Guest contribution by Sabiha Mahmoud
My latest journey began in Morocco. Despite the hustle and bustle of the region’s strong tourism industry, within its fabric lie many layers of poverty. The orphanage I visited in Agadir, a major Moroccan city, seemed well funded. But a plane journey across to La’ayoune, also known as El-Aaiún, in the Western Sahara revealed a stark difference. The Western Sahara already faces occupation and more and more of its people are becoming displaced from it. I wanted to make certain I documented as much as I could, and orphans always remained sore point. The abandonment and neglect from a place that is already being forgotten or erased is a story that needed to be told.
An orphan from the girls quarters points me in the right direction of where I could catch a taxi back to the main city in La’ayoune.
Left: A shy orphan who did not speak much except to mention his dream of becoming a footballer one day. Right: A child from Mali bears two scars on his forehead like a cross. The scars tell a heartbreaking story. Children in Mali are recruited as child soldiers. His family managed to get him to safety but they were killed. He was brought to the orphanage.
The conditions inside an orphanage in the occupied city of La’ayoune are very much like a prison. I have photographed inmates in their cells before and this mirrored it: tiled walls and concrete floors, with a thin mattress on each bed. This image is of the boys quarter. Sixteen boys sleep in the same cold room. The only light that enters the room comes from few openings in the wall. There is no heating.
Left: A teddy bear sits on top of the poste incende, the emergency fire box. Right: There is usually one person in any given group that keeps morale and spirits high. This child is the one. He wears his school uniform proudly and the very fact he has to struggle to get to his school such a long way away from the orphanage is a lesson for us all to appreciate the education we are fortunate to receive.
Above everything else I have witnessed, this strikes me the most. Here, orphans are not dignified with names on their lockers. They are known by numbers. Casualties of injustice often have their names forgotten or stripped away and are reduced to numbers. Is human life of such little value?
Baby Rashid, seemingly in well health, but far from it. He has a vitamin D deficiency and prefers to stay in his cot swinging side to side. These adjoining metal, rusty cots make up the entire perimeter of the room. A large rug lies in the middle.
Left: Of the orphanage’s sixteen lockers, one had a padlock placed in front of a bag filled with clothing, almost like a marking of some kind, a tombstone at a grave before the body. It was quite symbolic. I later learned his parents were on their way to collect his belongings because the boy had passed away. He had been placed in the orphanage because his family was too poor to look after his needs. The orphanage provided at the very least a roof over his head. When the boy’s parent’s arrived, they announced that his belongings would be sold to provide food for the rest of the family until the end of the week. Right: Children are constantly seen cleaning staircases. When I turn a corner with my camera, the children drop their mops, buckets, and cloths and run to the nearest door.
Sabiha Mahmoud is a British photojournalist working both for the press and freelancing on the side to tell untold stories from across the globe. She blogs at Life Through The Camera Lens.