Michael Palin and Terry Jones were among the celebrities attending a private view of a photographs from the Western Sahara refugee camps in London on Wednesday. The pair of Pythons joined other actors including Neighbours star Nicola Quilter at the event which showed images of refugees from one of the world’s longest and most forgotten conflicts.
They were also joined by Western Saharan human rights activist Mohamed Fadel, 25, who fled to the UK last October having been tortured by Moroccan police.
The two Pythons are no strangers to desert having filmed The Life of Brian in Tunisa in 1978. Michael Palin spent time in the Western Sahara refugee camps in 2002 while filming his series on the desert. “I visited the camps on my Sahara series and was hugely impressed by the indomitable resilience of the Saharawi people” said Palin “These photos are a tribute to the spirit of hope over adversity.”
Known as ‘Africa’s last colony’ Western Sahara, was ‘given to’ Morocco by the Spanish when they withdrew in 1976. A 16 year war ensued followed by a ceasefire under whose terms the native Saharawi were promised a referendum on self-determination. Nineteen years later they are still awaiting that referendum. Meanwhile 165,000 Saharawis have lived in refugee camps in the desolate Sahara for over three decades.
The exhibition – Thirst of the Dunes – is organised by the Free Western Sahara Network and showcases images from the camps by photo-journalist Stefan Simanowitz and photographer Robert Griffin.
About the size of Britain, Western Sahara lies along Africa’s Atlantic coast. The Saharawi, descendants of Bedouin Arabs who arrived in the thirteenth century and integrated with the Sanhaja population, have wandered the territory’s deserts rearing sheep, goats and camels for centuries. They have their own rich nomadic culture and traditions as well as their own distinct Arabic language, Hassaniya.
In 1884, the Spanish colonised the territory but did not settle much of the country, staying largely in port towns along the coast. However, the discovery in the 1960s of large phosphate deposits beneath the desert sands led to the setting up of a large Spanish mining infrastructure. It is these phosphates, essential for industrial agriculture, together with other mineral resources, oil and gas and rich fishing waters that make Morocco continue their unlawful occupation of the territory.
And for over three decades international law has been flouted whilst governments around the world are complacent or complicit in permitting the occupation and even profiting from it.
“Despite living in such harsh circumstances they have not lost their sense of humanity, optimism, hope or humour” says Griffin. “It was truly a humbling privilege to meet them – and I hope that through my photos I’ve captured something of their spirit, generosity and quiet dignity.”
Issa Brahim, one of the women featured in the exhibition is a 33-year-old mother of four who was born and raised in the camps. She has No work, no water, no land for her goats to graze. But she is not without hope. Greatest of hopes is to set foot in her homeland for the first time.
The exhibition – Thirst of the Dunes – runs until 25th August in the Rosslyn Arms, 48 Hampstead High Street.
The exhibition also features work by photographer Dani Valera
Any profits from the exhibition will go to the Free Western Sahara Network.