landed me exactly where the Hirak leaders are because I too did the exact same thing they did. To separate a mother and her oldest child, and separate him from his stepfather who raised him, and his stepbrother with whom he lived and shared a room for a significant period of time, is simply inhumane for the mother who has done nothing but love her child wholesomely and unconditionally, and a child who was uprooted from everyone and every single thing that has ever been a part of his life before, to be thrown in the arms of a family he has never ever known before, in a different state, different school, no friends, no more family …
Talking about this subject always ends with me shedding hysterical tears and crying and losing myself further and further into radical solutions not just to my case but to the entire population suffering under this!
This isn’t fair! This won’t be solved by conventional means, this requires all of us together, trying what we’ve never tried before until hate is impeached and all his abominable decisions reversed and some sort of order is restored again!