Who are the Sahrawi?
The Sahrawi are a nomadic people who traditionally roamed the African desert. What is fascinating is that they are a matriarchal society, and women and men are treated as equals. According to people interviewed in Sons of Clouds (2008) domestic violence is unheard of in this society, and if a husband and wife are no longer getting on, they separate amicably, within the bounds of their law (1). There is also a Wikipedia article, which refers to the “privileged position of women” within this society, although currently the neutrality of the article has been questioned. (2)
The number of Sahrawi refugees living in camps along the Western Sahara is currently disputed. (3) In 2010 Sahrawi families camped out in tent cities in the form of a peaceful protest to demand social and human rights improvements. There are mixed reports on what exactly happened in these camps, but at the very least there seem to have been clashes between security forces and the protesters.
Read more in The Guardian.
About the festival
Since 2003 the FiSahara Film Festival has brought together film makers and visitors from around the world. It is unique in the fact that it is the only film festival to be held in a refugee camp.
Created as a collaborative effort between the Sahrawi Refugee Community, The Spanish Solidarity Movement and Spanish film makers, it is a human rights festival that includes:
- Film screenings
- Roundtables and thematic haimas
- Film and media workshops
- Children’s programming
- Concerts featuring international and Sahrawi musicians
- A Sahrawi traditional cultural fair and parade known as LeFrig
- Camel races
- An international football match
The aim of the festival is to draw attention to the plight of the Sahrawi people, half of whom have been exiled to a refugee camp in the Sahara desert, separated from their families by a huge wall, protected by soldiers and mines, whilst the rest live under Moroccan occupation.
A Forgotten People
The Sahrawi people have been living in refugee camps for thirty-seven years. What they have created out of nothing is truly inspirational, but the world has failed them.
In the 1870s, Africa was divided amongst European colonies (5) and the Western Sahara was given to Spanish rule (6). According to a documentary by Candescent Films, the Sahrawi lived reasonably harmoniously with the Spanish, even intermarrying.
As early as the 1950s Europe had begun to decolonise Africa (7). By the 1970s Spain, met by resistance against their rule by the newly formed Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) (9) was getting ready to leave Western Sahara. It was at this time that Morocco staked it’s claim in the territory, and in 1975 the area was annexed: (10)
The Spanish colonial rule de facto terminated over the Western Sahara (then Rio de Oro), when the territory was passed on to and partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco (which annexed the entire territory in 1979), rendering the declared independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic ineffective to the present day
In 1975, Spain signed a treaty with Morocco and Mauritania, which stated:
On 14 November 1975, the delegations lawfully representing the Governments of Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, meeting in Madrid, stated that they had agreed in order on the following principles: 1. Spain confirms its resolve, repeatedly stated in the United Nations, to decolonize the Territory of Western Sahara by terminating the responsibilities and powers which it possesses over that Territory as administering Power. 2. In conformity with the aforementioned determination and in accordance with the negotiations advocated by the United Nations with the affected parties, Spain will proceed forthwith to institute a temporary administration in the Territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania will participate in collaboration with the Yema’a and to which will be transferred all the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph. It is accordingly agreed that two Deputy Governors nominated by Morocco and Mauritania shall be appointed to assist the Governor-General of the Territory in the performance of his functions. The termination of the Spanish presence in the Territory will be completed by 28 February 1976 at the latest. 3. The views of the Saharan population, expressed through the Yema’a, will be respected. 4. The three countries will inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the terms set down in this instrument as a result of the negotiations entered into in accordance with Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations. 5. The three countries involved declare that they arrived at the foregoing conclu sions in the highest spirit of understanding and brotherhood, with due respect for the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and as the best possible contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security. 6. This instrument shall enter into force on the date of publication in the Boletin Oficial (Official Gazette) of the State of the “Sahara Decolonization Act” authorizing the Spanish Government to assume the commitments conditionally set forth in this instrument.
According to CulturalSurvival.org
This arrangement violated standard practice on decolonization and prevented any chance for a self-determination referendum, which the United Nations had been calling for since 1966 and to which Spain finally had agreed in 1974.
Attempts to subdue the Sahrawi people by Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities were met with fierce resistance by POLISARIO guerrillas. During the height of the cold war, this battle gained political interest, and, according to Sons of Clouds Algeria armed the POLISARIO, France and the US armed Morocco, as their ally against the USSR. (11)
In 1979 Mauritania withdrew, and signed peace accords with the POLISARIO. (14)
In 1980, with no sign of a resolution, the Moroccans built a wall, separating the occupied area and the Western Sahara. (12) Those who remained in Moroccan occupied territory were subject to Moroccan rule, whilst those on the other side of the wall were refugees, living in camps.
What is being done?
A fascinating documentary by Candescent Films called Sons of Clouds (2008) documents a history of these events, and alleged human rights abuses against the Sahrawi people, including disappearings, torture, police brutality amongst others. In 1991 the UN called for a referendum for the Sahrawi people, to be able to choose self determination. So far this referendum has still not taken place. (15)
During the documentary the film makers raised a petition calling upon the Spanish government to act on behalf of the Sahrawi people, and presented it to the president at the end of the film. (16)
To date there are still an estimated 200,000 refugees still in camps, and the wall is still in place. (17)
Saving the World, sans Sandwiches
Actress and comedian, Mhairi Morrison (Best Actress – Webseries Magazine), best known for portraying the ever fabulous Tallulah in hilarious webseries Feathers and Toast is a passionate advocate of the Sahrawi cause. She will be travelling out to the festival to experience for herself what it is to live amongst the refugees. Speaking exclusively to Newsnibbles she said:
I was inspired to go to the festival because I have always grappled with understanding whether or not my art, what I’ve chosen to do with my life, has value to society as a whole. As much value as per say a doctor. To have the opportunity of visiting a festival where I can see first hand the value of art and the impact it can have on people, is incredible. When I was 14 a family of refugees came to live with us from Bosnia, during the war. Having a family arrive with 2 suitcases and a few words of English in a completely foreign land was extremely humbling.
The festival is a way of providing hope to these abandoned people, and the international attention it garners will hopefully serve as a reminder to them that they are not alone. However, the only way people can get involved and help, is if they know about it. We are fortunate enough to live in a world of social media, where it is easy for you to do your part. Please share.
- FiSahara Film Festival Website (4)
- Human Rights Film Work
- Cultural Survival
- Watch Sons of Clouds on Vimeo (1) (6) (11) (16) (17)
- The Madrid Accords 14th November 1975
- 40 Years of Exile (Oxfam Briefing Paper)
- Wikipedia Entry on Sahrawi People (2)
- Sahrawi Refugee Camps – Wikipedia (3)
- Africana Age (5)
- Decolonization of Africa (7) (8)
- Polisario Front (9) (15)
- Western Sahara Profile (10)
- Moroccan Western Sahara Wall (12)
- Global Security
- United Nations (14)