On January 31, 2009 several national and international NGOs gathered at a workshop in Agdz, a former secret detention centre in Morocco, to plan how to activate this and other former detention centres into spaces for healing, civic engagement and economic development. The workshop “Active Preservation of Memory” was organized by the Moroccan State’s official human rights institution, the Advisory Council on Human Rights, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. Margarita Romero, Vice-President of Corporación Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi (Santiago, Chile), was invited to participate in the workshop to share her experiences on developing Site of Conscience, Villa Grimaldi as one model of activating places of memory.
In March 2009, Margarita talked the workshop with Silvia Fernandez, Programmes Manager of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
Silvia Fernandez: I am here in Santiago with Margarita Romero. Hello Margarita, thank you for your time. Please tell us a little bit about the history of Agdz, where you participated in the workshop “Active Preservation of Memory” in Morocco.
Margarita Romero: The objective of the workshop, “Active Preservation of Memory” was to develop plans for the preservation of memories relating to the former detention centre in Agdz. Agdz is a desert community, difficult to access, in the south of Morocco. The former detention centre is an old castle, privately owned by the family of a “Pasha” (a feudal landlord), Pacha El Glaoui. The castle was abandoned when the military occupied it in 1976. It then became a detention centre until 1982. Political prisoners from other detention centres in Rabat were brought to Agdz, to be detained and tortured before being moved to other detention centres. These prisoners fell into the category of the “disappeared”. Approximately 400 political prisoners passed through Agdz and an estimated 32 people died in the detention centre and are buried in a cemetery close by.
Today, the site has been claimed as a place of memory. Many associations of ex-prisoners are working to ensure the site becomes a space for the preservation and expression of memory, to educate people so that this injustice happens “never again!”
The “Moroccan Forum for Truth and Justice”, formed by several associations of ex-prisoners and survivors, was the first group to organize activities around reclaiming the site as a site of memory. The forum works now with other human rights organizations on converting Agdz into a site of memory, organizing cultural activities around memory and encouraging a strong community involvement in the future of the site.
In 2003, the doors of the former detention centre were officially opened to the public.
SF: What is the current status of the project?
MR: The Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) made a set of recommendations, among them the recovery of sites of memory. Since then, the work around reclaiming these sites has become more systematized. Now there are resources to recover and work on three sites in Morocco: one in Rabat, one in Casablanca and this one in Agdz.
SF: Who participated in the workshop?
MR: The organizations that participated in the Workshop were: The Advisory Council on Human Rights, which is the State’s official human rights institution; the International Center for Transitional Justice, which together with the Consultative Council on Human Rights co-hosted the Workshop; Associations of ex-prisoners and survivors; the Moroccan Association of Human Rights; the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Justice; the Association of Victims, and others.
SF: Please tell us about the workshop.
MR: It was a one-day workshop, from 8:30am- 6:00pm. We first visited the detention centre and attended a very emotive ceremony at the cemetery where the 32 prisoners who died at the centre are buried. The active participation of human rights organizations, association of former detainees, local community groups was very significant. The eagerness of all these organizations to participate and to be the part of the planning for the future of the site is great and very important in this process.
Lauren Segal from Constitution Hill and I presented our experiences as examples of activating sites of memory.
In the afternoon, two different associations of former detainees presented two fairly well-developed project designs for the development of the site. The projects addressed the methodology (the process), the objectives of the recovery of the site, ways to preserve and interpret public memory, and possible ways to rebuild the spaces in the interior of the site, as well as the creation of exhibitions, models, a library, a documentation centre, etc.
Again, it is important to make note of the interest of the human rights organizations and associations, especially former prisoners, in working to preserve the memory of the place and to include the local community. This is very encouraging, because as I have said before, the only chance of preserving these sites is when the community takes ownership.
Now, what is interesting is what will happen later. Will a working group be created to reach a common project or will one of the projects be approved? We should not forget that the state institutions are also involved in the future of this site.
SF: How is the experience with this former detention centre in Morocco similar or different to the one in Villa Grimaldi?
MR: What happened in Morocco goes basically hand in hand with the events in Chile and the recovery process is also very similar. When the ex-political prisoners from Agdz talk about coming together to obtain justice and gain public recognition of the place as a place of detention and torture, it hugely resembles the process in Villa Grimaldi. In both cases, ex-prisoners gather around the site and work on making the place a site of memory. In both cases, civil society creates pressure to recognize these sites as places of imprisonment and torture.
In addition, as in the case of Villa Grimaldi, the Moroccan State will also have to work on the expropriation of the Site since it still belongs to the Pacha El Glaoui.
SF: What role do you envision the Coalition playing?
MR: I think the Coalition could get involved in helping to develop these sites of memory into Sites of Conscience. The human rights groups and associations of former prisoners that are so committed to the work in Morocco could benefit from the experience and perspective of the Coalition and its members.
Sites of Conscience offer new ways for activating places of memory to be living spaces that engage the community in addressing the issues they care about most. The different models that the Coalition offers can be invaluable for the future development of these sites.
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