Western Sahara, ‘Africa’s last colony’, was divided between Morocco and Mauritania by the Spanish when they withdrew in 1976 following the mass mobilization by the Moroccans known as ‘the Green March’. The preceding year the International Court of Justice had rejected Moroccan and Mauritanian claims to sovereignty over the territory, effectively recognizing the Saharawis’ right to independence. In February 1976, the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. A 16-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, the Mauritanians having withdrawn in 1979. In 1991, the fighting came to end and under the terms of a 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised. However, this has been continually blocked by Morocco, leaving the Saharawi to live in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.
The remotest of camps
Home to nearly 30,000 refugees, Dakhla, named after the beautiful coastal city in Western Sahara, is the most remote of the camps, located 175 kilometers away from the nearest city, Tindouf. It has no paved roads and is entirely dependent on outside supplies of food and water. In the summer months, temperatures on the hammada desert plain regularly top 120 degrees. With sandstorms, little vegetation and no sources of food or water, it is little wonder that the area is known locally as ‘The Devil’s Garden’. And yet, incredibly, for a week each May, this desolate refugee camp plays host to the Sahara International Film Festival, a gala of screenings, workshops and concerts attended by an array of internationally acclaimed actors and film-makers.
Now in its sixth year, the festival was set up by award-winning Peruvian documentary film-maker, Javier Corcuera, and aims to both entertain and educate the refugees as well as raising awareness internationally of the plight of the Saharawi people. There are over 500 international participants in attendance, mainly Spaniards, who flew into Tindouf in two charter planes and travelled to the sprawling ochre-coloured camp in a convoy of vehicles. Dakhla itself is clean and well organized, with wide sandy streets lined with houses and tents forming neat family compounds. The festival site is in a spacious area in the centre of the camp and includes a multiplex-sized outdoor screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry. The central screen is surrounded by tents for workshops, exhibitions and indoor screenings as well as numerous stalls. The programme includes over 40 films from around the world. The themes mainly explore diverse experiences of struggle and hope, but there is some lighter entertainment and even an animated film which holds enraptured the capacity crowd of refugee children. Audiovisual workshops run by the London-based charity Sandblast, provide Saharawi refugees with an opportunity to learn about all aspects of film-making as well as create their own video messages, which are put online and can be seen by their extended families in Western Sahara, from whom they have been separated for over 33 years.
The festival is gaining renown, helped by the support of luminaries such as Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar. This year a number of well-known people from the entertainment industry were there, including actors Helena Anaya (Sex and Lucia), Eduardo Noriega (Vantage Point) and Oscar-nominated film director, Javier Fesser. Rumours, however, that Benicio del Toro and football legend Diego Maradona might turn up, prove to be untrue. ‘We are mainly B and C-listers,’ Noriega laughs. ‘Last year we had a proper A-lister in Javier Bardem.’ Bardem’s visit helped the festival garner publicity, which ensured that the festival even secured a half-page spread in OK! magazine and helped campaigners in Spain to gather 250,000 signatories (to date) petitioning the Spanish Government to act to support the Saharawris’ demand for self-determination.
The celebrities, like all visitors to the festival, stay with Saharawi families, sharing their homes and their food. Living alongside the refugees gives visitors an indelible insight into the conditions under which the refugees live and motivates many participants to get involved in the campaign to lobby their respective governments to put political pressure on the Morocco over the situation in Western Sahara. The campaign in Spain is growing steadily, boosted by a sense of betrayal felt towards Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s new socialist government, which failed to reverse the long-held Spanish policy toward Morocco.
However, campaigners recognize that to affect real change the focus of attention cannot just be on the Spanish Government. With Morocco recently named by the US as a major non-NATO ally, and with many Western governments and companies involved in lucrative trade deals with the Moroccans, action has not been high on the international political agenda. Large reserves of phosphate, vast fishing grounds and potential offshore reserves of oil and gas mean that the Western Sahara is not a possession that the Moroccans will relinquish lightly.
Privately, a Polisario representative admits concern about the rising level of militancy among some young Saharawis. After waiting with patient rage while countless UN resolutions have been passed and ignored, many are losing faith in the diplomatic process. Indeed, Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit is one such young man. He had been taking part in a march to the 1553 mile-long fortified barrier known as ‘the wall’ built by the Moroccans to stop the Saharawis from returning to their land. In a symbolic gesture, Ibrahim was attempting to get close enough to the wall to throw a pebble to the other side when he trod on the landmine. He is rapidly becoming something of a hero to the Saharawi cause, a symbol of their defiance. Ibrahim has no regrets. ‘I would gladly lose my other leg if it would mean my country could be free,’ he says with earnest.
At a dusty red carpet ceremony on the final day, the decision of the popular jury is announced and the White Camel award for best picture is picked up by producer Albert Noriega for the 2008 Steven Soderbergh film, Che, Guerilla. The atmosphere is emotionally charged as participants and organizers, some waving flags of the Saharawi nation, take to the stage in a final act of solidarity with the refugees. After the obligatory photo-calls, the international participants board the waiting fleet of Landcruisers in buoyant mood.
Photo by: Stefan Simanowitz
But as our convoy heads back across the expanse of empty desert the mood starts to change and thoughts turn to those we have left behind. The further we drive, the more apparent it becomes just how isolated and abandoned the refugees are. During the 16-year war, captured Moroccan prisoners would not be held behind walls or barbed-wire fences. Instead they would be corralled into open compounds in the desert. Prisoners were free to leave at anytime. But in the Sahara there is nowhere to go. Although conditions in the refugee camps are by no means wretched, with all basic needs taken care of by international aid agencies, Dakhla is essentially a desert prison. Despite a tangible undercurrent of anger and frustration, the camp has not become a slough of despond. Indeed, Y. Lamine Baali, Polisario’s UK representative, tells me that what fuels Saharawri determination to carry on is a strong sense of injustice. A word I hear a lot in Dakhla is ‘karama’. I ask Baali what it means. It is an Arabic word for strength and dignity, he explains. ‘Karama is the essence of our existence,’ he tells me. ‘The illegal occupation of our homeland is a terrible affront to our karama. When you hurt people in this way you threaten their whole existence.’
Postscript: Return to action
I touch down in London, dusty and somewhat dazed, but with a rare clarity of purpose. The next day at work I take my boss aside and hand her my letter of resignation. Whilst staying in refugee camp in Dakhla, I realized that the lack of international awareness of the Saharawis’ struggle makes their desperate situation feel even more hopeless than it already is. And so I have resolved to give up my day job and work with the Free Western Sahara Campaign to help move the story of the Saharawi refugees off the culture pages of a few magazines reporting on the film festival and on to the international pages of all newspapers, where it belongs.
Next year, it is hoped that there will be direct flights to Tindouf from London, Paris and LA filled with actors, film-makers and musicians as well as ordinary people wanting to be part of the festival and show their solidarity with the Saharawi. In this way the festival will become even more of an international event, putting pressure on political decision-makers at the highest level and reminding the world of an otherwise forgotten conflict.