They live in the valleys around Ceuta and wait for the right day to cross the border fence to Spain respectively Europe. I wonder if it’s waiting for a certain event in the real world or a moment of courage.
Ceuta is a very different place than you’d imagine. It’s a nice city, the people appear very friendly. A typical European old town center with all well-known fashion brands, street cafés and shops for electronic gadgets. Just like most of the cities in the Mediterranean you visited with your parents when you were a teenager.
But there is sad aura around that city though, fed by numerous stories about the frontier between Africa and Europe, the infamous border fence, the refugees that try to climb over that fence to touch European soil and apply for asylum.
»Coming along they shook hands with us as if we had arranged a meeting for this time of the day.«
Some five kilometers before Ceuta, one of two Spanish exclave cities on the African Continent, fog came up, strong winds were howling. In the foggy surrounding we saw the first immigrants. Boys sitting next to the street, despite the heat in thick clothing, weird combinations of jackets, hats, obviously a collection of everything that was available. We had pulled over the car and shot a valley, beautifully filled with cloud-like trees as thick as the clouds that flew above them, climbing up the hill. A nearby security guard came by to relief his boredom. We smoked a cigarette and laughed about the fog and the strong winds. Three boys came along, black somewhat tired faces, again, their clothing ranging from winter jackets and hats to torn sports pants and plastic sandals. Coming along they shook hands with us as if we had arranged a meeting for this time of the day. One from Mali, one from Senegal, one from Guinea Cornackry.
They met on their journey. It is hard times, they said, not asking us for anything. They live in the valleys around Ceuta and wait for the right day to cross the border fence to Spain respectively Europe. I wonder if it’s waiting for a certain event in the real world or a moment of courage.
The tallest one, Mohammed, wears a trench coat with too short arms, a knitted winter hat. He sweats on his cheeks and talks fast, but calm. They live in the forest community. Everyone who arrives after the exhausting journey from mostly sub-Saharan countries through Mauretania and Morocco will get food in this community. It’s not like a village, it’s little camps spread out over the hills. 10 Dirhams (1 Euro) is asked in the community to contribute to groceries, some of the immigrants regularly walk down into the valleys to the market to buy rice, sugar and salt. Everyone goes to the street that leads through these mountains to Ceuta to wave at every single car that comes by. We even see a boy in a wheelchair later on, carried to the street by his fellow travellers.
Roman and me felt dwarfed by them. I didn't ask Roman if that is any true for him. But those guys are some impressive people with wits and wisdom.
The youngest one – a Senegalese – has been at the border for two months already, has tried three times to jump the fences, as they call it. He has scars, little stitches, his pants were torn apart on both sides so he cut them. Now he wears shorts. After a while he asks if we’d have some spare pants.
The fence that surrounds Ceuta is 6 meters high, topped by barbewire, which is quite high. But after hundreds who have tried, some making it to the European side, others failing badly, all of them scared from the sharp blades, it’s just bizarre the Spanish officials don’t just remove it or make it ridiculously high. Seeing the fence both options would be a more humane decision. Keeping it that way is just irrational, no?
We exchange telephone numbers with Mohammed and leave.
As a European citizen trying to cross borders to get into Ceuta is not an easy task when you think of the ease of crossing Schengen borders within Europe. We had to wait four hours to cross. Saying this and telling you the story of the refugees waiting for months to cross is a shame. So we wait in the car, ignore the glue sniffing punks and the older men who try to sell «special treatment» including faked forms needed for immigration. We show the officials our stuff, run around with different forms, let them see our shooting permit which doesn’t include Ceuta, get asked, why we put «student» as occupation in our registration forms.
Once arriving at Ceuta’s Western Union office we talk to the cashier about the border, the border walkers, Moroccan police, and Ceuta how it is known in the world. «In Ceuta, we have an Eiffel Tower. But this one is put through landscape, sharpened to torture and frighten.»
But as said at the beginning: Ceuta is a friendly town. We talked about it if it’s like a little Berlin, cut off from the tree it belongs to, an Enclave of European or even Moroccan lifestyle – but without the freedom-of-speech part. Ceuta’s inhabitants seem to be proud of that – they like to refer to «This is Europe». But they mean «European» in a way how rights are distributed among population, geographically most said, they feel African. There is proud in that too.
The lady in the Western Union office mentioned CETI, a temporary home for immigrants who managed to touch European soil and thus enjoy our hospitality in form of daily meals and Spanish courses.
The border fence uncovers the frontier between Africa and Europe by penetrating the beautiful hills and valleys surrounding the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.
Once there, we speak to some of the boys who made it over the fence. Many of them have injuries on their hands and feet. «Food’s not great», Benny said: «…but worse is the waiting. We came in a boat with way too many others. Leaving from Mauretania it just took us 25 hours to get here.» In his hometown in Guinea Cornackry – south of the Sahel – he was an insurance salesman. But loosing his job and not finding anything reasonable for three years he wanted to go on with his life and went north.
His friend, a boy of just 16 years went a different route – he went by land, all the way up to Ceuta finally climbing the fence. He shows us photos of the fence and him, holding his phone with the boyish hands. He seems even more fragile than on the pictures he took. I wonder if Europeans would brag about having done that, jumping that fence on the pictures. He, this boy, just seems still frightened when showing the pictures.
We see images of Sub-Saharans, running towards the inhuman monster, the fence, six meters high, barbwire as an ugly crown. This is the part we know about the immigrants despair. The fast minutes, few of them, the most spectacular of them. And in some sense there is a comparison to wars we have seen: We all know the images of people rushing away from fences into the machine gun fire of their opponent and we sense cruelty in it. But the hours, days, months of waiting, the boredom, the diluted hope of heroism, the waiting for something to happen is a pain of its own.
We get out of the car and approach a group of boys standing next to the serpentines that lead down to Ceuta. As we start talking more and more other boys come running towards us – from up and down the street, some come out of the bushes. Soon enough we are surrounded by 30 young guys, I talk in English to one guy, he translates it to Bambara loudly, small groups form in which someone who understands Bambara keeps translating the conversation whispering to others. Spontaneously overcoming a Babylonian situation, automatic, instinctive organization.
I ask who wants to do an interview with me and one guy, who acted as a translator for a sub group comes towards me through the crowd. Jovick Pitol, his English is bad but we speak in French now. «What’s the reason you want to do an interview with us?» and I explain to him, that for us it was easy to come here, for Europeans it’s easy to come here. And we want to remind people in Europe of the fact, that it’s a privilege to be traveling to other countries as easily as we do. Having just exchanged a few sentences the crowd around us gets nervous. «Translate! Hey, translate, we want to know what you talk!» some guy in the outer circle is protesting. The whispering starts again in the crowd around us – Jovick looks at me thinking.
»I talk in English to one guy, he translates it to Bambara loudly, small groups form in which someone who understands Bambara keeps translating the conversation whispering to others. Spontaneously overcoming a Babylonian situation, automatic, instinctive organization.«
There is a bad reciprocity to this lonely journey: refugees get alienated from both sides, being the sent one and the one who achieved not many have. Connection to the villages might become faint in emotion, but fixed with birth.
Then suddenly a white guy appears next to the group, screaming something in Arab. «I don’t speak Arab, mister. What’s the problem?» He refuses to talk to me, grabs his phone, turns around, talks on the phone.
I keep on talking with the guys in the crowd, explain our goal to do a surf documentary in West Africa and what their fate might have to do with it. Just a couple minutes later a car appears, a big guy dressed in black with heavy boots rumbles his way through the crowd to me and bumps my shoulder. «What’s happening here?» he says in Spanish.
«Nothing, we are just talking» I say, hoping Roman was quick enough to hide the small camera which we have with us. I think of the sound equipment that’s lying on the drivers seat and hope he doesn’t want to check our car.
«You are not allowed here. I have to ask you to leave – otherwise we have to get active and call the police in.» the black dressed guy says, the other one from before looking over his shoulders, staring at me pensively.
We don’t refuse. We signal them a shoulder shrugging ok and start to move towards our car. The eyes of the two guys follow us. Just before I climb into our 4×4, Jovick runs to the window and wants to shake my hand to say good bye. As I touch his hand I feel a little piece of paper.
On the paper he wrote down his telephone number. We meet him next day for an interview in the woods. He tells a story of a journey that took him a whole year to get here to Ceuta, coming from Cameroon.
Now, months after this afternoon in Ceuta, I still write messages with Jovick. He is still in Ceuta because there was no right day yet to storm the fence. He had been robbed by Moroccans who know that these immigrant boys can’t call the police to complain about crimes committed against them. He had been captured by the police and brought back to Tanger, some 50 kilometres off his camp. They held him there and released him into the streets. He walked back to Ceuta for a whole day just to be there again, waiting for the right day to come. To run towards the fence and eventually reach Europe one day.