Western Sahara, a desert territory bordering Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco — occupied and cut in half by a wall erected by the latter — is troubled by a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades and entangles notions of territory, identity, geopolitical pragmatism and international law. As a means to make sense of their situation, the Sahrawi people have collected photographs, documents, and weapons from the battlefield in an unconventional museum of war. This has caught the attention of an artist collective, who spoke about the Sahrawis’ relationship to photography during a series of seminars in Beirut.
“It’s like we exist in the middle of nowhere.”
Several weeks before Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation in Tunisia’s Sidi Bou Said, another North African protest took place in Western Sahara in October 2010. What started peacefully ended with the death of 60 people and disappearance of another 160, and went by without much international attention. For the Sahrawi people, this silence was very much business as usual. The conflict on their land has never been high on the global agenda. Despite UN rulings against it, Western Sahara remains under Moroccan occupation, leaving its inhabitants to face the consequences of a mismatch between realpolitik and international law.
To show the world that there is a conflict taking place in their country, the Sahrawis began collecting belongings from dead or captured Moroccan soldiers, including thousands of photographs. Stored in a provisional space in the middle of the desert, the collection of images makes up a unique and acute exhibit of how wars function. For the Sahrawis, it became a way to deal with the direness of their situation. With an interest in this process, an informal collective of writers, historians, philosophers, artists and activists have been documenting the war museum and Sahrawis’ use of images since 1999. Three of these are Sahrawi representative Fatima Mahfoud, Italian photographer Patrizio Esposito, and French–American writer and artist Jean Lamore. In May this year, they shared their findings during a series of seminars in collaboration with the Arab Image Foundation at the Beirut Art Center.
What started peacefully ended with the death of 60 people and disappearance of another 160, and went by without much international attention.
Western Sahara is a 260 000 square kilometres part of the great Saharan desert with very little water and almost no arable land, but a substantial wealth in minerals, phosphate, iron ore, and suspected offshore oil reserves. It is also one of the best fishing zones in the world, unexploited by the Sahrawis. The number of people identifying as Sahrawis is unclear and figures are disputed, but most estimates center around 200 000 to 400 000. The Sahrawis are of mixed Sarhaja Berber, Arab and African descent, living today in Western Sahara, southern Morocco, and displaced in refugee camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province.
Western Sahara, which came under Spanish rule in 1904, struggles with the same elements as other previous colonies subject to Europe’s scramble for Africa: arbitrary borders, displaced populations, disrupted regional politics, and fragmented identities. In 1975, when Spain finally relinquished the territory, Western Sahara was split between Morocco and Mauritania. Spain in return would get fishing rights and other advantages that they still benefit from. This move was made without the consent of the local population and against the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which found that neither of the two countries had sovereign ties with Western Sahara. In 1978, Mauritania withdrew its presence. Morocco then annexed the whole area and launched a military campaign including erecting a 2700 kilometres long fortified wall with trenches, land mines and barbed wire, and deploying over 100 000 troops. The war lasted until a UN-sponsored ceasefire was brokered in 1991, with the promise of a referendum on self-determination in the coming year. However, twenty years later, the implementation has yet to materialise.
“It’s like we exist in the middle of nowhere,” says Fatima. “We live in one of the hardest deserts in the world, surrounded by countries which have declared war on us, and with Spanish enterprises taking 50% of the riches of our land.” She continues: “But it’s been very hard to let people know what’s going on in Western Sahara. Therefore, we started to collect documents and photographs. We wanted to show the world what takes place here. People die here, both Sahrawis and Moroccans.” This was the beginning of the Sahrawi War Museum. During the 16 years of war, more than 14 000 images along with documents, personal belongings, weapons and vehicles, were gathered from the battlefield by Sahrawis and the Polisario Front, the resistance movement in Western Sahara. These items are now kept in the museum in a camp on Algerian territory.
“People die here, both Sahrawis and Moroccans.”
For the artist-activist collective, the emerging relationship of the Sahrawis to images is captivating. Jean: “Through gathering photographs from the wallets of soldiers, the Sahrawis have discovered photography. Historically, they had no relationship with this form of art, but it has developed now.” Fatima describes the impact photography has had on the Sahrawi conscience: “We’ve realised that this is a war of poor people. The Moroccan soldiers who come here are simple people, obliged to go and fight a war. They’re poor, just like us.” She continues: “This process of identifying with the other has started in recent years. During a war, you think of the soldier as your enemy, not as someone with a family. Now, through the photographs, this has changed. We don’t think of them as dead anymore, but alive, with families. I don’t see an army anymore, I see the Moroccan people.”
This way, the museum shows the human face of war. It states that: ‘there is a war going on, and these are its victims’. It bears the name War Museum, but remains different from war museums in countries like France, USA, Canada and Australia. Jean: “The concept of the Sahrawi museum is very different from that of places like the Holocaust museum. It tells the story of war from another point of view.” Rather than an exposé, the museum in Rabouni is an accumulation of pictures, documents, weapons and other items which represent the war. “The photos don’t belong to us, therefore we are reluctant to show them,” says Fatima. “It’s a monument to the enemy. Bear in mind, erecting a monument to your enemy is not a common thing to do.”
“We’ve realised that this is a war of poor people. The Moroccan soldiers who come here are simple people, obliged to go and fight a war. They’re poor, just like us.”
The first time Jean came to the museum was in 1991 with a group of other journalists. “The encounter had a big impact on me. The museum was only walls, nothing else. No roof. And the photographs were all in boxes, not displayed. The idea is that they should be kept, not shown like in conventional museums.” He continues: “The images, which were taken during the conflict, are treated with a sense of respect for the enemy. The presence of those who have disappeared in the war stays on. This way, the collection is a way to reach out to all those who have lived through a war.”
Noticing how photography came to acquire potency for the Sahrawis, Fatima, Jean, Patrizio and others in the collective began documenting their relation to images. The project Necessità dei volti (The necessity of faces) started in the late 1990s, when 483 photographs from the war museum were reprinted in a hand bound book, produced in 20 copies. In line with the Sahrawi sense of guardianship and respect for the images, the book produced by the collective is treated with reverence. It is opened only at intimate gatherings, and distributed to prominent individuals and institutions working in the field of human rights. The Arab Image Foundation, which gathered Jean, Patrizio and Fatima to speak in Beirut, is one of these custodians; English film director Ken Loach and Timorese Nobel Peace Laureate José Ramos-Horta are others.
“It’s a monument to the enemy. Bear in mind, erecting a monument to your enemy is not a common thing to do.”
Patrizio describes the process of making the book: “Together with people living in the camp — two young Sahrawis and one Moroccan prisoner of war — I looked at a 2500 photos. This is only a portion of the more than 14 000 images in total. This was in 1997, after getting the permission from the Polisario Front to access the image archive. The Sahrawis and the Moroccan were compiling pictures which they saw belonged to the same person; they recognised the handwriting on the back of the photos, family members, or the way in which the images had faded. The photographs had been stored in wooden boxes in a room without a roof for more than ten years, so they were in a very bad condition. Many had imprints of other images on them, they were cracked by time, stained with blood.” He continues: “During the selection process, we tried to have an open mind for the dynamic in the room: between the four of us and between us and the images. Me, as a European, I cannot work with these images unless I walk alongside the Sahrawis.”
As for the conflict, little actual progress to solve it has been made since the 1991 ceasefire. The occupation remains a humanitarian disaster for the Sahrawis, and a big socio-economic problem for Morocco. Despite support from the international community and diplomatic recognition from 72 states for an independent Western Saharan nation, the occupation lingers on and the Sahrawis continue to live as refugees. This situation is a result of not only Moroccan obstruction, but also shamefully failed UN action. “The UN can organise this if it wants to,” says Fatima. “Our people keep living in the camps until today, waiting for the referendum.”
“The UN can organise this if it wants to. Our people keep living in the camps until today, waiting for the referendum.”
There is also a clear lack of political will among major global players. European countries have supported the occupation in both direct and indirect ways. Arms sales to Morocco continue, despite the fact that using force against people under occupation is illegal according to international law. “The armed forces in Western Sahara have support from strong and powerful countries. We’ve seen weapons from USA, Italy, France, and others showing up in our land,” says Fatima. During recent years, the 2007 fishery agreement between the EU and Morocco, which allows for fishing in occupied waters, marks a de facto European recognition of Morocco’s occupation.
After three decades of an unresolved conflict encapsulating conflicting versions of history, communities that are imagined differently, sovereignty at unease, violence and distress, the Sahrawis remain under occupation. The war museum and the novel relationship to photography are both results of and responses to this situation. Through images, the Sahrawis have experienced reconciliation and the idea of identifying with the other. For Fatima, this is something that has had a decisive influence on her people: “It lets us wait for the peace process.”
All photos: Ylva Lennartsson Hartmann