It’s now six months since Bilal, the leader of the Call of the Muezzin group, was arrested. And three months since Gayel, the leader of the Walfugui youth movement for Equality and Justice (WEJ), and some of his comrades were also apprehended during a demonstration in Place des Martyrs. These activists were arrested at the same time and released a few hours later, or the next day. The two organizations had held separate marches and sit-ins to protest the detention of their comrades. Each time, the police, backed up by the National Guards, had cracked down on the peaceful demonstrators and there had been bloodshed. This army corps had a special combat squadron dedicated to maintaining order.
Both activist groups, now in the crosshairs of the Harfusowo authorities, were going through a major crisis. A crisis that jeopardized their very existence, and of which the government seemed acutely aware. The regular police crackdowns had put hundreds of activists in the hospital, while others were languishing in Rènedango’s police cells. The capital’s dungeons were crammed so full that more than two hundred activists had been transferred to penitentiaries in the country’s interior to relieve the pressure. Now, everyone here knows that the prison authorities think it normal for a ninety-seven-square-foot cell to house five people. So when they start to show concern about the number of prisoners packed together, it’s because the situation in these detention centers has become truly inhumane. It is all the more worrying because the Harfusowo jailhouses allow no visits from prisoners’ rights organizations. When a prisoner dies, generally as a result of a neglected illness or torture, the death certificate is signed by a prison doctor before the body is handed over to the family. When it is in too poor a condition, it is buried and then the family is informed a week later, with the excuse that the prison authorities had lost their address and telephone number.
The leaders of the WEJ and AM youth wings had resolved to do more than just support each other during demonstrations—they’d agreed to join strategic forces. They’d arranged to meet up, all together, to discuss their very similar situations and see how they could work closely together. Depleted as they were, they realized that they had to either team up or go under. They needed to take back control in the face of the crumbling support of their activists, some of whom wanted to break away and take up arms. It was a matter of the utmost urgency.
Salif from the WEJ and Maham from AM had assembled their comrades in a small house in the Lobouguel-Fouta neighborhood. This abode, rented by three AM members, had been chosen for its seclusion. Their usual meeting places were under covert surveillance by the secret police. They had restricted the number of attendees to ten to avoid attracting attention. Because the place belonged to Maham’s comrades, Salif did him the courtesy of inviting him to chair the meeting. Maham returned the courtesy by first refusing and then accepting at his guest’s insistence.
“Comrades! Salif and I have held talks, and we’ve decided to forget the differences between our respective organizations to bring you all together here. In recent months, our two movements have supported each other a number of times, as much in reaffirming each other’s policy positions as in helping to advance all just causes. But, if we’re gathered here today, it is for even more important reasons. Over the past few weeks, we have been subjected to a violent and unjust repression because we have dared to challenge an iniquitous system of governance, a medieval social order, and a dangerous intolerance. To stifle our voices, the authorities jail us in the hundreds, send us to hospital by the dozens, and bludgeon us by the thousand. Those of us who have escaped the raids so far are forced to go into hiding. As a result, our struggle is losing momentum, and worse, it is threatened by radicalization in reaction to the regime’s oppression. A growing number of voices, within both AM and the WEJ, are calling for armed struggle to break this cycle. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ as one of our comrades was banging on about to me only yesterday. Our hope is that together we can find a path—a means of pursuing our fight and demanding the release of our comrades being held in extrajudicial detention—without abandoning our fundamental principle of nonviolence no matter what adversity we face. And now I’ll hand the floor over to any of you who wish to speak.”
“I’ll be brief,” said Mboyrik, an AM member. “I have to say that I fully understand those who want to change our means of struggle. I agree with many of these views. After all, we can’t carry on laying ourselves open to the brutality of people who appear to take pleasure in watching us suffer. If you have other solutions, we’ll need to be quick, otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves very much alone.”
“I’d like to thank our friends from AM for accepting our invitation,” began Salif. “Thanks especially to Maham for giving such a full summary of the crisis engulfing us. After convincing my comrades in the WEJ’s policy bureau to refrain from violent protest, I hope that together we will be able to appease the very legitimate anger many of us feel. Although resorting to armed struggle might feel like vengeance now, it will not satisfy either the thirst for revenge or, even less, the burning desire for freedom and equality that drives us. On the contrary, violence only multiplies and amplifies human suffering. Let us not take an either-or view of things. Yes, the current regime—infiltrated by Baathists, Nasserists, and Islamists—is backing us into a final corner through unprecedented repression, but an alternative option is emerging. Harfusowo’s people no longer condone these atrocities and are daring to speak out against our woes and even support our struggle. If our sympathizers among the Ar community are a little more numerous and a little more inclined to stand by us, it is because we have never harmed anyone. But if we indulge in brutal acts, at some point our violence will strike an innocent Ar and then we will be as guilty as our current persecutors.”
“I suggest that we mobilize our remaining forces to engage in one last battle that will have a chance of reversing the power balance, or of turning the tide in any case, and at least of breaking the stranglehold we’re in.”
“Yes, but how?” asked Fodye.
“Let us meticulously plan to occupy Place des Martyrs.”
“Place des Martyrs again?” said Mboyrik, surprised.
“Yes, in that very same place. We’ll turn up there with all the activists and sympathizers who are not in the prisons or hospitals. There’ll be a thousand of us, perhaps more. This time we’ll occupy the square—but not for a sit-in lasting a few hours. We will leave only in police vans, ambulances bound for the hospital or hearses for the cemetery. In short, the government must agree to hand back our comrades alive and to discuss our legitimate demands with us.”
At this point in Salif’s speech, applause broke out. “The success of this action,” he went on, “requires lengthy and painstaking preparations. We need at least half of those we’ve managed to persuade to follow us, in other words nonviolent activists who are both determined and disciplined. They must act as role models, helping to train and impose on others the self-control of passive resistance if attacked by the police—which is inevitable.”
From La résistance pacifique. © 2017 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.