TIME On Our Radar

A Photographer Turns Real-Life Soldiers Into Toys

Simon Brann Thorpe chose a different approach to document a 40-year-long conflict

For 40 years, a little-known conflict has opposed a group of separatists, called the Polisario Front, to the government of Morocco in Western Sahara. Generations of refugees have been forced out of the region, and yet, the world has taken little notice. For photographer Simon Brann Thorpe, this had to change. But he didn’t want to take usual photographs of conflicts. Instead, he collaborated with one of the Polisario Front’s military commanders to create a body of work that goes beyond documentary. He transformed real life soldiers into toy soldiers to examine the true impact of the war’s stalemate. He speaks to TIME LightBox.

Olivier Laurent: Why did you want to do something about the conflict in Western Sahara?

Simon Brann Thorpe: In 2004, I did a project about landmine victims there. It was my first project to try to bring awareness to the issue of landmines, which are as invisible in the area as the conflict itself–both physically and metaphorically. That was what introduced me to the bizarre, absurd nature of the conflict and how and why it’s remained invisible for so long. Fairly soon after that, I knew I wanted to go back. But I didn’t want to cover the conflict with traditional reportage, as that’s not my background or genre. The overriding question was why has this conflict in Western Sahara remained so utterly invisible for 40 years? I then attempted to imagine the emotional and physical manifestations of being trapped, powerless, in a perpetually unresolved cycle of postcolonial conflict. The concept of Toy Soldiers came to me out of this cycle of thought and it just seemed to fit perfectly with the situation on the ground as well as allowing for people in the West to have an emotional, physical and nostalgic response to a completely foreign reality, triggered by a familiar symbol of their own childhood and culture.

Olivier Laurent: Doesn’t this particular approach, where soldiers become toy soldiers, create an uniformity and a loss of identity of the individual soldiers?

Simon Brann Thorpe: War creates loss of identity (not just of the individual but also, in this case, of nation) and therefore it was one of the key narratives I wanted to communicate through the project’s concept: a reality reconstructed, placed onto a conflict that is almost utterly invisible.

Olivier Laurent: How did you find this commander and convince him to collaborate on this project?

Simon Brann Thorpe: I met the commander through the Polisario representatives in London and through contacts in the refugee camps made during my first visit there in 2004. He’s a refugee like all the other Sahrawis divided by the conflict, and the commander of a particular region known as “Liberated Western Sahara”. I think the most important thing for him was my credibility as an artist and in what the project was trying to achieve, and then on a secondary note, that he completely related to the concept through his own experience. As custodians of this little stretch of land, their existence within this conflict without end and at the mercy of other people’s decision-making is something that resonated through the concept that is a narrative on a powerless state of being.

Olivier Laurent: How did the collaboration work? Were the soldiers happy to take part in this? What was their state of mind?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The collaboration was set a long time before the image production began and took many forms, the first of which was the location scout which took place over a year ahead of the main production. Then we had to produce the bases [for the soldiers] to stand on. I wanted to have the soldiers physically act out that stance on the base rather than to add it in post-production because that enactment was an essential part of the project and concept. So we made them out of old oil drums, which we covered in paint and in sand until they were ready to be carted around to each location. The soldiers would carry them in the heat and cut their fingers on them. It was an interesting experience and one that I’ll never forget in terms of the willing participation of the soldiers in this project. It was amazing and very humbling.

Olivier Laurent: How important was that collaboration for you?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The collaboration was everything to the project! Without it, it would not have happened or it would have had a completely different feeling, resonance and credibility.

Olivier Laurent: There are three different sets of images in your work – two that focus on the toy nature of these soldiers, and one that are close-up portraits of them. Why that last set?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The portraits were an essential element to the project because at the center of this conflict — like all conflicts — you have the humanity, the vulnerability that is the human flesh. It also personified the project and added an essential human element that negates the objectification that is the association to plastic toy soldiers. A key element in the narrative of the project is around our objectification and desensitization to war through entertainment. To counter that, the portraits show the human at the centre of war and conflict, their eyes closed emphasizing their human vulnerability and loss of identity.

Olivier Laurent: In the end, the book brings together fact and fiction. Do you think this approach is helpful in bringing attention to stories that might not, otherwise, interest the public? Is it an approach you would like to see used more widely in documentary photography?

Simon Brann Thorpe: Toy Soldiers is an attempt at a new dialogue on war and conflict, a dialogue whose narrative asks many questions of how images of war are digested and consumed. Especially now in the digital age, which is ravenous for content but short on attention spans. What are the consequences of ubiquitous images of suffering? Do they desensitize an audience? And what makes one conflict more “newsworthy” than another? What the reaction to Toy Soldiers has shown me is that actually a conflict that mainstream media has overlooked or ignored, for whatever reason, actually can have huge resonance with people all over the world when looked at from a different angle.

Simon Brann Thorpe‘s photobook Toy Soldiers is published by Dewi Lewis and available now.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME Western Sahara

There’s a New Terrorist Threat Emerging in Western Sahara, and the World Isn’t Paying Attention

A man flashes a v-sign as soldiers from
Dominique Faget—AFP/Getty Images A man flashes a V sign as soldiers from the proindependence Polisario Front parade during a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of the proclamation of independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the Western Saharan village of Tifariti on Feb. 27, 2011

For 39 years, exiled Sahrawis have watched their homeland being stripped of its resources with the West's complicity. Now, they could feed into the latest wave of Islamic extremism in North Africa

When the Sahrawi refugees of North Africa drink tea, they make each successive cup sweeter than the last. The first cup, they explain, is bitter like life, the second sweet like love. The third one is sweeter still, they say — like death.

If that’s a rather mournful thing to say about the simple pleasure of drinking a warm beverage, it’s because these refugees are a mournful people. They are former soldiers, or the children of former soldiers, from one of the world’s forgotten conflicts: the Western Sahara war. For decades, about 100,000 of them have languished in camps for the displaced, waiting to fight anew in a struggle that never picks up, and killing nothing more besides time.

North Africa has become ever more volatile since the Arab Spring, run through by militant Islamist outfits and Latin American drug cartels. The Algerian group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has established footholds in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, and recently staged its deadliest attack in Tunisia. Ansar al-Sharia has filled the power vacuum in several parts of Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall, and Morocco has, in recent weeks, raised its security alert because of the fear that terrorist fighters will return from Syria and Iraq. Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are extending their reach from the west and the east. And on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an annual $110 million investment to counteract the increasing terrorist threat across the African continent.

Stuck in the middle of this vortex are the Sahrawis. The next lot of extremists could easily arise among them.

A territory about the size of the U.K. stretched out along the Atlantic, between Morocco and Mauritania, Western Sahara is often called “Africa’s last colony,” since it never gained independence when Spain decamped in 1975 — 91 years after seizing it in 1884. Instead, Morocco invaded and fought a 16-year-long war against a Sahrawi army of independence, known as the Polisario Front. When the war ended, the Sahrawis were left with the arid easternmost part of the territory, and half of the population fled to six refugee camps on the Algerian side of the border. Morocco took territory along the seaboard. To defend it, the Moroccans built a fortified barricade half the length of China’s Great Wall, and laid before it an estimated 9 million mines.

The U.N. called for a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis in 1991, but since Morocco had moved in hundreds of thousands of its nationals into its part of Western Sahara, the sides couldn’t agree on the electoral rolls. The Sahrawis have since rejected an offer of autonomy within the Moroccan nation and remain keen for the U.N.-backed poll.

Morocco has meanwhile consolidated power over the territory it occupies, while the Sahrawis nurture the embryo of their would-be state — the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) — among the refugee camps in Algeria. SADR is currently recognized by 46 nations — its most vocal supporter being Algeria, which has a long-standing enmity against Morocco — and is a full member of the African Union. But because of strong Western support for Morocco — it is seen as the most stable state in the area and a bulwark against terrorism — the dream of an independent homeland seems ever more like a mirage.

That has bred a good deal of resentment. In 2012, three Spanish aid workers were abducted in the camps, and over the following year several dozen Sahrawis were reported to have taken part in the militant Islamist advances in Mali. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of the risk that: “fighting in Mali could spill over into the neighboring countries and contribute to radicalizing the Western Saharan refugee camps.”

J. Peter Pham, director of the Washington, D.C.–based think tank Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, believes that is already happened. “The disconcerting fact is that because these camps are closed, there needs to be at least tacit approval on the part of those responsible to permit infiltration and exfiltration,” he tells TIME. “Whether that’s because of policy or corruption, I don’t know.”

In October 2012, Polisario reportedly set up a counterterrorism squad to protect the camps, but Pham views this initiative with skepticism. “In a way, it’s like breeding vermin and then setting up pest control,” he says. “The ongoing maintenance of a phantom state that will never exist creates the climate for extremism.”

According to Pham, Polisario should accept the offer of autonomy, because an independent state would not be viable. “The last thing Africa needs is another failed state, and that’s exactly what Western Sahara would become if Morocco left,” he says. “There are no real natural resources which can be commercially exploited, it would never be viable by itself. An independent Western Sahara would be an even bigger breeding ground for terrorists.”

That, of course, is not how the Sahrawis or their supporters see it. There is a possibility of offshore oil, and phosphates, fish and arable land are already being exploited in the occupied territory in violation of international law — and with Western connivance. In 2011, a major fishing agreement between Morocco and the European Union was scrapped, partly because fishing in Western Saharan waters was thought controversial, but in December 2013 it was surprisingly renewed. The new agreement talks about benefits to the “local population,” but makes no specific mention of the Sahrawis.

“The E.U.’s interpretation of the legal opinion is preposterous,” Hans Corell, former legal counsel of the U.N. and the author of its legal opinion on Western Sahara’s resources, tells TIME. “It is utterly embarrassing that the international community has been unable to solve this conflict. Since Morocco is able to capitalize in Western Sahara, there will be no incentive at all to change the situation.”

Neither are the E.U. or the U.N. providing any mechanism for humanitarian monitoring in the territory. The U.N. has had a peacekeeping force in Western Sahara since 1991, but it’s the only such operation in the world lacking a mandate to monitor human rights, because of an annual French veto in the Security Council. Isabella Lovin is one of several members of the European Parliament who have tried both officially and unofficially to enter Western Sahara to take soundings among the Sahrawis, but she’s been both denied and deported.

“If neither the U.N. nor the E.U. are allowed to monitor in Western Sahara, how can human rights ever be guaranteed?” Lovin asks.

Protests are commonplace in the occupied territory, but they are invariably broken up by police, since any questioning of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara is punishable with prison terms. Activists are commonly prosecuted on trumped-up charges such as assaulting a policeman or planning riots. The binding evidence is often a written testimony, supposedly made by the defendant during extended pretrial detention without access to legal counsel. Because of the lack of monitoring, it is often impossible to tell whether these statements are true, false or coerced.

“These trials are the most blatant violations of human rights and end up in people being locked up for years,” Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, tells TIME. “Police beating demonstrators, however, is a weekly ritual.”

Some rights activists worry that the protests, beatings and trials will escalate now, as oil companies off the Western Saharan coast intensify their exploration. In 2005, Norway’s Government Pension Fund, the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund, started divesting in Kerr-McGee, because their operations in Western Sahara constituted an “unacceptable risk for contributing to other particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms.” However, Kerr-McGee’s American partners Kosmos Energy, continued the enterprise.

Currently, Kosmos Energy has a drilling ship on its way to the region. Mohamed Alouat is one of many Sahrawis who have protested against Kosmos’ plans. A video from June 10 purportedly shows him taking to the streets with a poster that says the oil is Sahrawi, before a policeman assaults him with a razor blade.

“They beat my mother so she fainted,” Alouat says. “This all happened to me now because I held a poster against Kosmos. Where are our rights?”

Even though it is still some way from actual oil production, Kosmos Energy has gone out of its way to publicly promise that “local populations” will benefit from any discovery. “We believe that economic development of the territory can and should proceed in parallel with the U.N. mediation process,” a Kosmos spokesperson tells TIME. “In fact, some experts believe a discovery may be the catalyst to lead a resolution of the conflict.” The energy company adds that it is in the process of engaging with a range of local stakeholders, “including Sahrawis.”

Erik Hagen, chair of Western Sahara Resource Watch, disagrees.

“If oil is struck, the Sahrawi future is forever ruined,” he says. “Morocco is the only country in the region that doesn’t produce oil, it is completely unthinkable that they would seek a solution with the Sahrawi if they make a discovery.”

That, of course, would only stoke frustration in the refugee camps. “Militant groups are operating in the camps and their influence is growing,” says the Atlantic Council’s Pham. That could make Africa’s last colony its newest terrorist hotbed.

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