By Teresa Larraz Mora
MADRID (Reuters) - Astonished by squalid conditions he saw when he first travelled to Saharawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria four years ago, Spanish actor Javier Bardem has told the story of the former Spanish colony in Northern Africa in a new documentary.
"Sons of the Clouds", which screened at the Berlin film festival in January and premiered this weekend in Spain, was produced by and stars Bardem, who won an Oscar for his role as a stoic hitman in the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men."
"(The documentary) was born out of necessity to help these people," Bardem, 43, said last week on Spanish radio.
The plight of the Saharawi, former residents of Western Sahara who now live in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, is one of the world's forgotten conflicts.
But it is a cause close to the hearts of many Spaniards, who take hundreds of Saharawi children into their homes every year over the summer holidays and organize a yearly film festival in the refugee camps.
"Sons of the Clouds" features more than 70 interviews with experts, politicians and analysts who try to explain the situation in Western Sahara which, as a Spanish province in the 1960s, guaranteed Spanish nationality to its inhabitants.
"We want people to draw their own conclusions", Bardem said.
Western Sahara, bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean, was a Spanish colony until November 1975 before Morocco annexed it and sent more than 300,000 civilian settlers into the territory.
Around 150,000 Saharawis fled the region and have lived in exile deep in Algeria's Hamada, or desert within the desert, for 37 years. They want to return to their homeland and inhabit their own, free country.
An independence movement, Polisario Front, waged a low-level war against Morocco until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991 on the promise of a referendum to decide the fate of the territory, which is about the size of Britain and boasts phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.
Differences between the two sides over who would be eligible to vote undermined the referendum and today, Moroccan capital Rabat offers only limited autonomy to what it considers its southern provinces.
"Enough is enough, no more delays, the time has come for a just solution. The people of Western Sahara must be allowed to speak," Bardem said last October in a plea before U.N. General Assembly's decolonization committee.
Spanish activists and politicians have been blocked from entering the territory on fact-finding missions.
Rabat has criticized the U.N. envoy to the contested territory, Christopher Ross, and a U.N. report, published last month, which suggested Morocco may have been spying on the world body's monitoring force.
Morocco and Algeria-backed Polisario have held several rounds of talks mediated by the U.N. over the past five years, but none have made any progress.
Bardem's film will be shown in the European Parliament on May 29.
(Editing by Paul Day, Fiona Ortiz and Bob Tourtellotte)