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Dominik Sipinski is a Polish freelancer writer publishing both in
Polish and in English. He specializes in covering conflict,
international politics, media and the European Union, as well as travel
journalism. He has reported from the Turkish Kurdistan, Bosnia, the
Faroe Islands and recently the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria.

Dominik graduated from Maastricht University with a BA in European Studies and now follows an MA in Journalism with specialism in War and Conflict from Aarhus University and Swansea University.He has worked as a journalist since he was 18. Dominik started covering aerospace and transportation. He currently covers this beat for Pasazer.com in Poland. He also works for business news agency Newseria and contributes regularly as a photographer to Demotix.com.Dominik tries to go beyond mainstream coverage, finding underreported stories all over the world. He believes a topic never ends and follows the motto of one of the journalism's greatest, Ryszard Kapuscinski - 'the more we know the world, the more we realize we don't know it fully yet.' Besides his regular and freelance work, Dominik also publishes on his website in English (sipinski.co.uk) and Polish (nonfiction.blox.pl).

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Dominik Sipinski is a Polish freelancer writer publishing both in Polish and in English. He specializes in covering conflict, international politics, media and the European Union, as well as travel journalism. He has reported from the Turkish Kurdistan, Bosnia, the Faroe Islands and recently the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria.

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A rightwing spiral

A young Pole waves a flare

A young Pole wearing clothes with nationalistic symbols burns a flare in front of the National Stadium in Warsaw during the anti-migrant March of Independence in November 2015. © Dominik Sipiński

Last December, Chilean Victor Baeza was severely beaten by two local youngsters in the old town of Poznan, one of Poland’s most prosperous and liberal cities. The assailants yelled at him to ‘get the fuck out of Poland’. They only left when Victor managed to say, in fluent Polish, that he has been living in the country for 10 years.

Over a two-month period, similar attacks – one on a Syrian cook, one on a Palestinian student – were reported in the same city. In Krakow, two Polish gay men were beaten. The perpetrators claimed they were ‘afraid of gays’.

Such events happen everywhere, but in Poland the problem is more systemic. On National Day, 11 November, between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched across Warsaw under a banner of ‘Poland for Poles’, denouncing open-border policies and chanting anti-Muslim slogans. This happened just days after a rightwing party achieved a landslide electoral win. The nationalist and populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by the charismatic figure of Jarosław Kaczynski, gained 37.6 per cent of the votes, winning enough seats to form a majority government.

Another 8.8 per cent of the vote went to Kukiz ’15, a movement led by once-popular rock star Paweł Kukiz. It is campaigning for the introduction of single-seat constituencies and consists of a mosaic of politicians, including nationalists and former neo-Nazis, some of whom were among the organizers and speakers at the 11 November march. As time passes, the likelihood of a split in the movement increases, and with it grows the chance of extreme nationalists having their own parliamentary caucus.

No leftwing party won any seats in the October elections. The largest of them, United Left, fell just short of the eight-per-cent threshold for coalitions after an incoherent campaign full of internal quarrels. Newly founded Podemos-like party Razem (‘Together’) achieved a surprisingly good result of nearly four per cent – but it was not enough to get any of its candidates elected.

‘The right clearly has an advantage now,’ says David Ost, professor in political sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an expert on the post-communist Polish transformation.

After winning the elections, the Right quickly stepped up its rhetoric. Within weeks, its top politicians made numerous anti-refugee, anti-migrant, anti-German and anti-EU comments. All of these groups, according to PiS and Kukiz ’15, threaten the national integrity of Poland in one way or another. The warm relations Poland enjoyed with Berlin and Brussels under the previous government have cooled down.

Poland’s swing to the right is supported by more numbers than just the electoral outcome. In a 2014 European Social Survey, 9.5 per cent of Poles identified themselves as very rightwing, nearly three times the average of 2.9 per cent.

Rightwing rhetoric

But sociologists tone down these alarmist conclusions.

‘We need to differentiate between politics and society. What is happening right now in Poland is much more an outcome of the political process than the actual views of the population,’ claims Maciej Gdula, a sociologist from the University of Warsaw.

Gdula goes on to explain that Poles have little, if any, reason to fall for the rightwing arguments. The country is ethnically homogeneous – in the last census, from 2011, only 1.5 per cent of the population declared a non-Polish nationality. There is also little religious diversity, with some 88 per cent of the citizens declaring themselves to be Roman Catholic.

The main migrant group is Ukrainians, many of whom speak Polish and are well integrated, and migrant numbers are nowhere near the million claimed by Prime Minister Beata Szydło during a hearing in the European Parliament.

‘Most Poles have never had any contact with immigrants, besides maybe when they were buying a kebab,’ says Gdula half-jokingly.

Poland itself is also the largest country of origin for economic migrants in Europe – with an estimated million in the UK alone.

The country is prosperous economically. Its GDP grew by some 60 per cent between 2004 and 2014 and did not decline even during the global financial crisis. The unemployment rate has dropped from around 20 per cent in 2003 to less than 8 per cent now.

‘There is no real reason, economic or cultural, for Poles to be afraid of immigrants. In this country the fear is purely imagined,’ says Gdula. ‘I am far from subscribing to the belief that these views originate from real processes, such as poverty or joblessness. There are no real tensions here. Poles believe they deserve help from the EU and are afraid that this will be taken away, even though there is no such risk from migrants.’

However, he agrees that the rhetoric of rightwing politicians has mesmerized many Poles into believing in the ‘dangerous other’ – be it migrants, homosexuals or non-Catholics.

The rhetoric of rightwing politicians has mesmerized many Poles into believing in the ‘dangerous other’ – be it migrants, homosexuals or non-Catholics

‘Nowadays, the Right has got the easy answers, not the Left. Due to that, it has been able to reach out and convince those who normally do not care about politics,’ explains David Ost. He claims that the Left has become an easy target to attack, and PiS capitalizes on that.

Gdula also believes that the key to the electoral success was not a sudden rightwing shift of the population. Rather, PiS and Kukiz ’15 were able to benefit from the weakness of the liberal and leftwing parties and their leaders. Gdula points out that in the summer of 2015 more than 50 per cent of the population were in favour of accepting refugees. Had the Left been able to reach those people, the rightwing turn may not have happened.

Founding myth

On top of that, Kaczynski managed to build on the particular history of the Polish anti-establishment movements. The country has never had strong leftist organizations, mostly as a result of the persistent anti-Soviet Union mood – communism and socialism have been compromised, especially among the group they claim to empower. The workers’ organizations tended to be conservative and rightist, explains Piotr Arak, a socioligst at Polityka Insight, an analytical centre. This has been further exacerbated by the strong role of the Catholic Church as the axis of resistance during the Cold War.

‘Rightwingers, and Kaczynski in particular, have since the very beginning of transformation believed that Polish society is indeed vehemently rightwing. This widely held perception, a founding myth even, is fundamental to understanding the current behaviour of the government,’ says Miłosz Wiatrowski, a historian at the College of Europe in Warsaw.

But even those who believe that Polish society is not as rightwing as it seems worry about the future. With no Left represented in the parliament and the PiS and Kukiz ’15 dominating the public rhetoric, there is a real risk of a rightwing spiral.

This process is made worse by the political takeover of the state-owned media. PiS quite openly admits that national TV and radio need to play a larger role in the so-called ‘historical policy’ – a catch-all phrase for building on a nationalistic reading of Polish society.

‘Polish society, like every other, is a process; it follows the leaders. This process will increase and, in the current situation, the Right can increase its influence over the views of the population,’ warns Gdula.

Attacks such as the one on Victor Baeza are still a rarity, and most Poles still condemn them. But as the radical Right grows in strength, while the liberal and left circles lack strong leaders, talk about Poland’s turn to the right might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dominik Sipiński is a journalist, political scientist and photographer based in Poland, writing about politics, conflicts and travel.

A story of waiting

Saharawi boy

Carrying a gun to symbolize the independence war of 1975-91, a Saharawi boy takes part in an annual parade at a refugee camp in Algeria. He is part of a generation that has never seen its homeland. © Dominik Sipiński

When refugees from Western Sahara mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation of their country by Morocco this November, many of them will discuss attacking the 2,700-kilometre wall that separates them from their home.

Patience has been a key value for the Saharawi, but it has its limits. Younger members of the estimated 120,000 refugees living in five camps in western Algeria have never seen their country.

‘We were born here; we live here. But we do not want to die here in the desert, because this is not Western Sahara,’ says Ilbu, a young Saharawi refugee whose dream is to become a photojournalist.

Theoretically speaking, the Moroccan-Saharawi ceasefire signed under the auspices of the UN in 1991 paved the way to independence. The international community decided there should be a referendum among the Saharawi, a standard way of solving post-colonial statehood debates. The goal of MINURSO, a UN peacekeeping mission, was to facilitate the vote as early as 1992.

Since then, Morocco has blocked the process, unwilling to cede control over Western Sahara. The UN has been too weak to force progress and the powerless Saharawi have been left grinding their teeth in anger. The referendum is no more likely today than it was in the 1970s, when the UN first suggested it.

‘We do not ask for much. We do not ask for money or help; just a ballot paper in which we can determine the independence of our country,’ says Bouhabini Yahia, president of the Saharawi Red Crescent.

Yahia, a committed humanitarian, does not want to admit openly what most refugees acknowledge: appeals such as his fall on deaf ears, and have done so for 40 years.

The misery began in 1975. Spain, a colonizer of the territory, was in a shambles. Its dictator, General Franco, was dying, and so was his regime. Western Sahara, a colony the size of the UK, but inhabited by fewer than 100,000 people, was an unwanted burden. Unwilling to engage in a complicated process of self-determination, the Spanish regime secretly partitioned Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.

Both countries sent in their armies. Morocco also brought in over 300,000 civilians, in the so-called Green March. The Saharawi nomads, relatively well-off but few in number and poorly armed, had no chance of resisting the invasion.

The Moroccan air force forced the Saharawi out to Algeria by bombing them with napalm and white phosphorus. The nomads settled in refugee camps and launched a partisan war. They enjoyed some success, forcing Mauritania to withdraw and sign peace accords, but Morocco was too strong for them.

A situation sealed

In the 1980s, Morocco built a wall across the desert protected by landmines to ward off Saharawi raids. Major powers turned a blind eye. None of them recognized the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which had been proclaimed by the leftist and secular Polisario Front in 1976. Only the African Union (AU) backed the Saharawi and expelled Morocco. (To this day, Morocco is the sole African country not part of the AU.)

The 1991 ceasefire effectively sealed this situation: Morocco controls some three-quarters of Western Sahara, including all of its territorial waters, which are rich in fish and, possibly, oil. The SADR, now a quasi-state with ministries, elections and a football team, controls the remaining part, referred to as the Liberated Territories.

‘We achieved more international recognition during the war with Morocco than during the years of peace. The international community thinks that if nobody is dying here, then there is no crisis’

‘This is a very unusual group of refugees – they came here for political reasons, not seeking opportunities. There are no opportunities here,’ stresses Yahia. ‘From the very beginning, they had a political project: to build a functioning state in exile, easy to transpose to the independent Western Sahara.’

For the Saharawi who remained in occupied Western Sahara rights are scarce. Moroccan police brutally suppress any pro-independence movements. Foreign journalists are banned from the territory which Morocco refers to as the ‘Southern Province’.

‘We have a saying here: “In the Sahara, everything is late”. Our lives have been a story of waiting – for a referendum, for independence, for a return to our country,’ says Bene, a 27-year-old Saharawi living in the largest camp – Smara.

Like many refugees, he benefited from the support of Algeria, and studied there. After graduation, he returned to the camps. Now, although a qualified IT specialist, he owns a small shop in Smara selling anything from traditional garments to cleaning supplies.

‘I am not happy with my business. It brings me relatively good money, but I want to use my education. In our situation, education is pointless,’ he says resignedly.

But despite his pessimism, Bene still thinks that a peaceful path to independence is possible, if the Saharawi authorities can promise more economic benefits to the US and the European Union. Many of his fellow refugees, however, have lost hope.

A proud people: national flags and symbols feature prominently in this small shop in the Smara refugee camp in the Algerian desert.

Dominik Sipiński

‘People see that the UN does not work; they see that only force works. We have a reason to fight, and as Muslims we believe that if we die for our country, we go to heaven,’ says Ilbu.

The official line of Polisario, the only party in the SADR, is one of a peaceful resolution. Every year, there is hope that the UN will strengthen MINURSO’s mandate, at the very least giving it the right to monitor the human rights situation in the occupied territory. It is the only UN peacekeeping mission without such a right.

The mission’s mandate is renewed annually, but because of French support for Morocco, any changes are blocked. Last year, SADR’s prime minister, Abdelkader Taleb Omar, admitted that if this continues, he will explore other means of action.

Western Sahara’s frustrated youth have been saying the same thing for a while now, and their threats are less veiled. MINURSO is worried and its concerns are passed on to the UN Secretary General in the mission’s annual reports. Speaking off the record, MINURSO field representatives in Tindouf, an Algerian city near the camps, admit that, if violence erupts, they can do very little to stop it.

‘The youth have seen that we achieved much more international recognition during the 24 years of war with Morocco than during the years of peace. The international community thinks that if nobody is dying here, then there is no crisis, and they do not do anything,’ explains Zain Sidahmed, former head of UJSARIO, Polisario’s youth wing.

Most younger refugees admit that they stand no chance against the US-trained Moroccan army. ‘We have a weaker army. But in two, three, maybe five years, things will explode,’ says Ilbu. ‘The authorities want to stop us, but the youth want to go to war.’

Dominik Sipiński is a freelance journalist reporting on conflicts, global politics and social issues.

Popcorn in the sands of the 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.