Life is Waiting: A Refugee Week Simple Act

By Tom Wood

Trigger warning: this post contains a reference to sexual violence.

This year’s Refugee Week is asking people to perform ‘Simple Acts’: everyday actions we can all do to stand with refugees and make new connections in our communities’. As such, I sat down to watch Life is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara, using the simple act of watching a film to try and draw attention to its little-discussed subject matter.

Life is Waiting is a 2014 documentary directed by Iara Lee. It focusses on Western Sahara, an ex-Spanish colony in Northwest Africa which is currently partly occupied by Morocco. Hundreds of thousands of its citizens live in refugee camps in the Algerian desert after fleeing from violent conflict between 1975 and 1991.

Spain took control of Western Sahara in 1884, and only ended its occupation in 1975, following a 1965 UN resolution asking it to decolonise. However, instead of giving the people of Western Sahara their independence, Spain handed control of the territory over to the countries of Morocco and Mauritania. This resulted in a war between these two countries and the newly formed pro-independence movement POLISARIO, considered to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people by the United Nations. Whilst Mauritania withdrew in 1979, Morocco secured a large part of the territory and cemented its power in the region by building a 2700km wall across the border of the section it controlled, as well as scattering the surrounding desert with an estimated nine million landmines.

During the conflict, hundreds of thousands of Western Saharans were forced to flee to refugee camps in Algeria and Mauritania, where many of them remain to this day, in exile from their own homeland. The Sahrawi people’s right to independence is not internationally recognised, with the UN officially listing Western Sahara as a ‘non-decolonized territory’ rather than a country. Many countries are either neutral with regards to the conflict or on the side of Morocco. International hostility towards the Sahrawi cause was intensified recently when the United States backed Morocco’s claim to the territory in exchange for Morocco normalising diplomatic relations with Israel. Meanwhile, the European Union has a trade deal with Morocco allowing it to fish in waters which belong to the coast of Western Sahara. POLISARIO says this is against international law and that it tacitly supports the Moroccan claim.

The UN helped broker a ceasefire between POLISARIO and Morocco in 1991 by promising an independence referendum to POLISARIO, but this referendum never took place. The UN mission MINURSO (UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara), set up in 1991, has so far failed in its task, and additionally has no mandate to monitor human rights violations in the territory, unlike other similar UN missions elsewhere. Subsequently, the Sahrawi people have been practising a vast range of nonviolent resistance methods to gain international support for their cause and to show the world that they can fight for their independence without using violence.

As well as providing an overview of the history of the Sahrawi struggle, Life is Waiting focusses on this non-violent resistance. It features numerous artists explaining how their work asserts an identity which Morocco is trying to erase. The film details how displaying the flag of Western Sahara is illegal in Morocco and the occupied territories. Additionally, the tents which were historically used by Sahrawi nomads and are a typical sign of Sahrawi identity are forbidden from being pitched in the occupied territories. Sahrawis have proceeded to put them up on the roofs of their homes as a way of preserving their traditions.

In the face of this oppression, an act as simple as dancing can be radical, with Sahrawi dancers using their bodies to emulate the map and flag of Western Sahara through the movement of their hands. Meanwhile Flitoox, a young rapper, uses his lyrics to highlight the Sahrawi struggle, and explains how ‘our people are not allowed to express themselves or exercise their rights. We’re crushed by Moroccan occupation’. He describes being tortured by Moroccan police officers, but states that even this won’t put him off from his music and activism. The film contains further interviews with actors, writers, poets, musicians and filmmakers who all use their work to peacefully draw attention to the Sahrawi cause. Their hope that non-violent resistance methods will one day lead to independence and freedom from occupation provides an interesting insight into alternative ways to fight for liberation.

However, not everyone is fully supportive of this commitment to peaceful resistance. Actress Nadhira Lamin, who lives in exile in Spain, describes how for her, watching people die in the refugee camps from afar and knowing that girls are raped in the streets for peacefully protesting is worse than she can imagine any war being. In 2020, violence broke out for the first time in 29 years after Morocco sent in troops to drive away peaceful protestors from an illegally built road, breaking the terms of the ceasefire. POLISARIO forces responded with gunfire to ensure the safe retreat of the protestors and subsequently attacked several locations on the Moroccan border wall. Whilst open war has not occurred, it is unsurprising that tensions are high after centuries of colonial rule.

The Sahrawi people remain a people in exile, spread across occupied and liberated territories as well as refugee camps. There was no reason for Morocco to be given the territory in 1975 and there is no reason for them to control it now. This refugee week, as always, I support the Sahrawi cause, and hope that in writing this post, you too can join me in solidarity with the Sahrawi people. You can participate in the Refugee Week Simple Acts by watching Life is Waiting for free on YouTube, or by visiting the Refugee Week website to see more about the activities you can get involved with.