AUSERD REFUGEE CAMP, Algeria—At about 10 p.m., in the midst of the Sahara desert, simply two lights had been shining: the moon and a projection display. Round 70 folks gathered in entrance of the display as a movie was beamed onto it from a 16-wheeler truck. Some sat on carpets, rolled out over rocky, reddish sand; others crouched on low dunes. All of them watched attentively as a voice boomed from audio system:
“Those that don’t know the Sahara assume there’s nothing right here however sand. However within the Sahara is an occupied nation. And a folks in exile.”
It was the second night time of the seventeenth version of FiSahara, the Western Sahara Worldwide Movie Pageant, held on Oct. 11-16 within the Auserd refugee camp in Algeria’s westernmost province of Tindouf, which borders Mauritania, Morocco, and Western Sahara. Auserd—together with 4 different neighboring camps—fashioned within the mid-Seventies, when Morocco invaded Western Sahara after Spanish decolonization and round 50,000 of the area’s Indigenous Sahrawi folks fled.
Greater than 45 years later, Morocco continues to occupy most of Western Sahara. The Polisario Entrance—the Sahrawi liberation motion—has managed to take again a slender strip of desert within the east, which varieties the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. A 3rd of all Sahrawis stay as refugees within the 5 Algerian camps run by the Polisario Entrance—a grim limbo for a historically nomadic group.
Spanish filmmakers created the five-day FiSahara pageant in 2003 to boost consciousness concerning the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Although it continues to obtain assist from companions in Spain, the US, and Britain, the occasion is now completely Sahrawi-run. Overseas attendees, press, filmmakers, performers, and manufacturing crews arrive collectively on a single chartered Air Algérie flight from Madrid. This yr, FiSahara screened greater than 20 movies.
“Tradition is one thing that unites us all. … By way of tradition, we are able to inform our story, which after all can also be political,” stated Tiba Chagaf, a Sahrawi filmmaker who directs FiSahara. He was born in Western Sahara however was compelled to flee and settle within the camps as a toddler.
“Our folks have at all times moved round,” Chagaf instructed Overseas Coverage. “From the second of the battle, we’ve been made to be caught right here. Since then, we’ve been utilizing each single means at our disposal to be liberated and to turn out to be nomadic as soon as once more.”
In 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco appeared on tv and introduced the Green March, a mass demonstration to take Western Sahara, then referred to as Spanish Sahara. The resource-rich strip of land had been a Spanish colonial territory since 1884, however Morocco—which had gained independence from France in 1956—claimed its personal territorial sovereignty from colonial rule. The Worldwide Court docket of Justice dominated towards Morocco’s declare in October 1975, prompting Hassan’s invasion.
Mohammad Salim, now 73, watched fearfully from his residence in Laayoune, the territory’s capital. Quickly, the Moroccan military began bombing. “I didn’t even have time to grasp. I simply discovered myself operating with a bunch of individuals I didn’t know, simply to save lots of myself,” he instructed Overseas Coverage.
On the time, the Polisario Entrance was simply 2 years previous—an anti-Spanish, pro-independence motion that rapidly pivoted to tackle Morocco. Salim joined its army routine and located himself in a gunfight with Moroccan troops close to the Algerian border. A bomb dropped, seemingly from nowhere. “We didn’t find out about planes,” Salim stated. After a head damage and bout of amnesia, he ended up in Auserd, one of many 5 new refugee camps.
It was Sahrawi ladies who constructed the camps. The boys had been away, combating on the entrance line. To start with, “there was nothing in any respect. Solely desert,” stated Mariam Ahmada, the governor of Smara camp, which is positioned south of Auserd. Ahmada was 9 years previous when her household fled Western Sahara. “Don’t rely how previous I’m now,” she joked.
Again then, ladies used conventional shawls to construct tents. All the things was made out of salvaged supplies—nonetheless seen within the rusted automobile doorways that function enclosures for goats and camels—giving the camps a surreal junkyard ingenuity. Every of the 5 camps was named for a city or metropolis left behind in Western Sahara: Auserd, Smara, Bojador, Laayoune, and Dakhla.
“Typically the refugee state of affairs turns into your new actuality. We didn’t need our kids to overlook the place they got here from,” Ahmada stated.
Situations within the camps are harsh. They’re incessantly pummeled by sandstorms, and summer season temperatures can prime 120 levels Fahrenheit. Though every camp has its personal faculty and hospital, diabetes and dietary issues are rampant. A consortium of nongovernmental organizations warned throughout FiSahara that 180,000 camp residents face a meals disaster amid a discount in worldwide assist. Algeria helps Sahrawi independence however just isn’t concerned in camp administration, which is overseen by the Polisario Entrance.
This yr’s FiSahara was the primary hosted since 2020, when the 1991 United Nations-brokered cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Entrance ended and the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in trade for Morocco normalizing ties with Israel. (U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to reverse this coverage and doesn’t appear inclined to take action.) In March, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez followed suit after dealing with intense stress from Morocco, which threatened to ease its border controls and let migrants enter the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.
The Sahrawi trigger has many advocates in Spain, a lot of whom blame Spain for not having a transparent plan for Sahrawi independence after decolonization. Sahrawis additionally communicate Spanish as a second language and attend Spanish universities in giant numbers. Spaniards at FiSahara had been fast to notice that Sánchez’s transfer doesn’t communicate for them—or all Spanish officers. “It’s a private resolution, not a authorized resolution, and it doesn’t signify all of the Spanish parliamentarians,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Entrance’s consultant in Spain, instructed Overseas Coverage.
Over the previous two years, struggle has flared once more alongside the 1,600-mile Moroccan-built sand wall that separates the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, referred to as the Berm. Riddled with land mines, the Berm is 16 times the scale of the Berlin Wall and nearly the size of the U.S.-Mexico border. Regional tensions have solely broadened the scope of the battle: Algeria and Morocco severed ties amid escalating border disputes in 2021, and in August Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunisia after Brahim Ghali, the chief of the Polisario Entrance, was invited to take part in a convention there.
Speak of the entrance line crammed the pageant. “We’ve got seen 16 editions of the FiSahara, and so they had been fully completely different from this version. Why? We’re in wartime,” stated Ghali, who appeared on the movie pageant. At a press briefing, Ghali referred to as Western Sahara “the final colony in Africa” and recalled a promised U.N.-backed referendum within the Nineties that has by no means materialized.
“Thirty years of ready for the U.N. to use its commitments to the Sahrawis. Ultimately, they permitted the Moroccan regime to do no matter it desires, and now we’re again to struggle once more.”
FiSahara’s theme this yr was “Decolonize.” Again outdoors on the nighttime screening, a stop-motion goat appeared onscreen and baah-ed. The movie—Pequeño Sahara, or Little Sahara, directed by Spanish filmmaker Emilio Martí—was a brief animated documentary narrated by a fictional little one from a Sahrawi camp. Many within the crowd had by no means seen their group depicted on display earlier than, because the earlier 17 editions featured extra Spanish and worldwide movies. The voiceover talked about the long-delayed referendum: “Everyone knows that Western Sahara would select to be free and unbiased.” The Sahrawi households watching clapped and ululated wildly.
Close by, inside black fabric tents, drums pounded, and dancers twirled hennaed arms. One prolonged her arm and curled a finger round an imaginary set off, as if imitating a sharpshooter. One other reached for a shiny prop gun. The striped flag of Western Sahara hung behind them.
In response to Martí, Sahrawis began creating and disseminating their very own media after they had been compelled to turn out to be sedentary. Earlier than the occupation, “they had been busy touring round Western Sahara, round Mauritania. They didn’t have time to develop media. Now that they don’t have their very own land is after they’re changing into extra organized,” he stated.
A number of nights into the pageant, FiSahara despatched a convoy of Land Cruisers to a distant dune within the desert for a live performance. Sahrawi kids jumped out and did backflips within the sand. Crimson-nosed clowns from Pallasos en Rebeldía, a Latin American solidarity group that additionally excursions the West Financial institution and Gaza, carried out stunts in shiny costumes. Their finale was a standing human pyramid, the highest clown waving the Western Sahara flag. Then conventional Sahrawi singers took the stage. The dune was dotted with swaying beams from cellphone flashlights.
FiSahara concluded a day later with an awards ceremony. Wanibik: The People Who Live in Front of Their Land, by Algerian director Rabah Slimani, took the highest prize: a white camel. The camel was introduced onstage, rope reins pulling its mouth into a smile whereas the viewers cheered. Wanibik is a meta-documentary, a film-about-a-film that tells the story of a gaggle of Sahrawi college students attempting to make a documentary concerning the Berm. The struggle that started in 2020 bought in the best way.
The varsity featured within the movie, Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual College, is positioned in Bojador camp and run by FiSahara director Chagaf. It presently has 27 university-aged college students, half of them ladies. Their work is included on this yr’s pageant lineup, too, and features a Sahrawi sitcom. However making documentary movies has proved extra common. “Most individuals want to mirror the present actuality. Our actuality is nearly like fiction anyway,” Chagaf joked.
Filmmaking is tougher in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, the place Sahrawi activists are intimidated and imprisoned, typically for random offenses; are beaten and tortured; and journalism is suppressed. (Morocco ranks 135th of 180 countries in Reporters With out Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.) “The one information Moroccans have is from Moroccan media and Moroccan propaganda,” stated Laila Fakhouri, an activist and actress from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, who’s a part of Wanibik’s solid. “They’ve the concept that we’re criminals. That we stay within the desert. That we’re nearly like monsters. That we’re the enemy of the state.”
In Moroccan-held territories, Sahrawi filmmaking just isn’t solely an act of expression and resistance. It may additionally turn out to be a priceless piece of proof for documenting Moroccan abuses. “Our first responsibility is to indicate the reality about Sahrawis, right here and within the occupied territories,” stated 26-year-old Bachir Dkhili, a member of the Nushatta Basis, a youth group that paperwork human rights violations in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. “There’s no Sahrawi household that doesn’t have a martyr or somebody that disappeared or somebody affected by the occupation.” In March, the Nushatta Basis submitted documentation of torture, surveillance, and restricted motion of Sahrawis dwelling in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Dkhili remembers being forcibly made to face and recite the Moroccan nationwide anthem at school as a baby. “Within the Moroccan schooling system, they train that Western Sahara is Morocco and that the Inexperienced March was the perfect factor to occur to the territory. … Morocco doesn’t need us to see our fathers and grandfathers with camels, to see our previous lifestyle,” he stated.
No less than for the week of the pageant, that previous lifestyle was granted a brief revival. On FiSahara’s ultimate day, a fleet of Land Cruisers arrived to take the filmmakers and attendees to the Tindouf airport for his or her flight again to Madrid. The pageant had ended solely hours earlier than, however the carpets had already been rolled up and the black fabric tents packed. The plot of land was once more empty sand, identifiable solely by the Western Sahara flags that remained.