Sahara woman has always played a fundamental role in her own society, that indeed is a matriarchal one. During the war against Morocco (1975-1991) women have been forced to run away and refugee in the most hostile part of Sahara desert: the Hammada.

Without any kind of help from men, who were engaged in the battles many kilometers from there, Saharawi women have been able to organize the community life in the refugees camps, where a part of the Saharawi population is still living (about 250.000 persons). They took charge both of the logistic, through the construction of tends, houses, schools, hospitals and the political, social and cultural dimension.

In fact nowdays,lot of them are in charge of important institutional assignments and all of them take part at the women meetings that are often very influent in many governative decisions.

They wish their population could return in the territory they were forced to leave and where their relatives are still living under occupation; they are also divided from a 2400 km wall surrounded by mines built by Morocco in order to deny them the possibilty to return to their own country.

I spent two months in a refugee camp as a guest, where I focused my photographic research on the Saharawi women realizing a series of environmental portraits and about 50 interviews.

Text and photos © Raffaele PetrallaClick for more information and photos.
How empty water bottles are helping Western Sahara refugees beat desert heat
Energy expert Tatah Lehbib is putting his college education to use at home, combining old and new building methods and materials to improve housing conditions for refugees in Algeria.
Image: A house being constructed with water bottles in Ausard Camp, June, 11 2016.  (photo by Habibulah Mohamed Lamin)

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin | June 16, 2016

TINDOUF, Algeria — For 40 years, the harsh Hamada desert in southwest Algeria has punished Western Sahara refugees with its merciless environment. One man thinks it’s finally possible to change that situation.

There is little available in the camps from which to build durable shelter; adobe houses and tents are all the refugees have been able to erect. But Tatah Lehbib is demonstrating what he says is a viable alternative that is stronger and more affordable than mud bricks.

Lehbib earned a master’s degree from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canarias, where he specialized in energy efficiency. He got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tlemcen in Algeria, where he studied renewable energy. Lehbib has been living with his grandmother in a Tindouf camp. As a child, he went to school there even when temperatures exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (122 F) and played barefoot in the dusty streets. As a university student, he would return home in the searing summers.

“When I started my undergraduate studies, I began dreaming of constructing a home that resists heat, rain and storms,“ he told Al-Monitor. Lehbib was granted a full Erasmus scholarship. By the time he was researching his thesis, which focused on the suffering he and his grandmother endured, the refugee camps were struck by the heaviest rain in four decades. “I had to include that catastrophe in my research as well,” he said.

The refugee camps’ infrastructure is a main concern, particularly after floods destroyed thousands of homes, forcing people to take shelter uphill and watch their belongings vanish. However, as soon as the crisis passed, people had no choice but to rebuild with the same mud bricks they had seen melt before their eyes.

Lehbib is taking a totally different approach based on science. For a month he has been building a house of plastic bottles filled with wet, compressed sand. “When I first started building, people thought I was crazy,“ he said. He hopes to reach his goal by establishing a scientifically designed plan. Many of the existing houses trap the heat inside, as they were built without an understanding of ventilation. Since hot air rises, "there must be a window in the roof to let it out.”

Tatah collected most of the materials he uses from garbage. The round room he is building is half finished, with 1,300 bottles. This kind of alternative housing has many benefits, especially in a desert environment, he said. The shape will help lessen the heat, because air circulates naturally around the circular design, and the construction requires less water. It also puts otherwise wasted plastic to good use. And, he said, “One plastic bottle is stronger than 20 mud bricks — it bounces when you drop it, but bricks break apart.”

The creative refugee said he does not get financial support, and so everything is done using the simplest means possible. “My professors have taught me that every single nation has gotten along with the little they had, whether by digging caves or something else,“ he said.

The round-house bottle approach is apparently new to the Sahrawi society. In his neighborhood and even throughout the camps, no one has adopted the idea. He thinks that “as long as they do not see it completely decorated and polished, they won’t dare to follow suit.”

Most of the people seem to prefer staying in their comfort zones.

Regardless, Lehbib keeps defying the odds. While others are unable to buy cement to fortify mud walls because of the lack of resources, he has invented a new mixture made out of trash and some natural additions. “I went to the carpenter and took the wood waste, found an outdated natural hydraulic lime at home, and mixed them with yellow and red sand and charcoal ashes,” he said. He demonstrates by pouring water on the mixture to show how consolidated it is. The hybrid literally shields the plastic building. His selection of materials is practical: Sahrawis make tea every day on coal, carpentry is a craft practiced in all local markets and lime is one of the cheapest items to buy.

Despite the skepticism surrounding this project, Lehbib is interacting a lot with his neighbors. He is using their water tank, and they constantly give him bottles.

During Ramadan, Lehbib is one of very few people working, and he has cut back in observance of the holy month. “I reduced my working hours; they were eight, and now I am working in the mornings only,“ he said.

He can be found filling empty bottles in his turban and shorts, under the shadow of a blanket hanging on a fence. He talks about the importance of this project and says it is based on a spirit of cooperation. The collaboration really became evident when many people started sharing pictures of the building online and offline as they helped with the construction.

The idea, he said, was first implemented in Latin America. “The first time I saw it was on TV in India, but it was founded in Latin America,” he said.

The cohesiveness of the architecture is essential. From the inside Lehbib will sew the bottles with thread to create a net to keep everything well-connected.

His ambition goes beyond the plastic house. He also has a vision to improve mud bricks. At his house, he has planted a cactus tree that he said produces an “adhesive liquid.” According to Lehbib, in Mexico people put the substance in a barrel of water to "brew” it, then they make brick with it. The bricks become waterproof. The goal is to provide a stronger alternative for thousands of families whose houses are devastated every time it rains.

It is clear that Lehbib will need to spread such knowledge. “I will be more than happy to help others establish those houses and even form a specialized group" toward that end, he said.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist based in the Western Sahara refugee camps. He has worked as an interpreter and translator for visitors to the camps and is director of Equipe Media Branch in Tindouf, a group of media activists that is active in Western Sahara. 

©2016 Al-Monitor. All rights reserved.


Portraying the Saharawis, The last thing you lose is hope.

The homeland of the Saharawi people is the Western Sahara, the north-western region of Africa on Moroccos northern borders. Yet for more than 35 years the Saharawis have been living on Algerian land.

The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. In 1973 some Sahwarawi formed the Polisario Front to oust the Spanish. The Saharawis gained political strength and a UN mission showed support for their independence. However, the withdrawal of Spain led to an invasion by neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania, and Saharawis began to emigrate from their own land to Algeria.

In 1976 the Polisario Front declared a Republic and started a guerrilla war between Mauritania and Morocco. Having won the war against Mauritania, the Moroccan forces still kept control of the major cities, and by the mid-1980s, a sand wall had been built dividing up the land.

The existence of a peace process has led to a cease-fire between the Polisario Front and Morocco but the country remains divided. Morocco controls the coastal west side, an area rich in resources. The liberated portion of the country is inland, economically useless and heavily land-mined.

This body of work portrays a people who have not given up hope. Their aim is to get back to their land. Their perpetual refugee status denies them the land, freedom or society to continue developing their culture, even to feed themselves properly. The effects landmines can have on human beings is just one of the more visible devastations resulting from this conflict. Yet in the face of such mutilation and with everyday hardship a fact of life they remain committed. But where does this situation lead? And what does it mean for future generations of Saharawis?

Bernat Millet
Petition to investigate police brutality and institutional violence against Moroccan-occupied territories in the Western Sahara

from the petition [TW: mention of rape]:

Due to ongoing instance of physical and sexual abuse of young Sahrawi women by the police and officials of the DST (Moroccan secret services) in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, we call on international Human RIghts organizations to open an investigation.

the petition is at 7,000 and the goal is 1,000,000!

Western Sahara: Forgotten Corner of the Arab Spring

This week in the small Western Saharan town of Tifariti, delegations are arriving for the 13th Conference of the Polisario Front, the United Nations-recognized group that has fought since the 1970s for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco. The gathering, to be held Dec. 15-20, is expected to draw some 1,500 people from the region, as well as from Asia, Europe and Latin America. It will broach a topic that has otherwise gone largely overlooked in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa in the name of greater representation and government accountability: Western Sahara’s sovereignty and autonomous status.

In October 2010 – two months before 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame in Tunisia – as many as 15,000 Sahrawis, indigenous to the Western Sahara, set up the Gdeim Izik camp outside Laayoune, one of the largest cities in the disputed territory south of the Moroccan border. The Sahrawis were protesting poor living conditions, poverty and human rights abuses at the hand of the Moroccan government, which annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after Spain relinquished administrative control of its former colony.

The peaceful demonstration, which turned deadly when Moroccan forces raided and dismantled the camp a month later, was described as the largest protest against Moroccan rule in the history of the Western Sahara dispute.

It should also be noted that while Morocco controls and governs the city of Laâyoune, there is no international recognition of Morocco’s authority there and it falls outside of Morocco’s internationally recognized borders. Nonetheless, when I traveled to Laâyoune several years ago, there was really nothing at all to indicate that I was passing beyond Morocco’s official borders and into the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. Indeed, for many travelers (usually French and Belgian based on my own experiences) it’s a simple (but long!) bus ride bringing them to the town that serves as a sort of waystation for people continuing further south, often to Mauritania.

Of course, it’s a waystation brimming with UN forces, camps, and human rights abuses. But nobody likes to talk about that.