El Problema – The true story of Western Sahara

By Paaras Abbas

 “We know that somebody is watching us. We don’t know where.”

How many of us have a full realisation of the torture the people of Western Sahara endure on a daily basis? It’s a story that has simply not been heard. It is this fact that made last night’s screening of El Problema, the first in a series of three films to be screened at Frontline Club as part of the Film Africa 2011 festival, such a gripping experience. The film addresses the beatings, kidnappings, rape and imprisonment the Saharawi population of Western Sahara have suffered, and continue to suffer at the hands of the Moroccan authorities.

A conflict that remains unresolved since 1975, when Morocco occupied the region, has robbed the Saharawis not only of their human rights, but has also resulted in, what can be considered, a cultural genocide. It is an issue that has been ignored by the United Nations, and until now, has not been brought to the attention of the general public.

Filmed from 2004 to 2009, Jordi Ferrer and Pablo Vedal’s award-winning documentary incorporates testimonies of Saharawi people with footage of the clashes in the city, forming what one of the post-screening discussion panelists, Danielle Smith referred to as:

“The most powerful and coherent film to date, as it depicts the scale and seriousness of the problem, and allows Saharawis to be heard.”

In a region where Saharawis are not allowed to display their identity, documenting the crackdown of the Moroccan authorities is simply out of the question, which is what makes this forbidden footage a groundbreaking initiative. It traced the history of the conflict to the time of Spanish colonialism and then delved into the chaos that erupted, as well as the response it has received from the world.

“It is a visual representation of the violence and repression the people of Western Sahara are subjected to, as well as the political gains that have kept this conflict off the map.”

The film not only highlighted the torture inflicted upon the Saharawi people, but also the significance of their resistance, which Noam Chomsky referred to as the first Arab uprising.

Despite the regulations forbidding any expression of nationalism, Saharawis continue to demonstrate and prefer to be tortured than surrender their spirit. Footage of protests in Al-Aauin and the University of Marrakesh, as well as that of the conditions in the secret prisons took the audience to the core of the suffering of the people, while stories like that of a mother naming her baby ‘Al Hurria’, or freedom, brought to the surface the essence of their endurance and their faith in their cause.

The film takes you inside the secret prisons and refugee camps and memories of the victims, things they would much rather forget but the world needs to learn.

Following the film the audience asked of the panel, Richard Dowden, Saeed Taji Farouky, and Danielle Smith, why the issue had not been publicised in the international community, what the international community was doing to stop the ongoing human rights violations, and where this issue is placed in the modern Arab spring.

One former Polisario Front member stood up to give his view on the issues and why he believed world leaders were ignoring the problem. Some reasons he mentioned were that the Spanish authorities were happy not dealing with the issue while they have access to the rich fishing waters off the western Saharan coast and phosphate. In addition, he mentioned one former supporter of the Saharawis, Muammar Gaddafi, stopped supporting Saharawi students after being paid off by the Moroccan authorities.