Professor Juan Miguel Sánchez Vigil treasures two jewels in Madrid, a camera and a gumía. They serve to approach the drama that was the disaster of Annual, of which these days are 100 years old. With the first, the reporter Alfonsito made the most famous portrait of Abdelkrim; the second, which belonged to the rebel chief and handed over to the photographer as a souvenir, symbolizes the victory of some raggedy men over an army that is theoretically much superior. That war not only allows us to understand the twentieth century in Spain, but also explains who Riffians are today and why they are the most unruly among Moroccans.
July 22, 1921 is marked with blood, fire and knife as the beginning of the Annual disaster. Some 10,000 Spanish soldiers – some sources raise this figure – left their lives in just over two weeks in front of the Kabyles, much poorer in resources and men, led by Mohamed ben Abdelkrim el Jatabi (1882-1963). A humanitarian disaster led by poorly organized and unprepared troops and an Administration eaten up by corruption and disagreements. The man who led them, General Manuel Fernández Silvestre, continues to be the most frequently cited to explain the very black event.
“The heroic figure of Abdelkrim unites almost all Riffians”, defends through videoconference Rachid Raha (Nador, Morocco, 1964), president of the Amazigh World Assembly, which brings together the international Berber movement and its demands. Even today this association demands responsibilities from France and Spain, which with their bombardments on the Rif became the first army in the world to gas its enemy from the air, according to historian María Rosa de Madariaga. “It is impossible to know how many died on the Riff side,” acknowledges M’hamed Chafih, who contributes the Moroccan point of view as co-author of The flight of the vultures, the posthumous work of Jorge M. Reverte, published last April.
“The Rif has always lived independently, without recognizing any domination. And so it goes on and so on “
Abdelkrim in his interview with Luis de Oteyza in August 1922
The Rif Republic project (1922-1926) failed to impose itself on the Spanish protectorate. Before surrendering, Abdelkrim had made public his dream, which Madrid saw as a chimera. “If Spain recognized our independence, we would reach an alliance with her, and she would not have friends more faithful and more devoted than us.” This is how the Riffian leader expressed himself in the interview he gave in his stronghold of Axdir to the reporter Luis de Oteyza, director of the newspaper Freedom, on August 2, 1922. “The Rif has always lived independently, without recognizing any domination. And so it goes on and so on ”. With this diatribe, Abdelkrim showed his postulates to the journalist, who had come to the lands of the Beniurriaguel tribe to check the status of several hundred Spanish prisoners of war who had remained there since the previous summer.
Dangerous and secret mission
Oteyza, aware of the complexity of the mission as dangerous and because he wanted to keep it secret, had decided to go himself to the Rif despite being the director of the medium. He asked his friend, and then already renowned photographer Alfonso Sánchez García, to accompany him, but this, due to scheduling reasons, delegated his son Alfonso Sánchez Portela (1902-1990), then 19 years old and known as Alfonsito. With a bombardment of their boat included, it took them a month to reach the domain of Abdelkrim. They were eventually joined by a second photographer, Pepe Díaz Casariego, who also occupies an important place in the history of Spanish photography.
The exclusive, carried out over several days in the field, ended up covered in its entirety, beyond the pages of numerous national and foreign newspapers, in Oteyza’s 1922 book, Abdelkrim and the prisoners, which he reissued in 2018 Ediciones del Viento. In the interview, the director of the newspaper’s approach to the reality of his interlocutor is also perceived. It is an attempt to shake the prevailing point of view in Spain of the brutalized and ruthless Moor who systematically cut off the heads of soldiers and raped women. The harsh images of Annual, widely disseminated, continued to impose their law on the Spanish population. But the reporter sometimes cross-examines the leader seeking to clarify what happened and to find out first-hand what his plans and thoughts are. Abdelkrim and his men even detail how Silvestre’s suicide was on the battlefield. That death today remains unclear.
Ruthless or compassionate. Everything fits into the descriptions made by Abdelkrim. “They say that he slaughters the Spaniards with his own gumía”, orders “executions and stoning” or “burns down the houses of the Spanishists in person.” Others point out that it gives “orders to preserve the lives of the prisoners.” This is how Manuel Leguineche tells it in his book Annual. The disaster of Spain in the Rif. 1921.
To bolster the credibility of his journalistic achievement, Oteyza had himself photographed with the Riffian leader and the arrested military. He also requested autographed notes from both parties. Everything was little to attest to what was happening in a territory that many spoke about without direct references. The information war was also the order of the day. In fact, at one point he asks that the airmen be portrayed first, “burned alive according to the exact unofficial news that was communicated to the newspapers, so that it can be seen how well informed our directors are of what happens in the Rif” .
From that trip to Axdir the young Alfonsito returned with a good handful of snapshots captured with his Goerz camera with 9 x 12 plates. in front of the lens. That image was first published in The Impartial on August 6, 1922 although it was the cover of The voice the day before, the first media that reported with graphic material of the exclusive by taking on the cover the photo of the Riffian leader with Luis de Oteyza, according to Professor Sánchez Vigil. This immediacy in seeing the light for the media available at the time reflects the importance of the material achieved when not all the press bet decisively on photography. A curious example is Freedom, which was directed by Oteyza himself, says the professor.
The reporter also returned to Madrid with the gumía, the traditional curved dagger that the rebel leader gave him as a souvenir. It is a detail that does not appear in Oteyza’s book but is recalled by Juan Miguel Sánchez Vigil, to whom his friend Alfonsito gave the camera with which he took those photos and the Riffian leader’s weapon before he died in 1990. The photographer and Sánchez Vigil had met when the professor worked as a graphic editor at the Espasa publishing house and acquired material from Alfonso’s archive, which operated as an agency.
Over the years, this specialist professor in photographic documentation at the Complutense University became the photographer’s confidant. They used to be seen every Saturday in the family’s studio museum at number 20 on Madrid’s Gran Vía. But in those years of friendship, Alfonsito never told him that there was a second reporter on the Axdir mission. The professor ties up the dots when he gets hold of the original edition of Oteyza’s book. “We must be fair and acknowledge it,” Sánchez Vigil sentenced in reference to the participation in the trip of Díaz Casariego, whose work also appeared in the press those days. In fact, according to this professor, the first time Abdelkrim appears on the cover of a magazine is with an image of Díaz Casariego. Is about Graphic world On August 9.
The Annual disaster is part of the period of African wars that kept Spain intertwined from 1859 until the landing of Al Hoceima between 1925 and 1927. Those were years, especially as the 20th century progressed, in which Spanish photojournalism took the opportunity to struggle. That experience on the ground “was essential to understand the magnitude of the problem and really know what happened,” explains Sánchez Vigil in the book Photography in the wars of Africa (Editorial Fragua, 2021). These conflicts were the media prelude to the Civil War, for many the foundation of modern war photojournalism thanks to the generalization of smaller, faster and more versatile 35-millimeter cameras such as the Leica.
Annual’s unclosed wound marked the history of Spain not only because of the enormous carnage, but also because it led to the coup d’état and the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, the end of the reign of Alfonso XIII, the Second Republic and the coup d’état Francisco Franco with the Civil War and four decades of dictatorship.
The most famous prisoner
On the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, the rebellious seed that Abdelkrim sowed continues to bear fruit a century later in those mountains that overlook the Mediterranean. There, the riots continue to be recurrent and firmer than in other areas of the country. Some even wear Alfonsito’s portrait of the rebel leader on his shirt. That the Rif is a tough nut to crack was learned by Hassan II, who died in 1999 without ever officially visiting it as monarch. And his son Mohamed VI knows this, then came to the throne with the intention of building bridges with that untamed region.
He was able to see it again in the early morning of February 24, 2004, when the bowels of the earth cracked in the Rif. The worst disaster suffered by Morocco in decades resulted in more than 600 deaths. The monarch, who had not yet been on the throne for five years, took four days to visit the area. By then, the aftershocks below the ground had been joined by tremors of popular discontent. Thousands of citizens carried out looting and assaults on humanitarian aid caravans in protests that, in addition, clamored for institutional abandonment that had long gone. Under the consequences of the so-called Alhucemas earthquake underlay the historical discontent of that northern region that defeated the Spanish army.
That popular uprising, known as Hirak (movement in Arabic), continues to demand “socio-economic and cultural rights” although “it never claims the separation of the Rif from Morocco” as claimed by the leader of the Beniurriaguel, clarifies Rachid Raha, who is also editor of the monthly The Amazigh World. The reality is that today, the most famous prisoner in the Maghreb country is Nasser Zafzafi, head of the Hirak from Al Hoceima, sentenced to 20 years in prison. A kind of Abdelkrim of the 21st century that also appears in protest t-shirts.