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The forgotten war

With the process of de-colonization going on throughout Africa, Sidi Ifni and the Sahara territory were proclaimed a "Spanish province"

When I visited Sidi Ifni for the first time at the end of the 1970s, it was like stepping into a time warp. The Spanish presence in this colonial enclave on the Moroccan coast -- which lasted from its occupation in 1934 to the pullout in 1969, after a bloody little war -- survived only in a few vestiges: dusty Franco emblems; streets named after fallen officers; the Plaza de España, renamed Hassan II; and a few parks and gardens adorned with tiled fountains in the style favored by the Spanish colonial administration.

A few years later I was there again, in connection with the shooting of the film, and wandered into the empty government building. In the main hall I picked up a dusty newspaper of the Franco period: a columnist warned his readers of the perils of democracy, the "anteroom to communism."

At that time I mentioned to Alfonso de la Serna, then ambassador to Morocco, later the author of the authoritative book on the region Al sur de Tarifa (or, South of Tarifa), the possibility of starting a school of Spanish there - where, if given even a shoestring budget, I would teach the language myself. Nothing came of it; but now I find that the Instituto Cervantes in Casablanca has opened just such a school in Ifni.

As if Africa were a blank map, the European powers began drawing lines on it as if slicing up a pie"

Spain's connection with Ifni goes back to 1476, when the navigator Diego García de Herrera set up a fortified trading post there, which lasted until 1524, when it fell to an attack by local tribes.

More than three centuries later a Spanish colonial adventure, the Tétouan War, ended with a treaty which allowed Spain to operate fisheries in the Ifni area: a situation which later, in 1912, was formalized as a protectorate, in which Spain picked up the crumbs of the French colonial occupation of Morocco, these crumbs being: A strip of territory along the northern coast (being deemed strategic, the British did not want the French to have it); the desert Western Sahara territory in the South; and a couple of coastal enclaves including Sidi Ifni, though Ifni was not actually occupied by the Spanish until 1934, when the Legion landed there.

After the independence of Morocco, reluctantly recognized by Franco, in 1957 a Moroccan attack, largely of tribal warriors equipped with little more than small arms, was repelled by a coordinated Franco-Hispanic operation involving 130 planes and 14,000 soldiers. At about this time, in an adverse international context, when the process of de-colonization was going on throughout Africa, Sidi Ifni and the Sahara territory were proclaimed a "Spanish province."

Ten years later the Moroccans attacked Sidi Ifni again, resulting in a little war as absurd as it was anachronistic. Large numbers of conscripts were sent off to defend this "province" against the hereditary enemy of Spain, the perfidious Moor.

I write this à propos of Nonio Parejo's documentary, titled La guerra olvidada (or, The forgotten war), which takes the viewer back to this chapter of history. Images of Sidi Ifni today alternate with black-and-white photos from the 1970s, little attention being paid to the usual practice of taking the new photo from the same viewpoint as the old. There are also interviews with combatants in the war, whose memories of it are more disillusioned than nostalgic.

In the words of Alfonso de la Serna in Al sur de Tarifa: "As if Africa were a blank map, the European powers began drawing lines on it as if slicing up a pie, taking little account of the risk, apparent in our time, of thus severing human and historical tissues of ethnic entities and cultures, which were ignored in the drawing of the map. But Africa was not an empty space, a res nullius, open to all comers. Today Africa, and with it the international community, are suffering the consequences of the Scramble for Africa."

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