In the remote town of Tindouf, at Algeria’s southwestern border with Morocco and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, swathes of desert surround row upon row of mud-brick huts and canvas tents. For nearly 50 years, generations of Sahrawis have lived in these refugee camps, unable to return to their homeland in Western Sahara, which has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975.
The number of refugees living in the camps has risen from approximately 125,000 in 2008 to more than 170,000 Sahrawis living across the camp’s five districts, each named after a city in the occupied territory: Laayoune (El-Aaiún), Awserd, Smara, Dakhla and Cape Bojador. A smaller satellite camp known as February 27 is named after the Polisario Front liberation movement declared the birth of its “state-in-exile” known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976.
Traditionally nomadic peoples, Sahrawis lived under Spanish colonial rule from 1884 until 1975. Upon the discovery of rich phosphate reserves and off-shore fisheries, Western Sahara became subject to massive resource exploitation for European and other global markets, which continues to this day despite some illegalities. After Spanish withdrew in 1975, Morocco annexed the territory and claimed defacto sovereignty over Western Sahara. This led to years of brutal conflict between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, and forced tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to neighbouring Algeria.
A UN-brokered ceasefire agreement in 1991 promised to carry out a vote for self-determination, but the referendum has yet to take place. Today, Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps rely primarily on international aid for basic necessities such as food, water and shelter. Education and healthcare are chronically underfunded and there is a shortage of jobs and opportunities, especially for young people. Those living in the occupied territory continue to live under Morocco’s firm repression, media blockade and use of violence against those that support the independence movement.
Yet, the story of Western Sahara and the Sahrawi struggle for self-determination is largely left out of mainstream international media. In November 2020, tensions escalated into renewed conflict. But in the refugee camps, freedom of expression and a rise in digital connectivity has enabled many young Sahrawis to take matters into their own hands. A predominantly youth-led campaign for self-determination, nonviolent resistance and cultural activism is garnering more widespread international attention.
Filmmaker Iara Lee visited the refugee camps in Tindouf and spoke to those living in occupied Western Sahara to chronicle this movement for her 2015 documentary “Life is Waiting”. An activist, filmmaker, and founding director of the Cultures of Resistance Network, Lee works with other artists and activists to build a more just and peaceful world through creative resistance and nonviolent action. She has directed and produced several full-length documentaries and short films in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Palestine and many others.
For Refugee Week, we spoke to Lee about the ongoing significance of “Life is Waiting” and her continued collaboration and creative activism with the Sahrawi people.
Since you made this film in 2015, the UN has yet to hold a referendum for self-determination in Western Sahara, and the number of refugees living in the camps has risen. We think your film has become even more relevant today. What do you think?
I really want my films to become outdated and historical, but unfortunately, they are still current. It’s a very difficult situation. The Sahrawis are completely forgotten and the media blockade from the Moroccan government is so vicious. It’s really heartbreaking and the Sahrawis need a lot of international support because they’re not big in numbers and they’re spread out and they have a lot of natural resources that the world wants. All we can do is use art and culture and creative activism to push forward.
What drew you to Western Sahara in the first place and why did you decide to film from the refugee camps?
My first encounter with the Sahrawis was through the FiSahara Film Festival. I was in the refugee camps living with a Sahrawi family during the festival and I just felt so moved. I decided to make a film about them to support the cause. I thought it was important to give a snapshot of the whole situation, but in the occupied territories it was very complicated because most filmmakers are automatically deported. I decided to go by bus in the middle of the night and enter the occupied territories very discreetly. I was going to try to stay there a whole month. But after a few days, word got out that there is a filmmaker targeting human rights activists and interviewing people. I decided to just get as many interviews per day and then leave as soon as possible before they confiscated our material. Luckily, I took the bus back [to the camps] and I was able to leave with the material.
When you first arrived, what did you observe about the activism that was already taking place there?
In the refugee camps, activism is flourishing because they have freedom of expression. They have a marathon in the desert, an art exhibition in the camps, the film festival, art schools and film schools. It’s wonderful that they can also tell their own stories, instead of waiting for international people to talk about their stories. But even more daring are the people who are activists in the occupied territories because people do get hurt or killed or disappear there. It’s really sad that people have to pay with their own lives for freedom.
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is “We Cannot Walk Alone” and it centres around the importance of collective understanding and shared experiences. What do you hope will resonate with people who are learning about Western Sahara and seeing your film for the first time?
My main mission is to get people to be more proactive. To be informed is not enough, we need to get action on the ground, we need to show real solidarity, and collaborate and care and be active. I’m so happy to hear that people who didn’t know anything about Western Sahara are now talking to people and trying to be a representative of the Sahrawi movement, joining different NGOs and volunteering. The ripple effect is amazing.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you continue to do with the Sahrawi people through Cultures of Resistance?
Besides making films, I also try to be more directly involved in resistance movements and campaigns. For the Sahrawis, we supported the women by donating a car. We donated cameras and computers to some of the media people at the FiSahara film festival. We also have an award called the Creative Activism award. We give $1,000 to different creative activists from underprivileged backgrounds. We just gave a whole set of grants to people in Lesotho, Kashmir, and we are going to be doing more with the Sahrawis. It’s a long-term commitment for us.