Andrew McConnell. Saharawi woman in Western Sahara. More here. The Saharawis are bedouin nomads fighting for independence – for a referendum for their independece – from Morocco, whose crushing suppression of them has lasted 30 years now and continues to duck UN concern. Andrew’s photos of these people will be our next Half King exhibit, Ghosts of the Sahara, opening April 12th at The Half King in NYC.
Street artist M-E-S-A traveled to the Sahara desert to live with Saharawi families in refugee camps. During his stay, he learned about the incredible history of the Saharawi people, who have lived in exile for more than 36 years, fighting a peaceful way with art projects.
“Voiced with deep passion and grace, Aziza Brahim’s music adeptly travels the expanse between her Western Saharan roots and Barcelona, the European cosmopolis where she now lives. Aziza is both a contemporary sonic poet and a prominent and eloquent spokesperson for the Saharawi people and their ongoing struggle for recognition and justice.
orn and raised in the Saharawi refugee camps lining the frontier between Algeria and Western Sahara, Aziza’s life has been marked by both daunting hardship and inspired will. Fleeing from these camps and the regime of political oppression that followed Morocco’s 1975 invasion of Western Sahara, as a young teenager Aziza travelled to Cuba for her secondary school studies. There she experienced first hand the deep Cuban economic crisis of the 1990’s and the subsequent denial of her request to pursue a university degree in music.
Music had been Aziza’s passion since she was a small girl and despite this setback she returned to the Saharawi camps in Algeria and began singing and playing in different musical ensembles, a process that continued when she moved to Spain in the year 2000. There she founded the eclectic Saharawi/Spanish band Gulili Mankoo with whom she released two acclaimed self-produced recordings: the EP "Mi Canto” (2008) and an album “Mabruk” (2012) both on Reaktion, a French label specializing in Saharan music. In the last years Aziza has performed extensively appearing at major festivals and venues including WOMAD Cáceres (2012) and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (2009).
Aziza’s new album Soutak (“Your Voice”), her debut for the Glitterbeat label, is her first recording to predominantly focus on the cadence of her majestic voice and the soulful critique of her lyrics. The album was produced by Chris Eckman (Tamikrest, Ben Zabo, Dirtmusic) and was recorded live and direct in Barcelona in June of 2013.“
Despite the efforts of many good willing people, they still live in terrible situations. In the area there is no hospital where they can operate and all the material they have is really old. The Saharawi population is waiting for 40 years now to be freed, and they still firmly believe that sooner or later this will happen. Or as they all said at the moment of the goodbyes: I hope that next year you can visit us in our real home in West Sahara!
23 Saharawi prisoners have today, December 1, been on an indefinite hunger strike for one month, bringing awareness to the plight of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara, invaded and occupied illegally by Morocco in 1975, and who have since been denied the right to a vote to determine their future. What does the world community do? Nothing.
Peter Kenworthy is a journalist working with the Danish organisation Afrika Contakt. This article was originally published by Pambazuka on 7 October 2015. It is reprinted here with permission.
This November marks 40 years since Morocco invaded and colonised Western Sahara, today Africa’s last colony. Abba Malainin was only a child when he had to flee the war on foot through the desert to Algeria, to refugee camps where his family and thousands of other refugees still live today.
In the devil’s garden
Tens of thousands of Western Sahara’s indigenous population, the Saharawis, fled the advancing Moroccan army and bomber planes across the border into neighbouring Algeria.
Here they set about building what they thought were temporary refugee camps in one of the most inhospitable parts of the world, the so-called “Devil’s Garden”, where sandstorms are frequent and where temperatures can exceed 50 degrees.
165,000 Saharawis remain in the camps in the Tindouf Province. Others remain in occupied Western Sahara, one of the world’s most repressive and torturing regimes. And others still live in exile in Spain or in Denmark, as does Abba.
Through the desert
Abba Malainin was seven years old in 1975 when the Moroccan army invaded his home town of El Aaiun, the largest city of Western Sahara, with aerial bombardments with napalm and white phosphorus. A genocide forgotten by the international media, he insists.
“My family and I were living a normal life in El Aaiun with its mild desert climate when our lives were turned upside down by the military invasion by Morocco. Suddenly our lives became a nightmare,” he recalls.
Abba and his family initially settled in the El Aaiun refugee camp (named after the city in Western Sahara) and ended up in the Auserd camp. “There was nothing there at all when we arrived,” he says.
Not quite an ambassador yet
Today Abba is the Saharawi liberation movement Polisario’s representative in Denmark. If Denmark had recognised Western Sahara’s republic in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as over 80 other countries have done over the years, he would be an ambassador.
Instead, Abba lives in a small flat not far from Copenhagen Airport, which is rather practical when he has to travel to and from the refugee camps where his mother and much of his family still lives in tents and mud-brick houses with corrugated iron roofs.
Abba goes there either to visit his family or on official Polisario business, making sure that Danish politicians, NGOs and journalists don’t forget the Saharawis and get to see what it is like to live in refugee camps that have stood for 40 years.
A republic in exile
In many ways the Saharawi refugee camps are unlike other refugee camps. The Saharawis managed to build a proto-state,SADR, in the desert camps. SADR is a member of the African Union and has a government, an elected parliament, a constitution, schools, hospitals, social services and a press service.
According to Abba Malainin, the camps are well organised and the Saharawis are considered the most educated refugees in the world. About 90 percent of the population is literate, which is a dramatic rise from the 10 percent literacy rate when the Saharawis arrived in the camps in 1975. This is also well above the regional average.
But the camps are nevertheless refugee camps where there is a constant shortage of water, food and other necessities, resulting in amongst other things acute child malnourishment. And the situation is worsening all the time as the international aid that the Saharawis in the camps rely on has been more or less halved since the economic crisis.
Broken promises and inaction
So how will Abba’s family and the thousands of other Saharawis who live in the camps be able to leave the misery of what has been their home for 40 years and return to a liberated and democratic Western Sahara?
Abba Malainin believes that the only way he and his fellow Saharawis can return to their homeland is through the referendum on the status of Western Sahara, that Morocco had initially agreed to and which the UN has promised the Saharawis for decades.
Achieving such a referendum, that will almost certainly lead to independence for Western Sahara, must come through the collective efforts of the international community and its influential actors, he insists. But decades of inaction from the international community has made a return to war seem an acceptable prospect for many Saharawis, especially the youth.
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“The international community, including the UN and the EU, should exert more pressure on Morocco to avoid a conflict that will benefit no one. And foreign governments and companies must stop making economical agreements and purchase stolen goods from an occupied country, as this only helps legitimize Morocco’s illegal occupation and keep it financially viable,” Abba Malainin concludes.
“The Saharawis are struggling and suffering for their freedom and independence every day in both the refugee camps and in the occupied territories in Western Sahara,” he says.
But they need the help of the international community and solidarity movements to put pressure on Morocco and those who aid them, to ensure that the Saharawis will not have to wait another 40 years to escape the refugee camps and Moroccan occupation.