It might be the refugee crisis across Europe making news, but the people of Western Sahara have been experiencing a refugee crisis for over 40 years. Last November was the 40th anniversary of Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara, which forced thousands of refugees into the Algerian desert. They are still there today, living in refugee camps, dependent on international aid. There it is the Saharawi women who play a fundamental role in a matriarchal society.
During the war against Morocco (1975-1991), they were forced to take shelter in the most hostile part of the Sahara desert: the Hammada. Without any help from men, who were engaged in the battle many kilometres away, Saharawi women made a life in the refugee camps, where a section of the Saharawi population lives to this day. They have constructed tents, houses, schools and hospitals, as well as political, social and cultural structures.
“They built their first tent using their dresses.”
A matriarchal society in the making
Most of the women exercise important institutional assignments and every one of them takes part in the women’s conventions, which are often determinants in subsequent government decisions. Their wish is for their population to return to the territory they were forced to leave and where their relatives are still living under occupation. They are divided by a 2 400 km-long wall, dotted with mines. This was built by Morocco with the sole purpose of denying the Saharawi people the possibility of returning to their country.
Italian photographer Raffaele Petralla, a social documentary photographer with a passion for music, was visiting Western Sahara when he heard about a band wanting to perform at one of the refugee camps. “I needed to help them; they were famous musicians,” Petralla says. “They just didn’t have instruments, so we managed to bring those into the country. We wanted to take them to a place where they could play their new instruments and photograph them performing.” Petralla first had to visit the Saharawi women and ask their permission. Once granted, he photographed and interviewed the women first. “That is the basis of this series of photographs. These women are as important to the event as the musicians.”
“All these women share a remarkable history, but they are all looking ahead. You can see it in their eyes; full of willpower and persistence.”
What Petralla really wanted was to talk to the women privately, without their husbands present. It was their history that interested Petralla in particular, including all the tragedies these women had encountered on the way to the refugee camp. “They built their first tent using their dresses,” Petralla says. “But it is also their future that really interests me. All these women share a remarkable history, but they are all looking ahead. You can see it in their eyes; full of willpower and persistence.”
Focusing on lives of quiet courage
The Saharawi are an indigenous African people hardly known in the West. Unsurprisingly, this was one of the aspects that attracted the photographer to this subject. He needed a fixer, of course; in his case, a Saharawi friend who worked for the band. They grew closer as time progressed, gaining more trust from the women at the same time. Going from one refugee camp to another, he got to meet an increasing number of Saharawi women, all agreeing to the band performing at their camps. “Everywhere we went, we had to drink tea, first the strong one, then the sweet one and finally an even sweeter one. It became a ritual for hours on end.”
It took even more time to get the women to relax and have their pictures taken. Petralla regarded gaining their trust and having them feel comfortable in front of the camera ashis most important task. Only then would he take out his camera and capture the women as they went about their daily routine. In addition to the two months it took Petralla to shoot the series, putting the story together afterwards took a long time. He admits that it has been more than worth it. “I’ve decided to also include some landscape images to break up the portrait series. Too many portraits can destroy each other; you need to separate them with a photograph of another subject. This part of the process, which took another month, was hard for me, but I’m very happy with the end result.”
Raffaele Petralla is a documentary photographer based in Rome. He graduated at Scuola Romana di Fotografia. His focus is on reporting social, environmental and anthropological issues. Since 2012 he has also worked as a social worker and educator in emergency reception centres for unaccompanied immigrant minors. His award-winning photographic and video projects have been exhibited at many art galleries and photographic festivals. He collaborates with international media and magazines such as CNN, La Repubblica and National Geographic. At present he is working on a documentary photographic project in the Republic of Mari-El, Russia, about the last pagan population of Europe.