PHOTO ESSAY: When a border is a way of life
This photo essay was the winner of the global photo contest by the Eur-Asian Border Lab for 2023, exploring the conceptual, formal, and metaphoric implications of borders and bordering
Ariel Sophia Bardi, based in Rome, Italy
Independent writer, photographer, and researcher (Ph.D. Yale University)
In the fall of 1975, several hundred thousand Moroccans crossed the border on foot into Western Sahara—the former Spanish colony then known as Spanish Sahara. King Hassan II had just appeared on radio and TV sets across the country. He announced that the phosphate-rich coastal land was an integral part of Morocco’s history and geography. The Green March, as the procession became known, was the first step toward the annexation of Western Sahara in the wake of Spanish decolonization.
When war broke out not long after, Sahrawis from Western Sahara fled across the border into Algeria. Men battled Moroccan forces on the front line while women set up makeshift refugee camps, draping their shawls to make tents. Western Sahara fell under Moroccan occupation, save for a sliver of the territory, which belongs to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front—the Sahrawi liberation movement’s government-in-exile—and promised a referendum. The referendum never came.
Deep in the Algerian desert, at the edge of the Moroccan and Mauritanian borders, Sahrawis still live in the same five camps established in the mid-1970s. In 2021, war with Morocco flared again. In tents and concrete and mudbrick homes, Sahrawi households struggle to keep cultural traditions alive, follow news from the front line, battle a harsh desert environment, and contend with forced sedentarization—a challenge for a community proud of its nomadic and border-crossing roots. But mostly, they wait, navigating a geography of dislocation and displacement belied by the endless tree-less terrain. After several generations, it still feels ephemeral. Being bordered-in has nonetheless become a way of life.
Click on the images to read descriptive captions.