The New Internationalists - Where are they now?

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The New Internationalists: where are they now?

Aminatou Haidar, from Western Sahara; Rigoberta Menchú, from Guatemala; Mari Marcel Thekaekara, from India; and Domitila Barrios de Chungara, from Bolivia.

Aminatou Haidar, Western Sahara (NI 297, 1997)

Aminatou Haidar is a great campaigner. The international community thinks she represents the fight of her people. Everyone in the world admires her non-violent fighting and hunger strikes. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.


Rafael Marchante / Reuters

For most of the life of the New Internationalist, the people of Western Sahara have had terrible difficulties - exile and occupation. After Spain took away their colonial power, the International Court of Justice ruled in October 1975 that the Saharawi people should decide their future. But in November 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco took an army into Western Sahara to take control of their land. Tens of thousands of Saharawis ran away from the Moroccan army into the desert. After a while, they started refugee camps hundreds of kilometres away, near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The other half of the population stayed at home with many problems from the military occupation.

New Internationalist did not report on Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara then – each edition of the magazine in the 1970s was about one topic, with no news. But in following years there were short articles about the Saharawis’ fight for independence. And finally, in December 1997, Western Sahara had a full edition.

In 1997, Aminatou Haidar had already been in prison and been tortured for nearly four years. When she was a 21-year-old student in 1987, she gave out leaflets and took messages for a secret group of Polisario, the Western Saharan liberation movement. She was arrested with many other activists.

‘I didn’t know where I was for years. The place was just 500 metres away from my house, where I used to play with the other children from the area… They seemed to enjoy torturing me in systematic ways. When I resisted more, they varied the torture more. In the end, my body was only a pile of flesh and bones…’

‘[After the first week I was left alone in a corridor about a metre wide.] The door was left open and I only had a very thin blanket so when it got cold, it was really cold. For three weeks they questioned me, tortured me and insulted me. They covered my eyes with a blindfold, so I had no idea of time and space. I spent nine months there, and they left the light on day and night. I had to wear the blindfold for three years and seven months. We never washed our faces and never had a shower…’

Aminatou was released from prison in June 1991. The UN was starting a peace process to let the West Saharans decide on their future.

She continued to study but also continued as an activist, fighting for political prisoners. She took part in protests in the occupied territories in 2005 - the Saharawi intifada. She was put in prison again, and she started her first hunger strike with other political prisoners, to get international attention. So they were released. She was now well-known in the world, so she visited European and North American countries to talk about Morocco’s human rights violations in Western Sahara. When she returned home from a trip to the US, where she had received the 2009 Train Foundation Civil Courage Prize, she was immediately deported because she refused to write ‘Moroccan Sahara’ on her immigration forms.

‘“There is no Moroccan Sahara,” [I said to the Moroccan chief of police]. “There is only Western Sahara. Isn’t MINURSO the United Nations Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara? If it’s not Western Sahara, why did the King of Morocco sign all these UN documents starting and ending with the words Western Sahara? Why are you asking me to write something that is not true?”

‘For 24 hours, police and security officers interrogated and humiliated me. They took away my passport and deported me from Western Sahara and sent me to Lanzarote on the Canary Islands, part of Spain. But while in the airport, I decided to act. I started an unlimited hunger strike to defend my rights to liberty and dignity.’

The hunger strike lasted 32 days and Aminatou nearly died, but because of so much global interest in her, Morocco was forced to accept her. She remains a huge problem for the Moroccan regime – and for the UN.

‘After I received the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2008, I talked to the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee. This is what I said then: “The United Nations are responsible for taking no action on the issue of Western Sahara and for the complete silence about the crimes against humanity by the government of Morocco against civilian Saharawis. The Saharawis are demonstrating peacefully for the right to decide their future.”

‘International politics are about strategy or economy. That is our problem. But no-one, not the Moroccans, the Americans, the Spanish or the French, can ignore an entire people that continue to fight for their human rights and their rights to exist. Over the past 35 years, we have never lost hope, because the young Saharawis, in the south of Morocco, in the camps, or in other countries, have even more courage than generations before. We will never stop fighting.’

Aminatou Haidar was talking to Arne Peter Braaksma, whose book Trailblazers sees her telling her life story in more depth than ever before (ISBN 9-789460-221866)

Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemala (NI 242, 1993)

When Menchú, a former coffee-picker, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, the whole world looked for a moment at the problems of indigenous peoples.


Juan Meono / AP Photo

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, born in Guatemala, but living in self-imposed exile, was given the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work: she got attention to the exploitation and persecution of her country’s indigenous people during its terrible civil war. More than 20 years later, the war has ended, but has Menchú’s Nobel prize improved the rights of the people she was fighting for?

She has stood for president twice, but only got three per cent of the vote. So it may seem like her work has done little to improve the lives of Guatemala’s native peoples. But in this country, politicians often buy votes. So her success is much bigger than the percentage of votes.

‘I’ve really enjoyed the last two elections,’ says Menchú. ‘I haven’t got many votes, but I’ve reached 95 per cent of the country.’

In 2007, the Mayan activist became the first indigenous person to stand for President. Four years later, she started the country’s first Mayan political party, WINAQ.

‘We were never interested in winning the elections. You can’t win without money and no multimillionaire would support us,’ she says. She told us a story about when she was talking in a rural town. The opposition party’s bus drove by saying it was giving away packets of rice, and all the people listening to her suddenly disappeared.

‘Elections here are not democratic. Parties use poverty: they give the poor people hope by giving them food.’

It is ironic that the majority of the people she campaigns for do not vote for her, but Menchú thinks her political career is a great success.

‘I’ve opened a door to Mayans and to women. Now we have a party, and we also have one person in congress,’ she says, about Mayan lawyer Amilcar Pop.

But it’s not all politics.

In the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she also started the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation. This is dedicated to peace and promotion of indigenous people’s rights.

In the last twenty years, the organization has fought for justice for the victims of the war: they have dug up mass graves, made laws for new crimes, fought for ancestral lands to be returned to Mayan communities and got legal documents for about 36,000 women. Menchú herself even travelled to Spain to fight against Guatemala’s war criminals and bring them to trial for genocide.

The Foundation recently started a multicultural education programme at the country’s state university. Menchú says the courses before were ‘racist’ and ‘colonial’, but this degree, about ancestral culture, trains students from rural communities to become teachers.

Menchú has sometimes been misunderstood by Guatemala’s non-indigenous population, but she is still fighting for her original cause: her people. The government now needs to do something about their problems that were talked about in Oslo two decades ago.

Anna Bevan

Mari Marcel Thekaekara, India (NI 200, 1989)

Almost a quarter of a century ago, I wrote my first New Internationalist piece, ‘Where has all the conscience gone?’ – about how the development sector had lost its values. The 40th anniversary is a good opportunity to look at what has happened since.


Varsha Yeshwant Kumar

India has changed so much in the last 25 years. Every major city has new areas that no-one can even recognise. Glass-and-concrete buildings, like in Dubai, instead of tree-lined avenues, gardens and beautiful old buildings, where children played as grandparents watched them. I have seen farmers crying as they watched building work on their fields of crops Economists say this is growth.

The voluntary sector has changed too. I see people who have fought poverty for 40 years looking tired and old. Ideas like social justice and lasting change are old phrases. The new language is social entrepreneurship. Many people are starting businesses where they can say they are ‘helping’ society. Capitalism is no longer a bad word. Socialism is.

I went to a charity evening in the UK and I was shocked at the promotion campaign. For decades, the voluntary sector has been sensitive and caring, but this was a photo of the CEO filling three-quarters of the screen with an African child smiling in the corner. Some other people thought this was bad – we stopped using posters like this decades ago. But no-one said anything against it. The voluntary sector has changed.

The relationship between Western donor agencies and Southern countries is similar. The Western agencies control everything. We are partners, but not on an equal basis. There is not much money. So the activists who used to fight for their independence now have to produce reports and graphs that no-one reads, either in Delhi or in London. But the poverty continues.

There’s more money if you work for the things that the West wants. There is millions for climate change, environment and tigers. Microcredit has been shown to have serious problems, making poor women even poorer. But the poverty continues.

From Gudalur, my small hill town, a lot has changed. In 1990, when I started writing for New Internationalist, I had to drive 100 kilometres to Mysore to fax my writing to my editor. In 2005, we had a conference call between Oxford, Toronto and Adelaide and (unbelievably) Gudalur! Yes, India’s technological advances have come to even the remotest parts of the country. There are computer training centres everywhere. Village kids think IT is the way to the top. Even the poorest homes have cellphones these days, but we still see a few malnutrition cases.

South India is not quite so poor but north India still has terrible poverty. The percentage of people suffering from malnutrition and maternal mortality is almost as bad as Sub-Saharan Africa. But Indians are proud of buying Jaguar Land Rover and other international companies.

Dalit action campaigns have had some success, but Dalits continue to be raped and murdered every day. India’s adivasis (indigenous) are now the most persecuted people in the country. The companies that build dams and mines are forcing them to leave their homes in the forest. Thousands of people in central India have been raped, tortured and killed by paramilitary forces as well as by Naxalite guerrillas.

The entire world now knows Delhi as India’s rape capital. But in 2013, together with the terrible sadness after Nirbhaya’s gang rape and death, we felt hope. There was more anger and more protests than ever before. Thousands of people were brave enough to face police batons and water cannons on the streets of Delhi. This was the promise of a new beginning. Perhaps India is at a turning point. Maybe things have to get really bad before they can get better. Hope is the most important thing we have.

Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Bolivia (NI 75, 1979)

When the NI asked ‘Where are they now?’ in October 1989, we found Domitila, who we had written about ten years before. She had become important during the time of military dictatorship as leader of the Housewives’ Committee of one of Bolivia’s most militant mining communities, Siglo XX. And for a short time, she was noticed by the world after the publication of her book Let Me Speak.

By 1989 no-one lived in Siglo XX anymore, because the price of tin had no value on the world market. Like many of her neighbours, Domitila had moved with her children to Cochabamba. She seemed bitter and smaller. She was not involved in any political activity.


David Mercado / Reuters

But in the following years, she found her political energy again. This photo is of her at a rally remembering her hero Che Guevara. For years she ran a political training centre for young people from the poorest districts of her city.

She died of cancer last year at the age of 74 and President Evo Morales declared three days of national mourning.

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