Creating Poetic Resistance in Saharwi Refugee Camps, Algeria, 2013

When I came back from Sahara, I was asked to write an article to an educational journal. I remember trying for days to write and not finding the words to capture how it was to live there. I failed to stay with not knowing how Sahara was, how it was to be exposed to a kind of life I did not know existed and what to do with the responsibility of this experience. I tried to write as an expert while I was so much lost and hurt. I did not know how to create a language and ask for help. This writing now is an attempt to make with this failure something new. Something I don’t know.

When I found out I was going to the refugee camps of Tindouf in Sahara, I searched at Wikipedia and saw the text I posted here. I did not know where else to search, I did not know anything. My friends were saying that they could not describe what was happening there, a different reality, a parallel world.

Days later we got the plane. We landed in Algeria and then in Tindouf. The moment we went out they asked us to pick our luggage to put it in the plane so that they know whose is what. I remember the first night, the silence of the desert, the lack of noise and light – just stars. And then the big room we all slept in. The hut where was the toilet and you needed to go using your head torch.

I went there with Olive Branch Arts, an organization using storytelling and multi art forms to engage communities and create social change. Olive Branch Arts has been collaborating with Saharwi communities since 2001. We worked as dramatherapists in special schools doing trainings and the rest of the team created a theatre play with young people there. On the edges of these activities I glimpsed the life of Western Sahara through the people we met and became our teachers.

Tea is served different times per day. One for bitter life, two for sweet love, three for gentle death. We meet and drink and talk. Food is served twice a day in big plates. Vegetables and meat stored in fridges that occasionally work. The water comes from big metallic containers in the middle of the camps and is connected to each hut with a plastic tube like those my grandma had to bring the water of the washing machine out to the yard.

At the nights the family gathers at the centre of the yard. We bring mattresses, have dinner, talk, watch the stars. The children study Koran. There is one bath in the camp. A natural hot stream. You can go there to wash. There are a few shops. You can go there if you have money. The salaries I heard of are from around 30 to 100 euros per month. To take a ticket from Tindouf to UK costs around 500 euros.

Saharwi moved there when they wanted to escape the war with Maroko. They did that through what they called poetic resistance, protesting through poetry, their art than war. Thousands of people, many children and women moved to the dessert and created huts with sand. They created villages in the dessert giving them the names of their cities in Western Sahara. The women taught each other because they wanted to give their children education. Since now there is a big number of schools, given how small the population is. Saharwi value education.  And homeland. A home left decades ago is still home.

They receive financial support from Europe which became more and more sparse when the financial crisis hit Europe. There is a museum in one of the camps with photos and texts, images of how people were tortured, what parts of their bodies were bruised, swollen, burnt. There is a big effort going on to have the bones of the people that were murdered in the dessert. There is a cultural centre where humanitarian and artistic organizations come together to support the refugees and co-create culture with them.

Many of the people there had experiences of war when they were children and extreme poverty. There is a strong culture of community and friendship, people meet together to eat, sometimes they stay to each other’s houses when they visit as it is difficult to commute. There are very few cars and taxis, and often batteries are running down or don’t work. Young people miss opportunities for employment. There are very few jobs. People get often sick without enough support of doctors or medication. Schools, shops work on a basis of who is there on each day. There is a strong feminist community.

In Sahara I saw people playing and enjoy everyday moments in a way I have not seen before. They value family, community, neighbors. I have met people with a clarity and strength of spirit that was new to me. I remember once I was sick and too annoyed with the flies. I asked them why they don’t kill them and one of our friends responded to me: Why to make war? When you hear this by a person whose life was impacted by war in a such way it takes a different meaning. I think Saharwi people would have a lot to teach many of us right now at this moment with the violence we are witnessing/ being part of. The possibility, the performance of creating a culture of peace in response to war. What does it take? As their topics are being pushed at the bottom of the international agendas they become better peaceful fighters with their poetic resistance. And lives of people are lived without knowing who they might have become if they had more opportunities. Lives of people that we might never get to know about. Do their lives still matter? Who decides and who is asking?


Tea drops in small cups

One bitter like life

Two sweet like love

Three gentle like death

Sand on fingers that play

Clay making with smile

Aisle of donations

Water in metallic tanks

Loiter at the edges of dessert

Sand that does not listen

Sad sand call me

Liberation from worn war

Piece of peace

Sink in your tea

Plea listen

Ease please listen

When my family left Maroko

I remember the flashes in the sky

I am young

Teaching in cold rooms

With blankets

It is cold

And still I want to learn

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