Western Sahara: Fighting for Freedom in Africa’s Last Colony

December 7, 2012

Artist Robin Kahn elucidates the situation of the last remaining colony in Africa, Western Sahara, by speaking with the political representative of the indigenous Saharawi people to Austria, Nadjat Hamdi.

Portrait of a man inside the “27 February” Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, 2010. Photo by Martine Perret. Courtesy of the UN.

Western Sahara is the last remaining colony in Africa. After the withdrawal of Spain in 1975, neighboring Morocco illegally invaded the country, forcing its indigenous population, the Sahrawi people, to live under occupation or face exile. Since then, the Sahrawi people have been divided between two lands.

Those living in the area bordering the Atlantic Ocean, which Polisario—an internationally recognized political representative of the Saharawi people in their struggle for independence—labels the “Occupied Zone,” endure an occupation violently imposed on them by the Moroccan government. There, Sahrawis live under constant threat of imprisonment and torture, with no UN Human Rights mandate in place. Meanwhile Morocco and its international allies plunder the land’s abundant natural resources of fish, phosphates, and oil.

Those who fled during Morocco’s initial attacks reside today in one of five refugee camps in the Algerian desert or within a narrow strip of barren land. This “Liberated Territory” of Western Sahara—as Polisario calls it—is flanked by a 2,700-km-long (1678-mile-long) wall built by Morocco and armed with a standing military, electronic sensors, and buried landmines.

“The Art of Sahrawi Cooking” was premised on the word jaima, which signifies both “family” and “tent.”

This past summer at documenta(13), I presented an installation and series of events about Western Sahara with Sahrawi women from La Cooperativa Unidad Nacional de Mujeres Sahrawis. Titled “The Art of Sahrawi Cooking,” it was premised on the word jaima, which in Hassanya (the Arabic dialect of the Saharawi people), signifies both “family” and “tent.” At the installation’s center was a hand-sewn tent—the traditional center of family life—transported from the refugee camps to a site in the Karlsaue Park. As in the camps, the jaima acts as a peaceful agent of personal and cultural exchange where all of our visitors are invited in—to share a glass of sweet mint tea, a bowl of couscous, and a discussion with Sahrawi people about their lives. The project aimed to bring the art of Saharawi hospitality to a global stage, in order to make Saharawi life visible and create understanding among cultures.

While in Kassel, I spoke with Nadjat Hamdi, who is Polisario’s representative to Austria.

Robin Kahn: Many are not familiar with the history and people of Western Sahara, which was occupied illegally by Morocco 38 years ago. Can you give us a brief summary?

Most [Sahrawi] families remain separated today after more than 38 years.

Nadjat Hamdi: When the area that is today Western Sahara was originally colonized, it was called Spanish Sahara. The Spanish government withdrew from our country in 1975 during the UN’s push to decolonize Africa. But at that moment our two neighboring countries, Morocco and Mauritania, invaded Western Sahara. They came with their troops and they occupied our country. The Sahrawis had been promised their independence from Spain, but instead they were met by military attacks and tens of thousands had to leave their homes. They had to escape across the Saharan desert to the Algerian frontier, where they built new homes in exile, in refugee camps.

RK: This was during what’s called the Green March?

NH: Yes, Morocco started with the Green March, where thousands of unarmed Moroccans marched into our country, but at the same time the Moroccan military attacked us from the other side.

RK: Were people caught by surprise?

NH: Yes. And our people were bombarded with napalm and white phosphorus and thousands of Sahrawi people lost their lives. Most families were separated and they remain separated today after more than 38 years.

RK: Are there still people in Western Sahara who are Sahrawi?

NH: Yes, a large part of the Sahrawi population is still living in the Occupied Zone, in the part of the country occupied by Morocco. They endure very hard lives, under oppression—a lot of them have been tortured and “disappeared.”

RK: Could you tell us a little about Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haider and what happened to her?

NH: She is one of the more famous human rights defenders in Western Sahara, but there are many more people who are fighting in peaceful ways for the freedom of Western Sahara, for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. These people face daily oppression by the Moroccan authorities. Aminatou Haider was jailed, blindfolded, and bound for many years, only because she wants what we all want: the right to determine our own futures, our own lives.

RK: From 1975 to 1991 there was fighting between the Moroccan military and the military of Western Sahara, or the Polisario Front. Since then, there has been a cease-fire and you are now a peaceful advocate for independence as a representative of the Polisario. How did you become a member of the Polisario?

NH: I grew up in the Polisario Movement because my parents are members of the Polisario. When the Polisario started fighting for freedom in Western Sahara, I was a child and I saw, with my own eyes, how the Moroccans arrived in my town, in my city, and tortured my people. I had to leave then with my parents and never return. We crossed the desert with many people and built the refugee camps. Most Sahrawi people are either members of the Polisario, or are sympathetic to the Polisario, because it is the legitimate representative of our rights as Sahrawis.

RK: Do you have representation at the UN?

There are about 200,000 people still living in refugee camps in the southwest part of Algeria and most of them are women.

NH: The Polisario has had representation at the UN since 1979, when it was accepted as the legitimate political representative of the Sahrawi people seeking independence. We have representatives stationed in many countries in the world—in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America. We have embassies in a lot of countries, namely those that recognize the legitimacy of the Arab Democratic Republic of Sahara (SADR), which is the official governing body of the Sahrawi people and its inhabitants living in the five camps. Those embassies have diplomatic relationships with the Polisario. In most European countries, we have representatives. The Polisario even represents us in the United States.

RK: Most of the population does not live in the zone occupied by Morocco. For the past 38 years, they’ve been living in the Hamada—the hottest part of the Saharan Desert, which is in Algeria. They fled there, over the border to Tindouf because it was a secure place where they could establish themselves safely with refugee status. Can you tell us a little bit about the Tindouf camps?

Tindouf, Algeria, 2006. Photo by Saharauiak.

NH: There are about 200,000 people still living in refugee camps in the southwest part of Algeria near the town of Tindouf and most of them are women. Sahrawi women are responsible for organizing everything there because when we first established and built the camps, most of the men were at the front, fighting against the Moroccan occupation. In the camps, the women had to assume—and still assume—the responsibility for building homes, followed by schools and hospitals. They organized our whole life in the camps.

RK: So when they escaped—the older people and the little children with the women leading the way—how were they able to build houses?

NH: There is nothing there in this area because it’s in the Hamada. It’s very difficult to live there, but they started to mix sand with water to make bricks to build with. First they built and lived only in jaimas—tents.

RK: Didn’t they make the first jaimas by taking off their clothes and using the cloth from their melfas (women’s traditional robes)?

NH: Yes, and then they built schools out of sand bricks because it’s not easy to have hundreds of children in one jaima.

RK: I heard that the schools were dug under the sand for the first two years.

NH: Yes, because we were very scared about the possibility of being bombed by Morocco, which had started to follow the Sahrawi people into the desert.

RK: Did they actually come across the boundary of Algeria?

NH: No, but the camps are just at the border. Morocco started to say that they have the right to follow us everywhere even though we were in Algeria and that’s when the people became careful. Because we lived in tents, we knew that every family would need a bunker.

RK: So the men arrived in the camps after the women had already hand-built their own houses. The men were fighting and so they would come back from time to time to visit. But because of this situation, it is safe to say that the camps are pretty much built and organized by a system of women’s cooperatives?

NH: Even the tents are hand-sewn by a women’s cooperative.

RK: In 1976, a new constitution-in-exile was written in the camps where women wrote into the constitution that they had equal rights with men?

NH: Yes. This concept had already been established since the first conference of the Polisario. It was clear then that women and men have the same rights.

RK: That’s very unusual—in other Islamic countries, that is not the case.

NH: Yes, Sahrawi women have always enjoyed the same rights as men. Originally, we were a nomadic society. The role of women has always been important in these societies.

School of Sahrawi refugees in Smara, 2007. Photo by Eleleku.

RK: Can you talk a bit about how culture plays a role in the camps? They’re highly organized, particularly by the women. The SADR Minister of Culture, Khadija Hamdi, is a woman. She travels globally, using art and culture as a peaceful weapon to talk about the country.

Morocco started to build this defensive wall … It’s 60 times larger than the Berlin Wall and no one has heard about this crime.

NH: I think part of our struggle is to maintain our culture, to keep it alive and to pass it on to the new generation. The role of the SADR Ministry of Culture is to keep Sahrawi traditions alive. We need to start to write down our history because as a nomadic society, a lot of poetry and stories and songs have been passed along orally.

People are suffering so much under the occupation, but they still fight peacefully. Their struggle to continue the fight for their independence is also a struggle to keep our culture alive. I think we have to do everything to maintain this kind of thinking in order to safeguard and honor our culture as part of ourselves.

RK: The wall that separates the Sahrawis living in the Occupied Zone from their relatives living in both the Liberated Territory and in the camps gives the Moroccans control over 80 percent of Western Sahara. They have control over all of the coast bordering the Atlantic Ocean. A peace process was brokered by the UN after the wall was finished in…?

NH: 1991.

RK: The UN brokered that cease-fire by promising the people of Western Sahara that it would ensure that a referendum take place under which the Sahrawis would have the right to self-determination.

NH: And it hasn’t taken place.

RK: Can you just say a little bit about why?

NH: Morocco started to build this defensive wall, as Morocco calls it. We call it the “Wall of Shame” because it has divided our country and separated our families, our people, for 30 years. This wall is very dangerous: Thousands of landmines are buried around it. Because of this fact, there is no possibility for us to pursue a nomadic life anywhere near this wall. It is the largest wall in the world now. It’s 60 times larger than the Berlin Wall and no one has heard about this crime.

In 1991, the Polisario and Morocco signed a peace plan and the UN promised us that it would organize a referendum. In 2012, this referendum has still not been organized. The Sahrawi people are still waiting peacefully to have the opportunity to vote for their right to self-determination. The referendum has not been scheduled because Morocco has no interest in letting it take place. Every year, the UN continues its mission to grant a referendum in Western Sahara and after 25 years, nothing has happened. It’s very hard for the people to still believe in the UN and in the international community. Sahrawi children who were born after 1991 are now adults. They have finished their studies. They have no future to count on. There is no peace. Families are still separated because of the wall, but also because of this situation.

Women at sunset inside the “27 February” Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, 2010. Photo by Martine Perret. Courtesy of the UN.

RK: Do you have hope that this can change?

NH: Yes. I still believe in the international community and I still believe in the UN and I hope if the political community is willing, things can change. We, as Sahrawis, and we in the Polisario, want this long conflict to be resolved. We still have faith in the political process and we are hoping that the international community will be able to support us so that we can be heard and achieve this fundamental and legal right for our people.