28th Feb 2024

Morocco victims of Spain's 1920s chemical bombs demand a voice

  • Spanish troops training in the Basque country in 1924, prior to their departure to the war in the Rif (Photo: Wikimedia)
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most terrible and bloodiest colonial crimes in history — one which still has not been recognised nor whose people have ever been compensated for. We are talking about Spain's chemical campaign over the Moroccan Rif (a mountain region in the country's north-east) which it once colonised, and which lasted from 1923 to 1927.

After a rebellion led by Riffian leader Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi concluded in an overwhelming victory for the Amazigh tribes of northern Morocco, and in the liberation of the region from two decades of Spanish colonial rule, Spain and the other European colonial powers were in a state of fear.

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  • MP María Dantas during her speech at the 10th General Assembly of the World's Amazigh People, held in Ouarzazate in March 2022 (Photo: Bianca Carrera)

Not only had the Riffian people achieved independence from their colonial rulers, but they had absolutely humiliated them: with a defeat in which up to 13,000 Spanish soldiers were killed and that would be dubbed the 'Disaster of Annual'.

Riffian researcher Mimoun Charqi, who has for decades studied and published on the topic, tells EUobserver that such humiliation "led to a rage for revenge and vengeance coming from the Spanish crown, leaders and military, to the point of using chemical weapons of mass destruction, prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I".

This revenge created what would be a testing ground for Spain — and other powers — when it comes to assessing the impact of chemical attacks on civilian populations. Because, yes, the target here were civilians, not commanders.

'Exterminate them, like evil beasts'

Professor Charqi encourages us to look at the exact locations that were chosen for the attacks. "Military documents show that the aim was to do as much harm as possible to the population, and thus, places where people went to do their shopping and selling were chosen".

But the declarations of the then Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, leave no room for doubt. To the request of army commanders in July 1925, asking him to give free range to the bombardments, he responded: "Let us leave aside vain humanitarian considerations [...] The important thing is to exterminate them as enemies, as one does with evil beasts."

Although the official document marking the start of the full-out campaign dates back to July 1925, historian Selim Balouatti –who specialises in the history of Spanish colonialism in Africa — explains that the first recorded use of chemical weapons can be traced to 15 July 1923, in Tizzi Azza.

After that, he argues that chemical bombing of civilian villages and souks (markets) would not cease until July 1927, marking four years of "sheer terror".

Although accounts from prominent historian María Rosa de Madariaga indicate that various chemical substances were used, in order to create the most harm to the population — raging from phosgene and chloropicrin to iperite — iperite or mustard gas was the most common, and hundreds of bombs containing it could have been dropped every day.

This substance, which would be coined by the local population as 'arrhach' ['poison' in Tamazigh] would impregnate everything, adhering to buildings, destroying crops, and contaminating the water.

In a documentary named Arrhach, after the substance, Javier Rada and Tarik El-Idrissi interview the last-living survivors.

One of them, Mohamed, explained that if you touched something that had been impregnated by the poison, your skin would burn and decompose. His brother, who had the misfortune of drinking from one of the wells where the chemical had fallen, died immediately after. Her mother and sisters, in return, would die a bit later, from an illness they could not explain at the time, but which now has been proven to be directly-connected with the bombing.

A curse that continues

Mimoun Charqi, who agreed to talk to EUobserver for this interview, is one of the leading researchers on the consequences of the chemical bombing. In his book "Chemical Arms of Mass Destruction in the Rif", he claimed that the majority of cancer patients in Morocco come from the Rif region, with more than 70 percent of the adults and 50 percent of the children suffering from cancer in 2015 at the oncology hospital in Rabat being Riffian, particularly from the Nador and Al Hoceima regions — where the bombardment was mainly concentrated.

Charqi says that various studies state, without ambiguity or doubt, that the chemical weapons used have mutagenic and carcinogenic effects, producing a carcinogenic mutation in the victims and their descendants.

"The same weapons were used in Halabja by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, and the United Nations experts concluded that they were mutagenic and carcinogenic".

A visit to the cities of Al-Hoceïma or Nador is enough to witness firsthand the prevalence of this illness, more than in any other cities in Morocco. It is hard to find someone on the streets whose family has not been affected by it.

Selim Balouatti, who we interviewed for this article, confesses that both his grandparents and his brother suffered cancer at least once, and that his neighbours' family in Nador were also victims. Although not all files have been open for a proper investigation to be carried out, he claims having little doubt that these health and material disasters are linked to the bombing.

Professor Charqi adds that, inevitably, "everything was impacted, human beings as well as animals and plants, the earth, the waters", everything. In the previous documentary, the survivor would mention how the bombs also fell over their garden, and how nothing would grow again since, or if it did, it would rot soon after.

These consequences, still suffered today, continue to make this episode one of crucial importance to Riffians. One whose recognition transcends symbolism, and which rather has to do with breaking the silence so that effective responses can be adopted.

Beginning to breakthrough

Recognition of colonial crimes takes a big effort to achieve. Nonetheless, last year, the process started in severael European countries.

In 2022, France adopted a bill that would recognise some of its crimes in Algeria, as well as enable Algerian 'Harkis' to receive compensation.

At the same time, Germany recognised the Herero-Nama genocide in Namibia and also agreed to compensate.

Belgium would not go as far in regards to its crimes in Congo, but would at least have its king apologise for his country's past atrocities.

However, when it comes to Spain's crimes in the Moroccan Rif, no efforts so far have borne fruit.

Ruins of a Spanish military camp near Chefchaouen in Rif, here photographed in 2012 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Here, the Catalan party Esquerra Republicana [Republican Left] has been in the vanguard of these efforts for recognition and reparations. They presented parliamentary proposals for the recognition of the bombardment and associated crimes in the Rif as early as 2005 and 2007.

But their calls voted down by the two majority parties: the rightwing People's Party and the centre-left PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers' Party].

The last attempt happened only a few months ago. During the debate on Spain's Democratic Memory Bill, passed in 2022, Esquerra Republicana proposed adding recognition of the colonial crimes in the Rif, as well as measures related to the compensation for these crimes, such as assistance to local hospitals in the Riffian regions affected, and further development grants to the area. The proposal was, once again, rejected by the majority parties.

María Carvalho Dantas is a MP from Esquerra Republicana. She argues that, precisely because of not including measures on colonial crimes inside the bill, they abstained during its vote. "It is not a law of historical memory that entails genuine truth, justice, reparation and democratic guarantees. The simple fact of not considering the bombardment of the Rif with mustard gas as 'historical and democratic memory' is barbaric for us".

If one examines which parties supported Esquerra Republicana's call for recognition within the Spanish parliament, we see practically all Catalan parties agreeing on the issue. Dantas points out that the third most-spoken language in Catalonia — after Catalan and Spanish– is Tamazight, the language of the Riffian people. This is a very significant element, she argues, explaining her and other Catalan parties' support for the cause.

"Apart from being an internationalist struggle, we are talking about the very recent past of our neighbours here in Catalonia".

For that same reason, she argues her party will continue to fight for recognition in parliament, and that she will try to bring forward a non-legislative motion on the topic before the parliamentary term is over in October 2023.

'The taboo has been lifted'?

To understand why these efforts have not been successful, Dantas argues that looking at the geopolitical stakes in current Spanish and Moroccan ties is essential. After years of tensions over fishing rights, the Western Sahara question, and the Spanish enclaves on Moroccan territory; the two countries find themselves at a point of tense and fragile peace, especially after both sealed an agreement with the EU that would regulate migration between them.

Referring to the events of July 2022 in Melilla, in which at least 72 people died as a result of a police operation, María argues: "If Spain has not recognised a massacre committed inside Spanish territory, which happened less than a year ago, with lights and cameras pointing at it, with international media exposing it with photos and videos and with the ombudsman claiming that the interior minister is can we expect them to recognise the genocide of the Riffian people 100 years ago?"

Although political advocates and local activists are aware of the impunity of Spanish authorities when it comes to crimes in ex-colonial territories, hope has not been extinguished.

Mimoun Charqi, who has spent decades fighting for such recognition, says he is convinced that, eventually, there will be recognition of the crimes committed by Spain (and aided by France) over the Riffian people. "The fight continues and, of course, if amicable discussions fail, legal action is inevitable, including at the European level".

Indeed, other Amazigh platforms have been pushing for recognition at the European and international levels. The Rif Memory Association has been sending statements to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' conferences of parties in the past years.

The World Amazigh Congress has been leading efforts in France, addressing letters to the presidency.

And, at the European Parliament, political advocates such as Catalan leaders Antoni Comín, Clara Ponsatí and Carles Puigdemont have been posing parliamentary questions to ask for reparations.

Professor Charqi concludes: "Today, the taboo has been lifted and a legal file has been compiled. The rest is a matter of time and procedure".

Hoping for history will be acknowledged, sooner rather than later, is because it not only holds the keys to healing a troubled past, but also facing present consequences and preventing future crimes from going unnoticed.

This article was amended on 19 April to correct the Rif as in the north-east of the country.

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón,, and others.


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