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Storytelling under the desert sky

Photo by Alberto Almayer

Addressing a meeting in a refugee camp in the desert in Algeria, former UN Assistant Secretary-General Francesco Bastagli described the ongoing 35-year-long occupation of Western Sahara as ‘a simple problem made complicated by the collusion or indifference of a small number of powerful nations.’

Bastagli, who resigned from the UN in 2006 in protest over UN inaction on Western Sahara, was back in the refugee camps to attend the Sahara International Film Festival last week.

The festival takes place in a refugee camp 130 miles from the nearest town, deep in the Algeria desert. It aims to offer entertainment and educational opportunities to the refugees as well as raise awareness of a forgotten humanitarian crisis. The refugees are Saharawis from Western Sahara – occupied unlawfully by Morocco since 1976 – and an estimated 165,000 of them have lived in four camps for over three decades.

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz.

Bastagli expressed frustration at the UN Security Council’s failure last month to extend the mandate of the Peacekeeping force in occupied Western Sahara (MINURSO) to include human rights monitoring. ‘MINURSO is the only contemporary peace keeping force without such a mandate,’ he pointed out.

‘Whether it’s conflict prevention, basic human rights or responsibility to protect, Western Sahara is the long-neglected obligation of the international community,’ Bastagli said. ‘The Security Council can hardly be credible in its concern over Libya and other countries in the region while continuing to ignore the tragic plight of the Saharawi people.’

Bastagli said that there is an urgent need to drain ‘the vast reservoir of indifference around the world on Western Sahara’ and to build international pressure on the Moroccan government over the issue.

Ruphus Matibe, head of a delegation from South Africa’s Department of Culture, also attending the film festival, agreed. ‘The liberation movement in South Africa had a multi-pronged approach,’ he said. ‘Prolonged international pressure made a huge difference to the ANC’s ultimate victory.’

The festival’s programme was an eclectic mix of over 20 films from around the world, projected at night against a multiplex-sized screen on the side of an articulated lorry. The audience sat on the sand beneath the stars as the occasional camel wandered by. ‘I liked the film about the boy in the sea,’ said 14-year-old Sidi Hassan, referring to Jermal, an Indonesian film about a 12-year-old sent to work on an isolated fishing platform in the Malacca Straits. ‘He was surrounded by water just as we are surrounded by sand.’

Photo by Alberto Almayer

Photo by Alberto Almayer

At a dusty red carpet ceremony on the final evening, the White Camel award for best picture was picked up by film director Gerardo Olivares for his 2010 film Among Wolves (Entre Lobos). Actor Luis Tosar picked up the Jury Prize for the Spanish movie Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia). If there had been an audience prize it would have gone to Al-Yidar (The Wall), a documentary about the 1,500 mile wall in the desert built by Morocco that divides Western Sahara in two. ‘I have been to the wall to protest, but landmines stopped me from getting close,’ Admed Deidi told me. ‘This film made me look at the wall in a new way.’

Some of the films screened were made by refugees themselves. 22-year-old Najla Mahamed believes that Saharawis are naturally good storytellers. ‘Living in camps has forced us to develop our imaginations,’ she says. ‘From your earliest days you are forced to imagine your homeland. As you grow up, that imagined place grows up with you.’

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He is chair of the Free Western Sahara Network and helped organize this year’s festival.


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