Nearly a half century after its people were promised freedom by departing Spanish rulers, Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. Since 1975, Morocco has occupied the area, refusing to give its residents a vote on independence. Armed conflict between independence groups and the Moroccan military were suspended following a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991. However, the referendum on self-determination promised by this agreement never took place. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis have fled to neighboring Algeria, where more than 125,000 refugees still live in camps that were intended to be temporary.
On November 13, 2020, in response to a peaceful protest by Sahrawis, Morocco broke the three-decades-long ceasefire by launching a military operation in a United Nations-patrolled buffer strip. Since then, military exchanges have resumed. Then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara only inflamed tensions further.
Given the current state of crisis in Western Sahara, local activists have called for international solidarity to defend human rights. In recent years, young artists and activists have risked torture and disappearance at the hands of the Moroccan military by standing up for their freedoms and demanding the long-promised referendum on freedom. In civil society, filmmakers, poets, painters, and musicians have used their creativity to promote the cause of self-determination. If you want to join in international efforts to support a free Western Sahara, below is information on how you can take action:
One of the biggest problems in building international solidarity with Western Sahara is awareness. Very few people around the world are aware of the conflict because it receives little attention in the mainstream media. Here are some useful resources to familiarize yourself with the struggle and keep up on new developments:
- Two documentary films provide context and history about the conflict. In 2015, Cultures of Resistance Films director iara lee created a documentary called Life Is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara in an attempt to provide important background about this issue. One reason for the media blackout of the Western Sahara conflict is the powerful influence of Moroccan lobbying in the international community. This influence was highlighted in the the documentary Sons of the Clouds (2012), directed by Javier Bardem, which also serves as an excellent introduction to the Sahrawi struggle.
- One of the best sources of news on the conflict is Jadaliyya, which publishes regular updates and news stories about Western Sahara. For additional analysis, we recommend the writings of Dr. Stephen Zunes, a leading scholar of US Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action who has a collection of several dozen articles, from 1989 to the present, that astutely evaluate ongoing developments.
- Check out Western Sahara Resource Watch to dig into the resource side of the conflict and learn about how foreign powers and corporations are profiting from the occupation.
- As you get more informed, share your knowledge. Have some friends over to discuss one of the articles or films 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!
A next step toward increasing your involvement is getting in touch with groups that support the Sahrawi people and letting them know that you’re interested in their work. For activists who are on the ground struggling daily against repression and violence, just knowing that people around the world are standing in solidarity is vital.
- An excellent source for information about ongoing campaigns supporting the Sahrawi people, as well as for latest news on developments in the region, is Nomads: Human Rights, Cultural Roots, and Media. Based in Madrid, Spain, Nomads is a Cultures of Resistance Network grantee that supports Sahrawi-led cultural, media, and human rights projects in the refugee camps in Algeria and occupied Western Sahara. The group aims to strengthen the struggle for justice, peace, human rights, and self-determination of the indigenous population of Western Sahara by supporting local capacity-building. Check out their Facebook page to get started finding campaigns that you can support!
- Another Cultures of Resistance Network grantee, the Nushatta Foundation for Media and Human Rights, has been doing media activism and human rights advocacy in Western Sahara, as well as in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwest Algeria, since 2013. The group records human rights abuses and then produces news articles and artwork to help spread awareness of the incidents on social media. Its members are young Sahrawis who have experienced illegal detention, torture, kidnapping, harassment, and other injustices at the hands of the Moroccan authorities. Get in touch with Nushatta to see how you can help with publicizing their campaigns!
- 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. The CEAS website (in Spanish) is a great launching pad for getting involved in campaigns. Some of the efforts they are involved with include organizing rallies in support of freedom for Western Sahara and writing for freedom for political prisoners.
- You can run for human rights with the Sahara Marathon, a solidarity race for the refugee children of Western Sahara. In 2021, the race will be virtual—you can run it anywhere in the world!
- Western Sahara Action Forum provides information, analysis, and campaigns—available in English, French, and Spanish. 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.
- 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) and the Western Sahara Campaign (UK). In addition to providing another 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.
- One of the projects that the Cultures of Resistance Network has been involved with is the FiSahara International Film Festival. The largest gathering of Western Sahara artists and activists, the festival 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. It even helped inspire Spanish actor Javier Bardem’s documentary Sons of the Clouds! 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. Want to be a part of this incredible political and cultural experience? Head to their website to contact them and find out how you can support their work. For a taste of FiSahara, check out this short clip about the 2019 festival:
- 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. 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 Sahrawi people’s struggle for self-determination 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.
- 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!
Consider Traveling to Western Sahara
One important way that the solidarity movement has spread awareness has been through traveling to Western Sahara. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the return to armed hostilities in the territory, it is currently difficult to travel to Western Sahara, but you can monitor the situation and see when it becomes feasible to visit again. In the past, there have been several ways you could travel to the region and work with Sahrawi artists and activists:
- The FiSahara Film Festival coordinated travel to the festival from Madrid and housing with families in the refugee camps outside Tindouf, Algeria.
- Artifariti offered an art residency program, also in Tindouf. Get in touch with them to learn how you can take part and if they plan to resume their programs after the pandemic!
Groups like the FiSahara Film Festival 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 or poetry reading, in person or virtually!
- You can donate equipment, ranging from DVDs and cameras to memory cards and projectors.
- You can also donate your services, helping translate from Spanish or Arabic into English and other languages, for example.
- Reach out to the groups above to find out how you can volunteer!
[Featured image courtesy of Iara Lee.]