Scores of people including actors, artists and journalists attended the private view in Stoke Newington on Thursday for a photo exhibition which was described recently by Monty Python, Michael Palin as "a tribute of the spirit of hope over adversity." The exhibition which shows images from the refugee camps in the Sahara, home to over 100,000 people from Western Sahara forced from their homes in on of the world's longest conflicts runs for two weeks. “I visited the camps on my Sahara series and was hugely impressed by the indomitable resilience of the Saharawi people" said Palin when he attended the opening of the exhibition in Hampstead in August together with fellow Python, Terry Jones. The private view included a short film show and a panel discussion with human rights campaigner Danielle Smith, photographer Robert Griffin and exiled politician Lamine Baali.
The exhibition - Thirst of the Dunes - which is touring the country displays images by photographers Robert Griffin and Stefan Simanowitz who spent time in the refugee camps in the desert felt a responsiblity to raise awareness of the abject situation facing the Saharawis who have lived in exile in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert for over three decades. Known as 'Africa's last colony' Western Sahara, was given to Morocco by the Spanish when they withdrew in 1976. A 16 year war followed and a 19 year ceasefire, but the Saharawi's displaced by the occupation have never been able to return home.
"I only learned about the the plight of the Saharawi people relatively recently. It is a situation that is hard to ignore, although the international community seems to have no difficulty in doing so" says Griffin, "The refugees in the camps have nothing. They are entirely dependent on external supplies of food and water and face standstorms and temperatures of 120 degrees – but what makes their lives even worse is that no one knows they are even there.”
Through his photographs Griffin attempts to capture a sense of the lives of the Saharawi and their environment. Griffin says:
"Despite living in such harsh circumstances they have not lost their sense of humanity, optimism, hope or humour - it was truly a humbling privilege to meet them - and I hope that through my photos I've captured something of their spirit, generosity and quiet dignity. They have nothing yet they give everything."
Stefan Simanowitz who has reported on the situation in the Western Sahara for publications including the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, New Statesman and the Lancet believes that the fact that we in Britain benefit from the exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources makes it incumbent on us to do something to help resolve the conflict. Whilst in the camps he interviewed many of the refugees and their words accompany the photographs. "Each of their stories of those people photographed here is different but each speaks eloquently to the same urgent need. The need to find a political solution crisis in Western Sahara. But a political solution to this problem is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians. It is up to us all to make their voices heard and demand that our government exert diplomatic and political pressure on those who are ignoring the requirements laid out under international law and blocking a referendum of self-determination in Western Sahara.As Martin Luther king said 'the arc of history may be long but it bends inevitably towards justice'. There is little doubt that the people of Western Sahara have both the tide of history and the force of justice on their side."
"I found the exhibition deeply moving" said West End actor, Nicholas Cass-Beggs who attended the private view. "I did not know much about the situation in Western Sahara before tonight but I would like to find out more.
The exhibition – Thirst of the Dunes - will take place in Open the Gate, 35 Stoke Newington Rd, London N16 8BJ - 6pm, 4th November - 17th November 2010.
The exhibition has been organised by the Free Western Sahara Network and the Western Sahara Campaign UK
For more information visit www.freesahara.ning.com