Nineteen-year-old Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit shifts his weight in obvious discomfort. The stump of his leg, blown off below the knee by a landmine on April 10, has yet to heal. "The pain is horrible" he tells me. "But today it is possible for me to think about other things." Leibeit was born and raised in the isolated refugee camps in southwestern Algeria where an estimated 165,000 Saharawi people who fled their native Western Sahara have lived for over three decades.
Western Sahara, "Africa’s last colony," was divided between Morocco and Mauritania by the Spanish when they withdrew in 1976 following the mass mobilization by the Moroccans known as the "Green March." The preceding year the International Court of Justice had rejected Moroccan and Mauritanian claims to sovereignty over the territory, effectively recognizing the Saharawi’s right to independence. In February 1976, the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. A 16-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, the Mauritanians having withdrawn in 1979. In 1991, the fighting ended and under the terms of a UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised. However, this has been continually blocked by Morocco, leaving the Saharawi to live in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.
Home to nearly 30,000 refugees, Dakhla, named after the beautiful coastal city in Western Sahara, is the most remote of the camps. It is located more than 100 miles from the nearest city, Tindouf. It has no paved roads and is entirely dependent on outside supplies of food and water. In the summer months temperatures regularly top 120 degrees. With sandstorms, little vegetation, and no sources of food or water, it is little wonder that the area is known locally as "The Devil’s Garden." Yet, incredibly, for a week each May, this desolate refugee camp plays host to the Sahara International Film Festival (www.festivalsahara.com), a gala of screenings, workshops, and concerts attended by an array of internationally acclaimed actors and filmmakers.
Now in its sixth year, the festival was set up by award-winning Peruvian documentary filmmaker Javier Corcuera. It aims to both entertain and educate the refugees, as well as raise awareness internationally of the plight of the Saharawi people. There were over 500 international participants in attendance this year, mainly Spaniards, who flew into Tindouf in two charter planes and travelled to the sprawling camp in a convoy of Landcruisers. Dakhla itself is clean and well organized, with wide sandy streets lined with houses and tents forming neat family compounds. The festival site is in a spacious area in the center of the camp and includes a multiplex-sized outdoor screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry. The central screen is surrounded by tents for workshops, exhibitions, and indoor screenings as well as numerous stalls.
The 2009 program included over 40 films from around the world. The themes mainly explored diverse experiences of struggle and hope, but there was some lighter entertainment and even an animated film which held a capacity crowd of refugee children enraptured. Audiovisual workshops run by the London-based charity Sandblast provided Sahrawi refugees with an opportunity to learn about all aspects of filmmaking and create their own video messages. These were put online and could be seen by their extended families in Western Sahara, from whom they have been separated for over 33 years.
The festival is gaining renown, helped by the support of luminaries such as Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar. This year a number of well-known people from the entertainment industry attended, including actors Helena Anaya (Sex and Lucia), Eduardo Noriega (Vantage Point) and Oscar-nominated film director Javier Fesser.
The celebrities, like all visitors to the festival, stayed with Saharawi families, sharing their homes and their food. Living alongside the refugees gave visitors an insight into the conditions under which the refugees live and motivated many participants to get involved in the campaign to pressure Morocco over the situation in Western Sahara. The campaign in Spain has been growing steadily, boosted by a sense of betrayal felt towards Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s new socialist government, which failed to reverse the long-held Spanish policy toward Morocco.
However, campaigners recognize that to affect real change the focus of attention cannot just be on the Spanish government. With Morocco recently named by the U.S. as a major non-NATO ally, and with many Western governments and companies involved in lucrative trade deals with the Moroccans, action has not been high on the international agenda. Large reserves of phosphate, vast fishing grounds, and potential offshore reserves of oil and gas mean that the Western Sahara is not a possession the Moroccans will relinquish lightly.
Privately, a Polisario representative admitted concern about the rising level of militancy among some young Saharawis. After waiting patiently while countless UN resolutions have been passed and ignored, many are losing faith in the diplomatic process. Indeed, Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit is one such young person. He had been taking part in a march to the 1,553 mile-long fortified barrier known as "the wall," built by the Moroccans to stop the Sahrawis from returning to their land. In a symbolic gesture, Ibrahim was attempting to get close enough to the wall to throw to a pebble to the other side when he stepped on the land mine. He is rapidly becoming something of a hero to the Sahrawi cause, a symbol of their defiance. Ibrahim has no regrets: "I would gladly lose my other leg if it would mean my country could be free."
At a dusty red carpet ceremony on the final day, the decision of the popular jury was announced and the White Camel award for best picture was picked up by producer Albert Noriega for the 2008 Steven Soderbergh film, Che, Guerilla. Participants and organizers, some waving flags of the Saharawi nation, took the stage in a final act of solidarity with the refugees. After the obligatory photo calls, the international participants boarded the waiting fleet of Landcruisers in a buoyant mood. But as the convoy headed back across the empty desert, the mood changed and thoughts turned to those left behind. During the 16-year war, captured Moroccan prisoners were corralled into open compounds in the desert. They were free to leave at anytime, but in the Sahara there is nowhere to go. Dakhla is essentially a desert prison. Despite a tangible undercurrent of anger and frustration, Y. Lamine Baali, Polisario’s UK representative, tells me that what fuels Saharawri determination is a strong sense of injustice. I heard the word "karama" a lot in Dakhla. It is an Arabic word for strength and dignity.
I touch down in London, dusty and somewhat dazed, but with a rare clarity of purpose. The next day at work I took my boss aside and handed her my letter of resignation. I resolved to work instead with the Free Western Sahara Campaign (www.freesahara.ning.com) to help move the story of the Saharawi refugees off the culture pages of a few magazines reporting on the film festival and on to the international pages of all newspapers where it belongs.
Next year, it is hoped that there will be direct flights to Tindouf from London, Paris and LA filled with actors, filmmakers, musicians, as well as others wanting to be part of the festival and show their solidarity with the Saharawi. In this way the festival will become more of an international event, putting pressure on political decision-makers and reminding the world of an otherwise forgotten conflict.