The Barber and the mobile museum

Western Sahara’s forgotten colonial history is hidden in an old, dusty computer bag in Algeria

"The Barber and the mobile museum". It almost sounds like the title of a modern H.C. Andersen fairy tale. It's not, as far as I know, but this story still has something adventurous about it. It is a tale of a hero with a mission, an almost insurmountable opponent who sits firmly on his throne, a true treasure and a race against time.

Lud-Mulay has a white scarf around his head and carries a dusty, black computer bag in his hand, which he swings lazily as we trudge through the sand of the sand-colored city. In the bag he hides a piece of testimony about a people and its history. A people displaced in a merciless desert. A people with traditions, music and visions. A people with a story to tell before it’s too late.

Refugee in a sandblasted desert

Lud-Mulay is a Sahrawi and lives in the Smara camp as a refugee in Algeria. He came to the area as a child in 1975, when he and his family and thousands of other Sahrawis fled northeast through the ruthless desert of the Sahara on a life-threatening escape from the Moroccan air force, its cluster and napalm bombs and white phosphorus. He is now a grown man with family, his own barber shop and sandblasted wrinkles on his face. And he has a mission.

We meet him on a hot afternoon in his salon at the market in Smara. It is in the middle of the day and too hot for customers to come by. He closes his shop, finds his computer bag behind an improvised curtain and we go out in the camp to find someone who can master both English and Arabic and act as a translator for us. We find one and settle down with a glass of sweet tea. Lud-Mulay opens his bag and a story begins to unfold before us.

The barber collects photographs and has collected piles of them in his house. Images from the intifada, the Sahrawi uprising, in Spanish Western Sahara, the name of Western Sahara under Spanish colonial rule, in 1970 and onwards. Many of them are faded and gray. Others are overexposed and some are mostly shades of ocher. What the pictures have in common is that they tell the story of the Sahrawi struggle for freedom against first the Spanish colonial power and then against Mauritania and the Moroccan kingdom.

The Sahrawis are the indigenous people of Western Sahara. A country that to this day is the last colony of Africa and still occupied by Morocco. In addition to the narrative of the struggle for freedom, the old photographs also express loss, disaster, human misfortune, genocide and a people’s experience of being uprooted.

A painful memory

In the dusty computer bag, he finds the old photographs and lays them out on the carpet we are sitting on. Here are images from the city of Laayoune dating back to the time under Spanish colonial rule and of Sahrawi guerrilla fighters under the fluttering flags of the liberation movement Polisario. Polisario was formed in 1973 as a Sahrawi resistance movement against colonial power, then called Spain in light of the UN demands for the decolonization of the colonies at that time.

The barber takes a picture of the Spanish dictator, Franco, posing with the Moroccan king, Hassan II, and the Mauritanian president, Moktar Ould Daddah, and tells how Spain in 1975 entered into a trade with the other two countries that led to the fact that Morocco invaded the northern half of Western Sahara and Mauritania the south when Spain withdrew. At the instigation of Hassan II, 350,000 Moroccans marched into Western Sahara in what is known as the Green March.

It happened on November 6, 1975 and is celebrated today by the official Morocco as a historical and cultural anniversary, but stands at the same time for the Sahrawis as a painful memory. A nakba, a disaster. Mauritania abandoned the annexation of Western Sahara in 1979, after which Morocco claimed the entire territory.

A war between Morocco and the Polisario continued until the UN negotiated a ceasefire in 1991. This is the first time I see images of the Sahrawis fleeing through the desert to the east in safety from Moroccan forces. Guerrilla warriors pose with old rifles. Families with children, camels, goats and the most essential belongings wandered through the sand into the unknown for many days without being able to find shelter from the constant threat from the Moroccan air force from above.

Many Sahrawis managed to take refuge on the other side of the Algerian border, but others did not, and the memory of them and the escape lives on in the camps today. Among the older part of the population as a concrete memory and among the youth as part of their Sahrawi identity and family history. Everyone has experienced losses.

I find this incomprehensible. Why have I not seen these pictures before? Lud-Mulay points with a harsh and serious expression on his face at the bombs and the hard military equipment that the Sahrawis took from the Moroccan army. He repeats the word “genocide”.

Thin children with no clothes on walk around on the black-and-white photographs outside wind-blown, improvised tents made from women’s melfas. These are the tents that would later become the camp we are in right now. Back then, there was absolutely nothing here.

I stare at a faded photograph showing a family father tapping water from one of the first water posts built of large metal barrels placed on top of each other. “Five liters of water per day for every family”, the barber says, “back then we did not have camps like the ones we have today. Tents were scattered around here and there with up to four families in each”.

The hero with the treasure

Lud-Mulay has a desire to open a library. It is a desire that burns as intensely as the sand under his feet. First and foremost, more people would thus have access to the exhibited images that would adorn walls, drawers and folders in such a place, and the thousands of Sahrawis living in Smara and the five other refugee camps in the area would have the opportunity to experience their people’s and family’s history through photos. Lud-Mulay emphasizes the importance of strengthening the narrative and awareness of the story internally within the Sahrawi community.

In particular, he believes it is important for the young people in the camps to know where they come from and what has shaped their young lives. He himself is from a generation with an experience and bodily memory of the flight from the Moroccan planes and the first time when the Sahrawis settled in the middle of nowhere with the few belongings they had with them on the backs of their own or their camels. The young, on the other hand, grow up without having experienced the escape on their own body, and the collective trauma changes its form from generation to generation.

Secondly, the historical collection could also be more secure in a library or museum. As he sits there pointing and telling, I sit and think for myself that the photographs will soon fade completely away in their plastic pockets and on the checkered paper they are clipped onto.

In this cool room, where a beam of the harsh sun of the afternoon sneaks in through a small window and a curtain lazily swings in the quiet wind in the door – it strikes me that we are in the middle of a hectic race against time, and it suddenly renders me completely breathless.

Both because the photographs fade and with them also the history of the Sahrawis, and because Morocco is doing everything to oppose the referendum on independence, the Sahrawis were promised as a condition for the ceasefire back in 1991. The longer time passes, the more normal the status quo appears, the better Morocco’s position will be, and all the more so has the international community forgotten that there was a process of decolonization that never took place and a people that never got peace.

The photographs fade, and so does the story of the Sahrawis if it is not being told. In Morocco, a completely different story is being told.

On the surface, the conflict over Western Sahara looks like a conflict between two parties: Morocco and the Front Polisario. But a solution to the conflict is, in its essence, an international problem. Officially, the UN is still working for a referendum to determine the status of the area, but support for it depends on the international community’s support or lack of the same for the two parties. Without strategic alliances, trade agreements or political goodwill, Morocco will not be able to maintain its occupation of Western Sahara.

Whoever is dominating the story of Western Sahara and the Sahrawis is defining reality and can decide what the situation in the area will look like in the future and who will control it. Therefore, there is a fierce battle for facts and narratives between the Sahrawis and Morocco in the media and the international community.

Due to the UN-negotiated ceasefire in 1991, the war between them is no longer waged with tanks and bombs, but has changed its form. The barber’s mobile museum seems insignificantly small compared to the large state apparatus on the other side of the border to the west, which is thundering forward with its version of history woven into migration agreements with the EU, trade agreements and other strategic political alliances.

The photographs fade even more in the light of the Moroccan royal state council, CORCAS, which aims to spread Moroccan culture in the southern provinces in order to “defend the kingdom’s territorial integrity and national unity”. They fade in the light of the army of thousands of Moroccans employed as “internet trolls” to spread misinformation and fake news and attack critical voices on the internet, whether the voices come from Sahrawis, Spaniards or Danes.

The resourceful Moroccan diplomacy also causes the yellowed photographs to fade even more under the stubborn desert sun. This applies, among other things, when the Moroccan ambassador to Denmark is allowed to present exclusively behind closed doors before the Danish Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee.

When Lud-Mulay sits here and draws and tells with an eager voice and a pen that moves hectically across the paper, and draws maps and arrows and people that move, all the while all these old photographs are scattered on the carpet around us, I get a wild feeling of sitting with something big and unique around me. Something that absolutely must be taken care of. A treasure worth more than the eye can see. A treasure that must not end up in the wrong hands. A treasure that a hero has dedicated his life to protecting.