AUSERDE Refugee Camp, Algeria. Around 22:00 in the middle of the Sahara desert, only two sources of light were shining: the moon and the projection screen. About 70 people gathered in front of the screen as the film was broadcast from a 16-wheel truck. Some sat on rolled mats on the reddish pebbly sand; Others sat on low sand dunes. Everyone watched intently as a voice came from the loudspeaker:
"Those who do not know the Sahara think there is nothing but sand. But there is an occupied country in the Sahara. And people abroad.
It was the second night of the 17th edition of Fissahara, the Western Sahara International Film Festival, which took place from October 11 to 16 at the Avsard refugee camp in Algeria's western province of Tindouf, which borders Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara . Aussard was formed along with four neighboring camps in the mid-1970s when Morocco invaded Western Sahara following Spanish colonization and some 50,000 indigenous Saharawis fled the region.
More than 45 years later, Morocco still occupies most of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front, a Saharan liberation movement, previously succeeded in reclaiming the narrow strip of desert that formed the self-proclaimed Sahara Arab Democratic Republic. A third of all Saharan residents live as refugees in five Algerian camps run by the Polisario Front, a dark place for traditional nomadic communities.
Spanish filmmakers created the five-day Fissahara festival in 2003 to draw attention to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Despite continued support from partners in Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom, the event is currently hosted entirely by the Republic of the Sahara. Foreign guests, press, filmmakers, artists and film crews flock on an Air Algeria charter flight from Madrid. More than 20 films were screened at Fisahara this year.
"Culture unites us all. … Through culture we can tell our story, which of course is also political,” said Tiba Chagaf, director of Fisahara, a Sahrawi filmmaker. He was born in Western Sahara, but was forced to flee and live in camps as a child.
"Our people are always on the move," Chagoff told Foreign Policy. "We were forced to stay here after the conflict. Since then we have used all means at our disposal to break free and become nomads again."
In 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco went on television and announced the "Green March" – a mass demonstration to seize Western Sahara, then called the Spanish Sahara. This resource-rich country has been a Spanish colony since 1884, but Morocco, which gained independence from France in 1956, claims territorial sovereignty from colonial rule. In October 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled against the Moroccan case that served as the basis for Hassan's attack.
Mohammed Salim, now 73, watched in horror from his home in the region's capital, Layun. Soon the Moroccan army started bombing. "I didn't even have time to understand. I found myself running into a bunch of people I didn't know to save myself,” he told Foreign Policy .
At the time, the Polisario Front was only 2 years old, a Spanish anti-independence movement that moved quickly against Morocco. Selim joined his military regime and clashed with Moroccan troops near the Algerian border. A bomb fell from somewhere. Salim said: “We don't know anything about the plane. After a head injury and memory loss, he moved to one of the five new refugee camps in Asard.
Saharan women build camps. The boys fought their way to the front line. At first: "Nothing. Just a desert," said Maryam Ahmada, commandant of the Smara camp south of Avsard. Ahmed was 9 years old when her family fled Western Sahara. "Don't count how old I am," she joked.
At that time, women used traditional handkerchiefs to make tents. Everything made from scrap materials – you can still see a rusted car door that served as a pen for goats and camels – turned the camp into an extraordinary dumping ground. Each of the five camps is named after a city in Western Sahara: Oussard, Smara, Bahadur, El Ayoun and Dakhla.
"Sometimes the refugee situation becomes your new reality. We don't want our children to forget where they came from," Ahmada said.
Conditions in the camp were difficult. They are often subject to sandstorms and summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although each camp had its own school and hospital, problems with diabetes and malnutrition were rampant. An NGO consortium warned during Fisahara that the camp's 180,000 residents face food shortages amid cuts in international aid. Algeria supports the independence of the Sahara, but does not participate in the administration of camps controlled by the Polisario Front.
This year's Fissahara protest is the first since 2020, when a UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front ended in 1991 and the Trump administration recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco's normalization of relations with Israel. (US President Joe Biden has not yet changed that policy, and it looks like he won't.) In March, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez followed suit, with intense pressure from Morocco to ease border controls and migrants in the region to allow. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.
The cause of the Sahara has many supporters in Spain, many of whom complain that Spain does not have a clear plan for post-colonial independence of the Sahara. Sahrawis speak Spanish as a second language and a large number attend Spanish universities. The Spanish in Fisahara quickly noticed that Sánchez's actions did not speak for them or the Spanish officials. "This is a personal decision, not a legal one, and it does not represent the interests of all members of the Spanish Parliament," said Abdullah Arabi , spokesman for Spain's Polisario Front.
In the past two years, fighting has flared up again along the 1,600-mile Moroccan sand wall that separates the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, known as Baram. A berm full of mines is 16 times the length of the Berlin Wall and almost the length of the US-Mexico border. Regional tensions have only heightened the conflict: Algeria and Morocco severed ties in 2021 amid an escalating border dispute, and Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunisia in August after Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali was invited to a conference there. . .
A holiday full of front lines. “We have seen 16 versions of Fisahara and they are very different from this version. Why? We are living in a time of war,” said Dhali, who attended the film festival. In a news report, Ghali called Western Sahara "Africa's last colony" and recalled a promised UN-backed referendum in the 1990s that never happened. .
"Thirty years of waiting for the UN to fulfill its responsibilities towards the Sahrawis. In the end, they let the Moroccan government do what they want, and now we're back at war."
This year's theme of Fisahara is 'Colonisation'. Outside, during the night session, a goat appears on the screen in suspended animation and speaks. Pequeno Sahara , or Little Sahara, directed by Spanish director Emilio Martí, is an animated short documentary narrated by a fictional child in a Sahara camp. Many viewers have never seen their community on screen, as the previous 17 releases featured more Spanish and international films. A voiceover referred to the long-pending referendum: "We all know that Western Sahara will vote for freedom and independence." Observer Sahara cheered and roared wildly.
Nearby, in a black canvas tent, drums beat, dancers wrapped their henna-covered arms around them. One reaches out and places a finger around an imaginary trigger, as if imitating an arrow. Another carried a shiny dummy pistol. Behind them hung the striped flag of Western Sahara.
According to Marti, Saharans began to develop and distribute their own media when they were forced to settle. Before the occupation “they were traveling to Western Sahara, Mauritania. They didn't have time to develop media. Now they don't have their own land, they are more organized," he said.
A few nights into the festival, Fisahara sends a convoy of their Land Cruisers to a remote sandy beach for a concert. Children of the Sahara jump and roll in the sand. Red-nosed clowns from Palasos and Rebeldia, a Latin American solidarity group touring the West Bank and Gaza, perform in colorful costumes. Their highlight is a human pyramid topped with the flag of Western Sahara. Then traditional Saharan singers took to the stage. The dunes are covered in shaky cellphone flashlights.
Fisahara concluded the evening with the award ceremony. Vanibeek: "People Living in Front of Their Land" by the Algerian director Rabo Slimani won the big prize: a white camel. The camel was led to the stage, the reins stretched his face into a smile, and the audience screamed. Wanibik is a meta-documentary about the film, a group of Saharan students trying to make a documentary about Burma. War has been averted starting in 2020.
The Abidin Quaid Saleh Audiovisual School featured in the film is located in the Bozador camp and is run by director Fisahara Chagaf. It currently has 27 university-aged students, half of whom are girls. They also had work at this year's festival, including the sitcom Sahara. But documentaries are gaining popularity day by day. "Most people prefer to reflect the current reality. After all, our reality is almost like a fantasy,” Chagaf joked.
Filming was more difficult in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where Sahrawi activists were intimidated and imprisoned, often for random crimes; beatings and torture; and suppressed journalism. (Morocco ranks 135th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.) Sahara-occupied western Morocco. Wanibika is part of the cast. "They have the idea that we are criminals. That we live in the desert. That we are almost monsters. We are enemies of the state."
In the Moroccan-controlled region, trans-Saharan filmmaking is not just an act of self-expression and resistance. It could also be valuable evidence documenting Moroccan abuses. "Our first task is to show the truth about the Saharawi here and in the occupied territories," says Bachir Jheli (26), a member of the Naushatta Foundation, a youth organization that documents human rights abuses in the occupied Marakana Western Sahara . . "There is not a single Saharan family that has not been tortured, disappeared or suffered because of the occupation." In March, the Naushatta Foundation submitted documents to the UN Human Rights Council alleging torture, surveillance and restrictions on the movement of Sahrawi people living in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
Jheli remembers being forced to sing the Moroccan national anthem at school. "The Moroccan education system teaches that Western Sahara is Morocco, and the Green March is the best thing that happened to the region… Morocco did not want us to see our grandparents riding camels, to see our old way of life not," he said.
At least during the festival week, this old way of life is briefly revived. On the last day of Fissahara, a fleet of Land Cruisers arrived to take the filmmakers and visitors to Tindouf Airport for their flight back to Madrid. The festival only ended a few hours ago, but already the carpets have been rolled up and the black cloth tents assembled. The piece of land is again reduced to bare sand, recognizable only by the remaining flag of Western Sahara.