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Popcorn in the sands of the Sahara

Western Sahara
Popcorn in the desert

© Dominik Sipinski

Eshbaila has probably never made popcorn, called elbeshna in the local Hassaniya language. The daily diet based on the humanitarian aid in a camp in the Algerian desert, where she lives as a refugee from Western Sahara, does not include such fancies.

Yet when the annual FiSahara International Film Festival came to the Dakhla refugee camp between 29 April and 4 May, Eshbaila’s kitchen turned into a small popcorn production centre.

This year, during the 11th edition of the Festival, the snack didn’t really catch on. But the organizers of the Festival proved with the event that determination can make everything possible.

The Dakhla camp, where FiSahara takes place, is the most unlikely location for such a feast. It lies more than 160 kilometres from the nearest military city of Tindouf in western Algeria. The camp, along with four others, has been home to an estimated 125,000 refugees for nearly 40 years. In summer, temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius, and there is limited water.

An enraptured audience watches a filmEvery year, a few hundred guests from abroad – especially Spain – reach this desolate camp to attend the FiSahara Festival. They come in a large convoy, in buses still carrying number plates of the Spanish regions which donated them to the Saharawi refugees. The three-hour-long journey from Tindouf across the vast, moon-like desert is a perfect opportunity for the first conversations about films and politics.

When the convoy enters the Dakhla camp in the evening, Eshbaila and other women greet the guests. The local families, where women are always in charge, host them for a week. Some visitors lodge in traditional khaimas (tents). Others stay in mud-brick houses. At night, most sleep outside, under the clear, star-lit sky.

Despite the immense challenges of organizing an event in the isolated camp and some chaos with the schedule, things work almost seamlessly. Host families receive extra food rations for their guests. Three meals a day, sometimes supplemented by camel meat or milk, are always provided. There is always freshly brewed tea – until recently, the Saharawi refugees were the only ones in the world to receive tea in their aid packages. Humanitarian agencies estimate that the average consumption of heavily sweetened green tea might reach 20 cups a day per person.

Instead of a shower, there is only a bucket with cold water. There is no electricity. But few guests complain. The Saharawi hospitality and the uniqueness of the event compensate for the lack of the usual comforts. Water and soda are always at hand, and for journalists there is even an improvised press centre with wireless internet.

The festival aims as much to liven up the tough life of the refugees as to raise awareness of this forgotten crisis. Not without reason, FiSahara takes place at the end of April, when the annual vote on the extension of the UN mission to Western Sahara (MINURSO) is scheduled.

Although the UN refused to broaden MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights monitoring, this year’s edition of FiSahara was still a special one. Just a few months after the death of Nelson Mandela, a supporter of the Saharawi refugees, it was dedicated to his memory. South Africa, one of 45 countries which recognize the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, sent a strong delegation, led by Andrew Mlangeni – an activist and politician who spent more than 26 years in the Robben Island prison with Mandela.

SahawarisThe Festival didn’t disappoint the film aficionados, either. Two Oscar-nominated documentaries were screened: Dirty Wars and The Square. The co-writer of the former, David Riker, attended the Festival, joining the growing number of filmmakers supporting the Saharawi. The Festival was either attended or endorsed by Manu Chao, Javier Bardem and Ken Loach, among others.

Other events included the screening of the films made at the Saharawi film academy and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as Legna, a Spanish-Saharawi production which won the White Camel Award.

The concluding concert in the natural sand-dune amphitheatre just outside Dakhla featured South African jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa and Mariem Hassan, the most famous Saharawi singer.

Seeing the joyful Saharawi women in traditional melhfa veils clapping to the music, or refugee children snacking on popcorn during the outdoor screenings, it was easy to forget the harshness of life in the camp. But Eshbaila’s mother, Ebbaya, has scars on her body that are reminders of the napalm bombings which forced the Saharawis to seek safety in the inhospitable desert.

This blog was made possible thanks to the journalistic training programme Beyond Your World/One World Media.

All photos copyright Dominik Sipinski.

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