Photo Essay

Still life in Western Sahara: Building a country from the outside.

Kids Playing in bullets dump camp

It has been 35 years since Morocco invaded the then called 'Spanish Sahara'. Life has changed and is on hold since the United Nation's intervention in 1991 in calling for a ceasefire, but there has been no resolution to the conflict for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR); only a cold war.

On their 'refugee' condition, the Sahrawi (indigenous people from Western Sahara, living near the province of Tindouf, Algeria) have kept the struggle for their identity, and in opposition to the Western culture's self-conscious obsessions, these people have developed a common goal feeling; like one big family with each member playing an important role, the goal being freedom...but in this modern world, for how long would this feeling last?

The exiled Sahrawi government is commanded by the POLISARIO Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Ri­o de Oro) with Mohammed Abdelaziz as President. Times have changed and many ex-soldiers have become diplomats around the world, spreading the word about the conditions of their people: refugees can not develop industrially, while in the occupied territory, the Sahrawi people suffer constant violation of their human rights through torture, arbitrary detentions and disappearances.

In Western culture we take freedom as a given, so we hope this right would also reach Africa and the rest of the world soon. This is the general thinking of the International community; pleased with sending some food to the refugee camp areas, instead of promoting the right of nations to self-determination in the UN forums. Media also plays an important role in the struggle to get more international attention to this conflict, which then transforms into more international pressure for Morocco and also more aid for the people - the only source for refugees to get some food. The main interest of Morocco is to control the phosphate and gas mines in Bucraa and the fishing on the coasts of the occupied territory, which is behind a wall they started building many years of the largest walls in the world.

This is the only Spanish speaking Arab country in the world, where thanks to the media; Civil Society organizations from Spain have adopted the role of building hospitals and sending out doctors. Unfortunately however, once built, hospitals are very hard to support due to the lack of resources. In some camps like Dahla - there is a lot of water, but no electricity, in the camp called 'February 27' there is electricity, but lack of water. Some families have saved enough to build a house made of adobe bricks, while others still live in the giant Bedouin tents called 'Jaimas'. Some of them still drive old Jeeps that once took them to the war frontline against Morocco.

Inside the Sahrawi Refugee Camps, families have a cooperative and structured organization to do their labours; sons build houses for the old men...and inside the kitchens; mothers cook and daughters take care of little (and often many) children. Inside the Jaima tents, the old people make tea, surrounded by pictures of a geographically scattered family. The life of a refugee continues between primary school, helping in hospitals and taking care of war survivors; but always keeping true to their Islamic values. There's not really much to do in a refugee camp - at three o'clock construction work is finished and young men sit around the television, taking advantage of the electricity and antenna available, to watch (with Arabic subtitles) John Cena and Jericho fight in a far away place known as America. On MTV ARABIA they hear repeatedly the words 'Habibi' (my love)...while on the news channels they hear the word Falastin (Palestine) over and over again.

New communication technologies transform societies, mobile phones ring all day long with calls from Spanish, Lebanese and Algerian friends. With internet access, the youth have adopted values like total respect to women from the outside, rarely seen in other Islamic countries, but has become a way for vices and obsessions from western world: The few money young people earns is to buy cigarettes, phone cards or going into internet caf���©s in order to become citizens of the world.

Deterioration of morality is the main symptom for this new disease: to be absolutely ignored as human beings for so long. Old men who fought in 1975 are dying and young people are moving to other countries. That's exactly the strategy of Morocco and his political allies; to wait until this sickness consumes Sahrawi people. A clear example of this happened in 2009, when Sahrawi female activist Aminetu Haidar remained on hunger strike for 32 days in the Lanzarote Airport of the Canary Islands. She was denied the right to go back to El-Aiun (Western Sahara's capital occupied city) with her sons. So the Moroccan police deported her to the Spanish territory, where the government offered her Spanish citizenship; instead of helping her to go back to her family.

The Tindouf region, where the refugee camps are, is the desert's worst place to live in Algeria; refugees miss the 'moon landscapes' of sunburnt rocks and the oasis with camels that have slowly been covered with minefields, trenches and tanks. The desert is not just a vast space of emptiness - between goat bones, rusty car parts and empty American Legend cigarette packets, we find the desert full of something we often forget in our daily lives: peace.

As politicians and activists give speeches; the refugees wait for the referendum promised by the UN 20 years ago, to choose between freedom, or adhesion to Morocco. As faith in bureaucratic discussions fades away, the option of taking up arms again seems the only way out. If you ask a child about it, he will answer very self-assuredly: "Even though we're less and we have old armament, we'll win; because we fight for our families, not for money...we know it, and they know it".

3 responses

  • ajtiM

    ajtiM (Deleted) said (10 Feb 2011):


  • Ariane Palacio

    Ariane Palacio gave props (12 Apr 2011):

    very nice story... the colors are exceptional!

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (27 Sep 2011):


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