While the use of chemical weapons, namely mustard gas, by the Spanish army against civilians in the Rif region is not in dispute, its political, human and moral consequences have not been debated. Obviously, today’s Spain does not need this bad publicity. In addition, it is neither politically correct nor diplomatically prudent to address this touchy subject. However, such historical events must be openly debated and lessons must be learned as long as the debate is civil and in the “correct” context.
According to several historians, Spain humiliated in the battle of "ANWAL" at the hands of the local leader Abdelkarim Al-Khatabi and its warriors, responded in a vengeful manner dropping thousands of mustard bombs on unarmed civilians in the Rif region in the north of Morocco. The chemical weapon air campaign lasted four years approximately ending in 1926 or 1927. Certain historical dates and locations are not clear and final since Spain and Germany that supplied the banned chemical weapons avoided creating a paper trail that may be used one day to incriminating them in this horrendous crime.While there is no count of the number of victims of this carnage, the indiscriminate use of such lethal bombs against dozens of villages must have created mass killings. The 1920’s badly equipped and poorly trained Spanish army did not digest its spectacular defeat against the resistance of the Rifan fighters in Annual; and had to resort to banned weapons of mass destruction to subdue the fearless Moroccan fighters. The use of mustard bombs was a turning point in Spain’s colonial campaign in Morocco. After “gassing” its way into the Rif Mountains, Spain solidified its grip on northern Morocco leading to an occupation that lasted until 1956 and beyond in other parts of Morocco.
The historical aspect of this event is very significant as various countries including France and Australia are coming to grips with their colonial sins. Spain should join the rest of the former western colonial powers in admitting its role in this massacre and opening up it archives in order to shed the light on this dark chapter of its colonial history in Morocco.
The horrific acts perpetrated by the Spanish army of the 1900’s are not in any way, shape or form a reflection on today’s Spain. However, the killings of unknown number of civilians using banned chemical weapons should not go unnoticed in history. The victims need to be recognized and the guilty parties should be judged by history.
Even tough the debate over the “Rif war” and Spain’s crimes during its imperial quest in Morocco has several angles so sharp that few politicians dare to tackle, contemporary Spanish politicians and human rights activists have a historical and a moral obligation to face up to the role of Spain as an entity in the massacres of unarmed civilians and the consequences of the use of chemical weaponry.
The 2005 attempt by a Catalan left wing political party to open a parliamentarian debate in the Cortez over the events surrounding the use of chemical weapons by the Spanish army in northern Morocco was unsuccessful. Under the “border line Fascist” government of Aznarito, such debate and admittance of any wrong doing was out of the question. Conversely, the current Zapatero government may be the perfect candidate to address the wrongs done by Spain to the Moroccans of the North.
Politics aside, the people of the Rif in particular and Moroccans that suffered under the Spanish colonial rule in general are due an official explanation and a State apology from the government of Spain. The Moroccan-Spanish diplomatic, economical and political relations are strong enough to withstand such traumatic historical review. It is a matter of human rights and common decency to give the victims of such tragic events an overdue apology and the recognition they deserve.