Few tourists venture this far south, whispers amongst the campervan masses were that it’s “all the same” and “there’s nothing there”. But there is beauty in bleak and barren; 360° of arresting, monotonous landscape stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. Standing surrounded by such a huge expanse of ‘nothingness’ creates a humbling feeling of being such a small dot on a huge planet. In a place where camels outnumber cars you feel as if you have the whole vastness to yourself.
Historically, this area of the coastal Sahara was controlled by the Spanish but by the late sixties pressure from the native Saharans, the Saharawi tribes, had increased. In 1973 a campaign for independence was initiated by a newly-formed militant group ‘Polisario’. Spain reluctantly pulled out of Western Sahara in 1976, facilitating a division of the territory between Morocco in the North and Mauritania in the South. Polisario fought on, thousands of Saharawi’s fled to neighbouring Algeria and eventually Mauritania withdrew and the Moroccans occupied 80% of the area, forcing Polisario to retreat to marginal areas in the East.
Polisario directed a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until 1991 when the UN negotiated a ceasefire with the aim of allowing Saharawis the choice between independence or Moroccan rule. This referendum never happened due to voting eligibility problems, Morocco dug it’s heels in deep and refused to compromise; subsequent talks of a referendum have failed with increasing concern over human right’s issues in the territory. Approximately half of the Saharawis still live in refugee camps just across the border in Algeria.
Information from the region is fiercely controlled by Morocco; we were frequently stopped at police checkpoints and questioned about our occupations (journalists are not allowed in the region), where we had come from and were going; they closely monitor the whereabouts of all tourists. The UN and the military had a strong presence wherever we travelled.
Western Sahara glaringly lacked one thing; its people. We found no evidence of their culture or heritage; no Saharawi restaurants or craft shops, no local music playing, native dress or traditions. A land in limbo, polluted by indiscriminate landmines and devoid of its people; a country whose future is currently as bleak as it’s landscape.