A Museum Documents in Real Time the War Between the Polisario Front and Morocco

As the ongoing conflict in Western Sahara remains largely ignored and forgotten, the resistance tries to keep it front and center

A Museum Documents in Real Time the War Between the Polisario Front and Morocco
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

Across an open plain where small stones shift into soft sand, a tall rocket stands upright, its silhouette stark against the flat horizon. Opposite stands a twin rocket, also rusted and dark red against the yellow desert. The rockets are planted like pillars, and together with two dilapidated armed carriers, they form the gate to the National Resistance Museum, a place striving to keep alive the memory of an ongoing 50-year conflict between the Sahrawi people and Morocco. Inside the museum is room after room of Moroccan weapons captured from 1975 to the present day. There is a room dedicated entirely to tanks where the main guns line up next to each like long beaks in a row. The curators have labeled each tank with a little laminated sign indicating its country of origin. Other rooms simply feature tables of guns neatly lined up in rows.

The Sahrawis are the Indigenous people of Western Sahara, a 102,700-square-mile region along the Atlantic coast south of Morocco, rich in phosphate and fisheries. These resources are a large part of the reason Morocco has fought to occupy the land for the past 50 years and now controls about 80% of the disputed territory. The other 20% is controlled by the Polisario Front, an independence movement that represents many Sahrawis, a group of traditionally nomadic peoples who had traversed trade routes in this part of Northern Africa for centuries. Largely because Western Sahara is so impassable, most empires, including the Alaouite one in modern-day Morocco, could not establish firm control of the area.

The Polisario Front formed in 1973 as an independence movement against Spain, the colonial power in the region, as it was beginning its withdrawal. The Polisario’s emergence prompted Morocco, which claimed Western Sahara was historically part of its kingdom, to bring the question of its sovereignty before the International Court of Justice. In its nonbinding ruling, the court found that some historical ties did exist between Morocco and Western Sahara but that those did not outweigh the need for a popular referendum for Sahrawis to determine their own political future.

Despite the court’s ruling and with instability at home and mounting pressure from Morocco, Spain ceded administrative control of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, without a referendum (the latter withdrew from the territory in 1979). Moroccan forces soon entered the territory, and the Polisario Front has been fighting to gain control ever since.

Rabat does not officially recognize the ongoing conflict and actively works toward the de facto integration of Western Sahara into Morocco. To this end, it has built a 1,700-mile sand wall fortified with millions of land mines, to prevent movement from the Polisario-controlled portion of the land into Moroccan-occupied areas. Moroccans are also being relocated to Western Sahara, diluting the native Sahrawi population — a strategy the Polisario claims is aimed at undermining their statehood. Globally, very few people even know that there has been a war here.

Most museums are solely concerned with the past, even if they are building a narrative about how they want history to be perceived now. For the Polisario Front, the museum is about getting acknowledgment of the existence of an ongoing war. Perhaps that is the reason the museum obsessively collects every object related to the conflict, regardless of whether it is a rifle, a jet or a rubber stamp. They feel the need to prove that their war exists in the face of what they perceive as Morocco’s enveloping silence.

Western Sahara officially became a Spanish protectorate at the Berlin conference in 1884, where the European powers were competing to colonize and divide up Africa. However, for many years the Sahrawis operated with much of the same freedom they had possessed for hundreds of years within the interior of Western Sahara, while Spain mostly occupied outposts on the coastline. It was only in the 1930s that the Spanish military established a stable presence in the interior, and it took until the 1950s for a capillary form of colonialism to emerge with settlements, towns and businesses snaking into Western Sahara. The reason for this new wave of expansionism was the discovery of phosphate, which would become the territory’s most lucrative resource. The settlements coincided with a period of drought, and Sahrawis began settling down around the Spanish towns to make a living. The partial urbanization of the Sahrawis also brought in the first push of political demands from the local population to the Spanish authorities. The first protests against the colonizer took place in 1970, and in 1973 the newly founded Polisario Front started attacking isolated Spanish outposts.

The ringleader and intellectual heart of the movement was El-Ouali Mustafa Sayed. A museum mural shows him with a sharp gaze and a lion’s mane of hair as he stares into the distance. He came up with the idea for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the name of the Sahrawi state that operates from its headquarters in Sahrawi refugee camps. The very first rooms of the museum are dedicated to the story of the founders. They display the original documents from the first Polisario conferences, Spanish colonial papers declaring Polisario leaders as wanted men, and thick volumes containing thousands of newspaper articles about the Polisario Front.

After Spain handed over Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, most of the Sahrawi population fled Western Sahara and found shelter in refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, where they still live. The Polisario guerrilla war against Rabat was successful initially. Not rarely, the Polisario men caught Moroccan troops off guard, taking prisoners and military equipment, much of which is now on display in the museum. The monarchy received weapons and vehicles from all over the Western world (especially from France and the U.S.), while the Polisario Front relied mainly on Soviet supplies coming from Algeria and Libya. Many of these weapons are on display in the museum, where dusty machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers have neat, laminated signs hung upon them that lay out in simple charts the type of weapon and its country of origin.

The tide of the war turned during the 1980s, when Morocco started building a series of sand walls in the desert that would turn into the massive 1,700-mile military barrier. Initially, the fortification protected the main towns in northwestern Western Sahara and the phosphate mines. But gradually, new versions of the wall expanded to divide the Moroccan-occupied territory from the Polisario-controlled one. In 1987, the sand wall (also called “the berm”) reached its modern-day zenith, isolating the Sahrawi state to only 20% of Western Sahara. The berm drastically limited the guerrillas’ ability to conduct surprise attacks. The war evolved into a series of battles and attacks along the berm, while Rabat cemented its grip on the occupied territory. In 1991, the Kingdom and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire with the agreement of organizing a referendum for the Sahrawi people to decide whether they wanted independence or to live under Rabat’s rule. The vote never took place because the two parties couldn’t agree on who had the right to participate in the referendum.

For 29 years, the Sahrawi people have been stuck in diplomatic limbo while living in the refugee camps in Algeria, where the museum is also located. The camps’ architecture is stuck between temporary and permanent: Some homes are tents, some are mud brick, and some are concrete. There, the desire to prove they have been living as a state in constant struggle in the face of international indifference is not limited to the museum. Most people, when you meet them, launch into an explanation of the Sahrawi struggle from the 1970s to the present day; there is an assumption of total ignorance as well as a fevered desire to prove themselves to the world.

Lut Bokhrain, a whipcord-thin middle-aged man who speaks in careful formal language, has been collecting literature on the Polisario Front for years. In a similar manner to the museum, his collection is broad, nondiscriminatory and full of hidden treasures. He held an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Polisario Front’s battle for independence. He gathered his findings on a plastic table inside a small stone building, where he displayed original typed literature published by the Polisario Front in the 1970s, along with every piece of media on the Polisario that he could get his hands on, ranging from academic books on the subjects to compendiums of articles from across the decades. His only request after kindly showing and explaining document after document was to be put in touch with more scholars so he could gather more material. Among his pamphlets, there is one about a book that represents well the Polisario Front’s relationship with memory.

A copy of the book, finely bound with a brown cover, is hidden in a closet in the custodians’ room at the museum of war. You need to know about its existence and specifically ask for it since it is not visible to the public. It contains 483 small photographs and little text. “Necessita dei volti” (“The Necessity of Faces”) is a collaborative work by a heterogeneous international group of artists, photographers, cinematographers and representatives of the Sahrawi cause that calls itself the “Informal Collective on Western Sahara.” In 1991, the year of the ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco, some of its members visited the museum and by chance found thousands of pictures piled in ammunition crates. At first they thought the pictures belonged to the Sahrawi fallen. Only by turning them over and reading dates, locations and notes in French did they realize they had belonged to the Moroccans. The pictures showed the kingdom’s soldiers or their relatives (pictures that one usually keeps in a wallet or pocket) that the Polisario Front captured in battle together with weapons. “That photographic set narrated something never seen,” say members of the Informal Collective in a phone call. “An invaded community preserved the face and memory of the invader.”

In 1999, the Informal Collective decided to put together a selection of the photographs in a book. Only 20 copies were printed; 11 of those have been given to private “custodians” and institutions worldwide, their viewing limited to private meetings. The “custodians” are linguist Noam Chomsky, Nobel Peace Prize winner Josè Ramos-Horta, Nobel Prize winner in literature Jose Saramago, journalist Pilar del Rio, writer Fabrizia Ramondino, artist Jean Lamore, director Ken Loach, director Michel Khleifi, director Eyal Sivan, director Theo Angelopoulos and the Arab Images Foundation of Beirut. The book in the Sahrawi Museum is a special edition with some texts. A “twin” of this version is in the Kandinsky Library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

When it was presented at the Pompidou, the Berlin Biennale, the Beirut Art Center or at any other public meeting, the book has always remained closed. At the Centre Pompidou’s Kandinsky Library the book is available on request and its pages can’t be photographed.

“We have always been discreet in relating to the photos and not just because they belong to others,” explain the members of the Informal Collective. “In the private domestic environment, the seated observer has a different posture than in a museum, where the gaze moves away from the erected body to see the image in front of him. In a house you have to bend down, looking at the image in the palm of your hand. It is the same approach through which we usually look at our own personal photographs. In this way, the photo touches us as we touch it.”

As of 2022, wrote the Informal Collective on the occasion of the exhibition of “Necessita” at the Berlin Biennale that year, there have been about 350 “conversations” around the collection of photographs. In most cases, they were held in a private context and mainly in Italy, but also in Paris, London, Berlin, Lisbon, Brussels, Zaragoza, Algiers, Rotterdam, Beirut, Dhaka, Sunderaban, Melbourne, Ljubljana, Ouessant Island, Lagos and Sharjah.

The memory of war and occupation is at risk on both sides of the wall. For the Sahrawis, the obsessive collection of any physical evidence of the conflict is a way of resisting the perception that the world is oblivious to their struggle. For Morocco, the historical memory of what is happening in what they call the “provinces of the South” is jeopardized by a regime that does not even want to acknowledge the existence of a conflict.

In 2018, “Necessita” (which had been part of the collection of the Kandinsky Library since 2012) was displayed, closed, in a room of the Center Pompidou’s permanent collections. An Algerian website gave news of the exposition, immediately provoking Morocco’s reaction: The president of the National Foundation of Museums of Morocco sent a letter to the head of the Pompidou, requesting the withdrawal of the book. The Parisian Museum decided to suspend the book’s presentation, explaining that it had “observed a form of political instrumentalization.” The fact that a closed book could spark this kind of reaction gives an idea of how sensitive the topic is for Morocco. The Informal Collective, talking of an “artwork censored for state reasons,” has asked for the book to be returned, but never got a response from the Pompidou.

Today, many of the photos from captured Moroccan soldiers are tucked away in a dusty glass and wood cabinet in the museum. Khatri Embarak, a custodian at the museum who conducted the tour in his green camouflage Polisario uniform, did not initially even recall where the photos were located. He later sent a video showing the photos packed in paper-wrapped piles like a thick stack of banknotes. Embarak said there were thousands of photos and found it difficult to choose which ones to send.

The same room, which is filled with intimate memories of the past, also features an exhibit of fragments from missiles laid upon a low table, as proof that Morocco is currently conducting drone strikes in Western Sahara. Since November 2020, there have been two major developments in the conflict. First, the 29-year ceasefire came crashing to an end after Moroccan forces broke up a Sahrawi demonstration in the border town Guerguerat. Since then, Polisario commandos who first fought as guerillas in the 1970s have returned to the field to conduct regular attacks against Moroccan positions. But they shell the berm with old munitions, while Morocco has the superior army and technology. The second development in 2020, was that then-President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel. Now Rabat has purchased Tel Aviv’s surveillance technology and is instrumentalizing it in combination with attack drones from Turkey and China in strikes against the Polisario Front. All the while, the country refuses to acknowledge the war is even happening. Around the exhibit of the missile fragments are framed pictures captured decades ago of Moroccan battle plans sent to attack the Polisario Front. They are all part of the museum, where for as long as the war continues and more weapons pile up, the Polisario Front will continue to gather evidence that they are fighting.

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