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Life is Waiting: Referendum and Resistance in Western Sahara

By Atul Bhattarai

The conflict in Western Sahara, a contested territory in the western Maghreb, seldom draws international attention. Last month, however, Western Sahara made headlines after it was reported that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during a visit to Algeria, had referred to Morocco’s presence in the territory as an “occupation.” Ban, who has come to be known for his quiet, unassuming diplomacy, is rarely so blunt; and Morocco has not been known to take the issue lightly. The diplomatic kerfuffle that ensued has thrust Western Sahara into the news—a surprising turn for an issue that, when reported in the past, has invariably come with a caveat: that it is a forgotten cause.  

The obscurity of the conflict hangs over the subjects of Life is Waiting, a documentary by Korean-Brazilian director Iara Lee that explores nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara. The Sahrawis, the indigenous people of the territory, have kept their fight for self-determination alive for more than 40 years, for much of that time through armed resistance—first against Spain, under which Western Sahara was a colony for nearly a century, and then Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975. For the past two decades, however, they have committed themselves to nonviolence, after a 1991 cease-fire was signed between the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi national liberation movement, and Morocco, despite the main condition for the cease-fire—a referendum for the Sahrawi people—having fallen through. Amid unceasing calm, international concern for their cause has waned, and they have struggled to reconcile their quiet methods with their substantial ambitions. Many in the film talk of Morocco winning a sort of Fabian victory, simply by waiting for the Sahrawis, who have been forgotten by the rest of the world, to forget themselves.

Lee’s film is an attempt to illumine the workings of Sahrawi “creative” resistance, and to vouch for it. On the face of it, the film is an extended montage: in scene after scene we witness how the rich, dazzling culture of the Sahrawis—their song, poetry, calligraphy, dance, and art—has been conflated with the cause, serving as both its collective memory and rallying call. Each work conveys a part of the narrative of Sahrawi struggle. Given the strong oral tradition of the Sahrawis, the narrative—and reactions to it—are especially prominent in music and song. An elderly singer recalls the songs of her youth as her “education and weapon” against Spain, aimed to “show the world our strength instead of our weakness.” Later, when Spanish rule weakened, the mood became more assertive. A poet recites verses written in 1973, around the time the Polisario came into being, to “guide” Sahrawis toward revolution: “You are aware of the conspiracies woven against you ... You alone can shape your destiny.” This oral tradition still endures in rap, where the lyricism and sedate rhythms of the past are exchanged for something more strident and jarring, vigorous in its denunciations—the Moroccan soldiers during the Green March entered “like herds”; Arias Navarro, the Spanish prime minister during the 1975 Madrid Accords, “sold us like shit”—and in its calls to action.  

In Polisario-controlled territory, the “resistance” is turned inward, inspiring solidarity quietly among the community; outside it, resistance stands for something more. For refugees languishing in Tindouf, it preserves a memory of place, serving to “reproduce a Sahara state in exile.” In Laayoune and other parts of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, where tensions are more pronounced, it thwarts assimilation: the response to police violence and crackdowns on expression—attempts, one woman says, to “nullify our existence”—is straightforward defiance. We see footage of young activists scrawling “Viva Sahara” on the walls, or spray-painting elaborate, 6-foot-high portraits of men wearing the thickly wrapped veil, the tagelmust, that marks a Saharan nomad. Around the 1700-mile-long “Wall of Shame,” the boundary between what the Polisario terms the “occupied” and “liberated” territories, an activist plants flowers for every exposed landmine. Others in Moroccan territory have responded to a ban on kheimas—the traditional nomad tents and the platforms of social life—by pitching them on the roofs of their homes.

But as lively and passionate as this resistance is, the painful reality is that it points to nothing: the promise of action and revolution in the art is but a reassuring leitmotif. Sahrawi society is in perpetual limbo, stuck halfway between war and peace, and it has little to look forward to. Morocco sees the situation in Western Sahara as an outgrowth of its Cold War-era conflict with Algeria, and is unwilling to acknowledge or yield to Sahrawi demands. The older members of the community have “surrendered” to nonviolence, Lee told me, but the youth, tired of waiting for a referendum to arrive, are restive. Even their form of choice—rap—speaks to this temperament. The film’s montage, focused on the softer elements of resistance, is punctuated by the bellicose responses of these younger Sahrawis. One exile announces to the camera: “It has been 40 years of fighting, and this is a key moment to say: enough is enough. We believe war is the solution.”  

Although eager to avail themselves of war, younger Sahrawis have not experienced it in their lifetime. One woman, an exile in Spain, acknowledges as much: “Maybe I’m presumptuous to say ‘Yes, let’s take up arms again,’ as I haven’t lived through it, so I don’t know the consequences.” She continues:

And maybe it would be very hard. But it’s even harder to be in exile, in Spain, the country that sold us 40 years ago ... To see how day after day your comrades are killed. See how people die in the refugee camps waiting for a solution. See girls of my age on the streets of Laayoune screaming ‘Free Sahara,’ and then getting raped. There is no worse war than that. 

The agitation among the younger generation, according to Lee, is a consequence of international negligence. In one scene of the film, a director of a Sahrawi TV station speaks of a “media war” between the Sahrawis and Morocco. The director plays a silent video of two women, draped in the traditional mehlfah, pushed over by Moroccan police. As the women struggle on the ground, the officers kick them repeatedly, pausing once or twice to rest. “When they forbid a Saudi woman the right to drive, it’s a scandal,” he says. “But when a hundred women are dragged on the streets of Laayoune, nothing happens.” 

Lee hopes the documentary will raise awareness about the conflict, and persuade other countries to take action. She sees her repertoire, including a 2012 film on Syria, as exercises in “preventive filmmaking,” bringing attention to situations that haven’t erupted into an out-and-out war. In these places, calm, if it exists, is deceptive. The Sahrawis feel invisible to the world, Lee told me. “They feel they have to make noise, or else nobody is going to care. And the only way to make noise is through war.”   

*****

*****

“Life is Waiting” is currently being screened worldwide. A full listing can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of Cultures of Resistance]

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