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The great escape

  • Written by  Marcello Di Cintio
  • Published in Refugees
Spanish legionaries patrol between razor wire fences that separate Spain’s enclave of Ceuta from Morocco Spanish legionaries patrol between razor wire fences that separate Spain’s enclave of Ceuta from Morocco Anton Meres/Reuters
01 Oct
In an edited extract from his book, Walls: Travels along the Barricades, Marcello Di Cintio meets some of the thousands of migrants who attempt to enter Europe via Ceuta, one of Spain’s Moroccan enclaves

The Africans at the Wall don’t speak the same language, but tonight they share a common belief: if we are many, they cannot stop us all.

They camped for weeks in the forest. They prayed for rainless nights and ate what they found in Moroccan rubbish bins. They hacked footholds out of thick tree branches to make crude ladders. Now they wrap their hands with torn fabric to protect themselves against the barbed wire and wait under the half moon until their mobile phones ring the signal.

Then a surge of 500 bodies crashes into the Wall, but it’s too dark to see their faces through the security cameras. The bravest lead the assault. They lean their ladders against the chain links and begin to climb. Others scramble up behind them.

Soon, men in uniforms appear on both sides of the Wall – Moroccan here, Spanish there – with flashing lights and the sweet stink of tear gas. The night goes medieval.

Soldiers tear Africans from the wire while the climbers kick and claw. The chain link shakes and rattles. Sweat-glazed skin gleams under floodlights. A rubber bullet the size of a tangerine rips a toe from one man’s foot.

There’s a Babel of screams: Arabic, Wolof, Hausa, Spanish. And there are gunshots. The noise drowns out an infant’s cries. Women and children climb the Wall here, too. Everyone dreams of Europe.

When the melee ends, tattered clothes snagged on the razor wire flap in the breeze coming off the sea. A man hangs by his neck. There are five bodies in all: two on the Spanish side of the Wall, three in Morocco. They most likely fell from the top and were crushed in the stampede, but later there is talk of Moroccan bullets in the corpses.

Some say a baby was one of the dead. Nobody knows exactly what happened. And nobody knows how many made it over. Two hundred, some guess. Probably more. The Spanish government calls in the army. The police take the ladders home as souvenirs.


Classical resonance

One might blame Hercules. For his tenth labour, the mythic hero travelled to the edge of the world to steal oxen from Geryon, Medusa’s three-headed grandson.

When Hercules reached the mountain that divided the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean, he chose to smash through it rather than climb over. The seismic grandstanding let the ocean spill into the sea and forever divided Europe from Africa.

Half of the demolished mountain stands as Gibraltar. The other ‘Pillar of Hercules’ rises on Ceuta, a narrow strip of land that dangles off Morocco’s Mediterranean shore.

Ceuta and its sister enclave Melilla represent the last remaining Spanish possessions in North Africa. They are strange geopolitical anomalies – each an Iberian fragment of Catholic cathedrals, midday siestas and arte modernista surrounded by Muslim Morocco.

As Spanish cities, Ceuta and Melilla also define the southernmost reaches of the EU. Their city limits are Europe’s borders. The enclaves, then, attract illegal migrants from as far away as South Asia. Scaling the fences into these Spanish colonial souvenirs means reaching Europe without risking a Herculean sea voyage across the Mediterranean.

boyA would-be immigrant sits, detained, after scaling the barrier that surrounds Spain’s other Moroccan enclave, Melilla (Image: Rafael Marchante/Reuters)


local heresay

I first saw the Wall from the Moroccan side, in Beni Yunis, a tiny seaside village where pastel houses hang off the forested slopes like Christmas tree ornaments. I arrived early in the morning. The Mediterranean draped fog on the hills while a few quiet men sipped tea, smoked kif and read the morning paper in the lone cafe.

After a tea, I walked past purple thistle and wandering goats towards the army barracks with the motto ‘God. Country. King.’ written above the door. The Wall stood beyond the barracks, but an off-duty policeman stopped me before I got too close. The man welcomed me to Beni Yunis and wanted to talk. ‘All this belongs to Morocco,’ he said, pointing at the houses on the other side of the Wall, in Spain. ‘It should be returned to us. The Spanish oppose the occupation of Gibraltar by the British, yet they occupy Ceuta.’

I asked if African migrants still camped in the forests near the Wall. ‘Not since September 2005,’ he said, referring to the night the Africans stormed the barrier. ‘The army went in and cleared everyone out.’ He pressed his wrists together to mime handcuffs.

Spain also refortified the Wall. What was a double fence became a triple barrier and it doubled in height from three metres to six. Fat coils of concertina wire were laid along the foot of the Wall and additional barbed wire was strung along the top. Automated tear gas dispensers were planned but have not yet been installed.

From a distance, however, the Wall looked delicate. It reminded me of the silver filigree I’d seen in jewellers’ souks elsewhere in Morocco. Something a bride might wear around her neck on her wedding day. Instead, it’s Europe’s iron collar. A ten-kilometre choker of barbed wire and steel.


if at first you don’t succeed…

Jeffrey James was among the hundreds who stormed the Wall that night in 2005, but he didn’t make it over. Moroccan border police handcuffed him, beat him with their fists, and dumped him in the no man’s land between Morocco and Algeria’s northeastern frontier.

James slipped back into Morocco through the porous border and trekked nearly 100 kilometres along a well-beaten migrant trail. He dodged the bandits who prowled the route for black men to rob and made it to the railway.

After stowing away on a cargo train bound for Fès, he took a bus to Tangier, then walked to the migrant camps outside Ceuta, and returned to the Wall. He assured me that the camps still exist, regardless of what the Moroccan border policeman told me.

James was caught at the Wall again, dumped again and returned again. The arrests couldn’t lessen his desire to reach the other side. Twenty times he made the same journey from fence to detention, to the border and back. When he told me this, he grinned like a rebellious teenager.

Jeffrey James and his African comrades are willing to gamble on Europe. ‘We are black. We take risks,’ he explained. For him, each night in the forest outside Ceuta meant another assault on the Wall. Sometimes, he and his fellow climbers were caught and exiled over the Algerian border; sometimes, they were just chased away.

The smooth raised gashes on his arms journal these nightly trials; these are the barbed wire’s brutal accounting. They reminded me of the ceremonial cross-hatches and patterned slashes I’d seen on the faces of men from Africa. Those scars marked a boy’s rite of passage to manhood. James’s barbed-wire scars marked a new ritual and a different kind of passage.

Finally, in December, James made it over the Wall. ‘I put on blue jeans because they are thick. And gloves,’ he told me. Then he put on every shirt he could find. He wrapped his hands in rags and ran to the Wall with five friends.

The razor wire at the base of the first fence snagged his outer shirt. He slipped out of it and kept climbing. James lost three shirts before he made it over. They hung on the Wall like shredded flags.

I met Jeffrey James at the Plaza de los Reyes in central Ceuta when he asked me for money. I mentioned that his name sounded as if it belonged to a cowboy, and he said it was a ‘good English name’.

He said he was from Sudan. He stood tall and thin and told me he had witnessed his two younger sisters being raped and murdered by rebels.

runnersBloodied but free, two immigrants run along a Melilla street having successfully scaled the fence (Image: Rafael Marchante/Reuters)


legal identity

James lived in CETI, the Short Stay Detention Centre on the outskirts of Ceuta, not far from the Wall. He had been there for five months and was waiting for his visa application to be processed. He was relieved to be in Ceuta. Although this Spanish outpost isn’t the Europe he yearns for, at least he can walk freely here, and he says the people are kind.

Hundreds of migrants get past the Wall into Ceuta each year. Some, like James, take their chances climbing the barrier itself, but most cross the border hidden in or under vehicles or on overloaded boats.

Once over the border, they go directly to a police station to register themselves. The registration grants them an official status and Spanish authorities can’t legally deport them back to the other side of the Wall. The police issue the newly arrived a receipt that allows them entry into CETI. The centre provides food, housing, and some medical care.

James was trying to learn Spanish. CETI offered language classes, but the words weren’t holding. ‘I think a lot. I think too many things,’ he said as his knees bounced and his voice stuttered. ‘I cannot put anything in my brain right now.’

‘Do you miss anything about Sudan?’ I asked. He shook his head.


Fluid crossing

No-one was speaking Spanish on the number 7 bus. Most of the passengers were day labourers from Morocco. Women in drab overcoats and head scarves filled the seats, laughing with each other in Arabic and drowning out the music from the bus driver’s radio.

Cross-border workdays begin before dawn for these Moroccans. Ceuta synchronises its clocks with mainland Spain, so it’s two hours later on the Spanish side of the fence than it is on the Moroccan side. Stepping into Europe means leapfrogging through time.

I was staying on the Moroccan side of the border, in Fnideq, and joined the Moroccans on their daily commutes. For them, the border was more fluid than rigid. Most Moroccan workers had day permits to enter the enclaves and were obliged, according to law, to return to Morocco before nightfall. But unless there was trouble, nobody paid much attention.

Some Moroccans stayed in the enclaves for weeks, if not more, living with family in the Muslim neighbourhoods. If they were caught, the Spanish authorities brought them to the border and led them over the line, but nothing prevented them from returning to Ceuta. Spaniards in the enclaves welcomed their cheap labour.

The number 7 runs from the border post at the end of the Wall to Ceuta’s central plaza. From here, I walked past the Museo de Ceuta, built from Francisco Franco’s former home. Franco earned his military reputation fighting Muslims along these shores, and while he bequeathed the Spanish Sahara to the Moroccans on his deathbed, he never let the enclaves go.

I continued past Playa Benitez and its tidy pebble beach. This road led to CETI, but instead I climbed the steep Calle de Barriada Postigo. At the top of the hill was the local SPCA and behind the stink and yap of the dog kennels stood the forest where the men from India lived.

indianAn Indian immigrant checks his turban in a mirror at a makeshift camp in the mountains near Ceuta. He and numerous other immigrants from India fled the Short Stay Detention Centre in Ceuta fearing they were about to deported (Image: Rafael Marchante/Reuters)


empty promise

They were making breakfast on a vacant lot littered with broken bricks. One man minced ginger and garlic on a glass shelf cannibalised from a discarded refrigerator. Nearby, two men mixed flour and water in a plastic tub and rolled the dough into chapatis with an empty vodka bottle. Another man cooked the chapatis on the hood of an abandoned car propped over a fire.

I had learned about the Indians the previous day from Rocky Ghotra, a 19-year-old Punjabi I met walking along the playa. He told me that 72 Indians, all illegal migrants, had left CETI to camp on the mountain directly across from the centre. He invited me to visit, and I waited until he walked sleepy-eyed into the clearing.

Rocky told me his life in India was modest but not destitute. His family were Sikhs from Haryana province who owned their home and had some land to farm. They couldn’t afford much but had enough to send Rocky to school in New Delhi. He was a fine student and the hope for his family’s future.

He was also impatient. When an ‘agent’ offered to transport Rocky to Spain, where he could study on a student visa, Rocky accepted and left his university. One of his professors warned him he was making a mistake, but Rocky’s family trusted his instincts. Their son was intelligent and had never let them down.

They sold their home and land to pay the agent. The euros Rocky would send home from Spain would be more than enough to live on, they reasoned. ‘When I remember that day, I feel...’ Rocky began to say but never finished his sentence. Instead, he turned away.


strength in numbers

The agent took Rocky’s money and his identity papers and put him on a ship. He spent 15 weeks at sea but didn’t know the route the boat took. At the end of the voyage, the men pushed Rocky ashore and told him he was in Spain. ‘I found out afterwards that I was in Tangier,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even have any shoes.’

Rocky persuaded a Moroccan vegetable vendor to stuff him under the seat of his car and drive him past the Wall and over the border into Ceuta. He climbed the hill and checked into CETI.

During his stay in CETI, Rocky learned enough Spanish to read the local newspapers. One morning, he read that the Spanish authorities planned to deport all of the Indians living in the centre. Rocky gathered his countrymen together in the soccer field and translated the newspaper for them.

The men asked Rocky what they should do. He told them to hand in their CETI entry cards. Then he led them out of the gate and into the forest.

Their self-exile from CETI was meant to be strategic. The men knew the Spanish authorities would only bother to deport the Indians if they could deport them all; flying only a handful of men back to India is hardly cost efficient. Dividing themselves among several camps in the middle of the forest made it impossible for the Spanish police to round them all up. This was their plan, but the men had been in the forest for six weeks already, and no-one was paying them much attention.

The migrants’ good spirits surprised me. They laughed and joked and seemed more like boys attending a summer camp than homeless refugees. Rocky told me most of them suffered so much on their journey to Ceuta that they were content to camp in the forest.

Most had travelled overland from India. Some stopped along the way to find work in places such as Dubai and earn enough for passage over the sea to Africa. From there, they crossed the Sahara on foot. Many had watched their friends die.

I doubted Rocky and the Indians, or most migrants in CETI, ever thought about the Wall. The barrier, after all, hadn’t stopped them. Aside from a few daring Africans such as Jeffrey James, migrants find other ways into the enclave. They bribe border guards. They pay smugglers to float them to Ceuta on boats or, like Rocky, pay to be stowed away in a car and driven over the border.

The new and improved fence hasn’t made entry into the enclaves any more difficult for them, only more expensive. Migrants pay up to €4,000 to smugglers for passage across the border. The refugees still arrive en masse and the centre is jammed full. The only difference now is that the smugglers have never been so rich.

The Wall, for all its steely strength, has failed. Instead of being held at bay on the other side of the Wall, migrants are now trapped inside and wait for something to happen. Mainland Europe is only a few kilometres from the beach. On a clear day, the Indians can see Gibraltar from their mountain.

But these men are as far away from the Europe they seek as they have ever been. They have no papers. No money. No way to cross the water. If anything, the Wall is a symbol of incarceration rather than exclusion. It didn’t keep them out, but it reminds them they are caged within.

Before I left, I told Rocky I would return to visit them again. ‘What can I bring you? Is there anything you need?’

‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Just pray for us.’

This was published in the October 2013 edition of Geographical magazine.

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