Conference over Spanish war crimes in Morocco banned

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afrol News, 21 January - The Rif War in Morocco, a Berber quest for independence against the Spanish colonisers between 1921 and 1927, remains an obscure chapter in African colonial history. The Moroccan government again has banned an international conference that was to discuss the alleged Spanish use of mustard-gas over the Rif Mountains, which is said to still produce victims.

The local "Association of Toxic Gas Victims" (ATGV) was established in July 2000 in Al Hoceima, northern Morocco. Its aim is to pressure the Moroccan, Spanish and French governments into a concession of what is generally believed to be a historic truth in the Rif Mountains.

First, the association tried to organise a conference in summer 2001 to demonstrate the results of its investigations, concluding that the toxic gases allegedly used by the Spanish colonial power and its French allies "still are causing an elevated number of cancer cases within the population of the Rif." The conference was banned by the Moroccan government.

The Moroccan government, according to the BBC, now also has banned another conference, planned to be held in Al Hoceima on 25 January this year by the same association. No reasons were given for the ban, but the Berber rebellion of the 1920s is not an issue causing much interest in the official history writing of Morocco.

In 1921, when Spain occupied Morocco's northern coast, the Rif Mountains and some southern areas, while France occupied the rest of the Moroccan Kingdom, Berber chiefs organised a forceful rebellion in the Rif. Know as the "War of Morocco" in Spain, it was all the contrary. It was a Berber rebellion with the aim of independence, free from European colonisers and free from the Moroccan Kingdom. Thus, the rebellion still symbolises the historical conflict between the Berber people and the Moroccan monarchy. 

The "Rif War", as it is known internationally, outside the Moroccan Kingdom however is renown as one of the most forceful demonstrations of African resistance against European colonisers. Berber groups, only armed with outdated rifles, managed to fight back the colonial troops and at one occasion massacred almost half of the 26,000 Spanish troops. The Spanish only regained control after their French allies came to the rescue and after more than five years of brutal warfare.

However, the Spanish and French also had to use mustard-gas in aerial attacks over the Rif to be able to win the war, according to oral traditions in the area. On the Spanish side, only the historian Juan Pando has confirmed the use of toxic gases in the war. Pando, basing himself on written Spanish sources, claims that Spanish planes were dropping the chemical arms over the Rif Mountains from 1923 and onwards. 

In a letter to the Spanish daily 'El Mundo', Pando confirms, "the Spanish troops were suffering equally from the [attacks] as the Rif population, and the official records are very explicit - with names and surnames of all the gassed Spaniards." 

If the gas attacks were to be confirmed as a historical fact, the event would have been classified as a "crime against humanity", as the use of chemical weapons already was internationally banned through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Pando however insists this was not lived up in colonial territories and claims he has documented the use of mustard-gas by European colonial powers in the repression of several colonial rebellions after 1919.

According to Ilyass Omari, President of the Association of Toxic Gas Victims (ATGV), the Berber people only are asking for the Spanish official recognition that this event actually took place. The ATGV demands that "Spain and the countries that aided her at least make an apology," Omari said in a statement last year.

According to the investigations of Omari and his association, the effects of the alleged toxic bombing of the region can still be noted. The ATGV claims to have documented an abnormally high prevalence of cancer among the population of the Rif. Rabat hospitals allegedly have recorded that 60 percent of the nation's cases of larynx and stomach cancer have their origin from the region allegedly gassed. 

This theory is however rejected by Juan Pando, claiming there can be no prevailing health effects of the bombing of the Rif today. He refers to the European experiences of the First World War, where large zones, especially in Belgium and France, were exposed to much higher concentrations of mustard-gas. There is not noted any higher cancer prevalence in these regions today, Pando claims.

In any case, the insecurity over historical facts and myths still gives room for a wide range of speculations in the affected parts of the Rif Mountains. Thus, the AVTG still demands the establishment of an international commission, which is to investigate into the matter and its consequences, including the possible medical effects.

The foreseen but cancelled conference was also to be attended by international experts, including medical experts, which could have helped to shed light upon this obscure history and maybe reassure the Rif population over present health risks. However, little interest is found in Rabat and Madrid over establishing the truth over these events, laying almost 80 years back in time. 

Sources: Based on Spanish press, BBC, Juan Pando, ATGV and afrol archives

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