Andrew McConell spent four months in the Western Sahara to capture lives of people with no country, colonized by Spain then by Morocco and left in a sort of forgotten limbo, made of refugee camps, sparks of war and with no possible future.
The project, patronized by Medicos Del Mundo – a Spanish NGO – was awarded this year by a World Press Photo for best story.
Yet for the photographer, the portraits – beautifully created with a blend of night, flash and long exposures – were not enough. So he recorded his subjects’ testimonials.
I selected 3 pictures for this post, as an invitation to go through the more than 30 portraits available here.
Djimi Elghalia - Vice president of the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), pictured near El Aaiun city, in Moroccan controlled Western Sahara
I was born in Agadir, Morocco in 1961. My family were among many who fled the climate and social conditions in Western Sahara to look for work in Morocco. A lot of Saharawis used to stay at our home and because of this my grandmother was arrested in 1984. She was sixty. We never saw her again. In 1986 I moved to El Aaiun for work after I graduated in agriculture. The next year I was arrested along with five hundred others for trying to organise a demonstration on independence before a big United Nations visit. They held eighty including nineteen women. They interrogated me and used physical and psychological torture. They would put chemicals in my hair which made me faint. I was electrocuted on the arms and back and was bitten by dogs. Later they would laugh and say that there are no dogs and I must be imagining things. It was the same thing you see in Iraq but here we have no media attention to show it.
I was released in 1991 along with three hundred and twenty four people, some of whom had been held since the invasion, seventy eight were women. It was because of pressure from international organisations like Amnesty International. From 1994-98 we, the victims, tried to engage in the field of human rights but we faced a lot of harassment. In 2005 we established the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH) . The Moroccan authorities prevent the association from working despite the court allowing us to work. We work from our homes using the internet and we host international visitors but still Morocco harass us and now foreigners are not allowed to visit us.
We have a conviction that we will achieve independence but it depends on international pressure, our case it very just and fair. It [pressure] will come from the allies of Morocco, like France, the US and Spain. We have no direct contact with Polisario but we share the same gaols. As a defender of human rights we are all about a peaceful solution. Whether the Polisario want to go back to war is up to them but as a civil society we are calling for a peaceful solution and this will come from international pressure
Mohamed Lamin Slot - Ambulance driver, pictured in the desert near Rabouni refugee camp, Algeria
I was born in El Aaiun camp in 1983. I grew up here, we got accustomed to it. I studied in Algeria for six years. I started working as an ambulance driver in 2005, it is a great job and I like it. There is a lot of tiredness but I like to help people. It took one year to train in first aid, it was very difficult at first, you remember many bad things like blood and injuries but now it’s normal for me. We never rest there are always emergencies, maybe there are eight or nine cases per day. I work from Saturday to Friday and work the whole week even sleeping in the hospital, then I have the following week off. I get almost no sleep during that week. The hardest thing is when people die on the way to the hospital, you wish you could have got them there but you couldn’t.
Over time I know the best routes between the camps. I once got lost in the sand storm with a patient, we were very afraid. I was carrying an old man to Auserd [refugee camp], the storm came after sunset so we could not see anything, I was careful and found the tracks, eventually and we got there in the end. To drive here you must know the tracks, it takes practise, different tracks go to different camps so you have to know the right one. There is one road built by the Algerians but it only goes from Rabouni to Twenty Seven [of February refugee camp] and Smara [refugee camp], it is a big help for us. Dakhla [refugee camp] is the worst place to have an emergency, it is very far, there is a road but it doesn’t reach it. There is one ambulance per camp with two drivers. Its not enough.
We expect a lot and wish for many things but we haven’t seen tangible results. Peace is very nice but it’s better to back to war. No one wants to die but it’s too long to wait. We are born here and are now grown up, it’s too long. We are not of any importance to the United Nations.
Brahim Mohamed Fadin - Pictured in sand dunes near Smara refugee camp, Algeria
I don’t like to be in the refugee camps, I know that the Algerians receive us and help us for many years but I want to be free in my own country. I am in High School in Algeria and Saharawis always get the best grades there. We are learning for our people, we learn to spread our history and in Algeria we can do that. I’m studying maths and my goal is to be a engineer. I wish I could help my country, its needs a lot of specialists. I would rather live in the camps than live under moroccan control.
Everyone seeks for peace and the white flag. I like war only if it brings peace and I am prepared to give my life if it would give us real peace. I don’t like war in the Sahara because everyone knows the Sahara is a peaceful place and I want Saharawis and Morroccans to live peacefully as states like Algeria and Mauritania, as friends. It is my point of view that it was better to keep fighting to free our land than to stop and let others take our resources. If we gain our independence we will be one the best states in the world because we are known for our solidarity and friendship and hospitality. Life taught us a lot because of everything, all the suffering, there are no people like us anywhere in the world.
Source: New York Times’ Lens blog.