[WSF-Discuss] Fw: WSF 2015 / Those who couldn’t be there

jasper teunissen jasperteunissen at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 10 07:04:00 CDT 2015


  Those who couldn’t be there

Thousands attended the World Social Forum in Tunis last month. But, says 
*Giedre Steikunaite*, we mustn’t forget the absent, the missing, 
the disappeared.
The disappeared [Related Image]
Just a few of the disappeared remembered at the World Social Forum in 
Tunis. © Giedre Steikunaite

A mother holding a framed picture of her child walks the streets in 
protest. She knocks on institutional doors; she seeks. She is Honduran, 
Guatemalan, Tunisian, Algerian, Aboriginal, she is Saharawi. Her tragedy 
is personal, yet shared the world over by thousands of mothers and 
fathers whose loved ones have been made to vanish. They disappeared in 
narco villas in Mexico, in interrogation and detention centres in North 
Africa and southern Europe, at the bottom of the Mediterranean in 
unmarked graves. They disappeared in the system.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at 
the 2015 World Social Forum <https://fsm2015.org/en> in Tunis. The event 
gathered hundreds of activists and organizations; but thousands more 
could not attend, for their whereabouts are not known.


Absent was the father of Abdelmalek Mahamdioua, Algerian member of 
Collectif des Familles de Disparu(e)s an Algerie 
<http://algerie-disparus.org/> (Collective of Families of the 
Disappeared in Algeria, an organization that documents forced 
disappearances and offers assistance to victims of state violence). 
During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the army abducted 
Abdelmalek’s father, together with 21 others, from a street. Witnesses 
say they saw all the men being hurled into a room that was then set on 
fire, but the government wouldn’t confirm or deny these 
first-hand accounts.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at 
the World Social Forum – those who could not attend, for their 
whereabouts are not known

‘I want truth and justice,’ Abdelmalek says, giving out pamphlets in the 
rain. ‘And I want to know why they took my father, because they took him 
for nothing.’

That /why/ is designed never to be revealed, if it exists at all. 
Abdelmalek’s father is one of the 8,024 Algerians whom the government 
has so far officially recognized as having ‘disappeared’, although 
families believe there might be three times as many. The Charter for 
Peace and National Reconciliation, passed by the Algerian government in 
2005 without public consultation 
ensures that no government or military official, or member of the armed 
militias that fought the government, is held accountable for the murders 
and forced disappearances of the 1990s. Such impunity protects the 
perpetrator and further criminalizes the victim: the law permits 
imprisonment of up to 5 years and a 250,000 dinar ($2,500) fine for any 
attempt at independent search for the truth about the disappearances.

Despite this, families organize demonstrations and speak out in public, 
two decades on. An online public memorial <http://algerie-disparus.org/> 
contains the names and, where possible, pictures and life stories of the 
thousands of Algerians whom the state made ‘disappear’.


Absent were the more than 500 ‘disappeared’ Saharawis 
<http://www.desaparecidos.org/sahara/lista.html> and the dozens of 
Saharawi political prisoners in Moroccan jails. ‘They were imprisoned 
because they were fighting for freedom and human rights,’ says Mohamed 
Ali Mohamed, a youth activist from Smara refugee camp in Algeria, where 
people expelled from Smara village in occupied Western Sahara made their 
temporary home in 1975, when Morocco occupied the area and enforced its 
military regime. Forced disappearances – kidnap and imprisonment in 
clandestine detention centres – was one of the terror tactics used 
against the Saharawi civilian population.

While some people died in detention and others were eventually released, 
the fate of hundreds is not known. Faces young, old, and older in mostly 
black and white photographs 
are all that remains of these people.

In January this year, 22-year-old Saharawi political prisoner Abdelbagi 
Aliyen Antahah died of torture inside a Moroccan prison 
<http://allafrica.com/stories/201501281732.html>; in March, Saharawi 
political prisoner Ahmed S’bai started an open-ended hunger strike 
<http://allafrica.com/stories/201503251076.html> to protest against 
physical and psychological torture. ‘Our struggle is daily,’ Mohamed 
says. ‘We want to live in freedom, without occupation, without violence. 
We want our rights.’


Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished 
<http://fortresseurope.blogspot.co.uk/p/la-strage.html> in the 
Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores. Absent were the 
thousands of those – nobody knows how many exactly – who disappeared, 
whether on the sea or after having reached their European destinations.

A Tunisian mother is holding a picture of three young men. The one in 
the middle is her son, who disappeared 4 years ago. He was 17 when he 
crossed the Mediterranean by boat and phoned his mother to tell her that 
he had arrived safely in Italy. There has been no news from him since. 
It was stories such as this one that the Carovana Italiana per i diritti 
dei Migranti per la dignità e la giustizia 
<http://carovanemigranti.org/> (Italian Caravan for Migrants’ Rights, 
Dignity and Justice) highlighted on their journey from Lampedusa to 
Turin last year.

Ayman, a Tunisian in his 20s, is a survivor. ‘I chose the life of 
/harraga/,’ he says, referring to the attempt to cross the Mediterranean 
by boat in search of a better life in Europe. Two and a half years ago 
the boat he was in capsized and he spent more than 12 hours in the water 
trying not to drown, watching others around him disappear into the deep. 
Italian coastal patrols were around, he says; they saw what happened and 
did nothing to save the people. ‘Since then, every day I think about it: 
Why?’ Ayman says, his voice barely audible as he speaks staring at the 
ground. A mother suddenly leaves the room, crying. ‘She says Ayman is 
lying and the boat never capsized,’ explains Imed Soltani of Association 
La Terre Pour Tous 
(The Land is for Everyone Association) which works with families of 
Tunisian migrants who disappeared. ‘Her son was in that same boat.’

Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished 
in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores

Activists point out that EU border agency Frontex’s new operation, 
Triton, that limits rescue efforts to a 50-kilometre zone off the 
Italian coast (leaving anyone outside this area to tend for themselves, 
a left-to-die policy 
is meant to reduce arrivals and deter boat refugees 
<http://afrique-europe-interact.net/1294-1-Appell.html>. While many 
rescue operations have indeed been carried out, non-assistance in 
emergency cases remains systemic. /The Med is now a cemetery/ was an 
oft-repeated phrase at workshops on migration during the World 
Social Forum.

In response to the increasing number of deaths at sea, Watch the Med 
<http://watchthemed.net/>, an online mapping platform to monitor the 
deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the 
EU, launched a citizen initiative to support migrant and refugee people 
at risk of drowning. The Alarm Phone (+334 8651 7161), which people in 
emergencies are urged to dial after sending distress signals to European 
coastguards, is a hotline that ensures the documentation of every 
capsized boat or push-back attempt and puts pressure on the coastguards 
to launch or speed up rescue operations.

‘But the real issue, of course, is not the Alarm Phone. It is the 
freedom of movement for all,’ says Charles Heller, one of the minds 
behind the project. ‘Just take a ferry from Tunis to Naples and go,’ a 
member of the audience comments. Just as EU passport-holders do.


Absent, too, were the thousands of Central Americans whose trips up 
north – to Mexico, to the US – are cut short en route; trying to escape 
poverty and violence in their own countries, they are the favourite prey 
of the /narcos/ (drug cartels) who control migratory routes on Mexican 
soil. ‘Currently, human trafficking is more profitable for them than 
drug trafficking,’ says Marta Sánchez Soler of Movimiento Migrante 
Mesoamericano <http://movimientomigrantemesoamericano.org/> (MMM, 
Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), an organization dedicated to finding 
migrants from Central America who disappear in Mexico. Ransom is 
demanded for kidnapped migrants who have relatives in the US or whose 
families in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua still have 
land or houses to sell; others are kidnapped to serve as labour force 
for the narcos – either in marijuana fields (profits from the latter are 
going down due to the legalization of marijuana in several US states, 
Soler says, while cocaine is on the rise) or random narco-related jobs – 
hitman, for example.

Kidnapped women are forced to cook for the narcos and are often 
sexually abused

The above-mentioned Italo-Tunisian Migrant Caravan takes inspiration 
from the work of the MMM, which has been organizing the Caravana de 
Madres Centroamericanas <https://caravanamadres.wordpress.com/> (Caravan 
of Central American Mothers) for the last decade. Working closely with 
grassroots committees of Central American families looking for their 
disappeared, the MMM has found 200 people and reunited them with their 
families. This, Soler says, is the main goal. The Caravan – which 
carries 40 mothers and takes a different route through Mexico every 
year, depending on the security situation, covering around 5,000 
kilometres in three weeks – is designed to bring the issue of migrant 
disappearances to the public, to involve Mexican society in the 
struggle, and to denounce the government’s policies that make the 
disappearances possible, as well as its lack of action to prevent them. 
It also empowers the women. ‘From victims, the mothers turn into 
/guerreras/ [warriors],’ Soler says. ‘We convert a tragedy into a 
social struggle.’

Since 2006, when the US and Mexican governments started the so-called 
‘war on drugs’, violence on the Mexican side of the border has 
escalated. Since then, 70-120,000 people have gone missing; they either 
died en route or ‘disappeared’. Given the violence many of these people 
are fleeing, the term ‘migrant’ is not accurate to describe them. ‘They 
are not migrating, they are being forcibly displaced,’ Soler says. A 
woman with three little children explained why she was trying to enter 
Mexico without a visa (which is unaffordable and often unattainable for 
Central Americans): ‘The gangs killed my oldest two children and I am 
not going to wait until they kill the others.’ Another woman in 
Honduras, whose husband was murdered after joining a gang, received a 
bag of money shortly after his funeral. ‘We will bring you this every 
week until your children reach the age of 12,’ a gang leader told her. 
‘You have to feed them well because they are now ours. We will come and 
take them.’

When not on the Caravan, the MMM works at a grassroots level to find 
people who have disappeared but are thought to be alive. By collecting 
pieces of personal information, they get clues that may lead to the 
person. ‘A mother tells us that she sent money to her child on the 
migrant route and she has the receipt. It contains a location, an 
address, and the name of a Mexican who withdrew the money, because 
undocumented migrants cannot do it. So we start looking for this person 
who could provide us with more clues,’ Soler says. ‘There was one guy 
who liked cockfights a lot, and we found him in a cockfight. If we 
hadn’t asked the families what this person liked doing, they wouldn’t 
have told us. [Such personal approach] gives us good results.’

Those good results bring families together. ‘The reunions are very, very 
beautiful,’ Soler says. ‘Everybody cries, everybody is very emotional, 
the mothers are very happy and much calmer.’


Mothers across the ocean are also fighting for their own family 
reunions. Aunty Hazel, an Aboriginal woman from Gunnedah in Australia’s 
New South Wales, last saw her 18-month-old grandson in January 2014. 
Another grandchild has been gone for 4 years. ‘Every day I have to give 
strength to my daughter not to take her life,’ Aunty Hazel says. ‘Her 
children were taken away by the system.’ These are the new Stolen 
Generations <http://newint.org/columns/finally/2013/11/01/john-pilger/>, 
Aboriginal children removed from their communities by the Australian 
government in the name of ‘protection’. They, too, were absent. ‘We do 
need protection, but not from ourselves – we need to be protected from 
these governments,’ Aunty Hazel says.

The new Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their 
communities by the Australian government in the name of ‘protection’ – 
they, too, were absent

She is an activist with Grandmothers Against Removals 
<http://stopstolengenerations.com.au/> (GAR), a grassroots movement 
against the ‘unprecedented theft of Aboriginal children from their 
families’ by ‘so-called “Child Protection” agencies.’ Figures show that, 
7 years after the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the 
Stolen Generations for stealing them, the theft is not only ongoing – it 
is on the rise. That ‘sorry’ was worth an increase of children’s 
removals from their families by 65 per cent; currently, around 15,000 
Aboriginal children are being held away from their families 
It’s the Department of Community Services that decides that Aboriginal 
communities are not good enough to take care of their children and in 
court, they don’t have to provide evidence to their claims – a social 
worker’s opinion is enough to take a child away. Those opinions, based 
on the Western model of child-raising, do not take into account the fact 
that in Aboriginal communities child-raising is done communally. ‘One 
child was taken away because she was seen running outside barefoot,’ 
says an activist with GAR. ‘Babies are being pulled from their mother’s 
hands while breast-feeding.’

Apart from personal tragedy, such policies are referred to as cultural 
genocide; child removals are 10 times as likely in Aboriginal 
communities as in white ones. Upon return, the stolen children are often 
unrecognizable to their own families; raised in an environment that has 
denied them their roots and their heritage, they come back without a 
sense of belonging. ‘With this hole in their heart they will never be 
full,’ Aunty Hazel says. She grew up in a mission house – a colonial 
settlement meant to control Aboriginal people’s freedoms – where she had 
to ask permission from a white English manager every time she wanted to 
do something. Indigenous Australians were told not to protest against 
white colonialism and oppression and stop demanding their rights, as 
‘they’d come and take ye children’ as a punishment. Even an excuse was 
not necessary. ‘Sometimes you wake up and you don’t find one of your 
little cousins,’ Aunty Hazel recalls. As a child, she used to cry 
listening to her grandma, who was of the Stolen Generation. Today, she 
cries for her own grandchildren.

‘Maybe you don’t stop them but don’t let them stop you,’ says Aunty 
Jenny, also a member of GAR. ‘I’ve been fighting since I was 17. I am 60 
now. You have to keep fighting.’ But who are you appealing to? ‘To the 
people who care.’ Are there any left? ‘I hope so.’

| Published on April 8, 2015 by Giedre Steikunaite 
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