AUSERD REFUGEE CAMP, Algeria—At about 10 p.m., in the middle of the Sahara desert, just two lights were shining: the moon and a projection screen. Around 70 people gathered in front of the screen as a film was beamed onto it from a 16-wheeler truck. Some sat on carpets, rolled out over rocky, reddish sand; others crouched on low dunes. They all watched attentively as a voice boomed from speakers:
“Those who don’t know the Sahara think there’s nothing here but sand. But in the Sahara is an occupied country. And a people in exile.”
It was the second night of the 17th edition of FiSahara, the Western Sahara International Film Festival, held on Oct. 11-16 in the Auserd refugee camp in Algeria’s westernmost province of Tindouf, which borders Mauritania, Morocco, and Western Sahara. Auserd—along with four other neighboring camps—formed in the mid-1970s, when Morocco invaded Western Sahara after Spanish decolonization and around 50,000 of the region’s Indigenous Sahrawi people fled.
More than 45 years later, Morocco continues to occupy most of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front—the Sahrawi liberation movement—has managed to take back a narrow strip of desert in the east, which forms the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. A third of all Sahrawis live as refugees in the five Algerian camps run by the Polisario Front—a grim limbo for a traditionally nomadic community.
Spanish filmmakers created the five-day FiSahara festival in 2003 to raise awareness about the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Though it continues to receive support from partners in Spain, the United States, and Britain, the event is now entirely Sahrawi-run. Foreign attendees, press, filmmakers, performers, and production crews arrive together on a single chartered Air Algérie flight from Madrid. This year, FiSahara screened more than 20 films.
“Culture is something that unites us all. … Through culture, we can tell our story, which of course is also political,” said Tiba Chagaf, a Sahrawi filmmaker who directs FiSahara. He was born in Western Sahara but was forced to flee and settle in the camps as a toddler.
“Our people have always moved around,” Chagaf told Foreign Policy. “From the moment of the conflict, we’ve been made to be stuck here. Since then, we’ve been using every single means at our disposal to be liberated and to become nomadic once again.”
In 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco appeared on television and announced the Green March, a mass demonstration to take Western Sahara, then called Spanish Sahara. The resource-rich strip of land had been a Spanish colonial territory since 1884, but Morocco—which had gained independence from France in 1956—claimed its own territorial sovereignty from colonial rule. The International Court of Justice ruled against Morocco’s claim in October 1975, prompting Hassan’s invasion.
Mohammad Salim, now 73, watched fearfully from his home in Laayoune, the territory’s capital. Soon, the Moroccan army started bombing. “I didn’t even have time to understand. I just found myself running with a bunch of people I didn’t know, just to save myself,” he told Foreign Policy.
At the time, the Polisario Front was just 2 years old—an anti-Spanish, pro-independence movement that quickly pivoted to take on Morocco. Salim joined its military regimen and found himself in a gunfight with Moroccan troops near the Algerian border. A bomb dropped, seemingly from nowhere. “We didn’t know about planes,” Salim said. After a head injury and bout of amnesia, he ended up in Auserd, one of the five new refugee camps.
It was Sahrawi women who built the camps. The men were away, fighting at the front line. In the beginning, “there was nothing at all. Only desert,” said Mariam Ahmada, the governor of Smara camp, which is located south of Auserd. Ahmada was 9 years old when her family fled Western Sahara. “Don’t count how old I am now,” she joked.
Back then, women used traditional shawls to build tents. Everything was made from salvaged materials—still seen in the rusted car doors that serve as enclosures for goats and camels—giving the camps a surreal junkyard ingenuity. Each of the five camps was named for a town or city left behind in Western Sahara: Auserd, Smara, Bojador, Laayoune, and Dakhla.
“Sometimes the refugee situation becomes your new reality. We didn’t want our children to forget where they came from,” Ahmada said.
Conditions in the camps are harsh. They are frequently pummeled by sandstorms, and summer temperatures can top 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although each camp has its own school and hospital, diabetes and nutritional problems are rampant. A consortium of nongovernmental organizations warned during FiSahara that 180,000 camp residents face a food crisis amid a reduction in international aid. Algeria supports Sahrawi independence but is not involved in camp administration, which is overseen by the Polisario Front.
This year’s FiSahara was the first hosted since 2020, when the 1991 United Nations-brokered cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front ended and the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing ties with Israel. (U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to reverse this policy and does not seem inclined to do so.) In March, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez followed suit after facing intense pressure from Morocco, which threatened to ease its border controls and let migrants enter the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.
The Sahrawi cause has many advocates in Spain, many of whom blame Spain for not having a clear plan for Sahrawi independence after decolonization. Sahrawis also speak Spanish as a second language and attend Spanish universities in large numbers. Spaniards at FiSahara were quick to note that Sánchez’s move doesn’t speak for them—or all Spanish officials. “It’s a personal decision, not a legal decision, and it doesn’t represent all the Spanish parliamentarians,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front’s representative in Spain, told Foreign Policy.
Over the past two years, war has flared again along the 1,600-mile Moroccan-built sand wall that separates the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, known as the Berm. Riddled with land mines, the Berm is 16 times the size of the Berlin Wall and almost the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Regional tensions have only broadened the scope of the conflict: Algeria and Morocco severed ties amid escalating border disputes in 2021, and in August Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunisia after Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, was invited to participate in a conference there.
Talk of the front line filled the festival. “We have seen 16 editions of the FiSahara, and they were completely different from this edition. Why? We are in wartime,” said Ghali, who appeared at the film festival. At a press briefing, Ghali called Western Sahara “the last colony in Africa” and recalled a promised U.N.-backed referendum in the 1990s that has never materialized.
“Thirty years of waiting for the U.N. to apply its commitments to the Sahrawis. In the end, they permitted the Moroccan regime to do whatever it wants, and now we are back to war again.”
FiSahara’s theme this year was “Decolonize.” Back outside at the nighttime screening, a stop-motion goat appeared onscreen and baah-ed. The film—Pequeño Sahara, or Little Sahara, directed by Spanish filmmaker Emilio Martí—was a short animated documentary narrated by a fictional child from a Sahrawi camp. Many in the crowd had never seen their community depicted on screen before, since the previous 17 editions featured more Spanish and international films. The voiceover mentioned the long-delayed referendum: “We all know that Western Sahara would choose to be free and independent.” The Sahrawi families watching clapped and ululated wildly.
Nearby, inside black cloth tents, drums pounded, and dancers twirled hennaed hands. One extended her arm and curled a finger around an imaginary trigger, as if imitating a sharpshooter. Another reached for a sparkly prop gun. The striped flag of Western Sahara hung behind them.
According to Martí, Sahrawis started developing and disseminating their own media when they were forced to become sedentary. Before the occupation, “they were busy traveling around Western Sahara, around Mauritania. They didn’t have time to develop media. Now that they don’t have their own land is when they’re becoming more organized,” he said.
A few nights into the festival, FiSahara sent a convoy of Land Cruisers to a remote dune in the desert for a concert. Sahrawi children jumped out and did backflips in the sand. Red-nosed clowns from Pallasos en Rebeldía, a Latin American solidarity group that also tours the West Bank and Gaza, performed stunts in bright costumes. Their finale was a standing human pyramid, the top clown waving the Western Sahara flag. Then traditional Sahrawi singers took the stage. The dune was dotted with swaying beams from cellphone flashlights.
FiSahara concluded a day later with an awards ceremony. Wanibik: The People Who Live in Front of Their Land, by Algerian director Rabah Slimani, took the top prize: a white camel. The camel was brought onstage, rope reins pulling its mouth into a grin while the audience cheered. Wanibik is a meta-documentary, a film-about-a-film that tells the story of a group of Sahrawi students trying to make a documentary about the Berm. The war that began in 2020 got in the way.
The school featured in the film, Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, is located in Bojador camp and run by FiSahara director Chagaf. It currently has 27 university-aged students, half of them women. Their work is included in this year’s festival lineup, too, and includes a Sahrawi sitcom. But making documentary films has proved more popular. “Most people prefer to reflect the current reality. Our reality is almost like fiction anyway,” Chagaf joked.
Filmmaking is more challenging in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where Sahrawi activists are intimidated and imprisoned, often for random offenses; are beaten and tortured; and journalism is suppressed. (Morocco ranks 135th of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.) “The only news Moroccans have is from Moroccan media and Moroccan propaganda,” said Laila Fakhouri, an activist and actress from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, who is part of Wanibik’s cast. “They have the idea that we are criminals. That we live in the desert. That we are almost like monsters. That we’re the enemy of the state.”
In Moroccan-held territories, Sahrawi filmmaking is not only an act of expression and resistance. It can also become a valuable piece of evidence for documenting Moroccan abuses. “Our first duty is to show the truth about Sahrawis, here and in the occupied territories,” said 26-year-old Bachir Dkhili, a member of the Nushatta Foundation, a youth organization that documents human rights violations in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. “There’s no Sahrawi family that doesn’t have a martyr or someone that disappeared or someone suffering from the occupation.” In March, the Nushatta Foundation submitted documentation of torture, surveillance, and restricted movement of Sahrawis living in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Dkhili recalls being forcibly made to stand and recite the Moroccan national anthem in school as a child. “In the Moroccan education system, they teach that Western Sahara is Morocco and that the Green March was the best thing to happen to the territory. … Morocco doesn’t want us to see our fathers and grandfathers with camels, to see our old way of life,” he said.
At least for the week of the festival, that old way of life was granted a short revival. On FiSahara’s final day, a fleet of Land Cruisers arrived to take the filmmakers and attendees to the Tindouf airport for their flight back to Madrid. The festival had ended only hours before, but the carpets had already been rolled up and the black cloth tents packed. The plot of land was again empty sand, identifiable only by the Western Sahara flags that remained.