I land in Tindouf, as usual, after a cruel night flight from Algiers that makes you get in the heart of the Sahara already exhausted. And this is just the beginning of the journey. 
I’m coming in these refugee camps for the third time in eight years, but this is a more special occasion: Just to Let You Know that Im Alive, the movie I’ve just realized with my friend photographer Simona Ghizzoni, has been officially selected at the FiSahara International Film Festival, the most surreal cinema event you can imagine.

And not for its program, of course: 23 movies including fiction, documentaries and animated films; workshops in screenwriting and directing; roundtables on human rights and concerts; traditional dance shows and clowning for children. What makes this festival unique is rather the setting: the extreme southwestern Algeria, in a corner of the Sahara known as “Hammada”, that means “the devil’s Garden” for its invincible aridity and the so hot temperatures that paralyze you.
Just to Let you Know that Im Alive talks about the people who live here. Almost 40 years ago, they have fled the Moroccan occupation of their land, Western Sahara, seeking asylum in Algeria and building homes of mud and sand in five refugee camps.

After founding a real Republic, they have managed to survive until today thanks to the international humanitarian aid and to something that nothing can tarnish: their hope for a referendum on self-determination that will bring them back, sooner or later, along the coasts of Western Sahara.
The last African colony, they call it, because after the Spanish colonizer withdrew in 1975, Western Sahara has not had free elections in which its people could vote for their independence. It’s the only case of incomplete decolonization in the continent. Today, the fate of these people remains enmeshed in the technicalities of the international diplomacy and in the obstinacy of Morocco who does not want to give up the territory that north of Tarfaya is called “the souther provinces”, a land rich of phosphates and fish.

The refugee camps that have sprung up around the military town of Tindouf in Algeria contain about 200 thousand people. Old people who remember the Moroccan bombs and the exodus from the Western Sahara; young people who were born in this eternal present marked by sand storms and who has studied in Cuba, Libya (when it still existed), Spain and Italy and then came back here to continue what they call their “resistance”. Increasingly restive young people, nevertheless they are still here discussing with visitors, writing blogs in several languages, spreading online videos of demonstrations set up by their relatives who have remained in Laayoune, Western Sahara.

Under the atrocious midday sun I get to Dakhla, the most remote Saharawi camp, 180 kilometers south of Tindouf, near the border with Mauritania, where the gray hammada flows into red dunes and green minute oasis with towering palms. There is no electricity here, while in the homes of refugees water is a fluke. Yet here, for 11 years, the organization from Madrid CEAS-Sáhara has been bringing generators, satellites and projectors for the great festival of FiSahara, a frenzied and joyous event that supports the Saharawis with arts and music.

The real stars of the festival are the people from Dakhla and the thousands of refugees who come here from the other camps, welcoming in their makeshift homes 400 visitors from all over the world.

Lalla, 23, my guardian angel in Dakhla.
I’m settled in a house inhabited only by women. Shreifa Mohamed, the mother, is 50 and has three daughters: Fatima, 32, who has two beautiful girls and the little, often crying, Abdullah; Mariam, 23, tall, intelligent and talkative, that I’ll end up loving a lot; and Tziki, a 12 year old serious and very active in helping her mother at home. And then comes Lalla, Mariam’s best friend, who prepares tea and, when I get lost in the Dakhla nothingness, suddenly appears to take me back home.

The FiSahara colors this desert with a light that makes me see it much different from my previous trips here: it looks like the set of an undefinable movie in which everybody sings, dances and cheers (with Coke and water, of course: here they’re all muslims), infecting you with their inexplicable happiness while the environmental conditions are those of a catastrophe: the thermometer marking 45 to 50 degrees; an air made of sand that scratches your skin.

Four hundred people have come here mainly from Spain, but also from the United States, from Germany, Mexico, Italy (we were 4 indeed), Algeria and, this year, a large group from South Africa. The 2014 edition of FiSahara was in fact dedicated to Nelson Mandela, with the special participation of Andrew Mlangeni who was Madiba’s fellow prisoner in Robben Island jail. Despite his 89 years, Mlangeni wanted to share the daily life with Dakhla refugees. There is a kind of hostel here, they call it Protocolo: the rooms are more than basic but have private toilettes and air conditioning. Mlangeni was supposed to sleep here but “no,” he said, “I’m like everyone else, I’ll stay in a family home”. He has not missed a single moment of the festival, leaning on his cane and smoking.

The big screen mounted on a truck turns on at dusk. We sit on carpets resting above the red sand and until late night we watch movies that talk about human rights and the freedom of peoples: the Oscar nominees The Square and Dirty Wars, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, along with films about Saharawis and other filmed by young refugees. As Raíces y Clamor by the 23 year-old Ebaba Hameida Hafed, which tells the diaspora of its people in Spain, and Las Flores del Muro by Mohamed Moulud Yeslem, about the 2700-km barrier built by Morocco with the purpose to separate the Saharawi refugees in Algeria from those remaining in occupied Western Sahara. The “wall of shame”, a wound to the heart of the Sahara desert: a clean cut surrounded by small pustules, the landmines that make it unapproachable.

“The real new event of this year’s festival is the large participation of youngs, both Saharawis and international” explains Maria Carrion, the director of FiSahara, while we’re walking towards the coffee shop set up inside the women’s center. Each refugee camp has a women’s center where women come to learn foreign languages, using computers and do many other things, practising solidarity among women. “Our team is composed by young people,” continues Maria Carron, “most of them volunteers. The FiSahara want to shine the spotlight on the forgotten conflict in Western Sahara, on its people and the violations of their human rights. Another purpose is to show those who come from abroad the everyday life in the refugee camps: it’s not the usual festival where you are staying in impersonal hotels. Here visitors can live this place and its people 24 hours.”

The Saharawi minister of culture Hadija Hamdi was always in the first row, for all the 4 days of the festival because, despite their exhausting exile, the Saharawis have realized that the most powerful weapon against the enemy is disclosing to the world their reality and their amazingly hospitable and pacifist spirit.
Unfortunately, I met Hadija only for few minutes: she was so busy, pulled by everybody and welcoming the various official delegations. But I managed to hug her again, after two years, and give her the dvd of Just to Let You Know that I’m Alive. In our movie, Hadija is one of our 12 interviewees. She talks about the paradoxes of her ministry in exile and, towards the end, she utters an important and surprising serene sentence: “There is no situation in the history which has been eternally unfinished. The French colonialism remained in Algeria for more than 130 years, but in the end it came out. The Spanish colonialism has been almost a century inside Western Sahara, but it came out. The apartheid regime has hurt South Africa, and Southafricans have long struggled to abolish it. So the people are not stupid. Maybe we won’t get there in one year; maybe we’ll get in two, three, ten years. But I believe that we will get there. And it is necessary to get there”.

Hadija is married to the President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Mohamed Abdelaziz, a man who was once a soldier, the head of the small group of Saharawi fighters who managed to keep up with the Moroccan army in a war that lasted from 1975 to 1991. Since then, when the United Nations had ensured that the referendum for self-determination would be held in 1992, Abdelaziz and its Polisario Front, the liberation movement of Western Sahara, have put their trust in international diplomacy. And they keep on trusting in it even today, 23 years after a betrayed promise that now sounds like a coarse lie.

It’s hard to follow the several events of FiSahara: many conferences, numerous workshops, two venues for the movies, and the time that forcibly stops from 2 to 7 in the afternoon, when you can only lie on the sofas in the homes, drinking tea and waiting for a breath of air entering the square windows.

There were so many international appearances at the festival. There was the author of Dirty Wars David Riker and the South African jazz legend Jonas Gwangwa. But the most unexpected were those of the young Moroccan filmmaker Youness Belghazi and of the writer Samia Errazzouki, with Moroccan origin but born in the States.
Two Moroccans among the Saharawis. Traditionally enemies that suddenly mix together, listen to each other and learn their different stories, finding out at the end that they’re closer than they could imagine.

Samia is telling her shocking experience on her blog (in English). Youness - who at only 25 has already produced an important movie, 475, on the Moroccan law that allowed rapists of minor girls to go unpunished marrying the victim, then abolished also thanks to the campaign triggered by the film - jokes about it: “Probably, on my return to Morocco, I will be considered a traitor of my country” he smiles as he rolls a cigarette in the bar set up under the palm trees in the oasis not far from the big screen.

Until now, he and Samia knew only the Moroccan version of the conflict, that is more or less like this: the Western Sahara has always been Moroccan, historically, and the Saharawis are a groupo of ruffians who in the Tindouf camps held 200 thousand people hostages, fomented by Algeria that is an ancient rival of Morocco. Today, after the meetings and workshops with young people from the refugee camps, both these Moroccan activists feel solidarity with their cause. “In fact, we too would like a Moroccan referendum for self-determination,” said Youness “to get rid of the monarchy!”.

One of the most exciting moments of the festival was the private meeting between Andrew Mlangeni, Nelson Mandela’s fellow prisoner, and Sidi Mohamed Daddach known as “the Mandela of Western Sahara” for the 25 years he had spent in the Moroccan jails. They told each other their imprisonment and the faith that they would have made it, a very strong and different faith for both of them. Mlangeni, during his speech that opened the festival, did not use half measures: “Power is something that no one gives you. You have to take it by yourself, and there are times when it is necessary to use force and weapons to reach the goal”. When I interviewed him, I asked him if he really meant, by that phrase, to the Saharawis: guys, maybe it’s time you to go back to war, because the international diplomacy has failed to do anything for you in 23 years. “Of course , I meant exactly that,” he answered me. “The environmental conditions in which these people live are inhuman. We all should be indignant”.

Mariem Hassan
To write “the end” on the big party under an indescribable Sahara sky, finally has come the powerful and hypnotic voice of Mariem Hassan, a Saharawi singer wellknown all over the world. For several years she’s been fighting another battle, the one against cancer. Coming in the refugee camps from Spain, where she now lives, is not an after-dinner walk. Indeed, Mariem’s once powerful voice was transfigured in hushed tones, cradled by a blues that made her notes helpless and folded in this intense woman's inner emotions, and therefore more engaging and valuable. She was accompanied by the Portuguese folk musician Sebastião Antunes.
A person who knows her well told me that Mariem Hassan should not have moved from Spain because of her critical health conditions, but she decided to come here because she was longing for staying among her people, next to her family. 

The FiSahara Festival ended on May the 4th but there are still eight days left to support it through a donation to the Spanish NGO CEAS Sáhara that, along with the Saharawi Ministry of Culture, organized the event: Crowdfunding at this link

The Italian short version of this article has been published by the magazine Io donna


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