The Saharawis

The Long Journey Back Home



The history of the Saharawis is still largely unknown. In its telling, we seek to highlight their agency as a people and as individuals to defend their way of life and achieve their rights to self-determination.
Although this agency has been repeatedly thwarted by colonial and global powers, they have not stopped resisting nor given up on their dreams and throughout their long struggle, they have also experienced instances of joy and victory. We aim to document and celebrate these too. Our purpose is not to speak over Saharawi voices or claim their stories for ourselves – it is to amplify their voices and give a platform for them to be heard.
To convey the richness of the history of the region and its people, we have incorporated images and video clips alongside text in the timelines to provide a more immersive understanding of their stories. We have also created a subdivision of six distinct periods: The Pre-colonial; Early European Contact; Spanish Colonialism; Occupation, War, Exile; Cease-fire; and War Again. While we realise time cannot be put into neat little boxes, this categorization is meant to provide the viewer with a roadmap.
Although this agency has been repeatedly thwarted by colonial and global powers, they have not stopped resisting nor given up on their dreams and throughout their long struggle, they have also experienced instances of joy and victory. We aim to document and celebrate these too. Our purpose is not to speak over Saharawi voices or claim their stories for ourselves – it is to amplify their voices and give a platform for them to be heard.
Early European Contact
Spanish Colonialism
Occupation, War, Exile
War Again


Some of the earliest known inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, who are considered ancestors of the modern-day Saharawis, were the Sanhaja Berber. Archeologists have found evidence to suggest that the Sanhaja were long-term inhabitants of the region, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic era. They were instrumental in the trans-Saharan trade that ended up bringing West Africa into contact with the Muslim cultures of North Africa. Between the 11th and 13th centuries successive waves of Arab tribes, known as the Beni Hassan, emanating from the Yemenite peninsula, conquered and Islamised the Sanhaja, giving the name to their spoken language, Hassaniye, and creating a cultural fusion, which included West African influences introduced through the slave trade.

8,500 - 3,500 BCE

Once a lush grassland, the Sahara desert forms through the process of desertification, leading the region’s inhabitants to live a more nomadic lifestyle.

1st - 3rd Centuries

The Roman empire makes contact with the inhabitants of the Sahara through its north African provinces.

7th - 8th Centuries

Islam spread through Africa via trade routes, intellectual debate, and military conquest.

1040 - 1147

The Sanhaja Imazighen (Amazigh or Berber) tribes form the Almoravid dynasty and conquer what is now considered modern-day southern Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, and parts of Algeria and Mauritania.

12th Century

One of the prominent founders of the Almoravid dynasty, Abdallah ibn Yasin, promotes the more conservative Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence to the Sanhaja, popularizing it throughout the region.

Ibn Tumart, a Berber jurist who opposed the Almoravids, spreads the tawid doctrine of Islam which combines elements of Islamic tradition with Berber culture. This inspires the rise of the Almohad dynasty.

1121 - 1269

The Almohad dynasty of Berbers defeat the Almoravid dynasty, conquering the capital city of Marrakesh and taking over more of southern Spain.

1269 - 1548

The Marinid dynasty, also a confederation of Berber tribes, pushes out the Almohad dynasty and continues the jihad in Spain


The period from the early 15th century to the late 17th century has been characterized by historians as the Age of Exploration. The “great” empires of Europe – Spain, England, France, and Portugal – sent ships across the globe to discover new riches, whether that be gold, spices, or people to enslave. For the many peoples whose land the Europeans came to, however, the story was very different: it was most often a story of genocide, exploitation, and loss. For the Saharawis of Western Sahara, the arrival of the Portuguese and later the Spanish to their ancestral land at the end of the 15th century marked the beginning of a new era, one of both pain and struggle, and of growth and revolution.

15th - 16th centuries

First recorded arrivals of European expeditions in Western Sahara

Henry the Navigator of Portugal launches exploration initiatives along the West African coast in attempts to infiltrate the trade routes of the Muslim world.

The Spanish begin colonization of the Canary Islands as a stopover point for ships heading to the Americas.


Portuguese explorer Antam Goncalvez kidnaps two Berbers as slaves from Cap Blanc near contemporary Mauritania and Western Sahara. This is considered by many to be the start of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.


Construction of the first Spanish outpost in Western Sahara


Expeditions from the Canary Islands enter Western Sahara


The Dutch begin occupying the region of Rio del Oro, which would then fall under brief English occupation in 1665


The Dutch cede their territories to the French


The Moroccan Sultan Mohamed bin Abdullah and the Spanish King Carlos III sign the Marrakesh Treaty. In it the Sultan acknowledges he has no sovereignty beyond Wad Noun in southern Morocco or the region known as modern-day Western Sahara.


The Saharawis originally founded Smara as a resting place for travelers. It was the first precolonial town and an important centre of religious learning. Later, when Spain colonised it, Smara became a garrison town.


For years, before becoming the official colonial ruler of Western Sahara, Spanish forces attempted to control the major profitable trade routes running through the territory. Then in the late 19th century and beyond, after the European powers carved up the African continent for their own, Spain formalized its rule over the territory. The discovery of rich phosphate deposits in Western Sahara in the mid 20th century further incentivized the Spanish to continue their colonial project in the territory.

The Saharawis, who for so long had enjoyed the freedom to roam their land as they pleased, now found themselves restricted by a foreign power. Despite being under colonial rule, however, they continued to preserve much of their culture. But from the 50's onward, the Saharawis began to develop a sense of shared national identity which grew stronger over the years. This ultimately superseded their traditional tribal loyalties and led to the rise of the Saharawi liberation movement.


The European nations meet at the Berlin Conference to carve up and colonize the African continent. Spain claims Western Sahara as its own in 1884. Spanish Sahara is officially known as Spanish Possessions in the Sahara until 1958.


Spain finally pacifies the Saharawi tribes in the desert hinterland.


Spanish geologist Manuel El Yamdania discovers the existence of rich phosphate deposits in the region of Bu Craa near Al Aauin


Soon after gaining its independence from France, Morocco begins making its claims over Western Sahara, along with Mauritania and parts of Mali and Algeria, as part of his vision of a Greater Morocco. Initially promulgated by Allal Al-Fassi, leader of the Istiqlal party, Morocco justifies its claim by saying the territories were conquered by Moroccan Sultans in pre-colonial times


Spanish Sahara is officially declared as Spain's 53rd province


The United Nations General Assembly passes Resolution 1514 (XV) stating that all previously colonised territories have the right to self-determination.


Spain begins exploiting the phosphate mines in the region after studies confirm the presence of large quantities of the valuable mineral in Bu Craa. From there, Spain creates the National Company of Saharan Minerals, which leads to the growth of urban centres. Successive droughts in the desert compel many Saharawis to trade their nomadic lifestyles for urban ones to find work opportunities.


The UN GA adopts Resolution 2072, its first on Spanish Sahara, requesting Spain as the Administering Power to take immediate steps to decolonise the territory.


UN GA Resolution 2229 invites Spain to determine the earliest possible time to start the decolonisation process.

The Saharawis launch their first national liberation movement for independence known as Harakat Tahrir. It is led by Koranic teacher and journalist, Mohamed Bassiri


JUNE 17th:
The Harakat Tahrir is crushed by the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, at a big demonstration, which becomes known as the "Zemla Uprising". The peaceful protest demanding independence is violently broken up by Spanish Foreign Legion, who open fire and kill at least eleven people, and kidnap Bassiri. He is regarded as the first "disappeared" Saharawi. His fate remains unknown.


MAY 10th:
The Zemla massacre influences a group of Saharawi university students who form the Polisario Front, or el Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia del Hamra y Rio del Oro, believing national liberation from Spanish colonial rule can only be achieved by armed struggle. In a short space of time, the Polisario Front grows from a small vanguard force to a mass movement.

MAY 20th:
The Polisario launches its first armed
operation against the Spanish colonists in a confrontation known as the Kanga Battle.


The Polisario begins mobilising mass support through the diffusion of poems and songs as way to reach the largely illiterate Sahrawi population. By mid 1974 successive Polisario operations against colonial military sites pressure Spain to take steps to undertake a census of the Saharawi population in Spanish Sahara to prepare for a self-determination referendum under the
instructions of the UN.

The UN General Assembly passes Resolution 3292 urging Spain to postpone the referendum to allow the International Court of Justice to give its advisory opinion on the territorial claims of Morocco and Mauritania to Western Sahara


UN officials, chaired by Simeon Aké (pictured), visit Western Sahara to investigate the political situation in the Spanish Sahara and the conflicting claims to the territory. Their subsequent report reaffirmed overwhelming Saharawi aspirations for independence.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules in favor of Saharawi self-determination, rejecting Morocco's attempt to assert control over the territory

Morocco begins its military invasion of Western Sahara.

King Hassan II of Morocco orders the mobilisation of 350,000 Moroccan civilians into Western Sahara to reclaim "ancestral lands" in the Green March.

Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania sign the Madrid Accords, a secret tripartite agreement that gives Morocco the northern two-thirds of Spanish Sahara and Mauritania the southern third. The agreement also includes the provision that Spain maintains 35% of shares in the Bu Craa mining enterprise. Morocco and Mauritania invade Western Sahara and war breaks out in the region. The mass exodus of Saharawi refugees begins.


In early February, Moroccan planes bomb Saharawi civilians at Umm Dreiga fleeing the invasion to the desert with napalm and cluster bombs.

The last Spanish troops leave Western Sahara, officially signalling the end of Spain's rule


Upon Spanish withdrawal from the territory in 1976, the Saharawis became embroiled in a bitter fight with Morocco, during which thousands would be killed and thousands more displaced as refugees. Those 15 years symbolized extreme grief and pain for many Saharawis but also hope that one day their dream of returning to a free and independent homeland would be achieved. While that dream has not yet been made a reality, the grit and perseverance shown by the Saharawis and the role played by the women during this time have inspired generations to come.


The Saharawis self-proclaim the birth of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, a governing body to fill the political and legal void left in Western Sahara The main founding leader of the Polisario Front, Mustapha Sayyed El Ouali, is killed in battle against Mauritania at the age of 27.


Mauritania is militarily defeated and withdraws from Western Sahara and retracts its claims of sovereignty.

The UN GA passes Resolution 34/37, titled "Question of Western Sahara" which recognises the Polisario as the only legitimate representative of the Saharawi people.


Morocco begins construction on a 2,700 kilometer "defensive wall" known as the Berm. The wall, completed in 1987 is the longest defensive wall in the world and is covered in millions of landmines to deter anyone from crossing and defended by over 100,000 Moroccan soldiers.


Mauritania recognizes and establishes full diplomatic ties with the SADR. Other prominent nations like India and Nigeria follow suit, and at its height, the SADR gains the recognition of 84 different states. Morocco then invades and begins occupying the area previously controlled by Mauritania.
The UN condemns this illegal land grab by Morocco. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the African Union (AU), recognises the SADR and announces its entry into the organization as a full member.


During the period from 1991 to 2020, a cease-fire held in Western Sahara. Originally agreed to by both the Polisario and the Moroccan regime, it was meant to allow the UN to resolve the conflict by organising a referendum for Saharawi self-determination to vote for either integration with Morocco or independence.

Over the course of the next 29 years, this plan experienced repeated obstacles and postponements from the Moroccan side and revealed the failures of the UN and the lack of political will by the international community to oblige Morocco to adhere to its original agreement. After years of mounting frustration, numerous Moroccan cease-fire violations with impunity, and its hardening position against Saharawi self-determination, the Polisario finally lost faith in the UN process.


APRIL 29th:
Morocco and the Polisario reach a ceasefire with the help of the UN, pausing the 16 year-long conflict. With the ceasefire comes the creation of the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and the promise of a referendum. The Identification Commission (IDC) is set up to begin the process of identifying potential voters based on an updated 1974 Spanish census.

The ceasefire officially begins.


The referendum, originally set for this month, is repeatedly postponed due to Moroccan obstacles and demands that Moroccan settlers should be counted amongst the eligible voters.


MARCH 17th:
Former-US Secretary of State, James Baker, is appointed as the UN Secretary General's Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. Hopes run high that as a diplomatic heavy weight he will be able to overcome the stalemate and get both parties to overcome their differences to resolve the conflict peacefully.


The IDC finishes its evaluation and releases its list of provisional voters, naming 86,425 Saharawis as eligible voters. Morocco rejects this list and insists that over 100,000 more are eligble to vote.

JUNE 20th:
James Baker proposes a plan to give the Saharawis a chance to vote for limited autonomy rather than a referendum for full independence. The Polisario rejects this proposal as it would still legitimize Morocco’s hold on the territory.


Morocco illegally creates a breach in the wall to enable overland commerce from occupied Western Sahara to West Africa through Mauritania. Despite this being a clear violation of the cease-fire, the UN does not take any action against Morocco.


Baker introduces a second plan that would allow for a referendum in 4-5 years time. The Polisario, the Algerian government, and the UN Security Council all accept this proposal, but Morocco rejects it, fearing that the referendum would result in Saharawi independence.


MARCH 30th:
The IDC formally completes its assessment of voters.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes its report on Western Sahara, in which it clearly acknowledges the pattern of human rights abuses by the Moroccan government. It relates this as part of the larger problem stemming from the denial of the the Saharawi right to exercise self-determination. The report is blocked from becoming public.


APRIL 11th:
Morocco releases the “Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region,” outlining its hardening stance against Saharawi self-determination.

JUNE 18-19th:
The Polisario and the Moroccan government have their first face-to-face meeting since 2000. At the negotiations in Manhasset, New York, the Polisario expresses its willingness to compromise with Morocco’s autonomy plan, but only if it still allows for a referendum on self-determination and potentially independence. Moroccan representatives then declare the government is only willing to allow self-determination based on autonomy.

AUGUST 10-11th:
The second round of negotiations
commences. The possibility of allowing Saharawi refugees living in southwestern Algeria to see their family members in occupied Western Sahara is one of the main points of discussion.The report is blocked from becoming public.


Baker introduces a second plan that would allow for a referendum in 4-5 years time. The Polisario, the Algerian government, and the UN Security Council all accept this proposal, but Morocco rejects it, fearing that the referendum would result in Saharawi independence.


Human Rights Watch and the US Department of State both release reports affirming that Saharawi activists and supporters that are pro self-determination face harassment and violence from the Moroccan occupying forces.


APRIL 30th:
The Security Council renews MINURSO’s mandate in Western Sahara until April 30th, 2011. From there, MINURSO would be renewed many more times through today.


The UN Secretary-General identifies the Guerguerat crossing as an area of concern in his Report. Considered part of the UN demilitarized buffer zone, Guergerat, a city in southern Western Sahara through which the road to Mauritania runs, became a site of tension as Saharawis protesting the
exploitation of their homeland’s natural
resources clashed with Moroccan border officials.

Saharawi civilians continue to protest along the Guerguerat crossing and build a number of roadblocks. MINURSO observers report the protests as being peaceful.

MINURSO reports the presence of 12 armed Polisario personnel at the Guerguerat crossing alongside civilian protestors. Later, 16 Royal Moroccan Army vehicles bearing “heavy-duty, earth-moving machinery” are spotted heading to Guerguerat and creating a second breach in the wall.


The tentative peace between the Polisario and the Moroccan government shattered in November 2020. Fatigued by years of broken promises from the UN and the international community, the Saharawis under the Polisario decided to take matters into their own hands and resume armed struggle to reclaim their rights and homeland. While it is unknown how this phase of the conflict will unfold, it is clear that even after decades of oppression the Saharawis are not quick to give up on their belief in their right to self-determination and will continue to stand firm in the face of injustice.


The Polisario and the Royal Moroccan Army forces exchange fire in Guerguerat, but there are no casualties.

Polisario leader Brahim Ghali announces the end to the ceasefire, citing the infringement of Moroccan troops into the buffer zone as the reason behind the resumption of hostilities.

Former President of the United States, Donald Trump, announces that the US will formally recognize Morocco's claim over Western Sahara in exchange for embracing full diplomatic ties with Israel


Current-President Joseph Biden officially enters office. Since his inauguration, Biden has failed to reverse Trump’s decision on Western Sahara and has even continued his policies in support of Morocco, despite claiming to support international law and human rights.

The Permanent Representative of Morocco to the UN states that all armed conflict has subsided in the territory, despite the Polisario indicating differently.

2021 continued

MARCH 2nd:
The German government, while in support of normalization between Israel and Morocco, criticizes Trump’s decision to abruptly recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. In retaliation, Morocco severs diplomatic ties with Germany.

MARCH 9th:
The Peace and Security Council of the African Union holds its annual meeting and publishes a statement on the deteriorating situation in Western Sahara. The Council calls on the UN to recommit to guiding negotiations and calls on both sides to cease hostilities.

AUGUST 24th:
In protest of the Moroccan government’s treatment of the Saharawis and its failure to end the conflict by allowing for a referendum,
Algeria announces it is cutting off all diplomatic ties with Morocco.

2021 continued

Staffan de Mistura of Italy is appointed as the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara in an effort to reignite

The Security Council issues Resolution 2602, renewing MINURSO’s mandate for another year.

On the 46th anniversary of the Green March, King Mohamed VI of Morocco declares that “Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara will never be up for negotiation.”


Personal Envoy Mistura makes his first visit to the refugee camps in Tindouf and also meets with Moroccan officials in Rabat to get negotiations restarted.

Morocco and Germany restore diplomatic relations. German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then invites King Mohamed VI to visit Berlin.
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