In a flaky pink apartment block in the Nahader district, a girl with henna on her hands pulled back the metal door and ushered me up the stairs. In a large room fringed with cushions, I sat on the woollen rug of a guest room while Mohammed Ali, director of the local mine victims’ association, prepared tea on a coal stove. I had come to listen to Ahmed, a student in his early twenties who was involved in a landmine accident a couple of years ago.
‘I was visiting my friend in an area south-east of Laayoune, about three hundred kilometres south,’ said Ahmed. He was an angular young man in his early twenties, his square-cut face softened by his glasses. ‘I was in the Land Rover with my friend’s father, Mohammed Nadher. He kept camels and around three hundred goats and we were driving between his tent and the field where he kept his goats when the back wheels went over an anti-charge. I remember running – about fifty metres away – I just ran – it was only when I was away from the explosion that I understood what had happened. My friend’s father was lying on the ground near the car. I pulled him away but the explosion had torn his feet open so he couldn’t walk. His sons heard the explosion and they came to find us, followed by the police who took us to Mohammed’s tent.’
One of the activists who had taken part was sitting on the carpet at Abdelhadi’s, the house I went back to after the demonstration on Avenue Smara. He was called Mohammed Salim. I sat down next to him and asked him to tell me about his experience.
‘I loved it there,’ he said.
He was sitting with his legs stretched out on the woollen rug. Our host was preparing tea, the wash of hot water against the glasses mingling with the crackle of the coals on the stove as we talked.
‘I was unemployed,’ Mohammed Salim explained. ‘I was unhappy because it’s so hard for us to find work, so I joined the camp. I found freedom there, I was enjoying the desert more than seeing the Moroccan faces around us in the city. I was in the security attachment, I was like a sheriff.
If there was one subject all the Saharawis I met in Laayoune wanted to talk about, it was Gudaym Izik (Gdeim Izik) – the protest camp set up in November 2010.
‘I was in the first group,’ explained Ali Salem, a veteran activist in his forties. ‘We went to an area called Gudaym Izik (Gdeim Izik), twelve kilometres to the east of the city, and set up a camp. At first there were thirty-five tents, but over the days it grew. People came out from Laayoune to join us and we had 20,000 by the peak in 6,600 tents. We called it our ‘Exodus’ camp, it was a protest against the social marginalisation and the lack of decent jobs, decent housing, legal rights. But it became something more than that – people came to the camp to go back to their roots, back to what being a Saharawi is about. We wanted to show the world we can live on our own, we can live away from civilisation, we belong to the desert.
The Reina Sofía Museum, in Madrid, hosts the presentation of ARTifariti 2012 with a roundtable on art, conflict and human rights.
After the Arab Spring, which was born in the Western Sahara, is it possible to have a proactive type of art, at the same time transformational, that provokes real social change?
American philosopher Noam Chomsky suggested to the world that the waves of protest that originated in North Africa had really started in Western Sahara at the end of 2010. In fact, the organisational scheme that was imposed in the freedom squares and that Evru collected for the project “The book of the squares” for ARTifariti 2011, had previously designed in the camp of dignity of El Aaiun, Gdeim Izik, brutally dismantled on November 8 by the Moroccan forces with terrible consequences. The same patterns were repeated, as if in a chain revolution, in Western Sahara, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen… The popular action managed to modify the course of history in many of this places. And among the people demonstrating in the squares, there were cyberactivists and artists who used the Internet to spread their messages and images of change.
Back at the house of one of Ahmed’s friends, I was shown photos of other demonstrations – an old man with blood on his lips; a woman’s bare red back, rashed by a police baton; a youth with a red gash on his forehead from a stone thrown by a policeman. The range of ways in which people had been attacked was telling, as was the volume of the material.
But it was the stories they told that struck me more forcefully than the pictures, and none more so than Salaam’s.
She had been taking part in demonstrations since she was fifteen, when her mother had to go and pick her up at the police station after she was kept in overnight.
It’s hard in Laayoune to ignore the military presence. Every corner produces another military kiosk, and every time you cross the road you have to watch out for another artillery-loaded truck roaring round the corner. Wandering under schoolyard murals of the Moroccan army or portraits of King Mohammed, you can feel the weight of a city living under the heavy cloak of oppression. But in many ways, it’s the most innocuous details that are most telling: the empty teahouses, the lack of young men loitering about, the uncracked roads, the huge public squares with their squat palm trees and bougainvillea, gaudily sprayed about like an uninvited guest’s faltering attempt at charm. And occasionally, more specific signs of the political situation seep through – from the heavily gated compounds of the rich Moroccans who’ve made their fortunes off Western Sahara’s resources to the pink Lux minivans, their back windows taped with signs for the UNHCR “Saharawi Family Visits Programme” – underlining the population displacement caused by the Moroccan invasion of 1975.
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