Al-Hoceima, Morocco – Last October, the biggest protest movement in Morocco since the Arab Spring erupted after a fishmonger was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve swordfish confiscated for being caught out of season in the northern city of al-Hoceima.
Months of protests morphed into a wider social movement known as al-Hirak al-Shaabi. Moroccan authorities have arrested hundreds of demonstrators. Some demonstrators, mainly the protest movement leaders, were transferred to the Oukacha Prison in Casablanca, while other protesters were sent to prisons near Al Hoceima.
A 23-year-old singer and former detainee, Salima Ziani, was recently pardoned by King Mohammed VI.
Known by her Berber name, Silya, she has emerged as one of the faces of the protest movement, singing about the death of Mouhcine Fikri, the fisherman who lost his life.
Al Jazeera spoke with Ziani, who left her life as a college student to participate in the movement’s activities full-time, about the prospects for the future of Morocco.
Al Jazeera: What made you join the protest movement?
Salima Ziani: When Mouhcine Fikri died, I felt a strong need to express my sadness. I demonstrated to speak up for myself. That horrible way in which he died allowed us to all speak up, to express our wounds. My heart was bleeding over how he was crushed in a garbage compactor. Fikri allowed us to come together as people of the Rif. We were already oppressed, but his death was our last straw.
I always sang about social justice, about victims of oppression, but we were deeply saddened that the son of our land was killed in that manner. Everyone was crying – men and women were crying – as we realised that a human life had no value.
But with al-Hirak al-Shaabi, we became like a big family. That is when people started knowing me; I also came up with slogans and expressed myself as a citizen. People started to know me quickly because of the strength of my voice. I wanted to show that women also were involved. I decided to stop studying and to join my brothers, who were protesting to the point that my family started missing me. I never felt that I was doing something wrong. I was just asking for justice as what is best for the country.
Al Jazeera: How do you feel about the way the government has handled the protests?
Ziani: We are all very peaceful. What they don’t understand is that the reason we took to the street is because we love our nation, not just the Rif.
We are indeed oppressed, we are indeed lacking a lot of infrastructure. I was protesting with good intentions. I never thought I would get arrested. The Moroccan constitution guarantees freedom of speech. What did I say to deserve being detained? It is our right to speak up.
Al Jazeera: Can you tell us how you were detained?
Ziani: I was arrested in June, a week after Nasser Zefzafi, the movement’s leader, was detained. I was with two of my friends in a taxi when two cars were blocking the road. Men in plain-clothes appeared from the vehicles and took me with them. They didn’t say they were with the police and they used bad language. When I saw the police station, I was relieved to find out that it was, in fact, the police. The way they treated me was harsh and I decided to accept it. I did not talk and did not answer back.
They were so angry with me, I felt like I was in the hands of an enemy. They put me in a truck and took me to Casablanca. The drive was overnight and lasted about 13 hours. Meanwhile, my family was looking for me. They were told that I wasn’t in police custody.
Finally, in Casablanca, they put my dad on the phone. It was the first time I ever heard him crying. He told me, “You are a hero, stop crying.”
I spent the first night in solitary. I had a very bad reaction, so they moved me to a cell with three other inmates. During those two months, I would sometimes sing alone. If it weren’t for my lawyers’ visits, I would have gone crazy.
Al Jazeera: How did you feel when you were released?
Ziani: I discovered many things in prison. It was one of the best experiences and one of the hardest at the same time.
Before my release, the prison warden asked me to sing for the other prisoners, so I sang all kinds of musical genres. That night, I was told that I was going to be released, and in the morning, I realised that I was being released alone, without my [fellow detainees] who were still in prison.
Al Jazeera: Is al-Hirak al-Shaabi over? If not, are you still going to be a part of it?
Ziani: No, it’s not over, and it’s because we love our country – we’re going to fight for our nation. If something hurts us, we will speak up. Right now, I am healing my wounds. My brothers tell me that I made sacrifices that even men didn’t make.
I was abused and my message was heard. It is time for me to take some time off [from being on the front lines of the protest movement]. We demand that they release all prisoners, because ultimately, they didn’t do anything wrong. It is for the interest of the region and the nation to release them. These people took to the streets not because they had nothing better to do; we protested because we are oppressed and we want to live in dignity.
As citizens, we lost faith in political parties. The king inaugurates projects and nothing else happens. Many of the protesters have degrees and no jobs. Everyone lives from fishmongering here – that’s all we have.
During our months of protesting, we used flowers, candles, and created human chains to protect the police station, to protect the police. We are not separatists. Rif residents are peaceful people who love the king.
Right now, my healing process is under way. I stopped the anti-depressants and sleeping pills that I was given in prison. I am not sleeping more than a couple of hours a night. I participated to help create something beautiful that will benefit the nation. I was very strong, but now I am tired.
But in my heart, I remain very strong.