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Africa's Forgotten War

When I first started out as a freelance photographer I was keen to return to an area I had been to previously during a trip through Africa I made when I was in my twenties.  At the time I knew nothing of Western Sahara or the Polisario Front, but as I started to develop an interest in documentary photography and visual storytelling I wanted to explore the issue in more detail, so in 2007 I returned to the area in South West Algeria where Saharaoui refugees have made their home since their Moroccan enforced exile.

Since 1976 the Polisario Front, the government-in-exile of the Saharaoui fighting for self-determination of the Western Sahara, has been at war with Morocco.  The former Spanish colony was annexed by Morocco after the former colonial power left in 1975. It was later sealed off by a heavily guarded wall built by the Moroccans known as the Berm, stretching the length of the border between Occupied Western Sahara and the Polisario controlled liberated territories.

Berm.png

Since a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, Polisario soldiers, young and old, perform field exercises and scout Moroccan positions in the mine-ridden no man's land.  There are an estimated three million landmines and unexploded ordnance littering the former frontline resulting in many casualties and deaths every year among nomadic Berber livestock herders and Saharaoui.

Meanwhile, refugees from the Western Sahara who fled the conflict have been subsisting in dusty camps in neighbouring Algeria, Polisario's main ally, who have closed their border with Morocco.

Polisario estimates there are 170,000 refugees in the camps in South Western Algeria who rely on international aid, distributed by the United Nations.  Despite daily hardships the refugee camps are well-organised: women's rights are widely respected, literacy is above 90%, and many children go on to study at universities abroad.  A fragile ceasefire exists but tensions are high.  Saharaoui who remain in the occupied territories are subject to police discrimination, detention and regularly report incidents of human rights abuses.

I lived with Polisario soldiers in the desert and was able to travel with them to locations where they carried out military training and operations.  I also met some incredible people working with Landmine Action who were training local Saharaoui to clear mines from what is still one of the world's heaviest land-mined areas.

To see the picture gallery I shot for the BBC, click here

For more information on Western Sahara check out the amazing work being carried out by Sandblast