Senia Bachir-Abderahman is a West Saharan, but she's never been there. She grew up in a tent.
“I still remember in 2012 when my friend called me and said, 'Oh my god, Sweden is going to recognize your country,'” she told the audience at a panel on Thursday.
But three years later, West Sahara has still not been officially recognized by any EU state.
“Sweden could really be a champion for us in the EU,” Senia said. “Sweden could put pressure on others like France.”
The previous Swedish government reached a decision in 2012 to recognize West Sahara, and the Social Democrat party and the Green party – currently governing – have also promised to take action. But in recent months the West Saharan issue has apparently fallen out of priority.
Earlier this month a delegation of Moroccan politicians visited Sweden and expressed their concern about potential recognition of Western Sahara.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström recently confirmed that Sweden's policy on the territory was the subject of an ongoing internal review, but denied a decision had been made on recognition.
“The government does not want to pre-empt this examination. Therefore, the issue of recognition is currently not on the table,” she said in a statement.
But there are many who view this back-tracking as Sweden breaking its promise.
On Thursday, October 15, representatives from the Social Democrat and Green parties, in cooperation with the Olaf Palme International Centre and aid organization Emmaus, arranged parliamentary panel with three West Saharan panellists.
The panellists were Senia Bachir-Abderahman (a Saharawi student who grew up in a camp in Nigeria and has studied in Norway and spoken at UN events), Rabab Amidane (a student from El Ajun who received the Student Peace Prize in 2009 and the Swedish Ordfront Democracy Prize in 2012 for her advocacy of Western Saharan independence), and Aminatou Haidar (a Sahrawi human rights activist who has received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the 2009 Civil Courage Prize).
Aminatou Haidar was the first speaker and said she was “proud” to be in Sweden.
“I hope that we can reach a solution,” she said in French. “In Western Sahara, my people are in a struggle. They are in a struggle to have their rights recognized. And I am proud of Sweden for taking a stand.”
Aminatou told the audience in the parliament what the past 40 years of Moroccan occupation have been like for her people.
“For 30 years Morocco committed crimes against the people,” she said. “We were bombed. We were thrown alive from helicopters. We were buried alive.”
When she was 20 years old, Aminatou herself “disappeared”. She was taken by Moroccan police and sat blind-folded for four years, she said, not knowing where she was.
All of these crimes took place under what Amintaou called “a total blackout”, as Western Sahara did not have the ability to place international calls until 2002 and did not have internet until 2003.
“We hoped and believed that things would get better with the new king, King Mohammed VI,” she said, referring to the current ruler who took the throne in 1999. “But we were wrong.”
Amintaou was imprisoned from 2005 to 2006 due to her independence advocacy, and as recently as 2012 she was attacked by Moroccan police after meeting with UN representative Christopher Ross.
Morocco has ratified conventions on human rights and has an office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but Amintaou calls this “makeup” – designed simply to sell an image to the western world.
“The torture continues, even though Morocco has ratified the Convention against Torture,” she said.
Rabab Amidane had similar tales.
Rabab studied at university in Morocco – since there are no universities in Western Sahara. “They want to control us, not educate us,” she noted.
When Rabab joined a student movement fighting for Saharawi rights, she and her family became targets for the police.
“I was arrested and tortured for my activities, and my little sister was just 14 when she was taken and beaten by police because of my actions,” Rabab said.
She and the other Saharawi students in Morocco were “shocked” at how Moroccan media covered Western Sahara.
“They called us separatists,” she said. “But how can we be separatists when we have never been a part of Western Sahara?”
In 2009 the police came to a protest where Rabab was present, and she said that after the torture she could not move for a week. A friend of hers lost her eye.
Today Rabab lives in Sweden, but she says she still does not feel entirely safe.
“I have had to work under a separate identity, because Morocco sends people to come to my seminars and cause trouble, and send me threatening letters,” she said.
Amintaou and Rabab agreed that young Saharawis have lost faith in the UN.
“In fact, we call it the United Nothing,” Rabab confessed. “Flagrant human rights violations occur again and again, and they ignore it.”
But all three Saharawi women agreed that Sweden’s recognition of Western Sahara would be a huge step along the road to a solution.
“It would mean so much,” Amintaou said. “It would be the beginning of the end of 40 years of occupation. It would give hope to the young people. It would help the region achieve stability.”
“We are so happy that Sweden is moving towards this step,” Rabab agreed. “We feel hope. It is time now that justice should be implemented, and we are glad that Sweden is taking the lead.”