Tanks of the SPLA (Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army) during a military parade in the desert. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A territory about the size of the United Kingdom that stretches out along the Atlantic Ocean between Morocco and Mauritania, Western Sahara is technically the last African colony — it never gained its independence when Spain decamped in 1975. The territory is divided in half by a 1,600-mile sand wall and surrounded by some 9 million land mines.

Western Sahara is the native land of Sahrawis, or “People of the desert,” in northern Africa. The Moroccan government has moved some 300,000 settlers into these territories, and this triggered a 16-year war between Rabat (the capital of Morocco) and the Polisario Front Sahrawi independence movement (also called the SPLA, or Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army). The war, which forced more than 150,000 Sahrawis into exile across the border in Algerian refugee camps, formally ended in 1991, but the Polisario Front has threatened to resume fighting over the last decade. Next year will mark 40 years of forced exile for the Sahrawis.

In November 2014 photojournalist Tomaso Clavarino began documenting the Western Sahara military bases and cadets in the SPLA who are fighting for Sahrawi independence in what he describes as one of the “world’s least reported crises.”

“The Polisario Front is now ready to take up arms again as the international community and the UN mission MINURSO [the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara] have been unable to solve the crisis in 40 years,” Clavarino says. “Sahrawis have been in exile since 1975, when it was annexed by Morocco, and since 1991 MINURSO has been working in Western Sahara to organize a ‘negotiated political solution’ for the independence of this region.”

Clavarino had access to the military bases in Western Sahara, the counterterrorism patrols in the desert, military exercises and parades. He spoke with Polisario Front ministers and army commanders and with activists who fled Morocco and the occupied territories, where there was daily violence against the Sahrawis. Clavarino visited the refugee camps and saw the difficulties of living for 40 years in tents and makeshift houses and relying on humanitarian aid that, with the growth of the terrorist threat in the region in the last three years, has decreased by nearly 70 percent.


A view of the Smara, one of the Sahrawi refugees camps in southern Algeria. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A girl during a rally for the independence of Western Sahara. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A man stands next to his broken car in Rabouni refugee camp in Algeria. (Tomaso Clavarino)

Cadets pose during a parade near a camp in southern Algeria. (Tomasos Clavarino)

An SPLA soldier carries a flag on an army pickup truck. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A SPLA soldier rests with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) flag. (Tomaso Clavarino)

Military exercise in the desert. (Tomaso Clavarino)

Woman looking for clothes to buy in a makeshift shop in Smara refugee camp in Algeria. (Tomaso Clavarino)

Cadets of the SPLA. (Tomaso Clavarino)

Soldiers particpate in a counterterrorism night patrol in Western Sahara’s desert near Bir Lehlu. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A member of the SPLA rests during a sand storm near Tifariti in northeastern Western Sahara. (Tomaso Clavarino)

A girl rallies for independence during a parade. (Tomaso Clavarino)