Life in Limbostan

Hundreds of Africans have lately tried to climb over the border fence separating Ceuta, a Spanish outpost in Africa, from Morocco. This 2003 article describes how, stranded in Ceuta, illegal immigrants from around the globe await the blessing of expulsion.

The whole time I was in la ciudad autónoma de Ceuta, one of Spain's last two enclaves in North Africa, a scrap of music kept insinuating its way into my mind: "El Himno de la Santísima Virgen de Africa,"a military march song. I heard it first in the dimly lit basement of Ceuta's Legion Museum, on a quiet afternoon when there was no one about but me and the docent, an older, mustachioed legionnaire who was obliquely trailing me as I regarded various bloodstained Spanish flags, a few helmets, and a velvet-lined case displaying a sword owned by Spain's 20th-century dictator, Francisco Franco. Suddenly the brass section crashed fortissimo over the loudspeakers. The sweet, churchy smell of votive candles hung in the air, and the legionnaire stood at attention—until, eventually, I asked him for directions to a renowned plaque bearing a bronze set of footprints.

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"If you wish to see the feet of the Franco, "he said in English, pointing east, "march 45 minutes this way, directly."

I wandered slowly, instead, into the center of Ceuta, a town of 76,000 that is home to one of Spain's largest military bases. I found a United Colors of Benetton shop and a Roma Perfumería. The sidewalks, washed daily, were gleaming, and around me Orthodox Jews bearing cell phones wove past ethnic Moroccans in stylish jellabas. I was in one of Africa's most modern and ethnically diverse cities, and yet that archaic tune kept pounding away in my skull.

There is something absurd about Ceuta, which sits on a peninsula that juts into the Strait of Gibraltar 10 miles from Europe. In July 2002 Ceuta made international news when an uninhabited 30-acre island roughly a mile offshore—Perejil, as the Spanish call it—was occupied by six Moroccan soldiers for six days. The island is useless, except to the goats who nibble the parsley there, but Ceutis were nonetheless outraged. "They should let the legionnaires at them,"fumed one border guard. In the end, the Spanish army stormed the island in helicopters. It captured the Moroccans without bloodshed and then reclaimed dominion over the scattering goats.

But I was in Spanish Morocco to ponder a darker absurdity. Since the mid-1990s, Ceuta and Spain's other African enclave, Melilla, population 69,000, have been magnets for immigrants—Moroccans, primarily, but also sub-Saharan Africans and even Iraqis, Turks, and Sri Lankans—who gather here, at the "Gateway to Europe,"in hopes of gaining permission to sail across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain's Iberian Peninsula and the European Union's first-world job market.

After hundreds of illegal immigrants descended upon Ceuta in 1997, the Spanish government and the European Union rimmed the city with a pair of parallel five-mile-long, 10-foot-high cyclone fen-ces topped with razor wire. But they kept coming, shredding their skin on the fence, clinging to the underside of trucks crossing the border, and even swimming into the city. An estimated 2,400 immigrants made it into Ceuta last year. A few were children who struggled in from Morocco. Many were Moroccan adults who were immediately deported. The rest were non-Moroccans—men in their 20s, mostly—who quickly found themselves in a bizarre legal limbo.

You can go to the Spanish mainland only if you apply, and if you apply—and let the authorities know your name and your country of origin—you are liable to be sent back home. To avoid this fate, many immigrants destroy their identity papers and then notify the police of their arrival. They give the cops a name, perhaps a fake one, and then wait, paradoxically, in hopes of being expelled from Ceuta.

Expelled immigrants, in turn, are shipped on public ferries, to Algeciras, Spain—just across the strait—where they're released and told to leave Europe within 15 days or face arrest. Almost invariably, they stay longer, harvesting olives, hammering nails, washing dishes—performing the menial, underpaid tasks that Europe's aging population can't (or chooses not to) shoulder.

As many as 1.6 million newcomers stream into the European Union every year, and many Europeans are clamoring to halt the influx. In the wake of September 11, the zeal is directed most intently at Muslims. The French flirted with electing the Nation- al Front's Jean Marie Le Pen as president in 2002, in large part because he pledged to stop North Africans from "menacing"white people. And at a recent summit, the European Union's leaders agreed to impose trade penalties on nations that refuse to repatriate illegal immigrants.

The quality of mercy is in particularly short supply in Ceuta, where scores of young men are always wandering the street, forbidden to work. The Spanish government keeps them in dire suspense. "No one ever knows when they will get the papers,"says Paula Domingo, a nun with Colegio de las Adoratrices, one of a handful of humanitarian groups that work with Ceuta's immigrants. The only other way out of limbo is dangerous: traveling at night in a cramped smuggler's boat. When the boat nears Europe, you jump out and swim. Roughly 3,000 emigrants have died on the Strait of Gibraltar over the past five years. Most who make it into Ceuta elect to wait here, hopefully.

Ceuta is a small place—a hectic, hilly coil of serpentine streets speckled by the odd verdant cow pasture. I probably could have taken the whole realm in by myself, but I decided instead to hire a translator, who doubled as my guide. Raquel Benítez was 21, a seventh-generation Ceuti and a soldier's daughter who was recently back from university in England. She was no fan of the 20,000 Spanish-born Moroccans who reside legally in Ceuta. They drive, to her mind, like "a mad mental person escaped from a fucking psychiatric ward." But she nonetheless drove me to Ceuta's Temporary Stay Center for Immigrants, a $3.7 million facility that the Spanish government recently built to house the luckiest 400 of the 800 immigrants stalled in Ceuta on any given day. (The rest sleep in the woods, or wherever else they find shelter.)

The center is a hilltop cluster of concrete- block buildings: an office, an infirmary, a few dormitories abutting a basketball court. I met a man from Pakistan, 33-year-old Mahmood Sajid. With a distant, brooding look in his eye, he told me that he had borrowed $2,300 to come to Ceuta in a cargo ship after his fruit business failed and his children—ages one, two, and three—were in danger of starving. "I was on the ship 45 days,"he said, "in the hull. It was too crowded to move. We didn't know where we were going. I worried about my children. They are staying with my friend, but he is poor, too. Maybe he feeds them; maybe he doesn't.

"I've been here three months. I call my wife once and she says, 'I have no clothes for the children. Winter season is coming.' I cannot do something for them. Why? We don't understand what the Spanish government is doing to us. Why must we stay here? At night I weep for my children."

I noticed Raquel's eyes welling up as Sajid spoke, but after we left, she caught herself, saying, "They all have pity stories, but they're not so pure as they want you to believe."She told me how once, two years ago, two immigrants hijacked her bicycle. Then she took me to the police station, to show me the dents that immigrant vandals had made in the cruisers, by pelting them with stones. "The illegal kids are the worst,"said one officer. "You feel sorry for them the first time, but then they throw stones at your windshield and you don't feel pity anymore."

Soon, we left for a pebbly beach where we found a group of middle-aged Spanish women playing bingo on towels beneath the fading Mediterranean sun. "The king of Morocco should feed his people, especially the children,"said Maika Bustamante, a voluble woman who was calling the numbers. "Their poverty is their problem. They have to solve it!" as bustamante spoke (and played three bingo cards simultaneously), the Rif Mountains of Africa loomed rocky and green in the distance. General Franco made his name in these hills in the 1920s, back when Spain controlled a large slice of northern Morocco. In the War of the Rif, Franco helped suppress Moroccan rebels bent on independence. That independence was ultimately granted, in 1956, but Franco did retain two tiny footprints in Africa—Ceuta and Melilla. These slivers of land had been under constant Spanish control since the 16th century, and Franco wanted them for strategic reasons. In the middle of Ceuta, still, there is a moat surrounded by 40-foot-high stone walls. Soldiers have been crouching behind these walls, vigilant for enemies on the Strait of Gibraltar, for nearly a millennium.

Many in Ceuta still hold a soft spot in their hearts for El Caudillo. Indeed, in 1999 Franco's populist heirs briefly won control of Ceuta's city government. The reactionary Independent Liberal Group (gil) prevailed with a campaign calling Ceuta "a ghetto of immigrants"that must reclaim its glorious past as a "fortress city."gil resolved to wage battle against Ceuta's "bad things: drugs, unemployment, delinquency, robbery."But in late 2000 a judge in Madrid indicted Ceuta's gil governor for misappropriating public funds. The Popular Party—still right-wing but more moderate—swept the following election.

Ceuta's hardliners took another hit in 1999 when Morocco's newly crowned king, Mohammed VI, fixed his eyes on Ceuta and Melilla, vowing that Morocco would reclaim these cities. Last year's tiny invasion of Perejil was seen by many Spanish Ceutis as a shot across the bow—a warning of things to come. "We thought things were going to explode,"Raquel told me. "We didn't know if the next bullet was going to come from a Moroccan soldier—or from a Muslim right here in Ceuta."

Raquel held that, within Ceuta's Muslim population, there were certain militants who were loyal to the Moroccan king. While it is true that Ceuta's Muslims are, for the most part, quite poor and sorely underrepresented on the police force and in City Hall, I couldn't find one who wanted Ceuta assimilated into Morocco. Even Abselam Hamadi, the president of Al Bujari, a Muslim advocacy group, had a picture of the Spanish king hanging over his desk. The reason was simple: Spain is, per capita, 12 times wealthier than Morocco. Hamadi also pointed to new signs of racial tolerance in Ceuta: Arabic is now taught in the schools, and the city is unearthing and restoring a brick village that dates from the 13th century. "In that time,"Hamadi told me, wistfully, "there was convivance. The Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived in harmony." Raquel and I drove past the village ruins, which were just a few dun-colored bricks poking out of the ground, and then stepped into Our Lady of Africa, a Catholic church, and watched as a slow parade of young men trickled into the rectory. There was a sad fellow who needed new shoes; a guy who wanted to photocopy his only document, a birth certificate folded into a small, wrinkled clump; and then, finally, a rather sprightly Nigerian—20-year-old Prince Nelson Odiu—who wrung his clasped hands with a piety that strained belief before sinking to his knees and beseeching the aid of Joseph Béjar, the priest. "Father,"he said, "there is a problem. I sleep outside, father. And also I am a footballer. I am trying to get with a club. Pray for me, father. I believe that, if you pray, we will all be blessed."Odiu raised his bowed head. For good measure, he made the sign of the cross.

Father Béjar addressed him in broken English. "You are very good actor,"he said, and for a moment the pall in the room lifted, and everyone laughed.

Over the next few days, we kept running into Odiu on the street. He told us his story. His father, a tribal king in Nigeria's Edo state, had been killed by political rivals. His sister was murdered a week later. "I knew I was next,"he said. He fled to Casablanca and lived in Morocco for five months, begging for food, until a Moroccan friend drove him into Ceuta. "I can work in Spain,"Odiu said. "I'm a strong man."

Odiu had been in Ceuta just five days when we met. He said that maybe he would just skip waiting for expulsion papers and cross the strait right away, in a smuggler's Zodiac. I figured he was just being blustery. Crossing the strait was a desperate gesture, and Odiu seemed, well, boundlessly hopeful. Odiu slept in an abandoned car in a weedy and garbage-strewn gulch on a hill overlooking downtown, and one afternoon he and his somber friend—fellow Nigerian Feliz Osagia, 30—took us down to the car. They showed us how they draped it at night with corrugated cardboard to keep out the cold and the rain, and then Osagia, who is soft-spoken and balding, stood uncomfortably close to me and said, "I have been sleeping in this car for three months. How long am I supposed to sleep in this car? They will not let us work here; they will not give us the papers. We pray to God that we can leave. This is not a place to stay."

I repeated these words later that day to Luis Vicente Moro, a Popular Party ap- pointee who has been in charge of all of Ceuta's federal matters, including immigration, since 1998. He told me, "The Moroccan border is open. They can leave whenever they want."I suggested that some immigrants didn't have the money and mentioned, by way of example, Mahmood Sajid, the man I'd met at the Temporary Stay Cen- ter. Moro said, "The Pakistani people are sent lots of money from Europe and Paki- stan. You should go talk to Western Union about this."

Moro leaned back in his beige easy chair, which sat beside a handsome grandfather clock. "We cannot stop them from coming,"he said. "It's mathematically impossible. But there's not much I can do to make their future more certain. They can apply for political asylum, but Madrid has to study each case. If these people come from countries where there is political unrest, they are eligible."

Moro told me that, of the 200 people who applied for asylum in the first 10 months of 2002, 12 had succeeded. Then he limned Spain's new "Foreigners Law,"passed by his party. It forbids illegal immigrants to work, demonstrate, strike, or form associations. (Spain's opposition party, the Socialists, regard the law as barbaric and propose allowing a sizable quotient of immigrants from each developing nation to be naturalized as Europeans each year.) "We cannot accept 100,000 people into Spain every year,"Moro said. "We have 1.5 million unemployed Spanish people, and Spanish housing and education law respects Spaniards, not foreigners. That's just the way the law is."

I did not see prince odiu again until my final night in Ceuta, and then his optimism was shaken. His friend Feliz Osagia had been beaten up, twice. "We were standing on the sidewalk near our car,"Odiu explained, "and these Moroccan guys drove by, fast. Feliz said, 'Slow down,' and this made the guy angry. He goes and gets nine of his friends and they say, 'This is Moroccan land. Get out of here. Nik nafsak fi ra's abuk!'"[Arabic for "Fuck you in your father's head!"]

They pummeled Osagia until, eventually, Sister Paula took him to the hospital. Then, when Osagia returned two hours later, the Moroccans jumped on him and rained him with stones until, Odiu told me, "he could not talk or move his fingers."

There was no police report, but in the morning Odiu showed me the blood. There were two dark trails of viscous spatter on the pavement. I immediately went looking for Osagia and found him in the church. His face was swollen and, on his forehead and hand, there were fresh bandages that shone brilliantly white against his black skin. He spoke thickly, in a daze. "I am tired of this place,"he said. "Being in this place is not living for me. I have a brother in Madrid. I want to see him. If they just give me the papers to leave this place, I will be happy."

Two weeks later, I called Ceuta, wondering what had become of Feliz Osagia and Prince Nelson Odiu. I reached Father Béjar on his cell phone and briefly, struggling against the language barrier and a bad transatlantic connection, we spoke. "They left for the peninsula, without papers,"he told me. "On a small boat, I think. I don't know where they are now. I don't know how they are going to eat."

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