Four decades after its people were promised freedom by departing Spanish rulers, the Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. While a UN-brokered ceasefire put an end to armed hostilities in the territory in 1991, the Sahrawi people have continued to live under the oppressive occupation of the Moroccan armed forces, and what peace exists in the area is fragile at best. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis have fled to neighboring Algeria, where over 125,000 refugees still live in camps that were intended to be temporary.
(Photo via Iara Lee)
In spite of these difficulties, a new generation of activists is rising to challenge human rights abuses and to demand the long-promised referendum on freedom. Even while risking torture and disappearance, today’s Sahrawi resistance is deploying creative nonviolent action for the cause of self-determination. Filmmakers, poets, painters, and musicians have become the voice of the movement, alongside the activists in the streets and jails.
What can you do to help end the occupation in one of the world's last colonies? On this page, we present a selection of inspiring campaigns led by artists and activists fighting for a free Western Sahara. Join them, and lend your voice to a movement that the world can no longer ignore!
Keeping Nonviolent Resistance Alive: Women Take Center Stage
One of the defining aspects of the Sahrawi resistance movement is the strong role of women. One of the most dedicated activists in the struggle is Aminatou Haidar, known as the "Sahrawi Gandhi," whose hunger strike in 2009 helped raise global awareness of the injustices taking place under Moroccan occupation. The resistance led by Haidar and her fellow activists has become a beacon of creative nonviolent action in the region, and helped to catalyze the Arab Spring— yet it has been widely neglected in media coverage of the uprisings in the region. The Sahrawi uprisings have not yet resulted in the kind of cataclysmic changes that have rocked the rest of the region, but they have sparked a resilient movement that remains committed to nonviolence.
The leadership of groups like the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Saharauis, or National Union of Sahrawi Women, has been central to keeping nonviolent Sahrawi resistance alive. Founded in 1974 and guided by the work of Aminatou Haidar, UNMS is a coalition of female activists of all ages who are standing up to extreme human rights abuses to demand freedom. UNMS activists have been jailed, beaten, and tortured, and yet they continue to expand their struggle both locally and internationally. Connect with UNMS through their blog (Spanish) as well as on Facebook and Twitter to learn how you can take part!
For more photos and testimonies from women in the Sahrawi movement, check out photographer Dani Lagartofernandez's brilliant black-and-white photo essay.
FiSahara Film Festival
The largest gathering of Western Sahara artists and activists is the annual FiSahara International Film Festival, which takes place every spring in the Dakhla refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. The annual festival brings regional and international cinema, as well as international media attention, to the Sahrawi refugee community living in the camps. (For example, it helped inspire Spanish actor Javier Bardem's documentary Sons of the Clouds and his ongoing campaign for justice in Western Sahara.) Moreover, the festival is a site of education and organizing for Sahrawi artistis and activists, both from the refugee community and the diaspora. In addition to film workshops that take place during the festival, FiSahara acts as the basis for a year-round film school that provides hands-on training to young refugees so that they can tell their own stories and create films for their communities.
For a taste of FiSahara, check out this short trailer for the 2013 festival:
Want to be a part of this incredible political and cultural experience? The FiSahara team coordinates travel to the festival from Madrid and housing with families in Dakhla camp. Head to their website to contact them about booking your trip! The dates for the 2014 festival are Tuesday, April 29 to Sunday, May 4.
Can't make it all the way to Tindouf this year? Chip in to keep the festival alive until you can. FiSahara counts on international donations to maintain its excellent programs and resources, including workshops, DVD libraries, and more, and even a small donation will go a long way towards promoting Sahrawi creative resistance.
Toppling the Wall of Shame
When Moroccan forces realized in 1981 that they could not defeat Sahrawi guerrillas in the desert, they began building a 2,500 km wall to isolate the guerrillas in the east of the territory. The result, now known among Sahrawis as the Wall of Shame, is the world's largest defensive structure: half the size of the Great Wall of China and four times the length of the separation wall in the West Bank, the Wall of Shame is guarded by some 100,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by over 5,000,000 landmines.
Toppling the wall has become a priority for the resistance movement in Western Sahara, which aims at full self-determination and an end to Moroccan occupation throughout the territory. One of the groups leading this struggle is
Plataforma Gritos Contra el Muro Marroquí, which aims both to mobilize activists on the ground and to encourage resistance to the wall through the arts. Link up with them on Facebook or through their blog (Spanish) to show your support!
What You Can Do
The groups on this page provide a sense of the landscape of activism taking place in Western Sahara. To start getting more involved yourself, both with these groups and other, there are a number of steps that you can take.
- Inform yourself: One of the biggest problems in building international solidarity with the Sahrawi struggle is awareness. Very few people around the world are aware of the struggle, and the conflict receives far less media attention than comparable struggles in Palestine and Kashmir. This is partly because of the powerful influence of secretive Moroccan lobbies in the international community, as highlighted in the the documentary Sons of the Clouds (2012). We highly recommend watching this film, directed by Javier Bardem, as an introduction to the Sahrawi struggle.
One of the best sources of news on the conflict is Jadaliyya, which also hosted an excellent roundtable on the conflict in June 2013, featuring seven articles by scholars and activists. For further analysis, we recommend the writings of Dr. Stephen Zunes, a leading scholar of U.S. Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action. To dig into the resource side of the conflict and learn about how foreign powers and corporations are profiting off of the occupation, check out Western Sahara Resource Watch.
As you get more informed, share your knowledge. Have some friends over to discuss one of the articles or the film listed above. Organize a panel on your campus or in your community center. Post about the conflict on social media. Do what you can to make more people aware!
- Make connections: Get in touch with the groups listed on this page, and let them know that you're interested in their work. Facebook is a great way to contact Union Nacional de Mujeres Saharawi or Plataforma Gritos Contra el Muro, for example—follow the links to like, follow, and message them. For activists who are on the ground struggling daily against repression and violence, just knowing that people around the world are supporting and in solidarity is important.
If you're interested in learning about a broader range of Sahrawi resistance groups, check out CEAS-Sáhara (Coordinadora Estatal de Asociaciones Solidarias con el Sáhara), a network of over 200 groups including several of the groups listed above. The CEAS website (in Spanish) is a great place to learn more individual groups and campaigns you can support, whether it's freedom for political prisoners, defending universal jurisdiction, or the Sahara Marathon. Another good source for information, analysis, and campaigns—available in English, French, and Spanish—is the Western Sahara Action Forum.
To support the groups leading the resistance on the ground, more and more international activists are forming solidarity campaigns in their countries. Consider joining up with others in your area to figure out how you can collectively take action; ultimately, this means bringing together like-minded people to discuss in person. A number of countries already have online hubs that can help you get in touch with people who might be in your area. Among them are the Amis du Peuple du Sahara Occidental (France), Western Sahara Campaign (UK), and the Asociacion Mujeres Saharauis en España (AMSE) (Spain). In addition to providing an additional way to make contacts, these groups can provide you with lots of resources. Connect with a group that speaks your language and find out how you can join!
- Make art against occupation: Whether through film, poetry, photography, or painting, artists and journalists have long fostered a culture of resistance in occupied Western Sahara. Women like Mariam Hassan sing songs of freedom in the refugee camps. Poets in Western Sahara and in the Sahrawi diaspora have launched collaborative projects like Generacíon de la Amistad Saharaui (Sahrawi Friendship Generation), which is both an anthology of poetry and a hub for activism. ARTifariti has created a space for artists and activists to meet, collaborate, and create: check out some of the great work it has already inspired, from the Congo to Colombia to the Sahrawi camps. If you like what these artists are doing, reach out to them!
Groups like Sandblast help promote the voices of the indigenous Sahrawi through the arts. Sandblast is the only arts and human rights charity based in the UK that works with the people of Western Sahara. It is primarily concerned with raising awareness about the conflict in Africa’s last colony, highlighting the self-determination struggle of the Sahrawi people, and empowering their voices through the arts. The organization was founded in 2005 by Danielle Smith, who became involved with the Sahrawi refugee community, in southwest Algeria, in 1991. Her initial mission was to bring the Sahrawi story to wider audiences through the organization of a UK-first festival and tour of Sahrawi arts and culture.
Are you a writer? An artist? A filmmaker? Whatever your talent, channel the Sahrawi spirit of resistance in your own work and help spread the word about this issue. If you're not an artist, but you're inspired by the work on this page, use your reading groups, community spaces, and social media to share it and amplify the voices of the Sahrawi movement.
- Donate: Groups like FiSahara count on financial donations from abroad to sustain their efforts. But there are many ways to contribute to the cause besides giving money. You can host a small fundraiser—perhaps a film screening, poetry reading, or house party. You can donate equipment, ranging from DVDs to cameras to memory cards to projectors. And you can donate your services: for example, translation from Spanish or Arabic into English and other languages. Reach out to the groups above to find out how you can volunteer.
- Consider traveling to Western Sahara: There are several ways you can travel to the region and work with Sahrawi artists artists and activists. FiSahara coordinates travel to the festival from Madrid and housing with families in the refugee camps outside Tindouf, Algeria. Artifariti offers an art residency program, also in Tindouf. Get in touch with them to learn how you can take part!