Teachers escort children as they walk by the main administration building in Dakhla refugee camp. All images by Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Dakhla refugee camp, southwestern Algeria—Tchlaz Bchere has visited Western Sahara, the land she calls her rightful home, only once. Born and raised in a refugee camp in the remote desert expanse of southwestern Algeria, the 30-year-old activist has always clung to the promise of an independent homeland, free from Moroccan control. Yet in the entwined contradictions of hope and despair that have shaped her life as a Sahrawi refugee, Bchere never wants to have children—to have them grow up like her, in a state of permanent displacement and consigned to a life of waiting in the harsh desert.
“My hope has no limits,” she says. “But I don’t want to raise a child in this situation.”
Tchla Bchere was born and raised in the Sahrawi refugee camps of southwestern Algeria. She visited occupied Western Sahara once in 2007 for five days as part of a United Nations family exchange program.
Bchere is a refugee of Africa’s last colony, the site of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts and one of its most invisible.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, the former colonial power, signed an agreement handing over control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing the two countries to invade. The United States and France supported the forced annexation.
The Moroccan army carried out brutal attacks against civilians, including bombing, strafing and dropping napalm on those trying to escape the fighting. The violence prompted nearly half the Sahrawi population to flee on foot and cross into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.
For close to four decades, nearly half the native population of Western Sahara has lived as refugees in Algeria; the other half lives as a minority population under foreign rule. Two parallel societies, one living in exile, the other under occupation.
“The refugee camps are not ours, we are guests, and yet we feel more free here,” Bchere says. Her only visit to occupied Western Sahara came in 2007 for five days as part of a United Nations family exchange program. “I cried when I got there. I don’t know my homeland, I only know what my parents told me. But what I saw was that, for Sahrawis, everything there is affected by occupation, all aspects of life.”
With Algeria’s support, the anti-colonial movement that had fought to oust Spain, known as the Polisario Front, went to war with Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that included a promise of a referendum on self-determination and the return of the refugee population. Twenty-two years later, the referendum has yet to take place.
“The war didn’t end in 1991. It is still ongoing—maybe not with weapons, but with other means,” says Bchere. “But they cannot eradicate our rights.”