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Stolen Lives: Twenty Years In A Desert Jail

By Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi, Hyperion, NY, 2001, 291 pages.

Review by Hans Sherrer

Although not apparent from its title, Stolen Lives is Malika Oufkir's autobiography, and what a story she has to tell. Born into Morocco's upper crust, she lived the life of luxury the first 19 years of her life. She then lived her next 19 years as an innocent person imprisoned under conditions that were at times so horrific they challenge comprehension by the imagination.

Born in 1953, Malika Oufkir was the eldest daughter of Moroccan General Muhammad Oufkir. When she was five, Morocco's King exercised his royal prerogative and adopted her as his daughter. She then lived in luxury and privilege as a royal princess until she was 16, when the King acceded to her wish to return to her birth family. She matured to have the looks and figure of a movie star and she aspired to be an actress. As the head of the country's military and security forces, as well as the King's closest aide, Malika's father was the second most powerful man in Morocco. Disillusioned with aspects of the King's rule, in August 1972 her father orchestrated a failed coup attempt to dispose the King. After he was executed along with his confederates, Malika, her mother and three sisters, her two brothers, the youngest of whom was three, and two female attendants were arrested and imprisoned. Their crime: they were the immediate family members of General Oufkir, considered by many Moroccans a national hero. Confined in a variety of prisons and detention facilities, they were not released for almost nineteen years.

In graphic detail that makes the Turkish prisons described in Billy Hayes' Midnight Express seem like health spas, Malika relates how her family was eventually reduced to the point that they eagerly ate mouse droppings to supplement their meager food rations. To attract the King's attention to their plight, at one time they went on a hunger strike, and at another time they sent him a petition signed in their own blood. The only effect their pleas had was a worsening of their living conditions.

Those conditions were at their worst during the ten years they spent at the Bir-Jid prisons. Split into groups so they could fit into four adjoining cells, the nine members of the Oufkir clan were isolated in those cells and not allowed to see anyone in the other cells for eight and a half years. Although they could talk with one another through the walls, they were prohibited from having books, magazines, letters, visitors, or anything else from the outside world that might comfort them or provide them with hope. However, their jailers did nothing to prevent their torment by periodic infestations of swallows, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fleas, mice, scorpions, rats and crickets.

By November 1986 several of the ragged band had reached such a point of despair that they tried to commit suicide during what they came to call the "Night of the long knives." When the prison commandant was inspecting the condition of Malika's oldest brother after his failed suicide attempt, he was overheard to say, "They are going to die. All of them. And they will be buried here. We'll just wait as long as we have to. Those are our orders."

After none of the captives died from their injuries, they were galvanized into purposeful action by the commandant's comment. Although imprisoned for another five years, it would have been forever if they hadn't been shaken out of their passivity by realizing they could only save themselves by engineering an escape from the Bir-Jid prison.

In April 1987, Malika and three others executed a bold escape from Bir-Jid prison. Pursued by a nationwide manhunt, they were recaptured after five days. However, while free they were able to alert the French government and the world press that they were still alive. Worldwide attention to their case and the deplorable conditions of their confinement contributed to the King ordering their transfer to a more humane jail. Finally released in February 1991, the family was denied passports and kept under close government surveillance for another five years. It wasn't until a month after her sister Maria escaped to France in June 1996, that Malika was permitted to leave Morocco, almost 24 years after being imprisoned in August 1972.

Malika Oufkir's ordeal is disturbingly relevant for Americans, and it serves as an ominous warning. Events in the Untied States, particularly since the releases of her family in 1991, makes her horrific story apropos to the varying methods being used to methodically incarcerate many thousands of innocent people in this country. In the 1990s, for example, thousands of Cubans seeking political asylum in the U.S. were, and some still are, imprisoned by the government for years without a trial, and thousands of innocent foreign nationals who are in this country legally have languished in prison, some for years, while they awaited or still await their forced deportation. The injudicious treatment of these and thousands of other innocent people throughout the U.S., and its impact on their lives are being stolen.

Although Stolen Lives would be a smashing good tale if it were fiction, it is all the more compelling since it is true. The book has spent several months on the LA Times Nonfiction Bookseller List, so it has proved its broad appeal.

Exceptionally well written, Malika's story comes alive in Stolen Lives. I was captivated from its first pages, and I alternated between being fascinated, disturbed and amused, sometimes on the same page. You can't ask much more of a book than that it entertain and educate at the same time.

Justice Denied

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