For current news on the borders of Fortress Europe and its restrictive, oppressive impact on the lives of the most vulnerable - be sure to follow 'No Borders' on Facebook.
GETTING HERE, THE BUS PASSED OVER THE SUNBURNT SKIN of Spain’s Costa Del Sol; stopping in the resort cities of Malaga and Marbella to leave off flocks of pasty white tourists to enjoy the good life. Only a handful of people were left on board when we reached Algeciras. Many of them joined me as I walked the short distance to the port, where ferries depart for Africa. Algeciras takes its name from the Berber tongue, Amazigh - a script of striking visual flair that screams vibrancy, visible across most Berber areas of North Africa. Algeciras also stands as one of the main pillars bolstering Europe’s Southern borders against the rest of the world. It is an integral part of modern day Fortress Europe, maintained by 'Frontex'; a major operation of surveillance and patrols that run along Europe’s frontiers.
As the ferry departs, we pass fields of cargo containers stacked high along the port, carrying city names from across the world; Guangzhou, Danang, Marseille. The port is mega-sized; one of Europe’s largest. Further out we pass the United Kingdom territory of Gibraltar as it juts out into the sea; an exclave of Queen and Country on the Spanish coast. This piece of little Britain on the Med mostly comprises of a large rock rising out of the sea; green foliage with the odd visible limestone patch, and an urban sprawl skirting around its waters edge. A band of clouds hover overhead like a protective halo. Spain wants it back, the British say no.
The lands of Europe fade away and the occupants of the ferry begin to take lunch up on deck. Some Spaniards in their later years talk loudly around a table of coffee and beers. On the upper deck, the speed of the ferry can be felt by those who wander up to take photos and gain a better view. The wind forces us back with gusto. A few young Moroccans take shade from the strong gale next to an engine room; seated on their haunches with shoes discarded around their chatting circle. From Algeciras to Ceuta, it is a short journey of 45 kilometres. It isn’t long after the Spanish coast disappears when the African coast opens into view ahead. The coastline stands bare and hilly through the translucent haze of the warm afternoon. Clouds are draped low over Morocco’s Rif Mountains. The landscape, in contrast to the Spanish coast, is stripped of any human infrastructure except for one point on the horizon – the city of Ceuta.
We taxi smoothly into the small, tidy port. Spanish accents gather by the ferry exit, joined by a few Moroccan families hauling an odd-sized selection of baggage. Across a single gangway, we all parade out into the heat; thirty degrees Celsius going on forty by the sweat on my back. No customs, no passport control. The surroundings still have a Spanish feel but prettier than the burnt up, overdeveloped coast of the Costa Del Sol. I was half expecting to embark into a cacophony of African urban, flanked by vast sand dunes and pockets of oversized alien green flora. But we haven’t arrived in a new territory; this city state is still Spain. Technically, despite the shift in continent, this is still Europe.
Ceuta is placed beautifully on an archipelago. The city itself sits smack bang in the middle, elevated over pristine beaches that run along both its Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. Little villages are dotted around the modest coastline of twenty kilometres. Where the archipelago ends, Monte Hacho stands dominant over the stunning panorama, complete with its own military fortification. It is a hulk of rock that overlooks the city and the sea, and is a comrade of the Rock of Gibraltar. Both form ancient territorial markers known as the Pillars of Hercules; commonly called the Straits of Gibraltar today. In the Roman era, these pillars marked the ends of the known world. Myth has it that Hercules, while on his way to a mystical island, came before the Atlas Mountains. Instead of making the tough climb over, he smashed through them, leaving the pillars standing at each end.
As I walk into Ceuta, mopeds push up hills and walkers meander down steps towards the beaches. The city is clean and well laid out with green parks and pleasant streets. I stop on Calle Independencia, and look up at the tall apartment blocks facing the sea. Its balconies proudly overlook La Ribera beach on the Mediterranean. Palm trees run along at each side of me for as far as I can see. The beach, some fifteen feet below street level, is a comfortable cove of warm waters and clean sand. A volleyball game is at play. The girl poses to serve, as friends ready themselves for the volley. Swimmers bathe out into the blue sea as a lifeguard sits on a high chair in the white sands. The Moroccan coast winds around in front of us. I can almost make out the Moroccan town of Fnideq which is only 8 kilometres from here. Ceuta is calm and immediate in its beauty. Morocco wants it back, the Spanish say no.
In Ceuta’s central Camoen’s district, I leave my hotel and follow Paseo Del Revelin as it descends down to Plaza De la Constitucion; a central meeting point for Ceuta’s avenues and residents. The people that grace the streets are predominantly Spanish with some Arab-Berber residents; although official figures say it is a fifty-fifty split. The whole exclave has a population of over eighty thousand people, meaning the city itself is compact and easy to explore. Three Arab women in traditional clothing walk past me on their way into a local indoor market. Spanish women and men stand outside the entrance selling lottery tickets. Inside the market, the usual selections of goods are available, as de rigueur for markets across Europe, but with a wider selection of fish dominating the stalls. Electrical goods are everywhere, much to the attraction of shoppers on holiday.
Ceuta is a tax-free zone. The city thrives on its tax exemption which propels a massive trade in every possible kind of merchandise between the sellers and the horde of buyers coming from neighbouring Morocco twenty minutes away. Every day from early morning, hundreds of traders come through the narrow border under special trading conditions. Local traders show identification as residents of the nearby Moroccan trading towns of Fnideq or Tetouan; and the near-undocumented trade flourishes. This generates huge profits for Ceuta and feeds the appetite of the Souks in Northern Morocco. Despite arguments over territorial sovereignty, Ceuta needs Morocco as much as Morocco needs Ceuta. Leaving the market I make my way to Plaza De la Constitucion. Here stands the giant bronze statue of Hercules himself. It is an impressive sculpture depicting human and mythical strengths, as primal brawn pushes the pillars apart. He stands high overlooking the Port of Ceuta. He seems to be eyeing a selection of luxury yachts, parked in rows to the left of the port. I quickly find a bus heading out of town along the Atlantic coast line.
Benzu is a Muslim village that looks out over the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean merge. After only minutes on the bus; it is a world away from Ceuta’s downtown. Walking through the sleepy gathering of homes, I pass a tuck-shop where an elderly woman dozes inside. A Mosque ahead marks where the village ends. I cross the road to a little café called ‘Musical’. It looks like a Mexican saloon from the outside. I order some mint tea and select some pastries from the gentleman at the counter. The Café sits on the cliff edge. From my table at the back, I look at the waves slam against the rocks below. Further down the grey coastline, I can see a large reinforced fence. It is the border fence between Ceuta and Morocco. This is where Europe meets Africa.
A little walk on from the café along a dusty road and I round a subtle bend where the frontier comes into full view. The vista is strikingly beautiful and rugged. But then the fence creeps into view - high shining metal cutting coarsely down through the foliage. The reinforced unnatural border runs from the rocky mountain top down into the sea. It is strange to see the fence cut the landscape deep down the middle. It has a tall lookout tower in the place where the road finishes. At the other side of the fence sits the Moroccan village of Belyounech.
Belyounech sits cosy in the cusp of Jebel Musa, or Mount Moses as it is called in English. In Ceuta, the mountain is known as ‘The Dead Woman’. It looks like a female form laid out on her back, with her head resting in the sea. The sun comes down over Jebel Musa and sinks a slight distance off her forehead, slowly dipping into the silver Atlantic. As I stand there, cars drive straight up to where the road ends and then turn around; driving back in the direction they came. Beat up Golfs, dusty Mercedes and sparkling slick Minis. This is the evening ritual for the cruisers of Ceuta.
A man fishes off the rocks on the Ceuta side of the fence. I stand on the dust road overlooking him and the waves below. A small boat is slowly making its way ashore and some young boys run onto the beach to meet it. They pass out a line which is duly attached to the little raft. Then one of the stronger boys reels it in from a winch on the shore. Within a few minutes, I am joined by an old man, a local, curious to see what is going on below. “Buenos dias” he says as he shuffles up to the edge next to me and eagerly takes in the escapade below. A minute later a car eases up and parks next to us. The driver also takes a look at the boat below, which is now having its catch unloaded. Within ten minutes I have a little crowd around me; all of us looking downward onto the boat at the water’s edge. Not a lot happens in Benzu on a Wednesday evening at the end of the road.
Benzu is an easy place to linger. You can sit, stare out at the sea and forget things. But time is ticking and by dusk, I begin to make my way back to the bus stop. It comes once an hour and on this last run of the day I am the only passenger. The bus pummels down the coast road towards Ceuta which is now a lit up reservation in the night. The driver is busy beeping everyone we pass. The evening walkers salute back. As driver and lone passenger weave around bends, unnerved, I grab onto the bar in front of me. The border crossing into Morocco, La Frontera is on the radio, and it sounds like trouble. As soon as I get back to the Camoen district, I take an evening tea in a café near the hotel. Locals sit around smoking, in a chorus of debate. The television has Ceuta’s border on screen. Riot police shoot tear gas to repel several hundred migrants trying to rush the checkpoint. They form an armed barricade. The unrest looks capable of ripping the whole border open. Ceuta, despite its calm interior, has a people problem.
The morning heat wakes me early. At breakfast, the coffee servings are small, strong and coarse. The street hums with a flow of chatter that runs from Plaza De la Constitucion up past the hotel and onto Ceuta's main square, Plaza De Los Reyes. Coffees and breakfasts fly out to customers seated at tables under parasols. A light summer rain begins to fall. I finish eating and take a walk. In the rain of Plaza De Los Reyes, what I see brings me to a sobering stop. On the footpath opposite are a row of tents, housing some families and sleeping bodies. Morning walkers pass on their way toward downtown. The tents are the fallout of a war some thousands of miles to the east. They are a protest against life in suspension. It is a camp by some Syrian asylum seekers sick of days in endless detention.
A blanket of multi-coloured fabric runs around the margins of the square. People are visible between the gaps. Some lay curled in sleep, others talk amongst themselves. The patchwork of materials shelter mostly families. The rain is stopping but the heat continues to rise. I read a Spanish slogan which is plastered across a large metal fence at the end of the tented settlement. ‘Los Sirios, Quieren ir a Madrid, Ya aqui nos manten dremos. Hasta conseguir Neustros Objectivos’. Two Syrian flags and a large Spanish flag adorn the banner, with a hand painted love heart in the middle. Clothes hang drying across some rope. I see a young girl in her twenties sitting under a canopy looking out at me. I cease pointing my camera. Instead, she motions me to continue with an encouraging nod; and her hand does a sweep of the surroundings. Take photos, here, take photos of where we have ended up; our call for help. These Syrians are from the capacity-breached asylum centre in Ceuta. This is the asylum system of Fortress Europe. They are now stuck in Ceuta and can’t go forward or back. The long and often lethal route from Syria to safety has led them to Europe. But the Europe they are looking for is across the Mediterranean. The banner translates as ‘We Syrians want to go to Madrid to continue to pursue our aims. We haven’t left a war to come to a prison.’ City administration offices look down onto the square and its new hosts. People walk by the camp, as if not to see the desperation spread on the floor of their city. But of course, in modern day Europe, asking for help is complicated, wrapped tightly in red bureaucratic tape.
Leaving Ceuta town centre, the bus climbs an elevation overlooking the Mediterranean and carries on to the border with Morocco. Across the no-man’s land between Spain and Morocco, stretches no less than three high fences topped with barbed wire and equipped with motion detectors, flood lights and automatic tear gas canisters. Over the years dozens have lost their lives trying to scale these fences to get into Spanish Ceuta, with the dreams of making it further to a life in Europe. This is La Frontera. It is the real frontier of Fortress Europe. The Mediterranean is the buffer zone. It is here that fences are stormed. It is also here where people die. Fifteen alone died on the beach to my left months earlier; close to where the bus leaves us off. People were spotted by border officials swimming in from the sea. Shots were fired by police into the waves. Then some unknown bodies lay dead on the warm sand.
From the bus stop, I gingerly follow those ahead of me. Some struggle with large plastic bags, manoeuvring the narrow walkway leading through to the Moroccan side of the frontier. A high wall stands on my right and a metal fence on my left. Through this fence I can see a roadway blocked by barriers and border patrol officers. Passport control is a fluid affair. My passport is presented, stamped and I am waved onward. A little further and nearing the end of the tunnel, those ahead began to slow down. They are taking an avid interest in a drama unfolding beyond the metal bars on my left. I slow down. A group are being pushed back through the large metal gates, back into Morocco. There are around fifteen individuals; women and men, all possibly traders. A large border guard, with his head out and shoulders forward, shouts at the group. They shuffle away from him, back to the threshold of the frontier. Two officers are ready by his side, facing the irate gathering. Another border guard off to the side of the confusion looks on while gripping his baton with intent. I stop by the bars wanting to take a snapshot. I raise my small camera phone and covertly take a few crooked pictures.
The standoff still has everyone’s attention. I figure I can take another few shots without being seen. This time I take my time and even the shot into frame; all within balance. Suddenly a large man from inside the fence starts to shout at me. His walking stick is raised in the air and he quickly comes in my direction. Fuck. I put the camera down and start to walk on towards the Moroccan exit.
“Hey you! Please stop! you!” I see an official identification tag around his neck. My heart begins to drum and my mouth dries up. He comes to the bars and asks my name. “Eamonn”. “Where are you from Mr. Eamonn?” “From Ireland, I am just on holiday.” I stand there hoping he would dismiss me; send me on my way. Over his shoulder I catch sight of the Moroccan traders, moving back quickly from the approaching blue uniforms ganging up on them, battle ready.
“Mr. Eamonn, would you like a short city tour of Tetouan? My name is Abdul. I am an official guide. I can promise you a professional tour. At a very good price.” I begin to walk off, somewhat relieved, but annoyed by this sly interruption. Abdul follows, coming out of the border to cut me off on the Moroccan side. After regaining my composure and sizing him up, I figure twenty euro isn’t bad for a fast tour of Tetouan. And it makes getting a taxi to Tetouan hassle free. “Okay Abdul, let’s go.”
A patchwork of blue taxis are parked tightly together on the hillside just beyond the border point. Rectangular rows of battered blue metal of varying shades sit melting in the sun waiting for passengers. The landscape is barren and sunburnt. The contrast is strong. In just a few steps, I have gone from a manicured and water-sprinkled Europe, into an altogether new and different place.
We sit into one of the blue taxis; me in the front passenger seat and Abdul shouting Arabic in the back. It is here I learn that Abdul is half deaf. He shouts up front to me and the driver. With a white hat, and wide Bono style sunglasses on an aged and stubble face; he takes up most of the backseat with his height and broad shoulders. A large hearing aid is wrapped around his right ear. He is dressed in a glowing white Jallaba and sandals. Slowly straining into position he groans, and shouts again at the young driver. The driver puts the Sedan into gear and we move off. Dust begins to rise yellow outside the driver’s window. His long legs in threadbare, faded blue jeans, floor the pedals and he works up through the gears while gaining momentum towards Tetouan.
The car has no seat belts. The driver takes us down the highway at speed, overtaking car after car like a boy eagerly gaining points in a video game. I didn't mind, although I hold onto the dashboard and pray a little to my inner self for reassurance. We swayed from side to side, passing slow movers as we drive on. I wanted him to maintain the speed, but Abdul in the back was getting nervous and voiced a hoarse acidic objection. I looked over at the young man behind the wheel. He liked to drive fast; I could see that as he worked up through the gears. He soon gives in to Abdul and eases up on the speed. Abdul starts to settle down.