Four decades after its people were promised freedom by departing Spanish rulers, Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. While a UN-brokered ceasefire paused armed hostilities in the territory in 1991, violence returned to occupied Western Sahara 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. Then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara only inflamed tensions further.
For decades, the Sahrawi people have lived under the oppressive occupation of the Moroccan armed forces. Since 1991, 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.
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!
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 clip about the 2019 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!
Can’t make it all the way to Tindouf? 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-kilometer 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.
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 others, 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. For further analysis, we recommend the writings of Dr. Stephen Zunes, a leading scholar of US 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 from 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—follow the link 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 vital. 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 about 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) 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. Women, inspired by the legendary 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. 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. Her initial mission was to bring the Sahrawi story to a wider audience 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 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!
- Consider traveling to Western Sahara: There are several ways you can travel to the region and work with Sahrawi 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!
[Featured image courtesy of Iara Lee.]