Bitter as life, sweet as love and light as death. Words taken from the Saharawi saying about their teadrinking customs. The words reflect their traditional way of life and their perspective on life. In many ways it also reflects their circumstances in an occupied area and a refugee camp. This project is about the Saharawi’s life and struggle for freedom in what is often called one of Africa's last remaining colonies - Western Sahara. This project has been developing since 2011 and will be ongoing as long as Western Sahara is occupied.
The area is located to the west of the Sahara Desert, with borders to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. From Spanish colonial rule in the 1800s to the Moroccan occupation of the 1970s, the Sahrawi people have witnessed outside powers utilizing the areas extensive natural resources, while they themselves are put on the sidelines.
After sixteen years of war between Morocco and the independence movement, Polisario Front, about half of the Saharawi people were forced to flee to Algeria. A ceasefire between the two opponents was agreed upon with the involvement of the United Nations in 1991. In this ceasefire agreement, one of the main conditions was that a referendum would take place where the people of the area could vote for their own independence. This referendum has not yet taken place, twenty-seven years after the ceasefire was signed. The Saharawi people still demonstrates peacefully for their freedom while the Moroccan occupational force increasingly tightens its grip on the area and the people who are living there.
The UN has an operation in the area. It is named MINURSO. This is one of the few UN operations that do not have the power to work with human rights observation. The Moroccan authority argues that this kind of operation will affect their authority in the area. They have the French as allies and every time this issue is brought up in the UN, the issue gets muted and MINURSO is still without a human rights mandate.
These pictures stand as a witness to what kind of conditions the Saharawi people live under in the occupied areas. A boy of 13 years told his story; he was arrested for protesting the occupation with his friends a few days prior. In police custody, he was given shock from wires attached to a car battery, beaten and threatened with rape. The police wanted him to be their informant. He refused and in the days after his arrest, he received notice that he was expelled from school, without any opportunity to go back.
Discrimination, marginalization and harassment is a big part of their everyday life. Moroccan settlers are lured to the area with promise of tax-free working and cheap real-estate. For one Saharawi there are four Moroccan settlers and police. This becomes the most evident under the peaceful protests, where Saharawi’s involved get beaten. Young, old, pregnant. This makes the population restless, and the area is tense.
The biggest difference between Spanish and Moroccan rule is that the Spaniards occupied the country, while Moroccans also occupies the people. This statement was given to me by an old Saharawi; this expresses the importance of this project. The occupation has been present since colonial times and is still holding strong. Media is not paying it any attention and "everyman" has no idea that Western Sahara exists.