Fifty years ago, the people of Morocco’s Rif mountains rebelled against the central government. The uprising was brutally put down by the Moroccan army and many of the Rif mountains’ native Berbers left for Europe. The world’s media didn’t pay much attention to the 1958 rebellion, but it left its mark on many people’s lives, including that of Mohamed Amezian, son of the rebel leader.
On 2 November 1958, the New York Times reported on the small uprising in Morocco’s Rif mountains. According to the New York Times, the relatively mild rebel movement took up arms against the ruling Istiqlal Independence party, but not against the monarchy. The paper reported that the Moroccan government took vigorous and extensive measures to end rebel activity in the traditionally volatile Rif mountain region.
The uprising was largely ignored by the rest of the world’s media. New York Times and Time magazine were the only foreign news organisations to have sent reporters to cover the conflict. In all the tumult surrounding the decolonisation of French North Africa, and with a bloody war going on in neighbouring Algeria, the conflict in the Rif mountains was destined to be forgotten.
Radio Netherlands Worldwide journalist Mohamed Amezian is from the Rif mountains. He’s 49 years old. His father played a leading role in the uprising and he, himself, was born shortly after the conflict. Mohamed is also a historian and he’s studied the history of the Rif mountain region.
Mohamed senior was an authoritative figure among the Berbers of the Rif region. A well-educated man in an area inhabited mainly by illiterate tribesmen. A supporter of Abd el Krim Khattibi, who established a free Republic of the Rif back in the 1920s.
When Morocco became independent in 1956, it spelt the end of the tradition of
autonomy for the mountain region. Power was transferred to the big cities.
“Almost the entire Rif region rose up in protest. The people had reasonable demands. They wanted someone from the Rif to be included in the cabinet. They didn’t want to be forced to speak the French language, because no- one there spoke French. These demands would have been easy for the central government to realise, if it had shown a bit of goodwill.”
The revolt didn’t last long. Around 20,000 Moroccan soldiers were sent to the region and they made short work of the Berber uprising. Order was restored, a number of rebel leaders were arrested and disappeared behind bars. However, Mohamed senior, leader of the rebels, managed to escape. Mohamed continues the story of his father,
“After the failure of the uprising he fled through the mountains to Melilla, the Spanish enclave. Then he went to Spain and from there to Egypt. After 1959, he never saw his homeland again. And he left us – his family – behind. Me? I was born in a prison.”
After 12 months, baby Mohamed and his mother were released. His father was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. But he was already in exile, moving from place to place, Spain, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq. His wife and children remained in Morocco, under the watchful eye of the Moroccan authorities.
Many years passed. When in 1984, Mohamed senior traveled to the Netherlands for medical treatment, his son, now 25 years old, seized the opportunity. He requested a visa and flew to Holland where met his father for the first time. Mohamed describes the meeting,
“Yeah… it was very strange – and normal too. Strange in the sense that when I was a kid I was always searching for my father. I dreamed of him constantly…. But when I finally saw him, I thought: Is this really my father? So the search is still in me….I mean, I got to know him fairly well. But I saw him as a fighter. And when I would try to talk to him as a son, he would say: ‘Listen – you are my child. But all Moroccans are my children.’ So yeah, I’m still looking for my place. And I’ve never found it”.
A commemoration of the events 50 years ago will be held in The Hague this week and will be attended by Moroccans, from both the Netherlands and Morocco.
By Robert Chesal