Homeland Lost - The Saharawi

Nearly 25 years after the ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco, Western Sahara still awaits the referendum that will determine its fate – independence or unification with Morocco.  Alan Gignoux looks at how the Saharawi of Western Sahara have been affected by occupation and displacement.


As a result of the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in 1975, the historically nomadic Saharawi people are living under occupation in their homeland, as refugees in camps in Algeria or as exiles in Spain, the former colonial power.  In a sequel to his photo essay looking at the Palestinian refugees, Alan Gignoux explores how the Saharawi have been affected by occupation and displacement and the way in which the landscape of the homeland has changed.

The Saharawi

The Saharawi are a Sunni Muslim, Hassaniya Arabic speaking tribal people of Arab-Berber heritage, who have historically lived a nomadic existence in the westernmost Sahara.  

The Conflict

Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony.  Formerly governed by Spain, the mineral-rich region has been under Moroccan control since 1975.  The legality of the Moroccan occupation is not internationally recognised and is militarily disputed by the Polisario Front, a Saharawi nationalist movement claiming independence for the territory. 

The territory is divided into the Moroccan Occupied Zone and the Liberated Zone, which are separated by a reinforced sand wall known as the Berm.

 In 1991, after fifteen years of military conflict, Morocco and Polisario agreed to a ceasefire.  The plan called for a referendum on independence or unification with Morocco voted by the population of Western Sahara.  The ceasefire is overseen by a UN peace-keeping mission known as MINURSO.  The referendum has not yet occurred because of disagreements between the two sides over who should be allowed to vote.  Both sides believe that the electoral roll will ultimately determine the outcome of the referendum.

Occupation and displacement

 The conflict has dispersed the Saharawi population.  The invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 produced an exodus of refugees fleeing the violence: today there are approximately 165,000 Saharawis in refugee camps in a remote and hostile desert region of Algeria, entirely dependent on precarious aid flows. 

Around 100,000 Saharawis live in Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation, with virtually no freedoms.  Here the Moroccan settlers and military forces outnumber indigenous Saharawis by 3 to 7 times their number.  Since the occupation they have been subjected to human rights abuses, including lack of freedom of expression, association and movement as well as detentions, disappearances and killings.

Approximately 10,000 Saharawi nomads live in the Liberated Zone in mine-infected areas on the border with Algeria where there are regular mine casualties.  

In Homeland Lost - The Saharawi Alan Gignoux photographs Saharawis living under occupation in Western Sahara, as refugees in the camps in Algeria and as immigrants in Spain.