For three centuries or more, the Aït Atta tribe were the great warriors of the south, dominating the Jebel Saghro and its eastern extension, the Jebel Ougnat. As guerrilla fighters, they resisted the French occupation from the outset, finally retreating in early 1933 to the rocky stronghold of the Jebel Bou Gafer, a chaos of gorges and pinnacles. Despite the Aït Atta being vastly outnumbered by superior French forces, what followed was, according to David Hart in The Aït ‘Atta of Southern Morocco, “the hardest single battle which the French had ever had to fight in the course of their ‘pacification’ of Morocco”.
The French first attacked the stronghold on February 21, after which they launched almost daily attacks on the ground and from the air – the French are believed to have used four air squadrons at the battle, in addition to some 83,000 troops (the Aït Atta, in comparison, numbered around a thousand fighting men). Many died on both sides, but the Aït Atta, under the command of Hassou Ba Salem, did not surrender for over a month, by which time they were reduced to half their strength and had run short of ammunition.
Ba Salem’s conditions on surrender included a promise that the Aït Atta could maintain their tribal structures and customs, and that they would not be “ruled” by the infamous T’hami el Glaoui, the pasha of Marrakesh, whom they regarded as a traitor to their homeland (see El Glaoui: the Pasha of Marrakesh). The French were content to accept, the battle meaning that their “pacification” was virtually complete, and giving them access to the valuable silver and copper mines at Moudou.
Ba Salem died in 1960 and was buried at Taghia, his birthplace, 5km from Tinghir. Ali, his son, succeeded him as leader of the tribe, and took part in the 1975 Green March into the Western Sahara; he died in 1992 and is also buried at Taghia. As for the battlefield itself, local guides will show you the sites, including ruins of the stronghold. It is still littered with spent bullets, which are covered in spring by colourful clumps of thyme, rockroses and broom.