Monday, 19 October 2015

Tales from Western Sahara: photographs under the starry night sky

"Night comes to the desert all at once, as if somebody turned off the light" Joyce Oates

A couple of years back I featured these beautiful photographs and tales of Sahrawi people under the night sky, by renowned photographer Andrew McConnell. For any of you that missed them, here they are again.... 

Minatu Lanabas Suidat, 25, journalist. Pictured in Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.
'I was born in El Aaiun refugee camp in 1984. I thought when I was a little girl that it was the nicest place in the world because I didn't know anything other than the camps. My childhood was very nice. We played all night, we never had anything to fear, even the darkness. I have worked as a journalist since December 2008 and I have learned a lot of things about my issue. Now I have a lot of chances to fight for my issue through writing and talking about the situation. I think the world has betrayed the Polisario. The Polisario wanted peace and had faith in the process and they gave a lot for the chance to create peace but I think the world didn't appreciate that, especially the UN and Morocco. The people are ready to sacrifice themselves for independence. The ceasefire had advantages in that the Polisario had the chance to organise everything in the camps and now the people are educated and we understand democracy but the negative is we are still here, without land, and relying on international aid. I hope the Saharawi will have the chance for a referendum to decide their future, that's all. I hope the chance comes through peace.'

 ©Andrew McConnell 2011 

Hamdi Jaafar Mohammed, 46, soldier of the Polisario Front. Pictured atop a tank in Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.
 'I was born in 1963 in Wagcedhi. During the invasion I was a young boy but I remember what happened. I saw my neighbours being forced to leave, women and children walking and travelling in trucks. The Moroccans intervened in a barbaric way in occupying our cities. I fled with my brothers. My father was fighting to protect people as they were leaving the territory. It took more than one month of walking before we reached the camps. I joined the Polisario and became a fighter at the end of 1981. On my first day as a soldier in the war we came under attack from a Moroccan plane and we were all dispersed. Someone shot at the plane with a normal gun and it came down! The pilot came down in the parachute and we captured him. Everyday something happened. I didn't believe I would die, I know the only one who can kill someone is God, not the Moroccan. I didn't believe that they could kill me or do anything to me, only I have a strong belief in God and God is the only one I am afraid of.'

 ©Andrew McConnell 2011

Djimi Elghalia, vice president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), pictured near El-Ayoun city, in Moroccan controlled Western Sahara.

 ©Andrew McConnell 2011

McConnell said, in an interview with the New Yorker: “In pursuing the Sahrawi story, what struck me more than anything else was how forgotten these people are. How is it possible, in the twenty-first century, for tens of thousands of men, women, and children to languish in refugee camps for three and a half decades—unknown? How can continuous U.N. resolutions and international laws be ignored and abused without censure? And how can human-rights abuses proceed unchallenged?

Name withheld, photographed at an undisclosed location on the coast of Moroccan controlled Western Sahara.
       ©Andrew McConnell 2011

McConnell, who decided to set all his photographs in darkness, said: “I wanted to give a sense that this is one long night for the Sahrawis—lasting thirty-five years. My showing very little of the land emphasizes that the Sahrawis are landless. By lighting them simply and in darkness, I am trying to say, ‘Look! These people are here!’ Their statements are a grim rebuttal to international efforts in Western Sahara; the majority want a return to war. Finally, I wanted the viewer to see what I had seen: a people utterly forgotten, abandoned, hidden from the world’s consciousness—a people living as ghosts."

Chrifa Mohammed Salem, pictured outside her home in Auserd refugee camp, Algeria 

                                                                                                                                ©Andrew McConnell 2011

By beginning his career covering the conflict in his Irish homeland, McConnell seems to have a clear understanding of the societal impact of war, which shows in his thoughtful and provocative photography. By photographing Sahrawis from all walks of life he has created a truly fascinating account of the occupied region. 

Salek Labieb Basher, 23, pictured in the desert near Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.

©Andrew McConnell 2011

When asked by NBC news whose story affected him most, McConnell replied: " My guide in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara was an old soldier called Malainin Aomar. He knew the desert like the back of his hand and was truly at one with the land. He would look for the smallest signs to get his bearings, maybe a rock or a bush, and with knowledge that had been built up over many years he would guide our jeep through the endless desert. Our lives were basically in his hands; in the height of the midday sun he would direct us to an outcrop of rock that offered shade and at night he would find Bedouins who would feed us and give us a place to sleep.

Malainin Aomar, 66, soldier of the Polisario Front. Pictured watching the Moroccan wall near Auserd, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara. 
'I was born in Auserd in 1953. Since I was a little boy I studied the Koran and I learnt the difference between good and bad. In August 1974 I joined the Polisario Front. I joined because they were an organisation fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara which had been occupied by the Spanish for almost 100 years. I believed in the Polisario's ideals. In September 1975 Spain began to leave all their bases and release the Saharawi soldiers. Polisario knew something was happening and began to prepare for a new kind of conflict. We never trusted Spain. There was a big meeting between all the countries and Algeria and Libya supported independence for Western Sahara, but something went wrong. Then we knew on 14th November 1975 Spain signed the Triple Agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to divide up our land. For me the only future is the liberation of my country and my people. If we don't have independence there is no future, all is dark. We have to go back to war, we don't like war but we have to finish this situation, we have been waiting for 34 years, it's enough.'  

Andrew McConnell 2011

He continued, saying: "I photographed him watching the Moroccan wall from an old look-out point as the sun set and dark clouds gathered overhead. That night I interviewed him about his life and a deep sadness came over him. He told me that the look-out point where I had photographed him looked towards Auserd, the town where he was born. It was only a few miles away but on the other side of the wall and he had not been able to go there for 30 years. He hadn't seen his brother and many of his relatives in all that time. As he spoke his sadness gave way to anger and he questioned the decision to stop the war with Morocco and told me he was ready to fight again."

Brahim Mohamed Fadin, 17. Pictured in sand dunes near Smara refugee camp, Algeria.

'I don't like to be in the refugee camps. I know that the Algerians receive us and help us for many years but I want to be free in my own country. I am in High School in Algeria and Saharawis always get the best grades there. We are learning for our people, we learn to spread our history and in Algeria we can do that. I'm studying maths and my goal is to be an engineer. I wish I could help my country, it needs a lot of specialists. I would rather live in the camps than live under Moroccan control.'
 © Andrew McConnell 2011 

 To see McConnell's full portfolio please visit

What's happening in Western Sahara?

The fact that there is so little representation of the occupation of Western Sahara leads to many of us never learning about it. So for those of you wondering here's a brief overview of what's happening in Western Sahara.
First, some history: In the mid 20th century states in Africa began to be granted independence from their colonial powers. Today, all African states are considered sovereign and face the long struggle to reinstate their position in the international hierarchy.
All but one.
Western Sahara is situated on the northwest coastline of Africa, bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Despite being mostly comprised of desert land and lacking sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities, the country does have fish-rich waters and large amounts of phosphate. It also potentially possesses a large amount of oil.
Unlike most African states, which, upon withdrawal of their colonial powers were offered a referendum on independence, Western Sahara was immediately laid claim to by its neighboring countries of Morocco and Mauritania. Spain, its former colonizer, rather than handing independence to the Sahrawis cut a deal with Morocco and Mauritania by signing the "Madrid Agreement," in which Spain split the territory between the neighboring countries. In doing so, Spain both avoided a messy colonial war with their Moroccan neighbor, and gained access to the fish and phosphate in return for their favor.
In 1975 Morocco invaded and occupied Western Sahara.
A month earlier, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had any legal claim to territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara. Morocco went ahead and occupied them anyway.
This was an illegal occupation.
The Moroccan occupation did not come without resistance from the Sahrawi people, who had developed a strong sense of nationalism in the 1960s, which gave birth to the Polisario Front, who are the sole representative of the Sahrawis. This Front had successfully rid itself of Spanish power through guerrilla warfare, and now faced the task of doing the same to its neighboring powers.
War between the Polisario Front and Morocco began soon after the 1975 invasion.
In 1979 Mauritania withdrew its right to Western Sahara and Morocco secured effective control of most of the territory.
There are an estimated 500,000 Sahrawi people, of which an estimated 100,000 have been forced into refugee camps in Algeria. They have been there for 38 years and are completely reliant on foreign aid. Morocco has built a 2,700-kilometer-long wall scattered with millions of landmines to prevent those in refugee camps from returning to their country. This is the longest strip of landmines in the world.
So why, now that Morocco has been illegally occupying this country for 40 years and considering that under UN law "freely expressed self-determination is an unalienable right," did the international powers not step in and demand a referendum on independence, akin to those that all other African states had been granted?
The answer is because other, more dominant world powers were at play. When Morocco first invaded Western Sahara, the Moroccan government had strong backing from Spain, France and the Reagan administration in the United States. All these countries saw Morocco as a key ally in the Middle East, and didn't want to disturb their relationship by giving support for a referendum on independence, even if it was backed by international law. The UN is weak to powers such as these, and often don't implement international law, if it contradicts an interest of a powerful country. This has been visible in the way the UN has failed to implement international law in the case of Western Sahara.
The UN has been attempting -- in the broadest sense of the term -- to find a solution to the question of sovereignty and self-determination since 1991. The worst failure of theirs is their refusal to implement human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, despite numerous amounts of reports of heinous abuse. Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, said in their 2008 report on Western Sahara that:
"The government bans peaceful demonstrations and refuses legal recognition to human rights organizations; the security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, beat them and subject them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; and the courts convict and imprison them after unfair trials."
Many people have never heard of this conflict. It is hugely under-represented in the news media, both by a corrupt censored Moroccan media, and by an internationally corrupt media who are unwilling to publish stories outside of a familiar narrative and that pose super-powers in a negative light.
I believe the path to the freedom of the Sahrawi people is through telling more people the story. I will tell this story, the story of the people, over and over again. I hope that after reading this you will too.

By Holly Tarn
This original article of mine was first published in the Huffington Post. Please see:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Where can I read about Western Sahara?

Despite a lack of coverage in mainstream media, the occupation of Western Sahara is still being represented elsewhere, particularly on social media. Here is a quick guide on staying up-to-date on Western Sahara.

I have been thrilled to be able to learn more about the Sahrawi struggle through the people themselves, rather than from biased, under researched articles.

Sand Blast Arts, for example, a human rights and arts charity who work with the Sahrawis to enable them to tell their own story through the arts, have a wonderful Facebook page. The site promotes musicians and artists from Sahrawi descent, giving a platform to be heard from and allowing a broad spectrum of communication. I suggest looking on their page to find out about music nights all over the world and protests which you can attend.

Sahrawi Voice, which started as a blog from the Sahrawi refugee camps, now also has its own Facebook page. This page has a little more of a political feel, posting links to a range of articles covering topics such as phosphate exploitation, and media corruption. The blog and Facebook page both give an interesting and previously unheard perspective of the Saharwi youth, including videos and articles written and made by young people inside the camp. 

For updates on international political event effecting the region, I would visit the blog 'Western Sahara Update' which offers a master list of informative articles as well as offering email updates through their mailing list. 

Although this blog isn't updated often there are many ways to stay up to date on the Sahrawi struggle for freedom. If you need more help sourcing articles please contact me, always happy to help. (Western Sahara Update Blog)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Canadian agriculture companies - their role in supporting the illegal occupation of Western Sahara, and what we can do to prevent it.

In October of 2010 a Canadian company imported possibly the first conflict materials into the country since the South African Apartheid. Even though the phosphate rock bought is from the Bou Craa mines in Western Sahara, the money has ended up in the hands on the Moroccan government. As purchases of this nature become commonplace in the international community, serious questions are raised concerning their legality and the impact they are having on progress to the region.

October 2010. A shipment of Phosphate arrived on the shore of North Vancouver.  The new owner of this shipment is Calgary based agricultural business ‘Agrium’, who have entered into an agreement with Morocco to buy 1 million tonnes a year until 2020, a deal worth over $100 million.

Mike Watson, president and CEO of Agrium, said:

“We believe this agreement signifies the start of a significant partnership between Agrium and Morocco, offering clear benefits to both parties”

Agrium confirmed to Canadian newspaper  ‘The Tyee’ that the resources were sourced in Western Sahara.

Western Sahara had been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, its former colonizer, rather than granting the state freedom, cut a deal with Morocco in return for resources. The International Court of Justice immediately condemned the takeover and the UN general assembly has declared Morocco’s ongoing presence an illegal occupation. No state in the world recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. 

A map showing the occupied territory of Western Sahara.
During the 1975/76 occupation over half of the Sahrawi population - around 150,000 people - were forced into refugee camps in Algeria, where they still remain 38 years later, separated from their homeland, friends and family by a 2,700 km wall, and the longest strip of landmines in the world. The displaced Sahrawis are now living in one of the most inhospitable places on the earth, completely reliant on foreign aid, with no safe drinking water, largely unable to grow food in the 50-degree desert.

Meanwhile the Moroccan government has been extracting resources from the resource-rich Western Sahara, of which the Sahrawi people see none of the profits.

The Sahrawi Government in exile (SADR) has written a letter to Agrium, saying:

“The Saharawi people emphatically do not consent the development and export of their natural resources from the occupied part of their territory. We do not have the benefit of those resources, the revenues from which go to sustain the occupation.

What is the legality of this practice?

So why are countries still permitted to buy ‘stolen’ resources from an illegally occupying government? Well, actually they’re not. A recent legal opinion from the New York City Bar Association to the UN found:

“….to the extent Morocco is using natural resources located within the territory of Western Sahara, unless such use is in consultation with and to the direct benefit of the people of Western Sahara, Morocco's use of the natural resources of the territory constitutes a violation of international law."

Agrium issued a response to SADR, defending their transaction. They said:

"On issues related to disputed territorial claims, Agrium looks to guidance from the Canadian and US governments before entering into any agreement which may be related to the territory. Agrium's agreement with Morocco complies with the respective trade and customs laws of these jurisdictions."

Furthermore, they claimed that:

"Agrium is committed to improving the quality of life in the communities where we do business, and we believe that our agreement will support the improvement of economic, environmental and social conditions in these communities."

Agrium’s statement is contradictory to both national and international law. The UN have stated that resource extraction from the area is illegal, unless the trade benefits the Sahrawis - which it doesn’t.  Additionally, the U.S have excluded Western Sahara from their free trade agreement, and Canada are currently in talks deciding whether or not to do the same, but as yet no decision had been made. 

The transaction they have made is illegal but the law, in this case, is not being enforced by national or international bodies.

Legitimising and extending the conflict?

Not only is Agrium’s statement contradictory to the UN law on resource extraction, but it also fails to see the full perspective of the impact that the deal will have for, in their words, “economic, environmental and social conditions in these communities”.

The deal has raised concerns that an injection of money such as this will only serve to prolong the conflict and encourage the occupation. Since 1991 the UN mission for resolution MINURSO has been trying to find a resolution to the conflict. However, even with an annual budget of $60million, the progress is painfully slow, and the UN has come under harsh criticism for being the only peacekeeping effort in 35 years to not have on the ground human rights monitoring, despite numerous reports of widespread abuse. Unfortunately, it has become evident that this is largely due to international powers purposefully blocking human rights monitoring in order to continue their trade relations with Morocco. In 2010, France used the threat of its veto power to block the establishment of human rights monitoring by the MINURSO in Western Sahara. France has been a major backer of the Moroccan Autonomy Plan and in the EU negotiated the concession of the advanced status to Morocco. Online newspaper 'Pravada' said:

"France has actively worked to protect Morocco from any international scrutiny of their serious and repeated human rights abuses in the occupied territory of Western Sahara."

It is often claimed that Morocco’s key interest in occupying Western Sahara is to enable them to have free resource extraction of the area (not only is the region the supplier of two thirds of the Worlds phosphate, making up a quarter of the countries exports, but it also has fish rich waters and plenty of oil). If this is the case then the continuation of resource trade will only serve to encourage Morocco that their occupation is economically beneficial. The SADR added in their earlier letter to Agrium that:

"The continuing, illegal occupation of Western Sahara is legitimized by individuals and corporations who deal with Morocco for the natural resources of the territory. The conflict over Western Sahara is prolonged, and the Saharawi people denied their economic future, by such engagement.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars in resources are extracted and sold from Western Sahara every year, and Agrium are just the latest in a long line of trades made against the will of the Sahrawi people. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) estimates almost $300 million in phosphate has been exported from Western Sahara in 44 shiploads last year alone.  Many countries in the world partake in the illegal buying of resources from the area, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. 

Agrium, a Canadian agriculture company, are partaking in illegal mineral trade.

However, some countries are choosing to take a stand against the illegal buying of conflict minerals. In 2010 The Swedish Government Pension fund – the repository for $700billion of the countries wealth - announced that it would be ending relations with companies that invested in mineral from Western Sahara because they considered such imports “grossly unethical”. The move followed a similar decision by Norwegian State Pension Fund earlier that year. The Swedish funds issued a statement, saying:

"This is not only due the fact that the local population is not receiving the benefits; the current manner of exploitation is also contributing to maintaining an unresolved situation and consequently, Morocco's presence in a territory over which it does not have rightful sovereignty. In the view of the Council, there is a concrete, mutually beneficial relationship between Morocco's violations of norms and the companies purchasing phosphate from Western Sahara."

This ‘mutually beneficial relationship’ that was also spoken of by the President of Agrium, certainly seems to be a prevalent theme. It is unquestionable that both Morocco -who are gaining free resources - and the buying party – who are gaining discounted minerals – are both benefiting. But there is, of course, a third party that is not benefiting, and these are the Sahrawi people.

Despite the legal and moral drawbacks of the Western Sahara mineral trade, there remains a genuine difficulty in persuading companies to withdraw.  As long as international law is not enforced and there is no expression of clear guidelines at the national level, it looks as if companies will continue to exploit this ‘mutually beneficial relationship’.

In a quote published last year in 'Think Africa Press', a representative from Western Sahara Resource Watch said:

“Responsible governments need to provide legal clarity by providing guidelines to all private companies that any exploration or exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources must respect international law. In failing to provide this clarity, governments will indirectly be allowing companies to violate the sovereign rights of Western Sahara's people to control their own resources."

So what can I do?

Although international law and national governments seem to be doing very little to curtail the practice of conflict trade, there are measures that we, the people, can take. Firstly, Canadians can stop buying mineral fertilizers for their garden. The fertilizers contain phosphate, and are most likely to be sourced in Western Sahara.

Secondly, check out where you can see the latest on illegal purchases leaving Western Sahara.

Additionally, you can write a letter to put pressure on the companies, governments and international powers that hold the ability to stop the practice of illegal conflict trade. For a list of addresses and letter outlines please visit