Welcome to Awsard, a small village southeast of the Moroccan-governed part of Western Sahara. The closest drinking water well is 12 miles away. Add another 160 miles to get to the first reasonably-supplied food market. A five minute walk, however, will take you to a massive Moroccan army base and United Nations mission site.

Nestled among a stunning mountain range, Awsard is a place of natural shelter and reliable water sources, which explains why it has remained inhabited despite its remoteness. It’s a historical site, where numerous archaeological remains have been found, including tumuli that pre-date the Islamic conquest of the Sahara, as well as prehistoric rock engravings and monolithic monuments.

The urban planning of Awsard looks good—on paper.

Surrounded by minefields, Awsard is located 12 miles from a huge sand barrier, the Moroccan wall. It’s the longest continuous minefield on Earth. On this side, Morocco. On the other, a zone controlled by the Polisario front, a Sahrawi rebel liberation movement. A restricted area runs along the berm, patrolled by United Nations units.

Still, daily life in Awsard does not differ significantly from other desert villages across the Sahara. Empty streets, soulless buildings painted in shades of sand. Only the wind, tirelessly sweeping the desert, brings echoes of faraway sounds. The rattling of a helicopter, the brakes of a delivery truck, chants from the army base. From time to time, an explosion. The precious proof that life continues to exist here, in Awsard, a village at the edge.

A United Nations helicopter in low flight above the village.
Despite having a post office and the Gendarmerie Royale, Awsard is more or less a ghost village. Many of the owners of the roughly 200 homes, including the mayor, live in Dakhla or other nearby towns.
1: Pro-Polisario graffiti sometimes appears on walls overnight. It’s quickly erased and the Gendarmerie Royale opens investigations that can result in long-term imprisonment for the authors. 2: The last kilometers of the monotonous road that connects the village with the coast.
Awsard hosts one of the four sites of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
“God, Nation, King”, a motto of the Moroccan Armed Forces decorates the slope of the highest Awsard peak.
Distances to the nearest villages and towns are measured in hundreds of kilometers.
Generator-powered electricity is only available for six hours a day, so the bakery ovens run on wood and charcoal imported from the far north of the country.
1: The desert at the foot of the mountains is shaped by small intermittent streams. 2: The civil village of Awsard is surrounded by minefields. Most are marked and some have been cleared, but a few remain buried in the sand.
Big lanes and sparse buildings may project an idea of immense development possibilities, but existing natural resources and a tense political situation hint otherwise.