In Western Sahara, 165,000 refugees are still fighting for their freedom
For over 40 years, the people of Western Sahara have endured war and occupation—yet few outside of northern Africa have ever heard of them or their suffering. In 1975, their vast territory—some 100,000 square miles of desert bordering the Atlantic—was invaded by Morocco. Almost half of the traditionally nomadic Sahrawi population was driven into remote refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, where 165,000 remain to this day. An entire generation has been born and raised in these camps.
Following Morocco’s occupation, the Sahrawis waged a long war of resistance. It ended in 1991, when Morocco agreed to allow the Sahrawis to vote on independence. But thanks to Moroccan obstruction, that referendum has never taken place. The United Nations has done almost nothing, and the United States and European Union—both of which railed against Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine—have refused to defend the Sahrawis.
I have visited the refugee camps as a diplomatic adviser to the Sahrawis, and have come away inspired by the vibrant and democratic society they have built. Their vitality and determination shine through in these remarkable images by Anthony Jean, who has documented life in the camps over the past six years. But there is also a mounting sense of despair among the refugees and, for some, a desire to return to armed struggle.
Morocco has sealed off the occupied territory with a towering sand wall that stretches for 1,700 miles across the desert, fortified by the world’s longest minefield. Journalists are rarely permitted inside; small wonder, given Morocco’s systematic abuse of human rights. Included here are rare photos of the Gdeim Izik protests in Western Sahara. In 2010, when thousands of Sahrawis demonstrated for their political freedom, Morocco responded by attacking them with helicopters and ground troops, using rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the uprising. Seven years later, many of the protesters remain in Moroccan custody, subjected to unjust military trials and torture.
The true beginning of the Arab Spring, as Noam Chomsky has observed, took place in the camps of Gdeim Izik. And it is there, in Western Sahara, that the nations of the world must put an end to Morocco’s unlawful occupation, granting freedom and independence to Africa’s last colony.