Tazmamart: Surviving a Concentration Camp
I had never heard of the desert concentration camp known as Tazmamart, and I'm confident that a majority of you haven't either. Once located in south-eastern Morocco, this prison—more of a tomb than a prison—was secretly commissioned by King Hassan II of Morocco and is where he imprisoned a group of his political enemies. Shockingly, the concentration camp wasn't decommissioned until 1991 when human rights activists finally succeeded in shutting it down. Of those locked there underground—near 60 in all—only a handful miraculously survived the agonizing eighteen year long imprisonment. One such survivors struggles within the prison are described in the critically acclaimed bestseller, This Blinding Absence of Light. This book served as the inspiration for this Hub.
Torture by design
The prison was designed with one idea in mind, torment. The inmates of Tazmamart were subjected to a slow, relentless, and agonizing existence for nearly two decades. Each prisoner was confined to a cell that measured under ten feet long and roughly four feet wide. The worst part of the size came in the devious form of the ceiling, which was engineered to be far too short for its prisoners to stand up in. Consistently hunched over or seated, by the time the survivors were released, many had a lost an entire foot off their height. One small hole within the cell, less than four inches in diameter, served as the lavatory. The smell, it is said, was unimaginable. Considering the cell size and lack of any attempt to clean them, its not something I enjoy imagining. While the conditions I've already described are horrific, they are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Within each cell, there were no beds. The prisoners were given two thin blankets that were said to be unnecessary in the summer and insufficient in the winter. Five quarts of water was all they were alloted but certainly not the clean drinking water that you or I are accustomed to. This water was filth.
The air came in the from a small opening above the doors that kept the prisoners secured in their cells. The only other opportunity to breath occurred when prisoners were selected to accompany the guards outside to bury the dead—their friends. I think now is the appropriate time to mention that this prison had no light. The prisoners were thrown into darkness. Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, they would sit, lie or attempt to half stand in utter darkness. When the survivors were finally released they were blind.
When the cold came, the prisoners were at its mercy. Unable to escape its grasp, their joints and muscles became rigid with no source of warmth for them to turn to. The cement floors, like ice, were a one way ticket to the grave and thus, the inmates were forced to stand, hunched over in an attempt to keep from freezing to death. When the cold would strike, the only source of any warmth was delivered by the substance they were served in the mornings—luke-warm water mixed with some type of starch. According to one prisoner's account, it tasted no better than camel urine. The inmates were also served a type of bread, hard as stone and tasteless. The two made up their only caloric intake—just enough to keep them alive and always lingering on the verge of death. Illness, malnutrition, and disease plagued the detainees relentlessly, but despite what the inmates endured, there was no medical treatment. If someone fell seriously ill from the conditions of their environment, they simply died and were dragged out of their cell in the following days.
Perhaps the most haunting part of this prison was the concept of time. Locked in inhumanly small cells with no light nor any real means of telling time or keeping busy, prisoners began going mad. It's hard to imagine how anyone could stay sane given the conditions they were tormented with in Tazmamart. Survivors admitted that to survive the ordeal, they had to go somewhere else to block out their surroundings and the pain.
"Our bodies were rotting limb by limb. The only thing I possessed was my mind, my reason. I abandoned my arms and legs to our tormentors, hoping they would not manage to claim my spirit, my freedom, my breath of fresh air, my gleam of light in the darkness." The Blinding Absence of Light
In the end, and after 6,663 days, only a handful of survivors were freed form the tomb they were trapped within. Many were unwilling to share their accounts of imprisonment publicly, but the few that did, make it very clear, from the gruesome details and accounts of torture, that these types of camps should have never and can never exist again. The idea that this place was in operation until 1991 is still hard for me to wrap my mind around. I'm not sure if justice can truly be done for those who suffered relentlessly at Tazmamart, but hopefully, their unique tales of survival and perseverance will continue to spread throughout the world—inspiring and educating all who hear them.