Dakhla refugee camp, southwestern Algeria —
Tchlaz Bchere has visited Western Sahara, the land she calls her rightful home, only once. Born and raised in a refugee camp in the remote desert expanse of southwestern Algeria, the 30-year-old activist has always clung to the promise of an independent homeland, free from Moroccan control. Yet in the entwined contradictions of hope and despair that have shaped her life as a Sahrawi refugee, Bchere never wants to have children — to have them grow up like her, in a state of permanent displacement and consigned to a life of waiting in the harsh desert.
"My hope has no limits," she says. "But I don't want to raise a child in this situation."
Bchere is a refugee of Africa's last colony, the site of one of the world's longest-running conflicts and one of its most invisible.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, the former colonial power, signed an agreement handing over control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing the two countries to invade. The United States and France supported the forced annexation.
The Moroccan army carried out brutal attacks against civilians, including bombing, strafing and dropping napalm on those trying to escape the fighting. The violence prompted nearly half the Sahrawi population to flee on foot and cross into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.
For close to four decades, nearly half the native population of Western Sahara has lived as refugees in Algeria; the other half lives as a minority population under foreign rule. Two parallel societies, one living in exile, the other under occupation.
"The refugee camps are not ours, we are guests, and yet we feel more free here," Bchere says. Her only visit to occupied Western Sahara came in 2007 for five days as part of a United Nations family exchange program. "I cried when I got there. I don't know my homeland, I only know what my parents told me. But what I saw was that, for Sahrawis, everything there is affected by occupation, all aspects of life."
With Algeria's support, the anti-colonial movement that had fought to oust Spain, known as the Polisario Front, went to war with Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that included a promise of a referendum on self-determination and the return of the refugee population. Twenty-two years later, the referendum has yet to take place.
"The war didn't end in 1991. It is still ongoing — maybe not with weapons, but with other means," says Bchere. "But they cannot eradicate our rights."
Polisario established a government-in-exile in 1976 from its base near Tindouf known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With the support of Algeria and international aid, the refugees built four camps in the desert and named them after cities in the Western Sahara.
While most of the men left to fight the war against Morocco, Sahrawi women played a central role in building the basic structures to house schools, clinics and community centers. "In all fronts you will find women leading the process, whether in the refugee camps or in the occupied territories," says Fatma al-Mehdi, president of the National Union of Sahrawi Women. "As Sahrawi women we are working not only to liberate our country but also to have an equal society."
Dakhla, the most remote of the camps, lies some 100 miles from Tindouf, where the nearest airport is located, and lacks sanitation, running water and electricity. Residents live in traditional nomad tents and small mud-brick dwellings, their color blending in with the surrounding landscape of sand and rock. Several sparse clusters of trees are the only vegetation in the barren stretch of desert, courtesy of an underground water source that families pump from wells for domestic use.
The Dakhla refugee camp resembles its namesake, the city of Dakhla in occupied Western Sahara, in name only. While the camp is surrounded by parched desert, the latter is situated on a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic, with blue ocean waters on every side.
"It's the difference between heaven and hell," says Mohammed Louali Akik, the 59-year-old minister of the occupied territories and diaspora in SADR. He recalls the last time he was in Dakhla proper, as a 21-year-old, before he fled amid the growing violence in the mid-1970s. "The weather, the breeze, the water — there is no comparison. It is only the steadfastness of people that has kept them here for nearly forty years in the furious heat and extremely difficult circumstances."
One of the most inhospitable places on earth, temperatures in summertime often climb above 120F in the Dakhla camp, and there is little respite from the roasting sun. Shade is sanctuary, and people outdoors cluster closely together wherever it is offered.
During the daytime, the monochrome panorama of sandy brown is punctuated by vivid splashes of color as Sahrawi women walk through the campgrounds wrapped in traditional, brightly patterned melfas. Men wrap their heads in scarves, which they often use to shield their noses and mouths from sand-laden gusts of wind.
Electricity is scarce, with families using solar panels that charge car batteries to store power. At night, the camp plunges into an enveloping darkness that adults and children alike appear acclimated to, finding their way around with ease; the blackness giving bloom to a thick canopy of stars overhead.
While the Sahrawi camps are heavily dependent on international aid for survival — with a starch-heavy diet provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — they are different from other refugee camps in that they are entirely self-managed. Most affairs and camp life organization is run by the refugees themselves, with little outside interference.
The camps boast one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and many Sahrawi refugees are also fluent in Spanish, which is taught as a second language in schools, while thousands of Sahrawi children spend their summers with families in Spain as part of an exchange program.
"We built a state with full institutions while in exile," says Akik. "We are fighting poverty, illiteracy and ignorance."
Dakhla is also home to an extraordinary annual film festival known as FiSahara. It was founded by Sahrawi exiles and the Spanish filmmaking community to bring cinema to thousands of refugees in the desert and to hold workshops that help Sahrawis learn the art of filmmaking to tell their own stories.
"My country colonized Western Sahara and it neglected its responsibilities when it decolonized," says Maria Carrion, the executive director of FiSahara. "As a Spaniard, along with many other Spaniards, I feel responsible to let my government know that they finally need to take responsibility for what they did." Carrion says a big component of the film festival is also about raising international awareness. "Slowly the wall of silence is being pierced. I won’t say broken altogether yet. It’s a very slow process."
Hidi Wahid's hands still bear the physical scars of his interrogation by Moroccan security forces. In 2009, the 27-year-old Sahrawi activist was arrested in Smara, a city in occupied Western Sahara, while taking part in a pro-independence protest. He was taken to a police station, where he says he was stripped naked, threatened with rape and repeatedly beaten and burned with lit cigarettes that were stubbed out on his hands and arms.
After three days of questioning, he was thrown into an overcrowded cell with 120 other prisoners, where he spent the next seven months in incommunicado pretrial detention — his family not knowing if he was dead or alive—before being sentenced to three years in prison on a sweeping set of charges including incitement to violence and drug-related offenses. After his release in 2012, he remained undeterred, taking up work as an adviser to Freedom Sun, an organization advocating for human rights defenders in Western Sahara.
"In the occupied territories you can’t speak about anything, they oppress you," Wahid says during a visit to Dakhla, his first time to see the refugee camps in Algeria. "You don't feel the occupation here, you can say what you want, but they are living as refugees. My joy will be complete when we transfer it all to Western Sahara, when everyone can come to the homeland and we live, unoccupied, under our own flag."
Moroccan security forces continue to commit widespread human rights abuses in Western Sahara, yet there is little international media coverage due to tight restrictions by Moroccan authorities and the reluctance of news outlets to cover a story that is far removed from the international spotlight.