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I was a princess in the court of the
king.... Then he put me and my family in jail for 20
Malika Oufkir, with an introduction by Amy Wilentz
Malika Oufkir tosses her fur coat onto the bed in her
midtown Manhattan hotel room. She’s elegant, slender, and
quite beautiful, but, as she says, "I am not normal."
In truth, there is almost nothing normal about Oufkir. More than
four years after she left Morocco, where she and her mother and
brothers and sisters spent 20 years in prison, Oufkir still panics
when she is out in the open. She craves quiet, dark rooms where she
can be alone. New York frightens her. She hates crowds. She likes
to eat alone, in silence.
"If I talk about it too much, think about it too much, I could
become crazy or have a very violent reaction," Oufkir says of the
time she spent in Bir-Jdid prison for a crime in which everyone
knew she had taken no part. She was just 19 when her father, a
powerful Moroccan general, led a failed coup against King Hassan
II; the monarch immediately ordered General Oufkir’s
execution and banished his widow and six children, Malika, Myriam
("Mimi"), Maria, Soukaina, Raouf, and three-year-old Abdellatif,
into internal exile.
Shuttled from prison to prison for five years, Oufkir and her
family were eventually dispatched to Bir-Jdid, a prison barrack
near Casablanca. Locked in separate cells around a central
corridor, unable to see one another, Oufkir and her siblings spent
their youth in Bir-Jdid, plagued by insects, vermin, and brutal
"Hassan enjoyed keeping us in prison, starving us, freezing us,
leaving us without beds or sheets or medical care. I think he took
pleasure in it every day," Oufkir tells me, as if speaking of
something that is both vaguely remote and entirely present. "He
could have killed us. But he preferred to have us die slowly."
Desperately—and miraculously—Oufkir and her family
defied the fate Hassan intended for them when, using a spoon and a
sardine can lid, they dug their way to freedom
In heart-stopping and suspenseful portions of Stolen Lives,
Oufkir’s remarkable memoir, she recounts the days she and
three of her siblings spent racing from embassy to embassy,
attempting to gain political asylum after their escape from
Bir-Jdid. The outcasts, now fugitives, faced unspeakable
retribution if discovered. Hollow-faced, destitute, dressed in
15-year-old rags, they hitchhiked across Morocco, seeking help from
former friends who, fearing the king, again and again turned them
away. After five days on the lam, they succeeded in getting a hotel
guest to phone Alain de Chalvron, a French radio reporter in Paris.
"An incredible scoop," said de Chalvron, who alerted the French
embassy to the Oufkirs’ plight. Once their story was out, the
condemnation of the international community made it impossible for
Hassan to punish the family; Moroccan authorities nonetheless
managed to keep them under house arrest for another three and a
Even before her family’s exile and escape, Oufkir led an
extraordinary life. Born into an affluent and powerful family, she
was chosen—at age five—by King Muhammad V to be a
companion to his own small daughter, Princess Lalla Mina. The king
moved Oufkir into a villa near the palace that she shared with his
daughter. After three years Muhammad died, and his son Hassan II
inherited the throne and guardianship of both Lalla Mina and
Oufkir. Like his father, Hassan lavished attention and kindness on
the girls and retained a strict German governess to ensure that
they would be raised properly. Oufkir fondly recalls sitting around
the piano, singing and dancing and otherwise enjoying good times
with Lalla Mina and the new king. For 11 years Oufkir lived a
sumptuous, if sheltered, life among Moroccan royalty, leaving the
palace only occasionally for spa trips and ski vacations.
At 16, she says, Oufkir hungered for a taste of real life and at
last prevailed on the king to let her return to her own father and
mother. She looked forward to life as a normal person—and to
falling in love. But she didn’t get the chance. Three years
later her father attempted a coup against Hassan II, the man who
had raised her for eight years. It was Hassan who would banish her
family to prison.
Traces of both the prisoner and the princess Oufkir has been are
evident as we speak; there is a regal quality to her great grace
and poise, but there is no mistaking the haunted look in her eye.
"I wrote the book in a crashing hurry," she says softly of Stolen
Lives. "My friends could not understand why. I told them, ‘If
this is published after Hassan dies, it would be terrible. Through
his sister he invited me back to the palace. But I refused. He did
not want me to talk, to write. With this book I defied him." Hassan
II died five months after Oufkir’s gripping, remorseless
memoir was published (under the title La Prisonnière) in
France — where it quickly became a best-seller.
Today, Oufkir lives in Paris with her husband, a French architect
raised in Lebanon who is fluent in Arabic and whom she met at a
Moroccan wedding eight years after her escape from Bir-Jdid. Unable
to bear children because of an infection she suffered while in
prison, she acts as head of her extended family; Abdellatif, the
brother who was incarcerated as a toddler and is now deeply wounded
by his stunted, aberrant childhood, lives with her, as does her
At 47, Oufkir has found the freedom — and love — she
craved so desperately for so long. But it has not brought comfort.
"I don’t know what it means to be free," she says. "It is
easier to be a prisoner." There is no self-pity as she explains how
difficult it is for her to live in Paris. "Every day I suffer.
I’m surviving, not living. I want to be like everyone else. I
try, but I can’t. There are two decades of prison between me
and the world." She draws her hunter-green suede jacket close
around her slender frame.
"Anyway, I do not really want happiness, because that would deny my
experience. I am like a person who has lost a limb and tries to act
normal. They can’t. Neither can I. I have arms and legs, but
inside something has changed." The strength and resolve that
enabled Oufkir to survive are visible on her face, as is the
fragility that is the legacy of her ordeal. "Prison stole the best
things from me. Yet my experience is so rich. Prison was a detour,
the way in which I managed to avoid mediocrity. Without it I would
be a normal woman, with money and power. But inside? Nothing.
In the following exclusive excerpt from Stolen Lives Oufkir
chronicles her life in a Moroccan prison and describes the
family’s death-defying escape. —Amy Wilent
the great escape: an exclusive excerpt from stolen live
It was around four o’clock on August 16, 1972, and I was at
my family’s house in Casablanca with some friends, talking
and laughing in the living room. Prompted by an intuition I
can’t explain, I switched on the television. A newscaster was
announcing that there had been a coup d’état and that
the king’s plane had been fired on. It was unclear who was
I rushed over to the radio, frantic for more news yet dreading what
I might hear: that it was my father who was behind the coup. He was
a powerful general in the Moroccan army and had been at increasing
odds with the king, Hassan II. But information on the radio was
hazy too. No one seemed to know anything for certain. There was
only speculation that my father, General Oufkir, was involved and
that the coup had succeeded. Order had not yet been restored in the
One of my friends, though, was convinced my father was involved.
She got up and pointed at me, hysterically babbling that the army
would surround us, that I would be killed and so would they. She
urged everyone to leave at once. I sat, terrified, not knowing what
to do. I tried calling my mother and brothers and sisters at our
house in Rabat; the lines were busy or there was no answer.
Around seven o’clock the phone rang. It was my father. He
spoke with the voice of a man who has decided to commit suicide and
is recording his last message. It was as if a ghost was talking to
me. He told me he loved me and that he was proud of me. Then he
added, "I ask you to remain calm, whatever happens. Don’t
leave the house until the escort comes to get you."
I began to scream. He kept saying things I didn’t want to
hear. I wanted him to reassure me, to tell me it hadn’t been
him. But from the start of our conversation I understood it was.
And that he had failed.
I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stop thinking about my
father’s last words — his warning not to leave.
Something terrible had happened. Around 5 a.m. the next day the
phone rang again. It was my mother. Without hesitating she
confirmed what I was most afraid to hear: "Your father is dead.
Pack your things and come back to Rabat."
Four months later, once the official mourning period for my father
had ended, the head of police arrived at our house and told my
mother to get the family packed. We left on Christmas Eve —
my mother, her six children, and Achoura and Halima, two loyal
members of the household staff. Mother had just turned 36. I was
19, my sister Mimi was 17, my brother Raouf 14, and the girls,
Maria and Soukaina, were just 10 and nine. My baby brother
Abdellatif was three and a half.
We were told we would be going away for two weeks. We would never
Our first jail was a filthy mud house of flaking plaster walls and
sand floors — part of an army barracks in Assa, a town near
the Algerian border. I found everything there repulsive, from the
coarse military blankets to the thin foam mattresses to the lack of
proper toilets. All nine of us shared the small house together and
were under constant surveillance. But by and large the guards
showed us sympathy. We could listen to the radio and were given
plenty of bread, goat meat, and honey to eat. We were also allowed
to go into the nearby town with a police escort for two hours every
day. I refused to go — I did not want to be dependent on our
captors’ goodwill — but the visits were very important
for the children. The escorts always treated them very well, and
the villagers would send them back with cakes and treats.
Fundamentally this was not much of a change from our past life. As
far back as I could remember, I had never lived without several
armed police responsible for my safety. The only difference here
was that instead of protecting me they were keeping watch. My life
was a fairy tale in reverse. I had been brought up as a princess
and was now turning into Cinderella. Gradually I was shedding my
old habits. We had brought around 20 designer suitcases with us
— Vuitton, Hermès, and Gucci — filled with Paris
couture and children’s clothes from Geneva, but the idea of
wearing any of it soon became ludicrous. After a few months we
always wore the same old clothes.
After about a year we were told that we’d be leaving. There
was no explanation, but on thinking about it a little later I
concluded that the villagers must have been growing too sympathetic
toward us and word of this had gotten back to the king.
We were taken to an abandoned military fort in Tamattaght, a town
even more remote than Assa. There conditions were dramatically
worse. The nine of us were given two rooms inside an old and
crumbling fort. There was a hole that served as a toilet, and a
little dirt enclave we used as a kitchen. A small but mostly
enclosed outdoor space provided us with our only fresh air. This
would be our home for almost four years.
As at Assa, we were generally well treated. Of the 25 policemen
under orders to guard us day and night, around three-quarters had
previously done security duty at our house in Rabat. They had known
my father, directly or indirectly. They respected my mother and
loved us children in a paternal way. When they could, they would
bring us contraband food as well as occasional books and letters.
But they could never let us out, which meant that while we were
there, enclosed in the fort’s towering walls, we almost never
saw anything but the smallest patch of sky.
And so we learned to live together. In wretched, cramped, filthy
conditions — in darkness, isolation, and confinement. We
tried to impose a structure on our days. We would al-ways eat three
meals a day together, and sit down for tea. I also created an
informal school for the children, setting up "classes" in which to
teach them French and math.
It was difficult for all of us, increasingly so. Raouf was not yet
over the loss of his father, at an age when a boy probably needs
his father most. Soukaina was entering a moody adolescence. Maria
was extremely fragile — when something upset her she often
would not eat, speak, or move for hours. As for Mimi, she was in
the most difficult straits of all. She had epilepsy, and though the
guards were able to sneak drugs to her, the stress of prison caused
her fits to increase anyway. Abdellatif adapted to it most
At night I’d hear my mother sobbing. Alone in her bed, she
wept over the loss of her husband. As for me, especially during
those early years in prison, I dreamed only of the king, Hassan II.
I relived my life at the palace: my pranks, our laughter, my
tête-à-têtes with him, our special moments. I never
revisited happy family scenes, or painful ones — my
father’s death or the mourning that followed it. There was no
resentment in my dreams, no confrontation or rebellion. I had
nothing but happy memories of my childhood, even though in a sense
it had been stolen from me. I would wake up overcome with shame and
guilt. My feelings toward the king were complicated: My own father
had tried to kill my adoptive father and as a result he was dead.
Sometimes I didn’t know which father I missed most, which one
to grieve for. I was the product of my palace upbringing;
everything I was, I owed to the man who had raised me and who was
now keeping me imprisoned. At the same time I loved my real father
But if I still respected Hassan II as my adoptive father, I hated
the despot he had become the day he began to persecute us. I hated
him for his hatred, I hated him for my ruined life, for my
mother’s misery and the mutilated childhood of my brothers
and sisters. I hated him for the irreparable crime he had committed
in locking up a woman and six children for such a long time and in
such inhuman conditions.
We continually implored Hassan to release us. Every year on his
birthday we wrote letters. We even wrote him a petition for a
pardon, signed in our blood.
Then one day, after almost four years in Tamattaght, we were told
to pack. The children were glad. The rest of us were torn between
hope and dread.
Our next journey lasted 24 hours. The nine of us were divided into
three armored trucks with blacked-out windows. We were under
constant surveillance and could not even find a discreet spot when
we got out to relieve ourselves; the police came with us and
watched until we had finished. It was February. As we drove, I
noticed the air beginning to smell damp and the sound of frogs
croaking so I concluded that we had left the desert and were now
near the coast. It turns out I was not mistaken. The Bir-Jdid
barracks, where we were being taken, were 27 miles from Casablanca.
This we discovered much later.
Finally the trucks slowed to a halt. We were blindfolded and led
through one door and then through another. The blindfolds were
removed, and we found ourselves in the small courtyard of what
seemed to be a former farmhouse — now converted to a prison.
The walls of the enclosure were so high that we couldn’t see
the sky. Soldiers stood at arms in each corner.
Four doors opened onto the courtyard. The rooms behind them, we
were told, would be our cells. The first, which Mother was to share
with Abdellatif, was at right angles to the other three. The second
I would share with my sisters. Achoura and Halima would share the
third, and Raouf would be alone in the cell on the end. Each of the
cells included several little rooms. Ours included a main room with
a toilet, one larger room, and a smaller room, where we would end
up storing the suitcases we were still lugging around.
The appearance of these new quarters did not bode well for our
future comfort. Even though we were already accustomed to
discomfort, filth, and minimal amenities, these cells were squalid.
Rivulets of moisture ran from the ceiling down to the stone floor.
The only light would be dim, coming from a generator that operated
a few hours each night. The mattresses were just thin layers of
foam with covers of dubious cleanliness set on rusty metal bed
Right away we were told that we would be separated at night. We
would be allowed to see each other during the day and to eat
together, but at night each person would have to go back to his or
her own cell. This news made us all sob. Mother cried and pleaded,
saying they didn’t have the right to separate her from her
children. But we were told that these rules could not be
Under this new regime, from eight in the morning until nightfall
the doors were unlocked and we could go in and out of one
another’s cells. Generally we all gathered in mine. This
freedom of movement allowed us to carry on the routines we’d
grown used to — we would cook and eat together, and play with
the children during the day. But here our lives were much more
closely monitored. And unlike our former captors, those at Bir-Jdid
showed us little sympathy. The commander, a man named Borro, was
utterly devoid of compassion and seemed to take his orders directly
from Rabat. Four other guards worked under his command — they
would be rotated every month or so, apparently to prevent them from
developing any sympathy for us. Outside our small prison, we were
informed, even more guards were stationed. They would stop anyone
from coming to help us.
Inside the prison walls Mother, Raouf, and I seemed to be the
guards’ main concern. Mother because she was the wife of the
hated general, me because they were aware of my influence over the
rest of the family, and Raouf because he was his father’s son
and it was natural that he would want to avenge him. Of us all it
was Raouf who suffered the most physically, who took the most
knocks. I lived with a permanent fear in the pit of my stomach:
fear of being killed, beaten, or raped; fear of constant
humiliation. But we were never seriously beaten — only
The first search took place at the beginning of April, two months
after our arrival. The aim was to intimidate us. Borro’s men
locked us up in Raouf’s cell until nightfall. Inside we could
hear dull thuds, the sound of hammering. When we were finally
allowed out, the damage was impressive. They had gathered our most
valued belongings — our trinkets and books,
Abdellatif’s toys, much of our clothing, Mother’s
jewelry, and my photo album — and had lit a huge bonfire with
everything that was combustible. (We took the fact that they did
not burn our luggage as a small sign of hope: Someday we would be
leaving.) The children were all the more traumatized when Borro
forcibly searched Soukaina, who was only 13. Afterward she ran a
high temperature for 10 days.
Then, on January 30, Raouf’s 20th birthday, we were informed
that he would be locked up for all but two hours a day. A few days
later my sisters and I met the same fate. Next it was Mother and
Abdellatif. During this phase we were allowed to go out into the
courtyard for a breath of air, but only in shifts. Mother and
Abdellatif went out in the morning until 10; then it was my turn,
with my sisters. We would stand under Raouf’s window,
he’d cling to the bars, and we’d chat. He was so
desperate to express himself that he would monopolize the
conversation. He would talk about our father and his longing to
avenge him. And about sex. He suffered far more than we did from
our forced abstinence and would tell the girls stories of his early
trips to prostitutes — accepted practice for bourgeois boys
in Morocco — that would have them howling with
After a few months, however, even these brief hours outside were
forbidden. We were all locked up 24 hours a day.
I was 24 years old, and for the next nine years the only faces I
saw were those of my sisters and the guards. My mother, Abdellatif,
Raouf, and Halima and Achoura were mere voices through a wall. For
more than five years we had managed to preserve a family life, a
cocoon in which we protected each other. At Bir-Jdid, family life
was out of the question. Everything was out of the question.
Once we were confined to our cells, our lives became completely
regulated by the guards. They stopped by three times a day to bring
us meal trays, and at midday to give us bread. For the first few
months my sisters and I clung to a semblance of a timetable. In the
morning we would exercise — I concocted a "bums and tums"
workout, and we tossed a bag of rags around as a makeshift
volleyball. In the afternoon we told stories. Later we gave up
physical activity. Our bodies no longer responded; we just sat
Our biggest enemy was time. It was tangible, monstrous,
threatening, and almost impossible to master. In the summer, dusk
brought back memories of the sweetness of the old days, the end of
a day at the beach, time for an aperitif, the laughter of friends,
the smell of the sea, the tang of salt on my bronzed skin. I
relived the little I had experienced. We didn’t do anything.
We’d follow the progress of a cockroach from one hole in the
wall to another. Doze. Empty our minds. The sky would change color
and the day draw to a close. A week felt like a day, the months
like weeks; a year meant nothing. And I was wasting away. I learned
to die inwardly. I often had the feeling I was living in a black
Despite everything, my sisters and I got along well. The lack of
privacy was torture, especially for two young women and two teenage
girls. Washing, going to the toilet, and moaning in pain were all
public acts — but we quickly got used to it. Unable to divest
myself of my palace upbringing, I wouldn’t allow the
slightest breach of manners. We behaved properly at the table, we
chewed delicately, we said please and thank you and excuse me. We
washed ourselves scrupulously every day, especially when we had our
periods, despite the freezing salt water we were given in the
middle of winter that turned our skin bright red and made us
And we were always hungry. Rotting vegetables, two bowlfuls of
flour, a bowl of chick peas, a bowl of lentils, 12 bad eggs, a
piece of spoiled meat, a few lumps of sugar, a liter of oil, and
some detergent for washing — this was what was divided
between the nine of us for two weeks. Achoura and Halima would
prepare what they could with the meager supplies, and then the
guards would distribute it.
We became experts in the art of salvage, scavenging for crumbs on
the floor, even eating bread soaked in the urine and feces of the
mice. I can still picture Mimi, sitting up in bed, picking off the
little black droppings sprinkled all over the bread with the
delicacy of a duchess, before raising the morsels to her lips. All
our rations were fouled by rodents. Both mice and rats overran our
We all could have died 20 times over, but every time we emerged
unscathed. Some of our illnesses were serious: fevers, infections,
diarrhea. Others were less so: sore throats and bronchitis,
headaches or toothaches, hemorrhoids, rheumatism. Maria became
severely undernourished. She suffered fevers and violent sweats
that were so bad that she stayed in bed all the time. I had to wash
and dry her four or five times a day. Mimi was the sickest of us
all. The guards at Bir-Jdid had confiscated her epilepsy pills, and
her constant fits left her exhausted, bedridden, and severely
depressed. She stayed in bed almost without moving for eight years.
I had to force her to wash.
But more than anything else, the worst thing about those years was
being separated from our mother, only a few feet away. We spoke to
her constantly through the wall, and she was an example to all of
us. She never expressed the slightest complaint, yet she must have
suffered even more than we did.
Since the day I was born, my relationship with Mother had never
been less than passionate and heartbreaking. We were incredibly
close in age — she was 17 when I was born — and shared
a striking physical resemblance. We had also each seen our chance
to be fulfilled as women savagely destroyed. The thought that I
might not ever have children distressed her.
In prison, however, there was a growing ambiguity in our roles.
Unwittingly, and against my will, I had usurped her role. I had
become the mother of her other daughters. I can still picture Maria
and Soukaina snuggling up to me in my bed, questioning me about the
meaning of life. They told me all the secrets they would never have
told Mother, first of all because at that age you don’t
confide in your mother, and secondly because they were separated
from her by a solid wall.
I looked after them, brought them up, and tried to keep them from
despair. I was their big sister, their mother, father, and
confidante. I loved them more than anything else and, like Mother,
I suffered a lot more for them than I did for myself. I remember
instigating dancing lessons in the cell because Maria was crying
over her shattered dream of being a ballet student at the Paris
Opera. I remember nursing Mimi and telling stories to Abdellatif
through the wall.
Yet throughout it all I always waited impatiently for nightfall,
for the peace it brought me. During the day I wore a mask: I was
Malika the strong one, the authoritarian, the person who breathed
life into the others. At night there was nothing to do but think.
As soon as dusk fell I dropped my defenses. When my sisters fell
asleep at last, I would often get up and just sit.
I often wondered why Hassan II had imposed this long-drawn-out
death instead of killing us right away. Our disappearance would
have made matters much simpler. I thought about my father, too.
Each time I pictured him I imagined the moment of his execution.
That terrible moment when he realized that he was going to be
killed like a dog. I swung between humiliation, pain, and
And each of my birthdays was like a dagger piercing my heart. At
the age of 33 I became resigned. I would never experience a great
love, I would never have my own family, no man would ever take me
in his arms and whisper sweet nothings or words of burning passion
in my ear; I would never know the physical and mental thrill of
being in love. Instead I was condemned to wither like a wrinkled
fruit. At night I dreamed I was making love, but I learned not to
think about it. I could not burden myself with these little
troubles when I had so many others. I tried to remain in control of
my body, to suppress everything to do with desire, hunger, cold,
Despite her courage and dignity, Mother was still very naive. She
firmly believed that we would be pardoned on March 3, 1986, for
Throne Day, the anniversary of the king’s ascension to the
throne. Yet the day came and nothing happened. The next morning,
however, it seemed she might be right. At about 8:30 the guards
unlocked all our doors and shoved us outside.
We staggered, squinting at the light. We were thrilled to see each
other, but we looked like walking corpses — gaunt and pale,
with dark rings around our eyes, bloodless lips, and bodies bloated
from malnourishment. Mother didn’t even recognize her little
girls. She had last seen Soukaina and Maria when they were 14 and
15 years old. Now they were young women of 22 and just 24. Raouf
was a man, resembling my father in build. Abdellatif was a youth of
17. Mother was as beautiful as ever, but the hardship and grief had
taken a terrible toll. Achoura and Halima had gray faces and hair,
the color of ash.
We were overjoyed, yet we found ourselves torn between the natural
urge to touch each other and kiss and the determination not to show
our tormentors how cruelly we had missed this contact. So we
restrained ourselves. Astonished, Borro encouraged us to approach
one another, then told us that, in celebration of Throne Day, from
then on we would be allowed to be together from 8:30 in the morning
until 8 at night. We were being granted this concession after 14
years in prison.
At first the elation of being reunited eclipsed the grimness of our
situation. Mother gazed at us for hours. She never tired of looking
at us, but it must have been torture for her to see us so
emaciated, so starved. Nevertheless we had decided to relish every
joyous moment of being together again. To entertain ourselves we
organized circus shows. Raouf would crack a pretend whip, and Mimi,
the elephant, would make her entrance. She was painfully thin. When
Raouf cracked his whip a second time, Mimi had to raise her legs in
the air. We shrieked with laughter. We never tired of joking,
touching each other, and embracing.
These relatively happy times lasted until the early signs of
winter. Then one day, without any explanation, the guards split us
up again. The next morning they told Mother that we would be locked
up 24 hours a day as before.
She immediately went on a hunger strike in protest. The others,
except for me, followed suit. My body cannot tolerate fasting, so I
merely ate as little as possible. For 45 days we starved ourselves.
Soukaina even tried going without water but after a day became too
ill. We were nothing but skin and bone and yet nothing happened.
Then, sometime during the sixth week of fasting, Raouf overheard
two guards talking outside his cell. "This situation has ruined my
life," one said. "I’m ashamed to look my family in the eyes.
I am haunted by what we are doing. Murdering children is beyond me.
I can’t carry on. What do they want?"
"Don’t you understand?" replied the other guard. "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
Raouf reported this conversation to us through the walls. Everyone
was terribly feeble. We all longed for death. Yet the words hit us
like an electric shock. At some level we had believed our release
was coming, that the king could not punish us forever. Now we knew
we were simply expected to disappear. It was then that our will to
live became overpowering. We resolved to escape.
The first task was to decide where to dig. After endless discussion
we decided to start from the cell I shared with my sisters. One of
the rooms was too cold to live or sleep in, so we had ended up
using it as a place to put all our old suitcases. The advantages to
this site were that it was unused during the day and that the
floor’s stone slabs were in good condition. This would make
them much easier to maneuver. We would obviously have to work at
night, preferably during the hours when the generator was running
in order not to be heard.
On January 27,1987 — directly after one of our triweekly
searches — Maria, Soukaina, and I pried up the first stone
slab with a spoon, a knife handle, the lid of a sardine tin, and an
iron bar from one of our beds. In two hours we had pried up eight
For the next two weeks we did nothing but practice removing and
replacing these slabs so that any sign they had been touched would
be undetectable. Meanwhile, Mother, Abdellatif, Raouf, Halima, and
Achoura worked on creating passages between all the cells. This was
probably the most dangerous part of the plan, but it was crucial
for two reasons. First, to escape, the others would all have to get
from their cells to ours. Second, as we were soon to learn, we
would need their help as we dug. We found that by removing stones
from the walls under our beds we were able to create spaces large
enough to squeeze through. We were always scrupulous about closing
the holes up each morning.
Finally my sisters and I started digging in earnest. Raouf had
studied some engineering in grade school and explained to me the
various levels of soil I would find. When I reached clay I was to
start digging horizontally. Then, we estimated, it would take 16
feet to clear the outside edge of the cell’s wall. We worked
like robots. Down in the hole I’d fill an empty one-gallon
oil can with earth, which my sisters would then haul up from above.
Mimi would add water to the dirt, making it more dense, and she
would hand it through the wall to my mother. Mother would sew balls
of the dirt up in old, unused clothes and send them back through
the wall. We would store these bundles in our tunnel to keep it
from sounding hollow during searches.
Demolishing and digging was easy. The hard part was reconstruction,
which could take hours. First we returned the bagged dirt to the
hole. Then we spread a layer of red dirt on top and replaced the
stone slabs. To finish off, we filled the cracks with a fake
plaster made of detergent and flour we had saved from our rations.
Once everything had dried I would sweep it up.
We had some terrible scares. During the searches we would stay in
our beds without budging, pretending to be ill. The guards carried
out a painstaking inspection, even in the little room where the
tunnel was. They shone their torches into corners, looking
everywhere — under the beds, at the ceiling, in the cavities.
They tapped the floor with their feet, listening for a different
sound, the faintest echo. It is a miracle, but they never set foot
on the slabs we were digging under.
By April 18 I had tunneled down and out the agreed distance, and I
stopped digging. I had no nails left, my skin was covered with
eczema, and my fingers were bleeding sores. We had all agreed that
the escape should be in December, on a moonless winter night when
the guards — who were sensitive to the cold, like all
Moroccans — would be ensconced in the snuggest corner of
their watchtowers, their faces muffled by warm hoods. So we sealed
the tunnel one last time. Two weeks before the escape we would
finish digging up the few feet to the surface. Before that it would
be too risky.
During the days when we were digging we held countless family
consultations to decide who would go, and what to do once outside.
Raouf wanted to go alone — he was so afraid for us all
— but it was obvious that I would go with him. Maria had
declared outright that if we didn’t take her she would kill
herself. We would also take Abdellatif, who had seen nothing of
life, who had no past bearings — he needed to be part of this
adventure. Mother wanted to come, but she was physically unable to
do so. Her body was bloated, like the rest of ours, and she
couldn’t even squeeze through the hole between our cell and
hers. Only Abdellatif could wriggle through. We couldn’t
enlarge it for fear of breaking the tiles supporting the wall.
Soukaina too agreed to stay behind — a demonstration of her
courage and generosity, as we needed her to seal up the tunnel
after we left. Mimi was simply too weak to do it. For the same
reason it was impossible for her to leave.
Once we got out, our goal was the French embassy, where we intended
to request political asylum. We tried to anticipate every possible
setback. On the morning of our escape Mother was to waylay the
guards as long as possible, to stop them from raising the alarm
immediately. In case we were captured, she planned to cause an
explosion with the little butane stove Achoura and Halima had in
their cell for cooking. We even started saving pepper to fend off
any stray dogs.
On Sunday, April 19, 1987, the day after we closed the tunnel, I
was sitting on the floor of the cell, my head leaning against a
wall. We could hear birds chirping outside the walls. Nature, like
us, was awakening from a long sleep. We felt strangely well,
despite the prospect of several months’ wait. We had emerged
from the tomb. At last we had reason to hope.
Mimi lay in bed, the other two were cuddling up to me, and we were
chatting lightheartedly. Then I heard my mother calling to me.
"Listen, Malika," she whispered, "I overheard them. They have been
given orders to build a lookout post and a watchtower on the roof
of the tunnel cell. The lookout post will be exactly in line with
the exit, and there’ll be floodlights."
"What will we do?"
"There is no choice," she said. "They will have finished in 48
hours. You must dig the escape shaft straightaway and leave
I had any number of objections. Dig out in a few hours? It
wasn’t possible. We expected it to take a week.
But she wouldn’t listen. "It’s that or nothing," she
repeated. "If you don’t leave tonight, you will never get
out. Tell Raouf."
Raouf agreed with my mother — we had no choice.
I started digging around midday, working furiously. The spoon
wasn’t enough. If I could have ripped out the earth with my
teeth I would have. I dug, I scooped out the earth, I no longer
thought, I no longer existed, I had become a machine. Digging,
scooping, digging, scooping…
At one point I came across some deeply rooted ivy. I pulled with
all my strength. For hours I battled, digging upward against those
roots, straining to pull them out.
And suddenly my field of vision turned blue. I had broken
It was the late afternoon sky, swept by a warm spring breeze that
gently caressed my cheek. I stood stock-still for a while, just
clutching the ivy and looking out with one eye. Weeping, I poked my
head through. It was too beautiful. I was afraid of what I could
see. Freedom was so close that it frightened me. I rushed back up
to tell the others. We were almost there.
At nightfall it was time to say goodbye. Mother was distraught,
wondering whether she really ought to let us go. It was the only
time I saw her waver. "I’m entrusting my flesh and blood to
you," she said to me. "I know that you are also their mother.
Promise me you’ll bring them back alive." Soukaina shivered.
Her teeth were chattering and her eyes were shining, but she
didn’t shed a tear. She carried an enormous responsibility.
She had to cover all our tracks to delay the guards’
discovery of our escape for as long as possible. Mimi tenderly
clasped me to her and whispered in my ear, "I’m sure
you’ll make it."
We dressed in silence, picked up our bundles, and one by one
lowered ourselves down into the tunnel. Abdellatif and Maria got
through the exit without any difficulty. Raouf made the earth
shudder. We held our breath, but he managed to push through and
free himself without any damage. When it was my turn I managed to
get my upper body through the exit hole, but my hips became wedged.
I couldn’t go any further. I was stuck. My bloated,
malnourished body was much too wide for the narrow opening.
Raouf encouraged me, whispering gently to calm me down, but I
couldn’t. I was unable to budge. I strained, I cried, I was
drenched in perspiration. Then I heard Soukaina behind me. "Malika,
come back," she said. "You’re making too much noise,
they’ll hear you."
If I persisted I might get us all caught. But once again I summoned
all my strength. It was like a second birth. At last I pulled
myself from the tunnel. I’d scraped off all the skin on my
thighs, but at the time I didn’t even notice.
We had been living in the shadows for so long that our eyes had
grown accustomed to the dark, and we gazed out at our surroundings
without any sense of fear. On the contrary, we were exhilarated.
There was no sign of life from the guards’ quarters, and we
began to crawl across a damp field.
Suddenly we heard the barking of stray dogs. They were racing,
making straight for us — aggressive, starving, and more
ferocious than watchdogs. There must have been about 10 of them,
bounding through the dark behind the leader of the pack. They were
getting closer and closer. We could feel their panting breath. Once
again we huddled together for protection. Their leader came forward
baring his fangs, growled, and looked poised to attack. We froze
and held our breath, waiting for a miracle. Which, improbable as it
seemed, is what we were granted. The dog gave an unfathomable
whine, and he and his pack slunk away.
But the reprieve did not last long. Alerted by the dogs, the guards
turned their torches and floodlights onto the field. We froze
again, praying that we would melt into the shadows. Certain of
discovery this time, we waited there shivering for their shots to
ring out. We could hear the guards exchange a few words. At last
the lights went off. We crouched there, unable to move for what
felt like hours; then we set off again.
We found ourselves in a field of beans, closer to the barracks
side. We needed a short rest, so we rolled over onto our backs and
looked at the camp facing us for the first time. It was a grim
sight. So this was the place where we had spent 10 years of our
lives, where we had lost our best years, our hopes, our illusions,
our health, and our youth. I looked over at Abdellatif. For the
first time in ages I realized just what a terrible state he was in.
He had been incarcerated since the age of three and a half. Now he
was 18, and it was as though he had never been outside in his life.
My sister Maria weighed barely 66 pounds. Her huge dark eyes
devoured her tiny, gaunt face. Raouf was as thin as she was but
bloated from water retention. He was pale and toothless.
Nearly 15 years had gone by, 15 years of torture that had scarred
us terribly. But when I studied the three of them closely I would
catch an expression, mannerism, or smile that reminded me of the
children they had once been.
Locked up inside, we had tried to forget where we were. But now, in
that field, contemplating the place where we had suffered so much,
the reality suddenly came home to us. I couldn’t stop myself
from sobbing. I wept even more when I thought of those we had left
behind. I was so afraid for them. My heart contracted and a shudder
ran through me. I heard the others crying softly; they all felt the
After a while we got up and resumed walking. In the pitch dark,
with no landmarks and no signposts, we realized that we were going
around in circles. It was as distressing as being lost at sea or in
the desert. There was nothing to give us any clue where the road
was, and none of us had a good sense of direction. Mother had
taught me to read the stars, but I must have been a very bad
student. Despairing, I asked Abdellatif to guide us. "We are
adults," I said to him. "We may have committed sins, but not you.
You are so pure.… If there is a God, he’ll take pity on
you. You will lead us to freedom." We followed him without a word.
Our bodies were aching and our clothes were soaked through, but we
had to keep going.
"Malika," Abdellatif called finally. "Come and see. There’s
something hard. I don’t know what it is."
I ran up to him. My younger brother didn’t know what asphalt
was. The others joined us, rolling and kissing the pavement. We
were like astronauts, venturing their first steps on the
The Oufkirs were captured five days later. The entire family was
then reunited and for the next three and a half years lived under
house arrest outside Marrakech. In 1991, King Hassan II pardoned
the Oufkirs and five years later issued them passports and visas.
The family now lives in Paris.
According to Amnesty International hundreds of political prisoners
are still incarcerated throughout Morocco; the Moroccan government
admits that 56 political prisoners died in Moroccan jails between
1960 and 1980.
Excerpted from STOLEN LIVES © 2001 by Malika Oufkir.
Reprinted with permission from Talk Miramax Books. All rights