“Sahrawis are known as the sons of the clouds because they always chase the rain. They also chase justice, which is more evasive than water in the desert”. Eduardo Galeano.

Most people have never heard of Western Sahara, a territory in Northwestern Africa whose long coastline stretches along the Atlantic Ocean: south of Morocco, north of Mauritania and west of Algeria. Western Sahara is currently one of the world’s 17 territories listed by the United Nations as “non-self-governing,” and for the past 45 years, most of its land has been violently occupied by Morocco.

The indigenous population of Western Sahara are known as the Sahrawi. With Arab, Berber (Amazigh) and Black African roots, Sahrawis have a rich history and culture dating back thousands of years that depend on intergenerational oral transmission for survival. For over a century of Spanish colonial rule, they struggled to preserve their identity and cultural practices in the face of forced sedentarization and assimilation. More recently, cultural repression under Moroccan occupation and the severe lack of resources in exile present the greatest threats to their survival as a people.

The Sahrawi speak a form of Arabic known as Hassanyia and their traditional home is the haima, a desert tent used both for living and to house their numerous cultural traditions.

Often referred to as Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule until 1975, when Spain withdrew from the territory and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to invade. A 16-year war ensued between the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi national liberation movement, and Morocco (read more here); Mauritania withdrew in 1979. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire and a promise of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people that has never been held.

Half of the Sahrawi population fled to Algeria in 1976 and settled in refugee camps (read more here)while the other half remained in the territory under Moroccan occupation (read more here). Some Sahrawis, mostly nomads, live in the area known as the “Liberated territories”, a stretch of Western Sahara under Sahrawi control.

Every Sahrawi family suffers from the tragedy of longterm separation from loved ones. Western Sahara is home to the world’s longest fortified separation wall, which was built by Morocco with US, Saudi and Israeli support with the purpose of stopping Sahrawis who fled from entering the territory under its control. Sahrawis call it “the wall of shame”.

Measuring about 2700 kilometers in length and stretching along the territory like a long scar, the wall stands between Sahrawis in exile and those under Moroccan occupation, dividing the occupied from the liberated Western Sahara. The berm boasts the world’s largest minefield, with an estimated seven million landmines buried in the sand that kill and maim Sahrawi nomads and their children every year. Over one hundred thousand Moroccan soldiers are deployed there.

The occupied part of Western Sahara is rich in natural resources, including phosphates and plentiful fishing. A fair amount of the seafood eaten by Europeans comes from its seas, although it is labeled and sold as Moroccan. Sahrawi phosphates used for agriculture are extracted and sold by a Moroccan state-owned company and shipped in large quantities to countries whose citizens are unaware that their rightful owners have not been paid for the resources. Western Sahara’s southern coastline boasts beautiful beaches and spectacular sand dunes, a magnet for kite surfers and other tourists unaware that a few hundred meters from their hotels and resorts lives one of the most repressed populations in the world.

On the liberated side, Western Sahara is landlocked but breathtakingly beautiful, with rivers, valleys and stunning rock formations. Some regions such as Leyuad are a source of inspiration for Sahrawi poets and storytellers, who travel there to “drink from the wells of poetry”. Sahrawi refugee families travel from the camps to the area in the summer in search of respite from the oppressive heat of the Hammada. Nomads in search of rain are constantly on the move in the territory with their camels, and there are small settlements such as Tifariti. The region is patrolled by the Sahrawi military. Along the separation wall, Sahrawi de-mining teams work to rid the land of millions of landmines planted by Morocco.