Points to Paradise
(Or African Immigrants
Journey to Spain)
Seydou Kabore shut
his eyes as old scary memories flooded back to him when
the boat plunged madly through furious tumbling waves.
He clutched the gunwale and rolled with the tossing and
the pitching of the craft. He dropped his head, crossed
an arm over his chest and implored Allah to take him
safely to the Canary Islands.
Now they cruised
through calm waters.
the Canary islands,” the captain announced in the
afternoon of the fifteenth evening.
cheered and gave each other high fives. In a short while
they overtook a fishing canoe loaded chock-full with
immigrants. Seydou saw their careworn faces and wondered
how long they have been at sea.
Soon they glimpsed
a dot of an island in the distance. As they approached
the land swelled until the coast of Fuerteventura showed
clearly in the Atlantic archipelago of the Canary
Islands. The smiles widened on the gaunt faces and the
immigrants burst into song and dance.
“Don’t rock the
boat,” the captain growled and reduced power.
floated towards them as if to hug them. Seydou felt
thankful to have persisted in his determination to cross
over to Europe. The exhilaration brought back memories
of that day in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina
He had leaned his
long back against the scrawny nim tree in their compound
staring into the ice blue evening sky. His thick lips
moved noiselessly, taking stock of his 22 years
existence. A mason, he worked in Ouagadougou with an
uncle who had trained him. His boss sometimes paid him a
small wage. Often, he received nothing. Sometimes he did
a part-time job delivering goods by rickshaw for a local
grocer, yet hunger still haunted him.
thought of his friends and acquaintances who had gone to
Europe. Pictures and news they sent of their improved
condition there made him restless. Here, even if one
worked to death nothing was accomplished. It was time he
tried his chance too.
Seydou knew the
Europeans have toughened their policies on immigration
but brushed that aside. He was sure to find a way to
enter the eldorado. He has everything to lose by not
trying to enter the land of honey. What’s the sense in
remaining in this place rendered more unattractive by
the encroaching Sahara desert and then floods when the
torrential rains came, both because of climatic changes?
He sighed and his lean chest heaved
and his flat stomach subsided again into a trough. Here,
he was in a sort of limbo so it was imperative to break
with this senseless existence.
That evening as he
watched a documentary film on Spain on the television at
a video club, Seydou’s legs shook with impatience.
Anytime he saw images of Europe, he found it difficult
to resist reaching for the opportunities available
there. Why shouldn’t he drive a car, wear nice clothes,
eat good food, and furnish his room with all the modern
gadgets like the well-to-do in Ouagadougou?
The next day
Seydou sent email messages to his friends abroad and
contacted some well-off family members in Ouagadougou
and a businessman uncle in Lome, Togo to lend him money
to pay for the passage to Spain. After eating a sparse
supper of the usual rice and chicken soup he informed
his mother of his intention to go to Europe.
His mother spoke
after a long silence: “I’ve mixed feelings about your
project. Besides, how are you going to finance it?”
Seydou told her
about the contacts he had made.
“I think you
should try to make it here,” she advised.
Seydou bit his
lower lip. “How?” he almost shouted.
The old lady
shrugged. “Find something to do.”
“Am I idle?
Success here is simply impossible.”
“Others have made
“You can count
them on a hand,” he countered, indicating his fingers
and tutted. “The majority just survives.”
“I agree with you
but Europe is so far away,” she affirmed in a distant,
“I’ll go whatever
happens,” Seydou asserted, got up and paced back and
forth, his hands jammed in the pockets of his faded
His mother stared
at him, her chin in her palm and then she straightened
and sighed. “Well, I’ve nothing to keep you here. So if
you want to go . . .” She shrugged.
“Ma, I must go,”
Seydou said flatly, stamping his foot on the ground.
determination his mother gave up trying to convince
Seydou to stay. She knew that if Seydou believed in
something there was no way one could persuade him to
“Keep the journey
secret from your father,” she advised. Seydou’s austere
father opposed ideas which did not come from him. “I’ll
sound him out in a roundabout way.”
In the next few
days Seydou’s mother sold some of her most precious
resources a married woman possessed—cattle and goats—and
raised 500,000 francs CFA (about 900 dollars).
The day before his
departure, Seydou informed his father.
“No!” he declared,
glaring at his wife. “We’ve been hearing of tragedies in
the Maghreb.” Then he returned to munching his cola.
“A friend in
Europe has arranged for him to go,” Seydou’s mother
explained, as they had planned. “From North Africa a
regular boat will carry him to Europe.”
shook his head.
His wife sought
for a week to cajole him but the harder she tried the
more emphatic the old man’s refusal became. Then
prodded, he wouldn’t say anything more; his wife knew
this meant he wouldn’t mind if Seydou left.
Seydou set out on
a Friday morning, his mind full of images of him in
Europe which he hoped to reach in a few weeks. He
clutched his backpack containing a handful of clothes,
some biscuits and powdered milk on his knees and from
time to time fumbled the wallet in his pocket holding
1,500 dollars. Seydou felt a lightness as the minibus
pulled out of the bedlam of the lorry park. He had
always itched for the horizons beyond Ouagadougou.
Finally he could
help his father whose paltry pension as an ex-serviceman
hardly met the family’s needs. Watching his mother
struggling to eke out a precarious living to cater for
her six children, he had always pined for a place where
one could improve one’s lot to reduce all this
suffering. The more he thought about that possibility
the more irresistible the desire to go to Europe became.
And now he was on the way to realizing that dream. May
Allah the Almighty be praised.
A few hours later
another overloaded bus weighted down with goods,
bleating goats, cackling fowls, and chattering
passengers was rumbling him from Niamey to Agadez, the
gateway to the Sahara and the hub of trafficking of
immigrants to North Africa.
Seydou had learnt
that the best way to cross the desert was in Toyota
Pick-up vehicles driven by former Chadian soldiers of
the Islamic Legion now turned Libyans. They were not
only masters of the desert like the others; they got
favorable treatment from the Libyan soldiers who often
rounded up immigrants. Seydou strode across town to
their dusty office.
dollars,” an unsmiling man declared and stretched his
“If you pay now
you can leave within a week.”
Seydou knew the
traffickers often took money first and then arranged for
the transport. Not only was he not in a position to pay
that fare but also he had to rush to Europe beckoning to
“I’ll be back,”
Seydou lied and rushed to one of the brokerage agencies
run by the Yantchaga—traffickers—and paid a fare of $250
on a ten-wheel truck which, he learnt to his delight,
was leaving the next day. Then he loped back to the Auto
Gare on the outskirts of town to wait for the call like
the others. He sat beside a worried boy and nodded a
greeting at him.
“Hi, I’m Moctar
Abu, from Ghana,” the boy said, beaming a smile.
English. French,” Seydou said from what was left of his
eighth grade English.
fingers Moctar indicated that he was seventeen. He
explained in English and some French that he had run
away from home when his parents refused that he make the
journey because of his age. They talked for a while and
soon they were pumping each other’s hand. Moctar, who
had been in Agadez for weeks, offered to show Seydou the
“This place is full of Sub-Saharan
Africans,” Seydou observed as they strolled through the
“Yes,” Moctar agreed. “They’re from
all over Sub-Saharan Africa.” He counted his fingers.
“Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Liberia, the Senegal, Niger,
Mali, Angola, Benin, Nigeria, Somalia, Burkina Faso,
Uganda, the two Congos, Rwanda, Guinea-Conakry, and
Guinea-Bissau. Most of them are waiting—some for many
months—to cross the desert while others are deportees or
stranded immigrants engaged in petty trading to make
money for another crossing.”
At the few hotels and the numerous
guest-houses and brothels prostitutes massed at street
corners hissed to attract them; pimps cornered them and
offered cocaine hidden in papers. Moctar and Seydou
shook their heads.
“These are ways penniless immigrants
make money for the journey,” Moctar explained.
The following day
Seydou and Moctar bought dried milk, cassava flour,
biscuits, sugar, jerry cans for storing water, tuareg
turbans, torchlights, traveling rugs, gloves, bonnets,
overcoats, and heavy boots for the journey.
Seydou and Moctar
ambled to the Gare and watched laborers on the ground
hurl goods to those on the truck who caught them and
stuck them on board. Sweat glistened on their dark
muscular bodies. When the golden-yellow sun began to
sink towards the Ténéré desert horizon, Seydou ogled the
convoy of two and three Pick-ups, sagging under goods,
jerry cans, and fifty passengers, dangle towards the
darkening Sahara under the cheers and the feverish
waving of the onlookers.
“Their preferred destination is Dirkou 700 km away—to be
covered in a week travelling mainly by night to avoid
being detected by frontier guards—from where they went
north to enter Libya from the south.”
Soon the laborers
finished loading the bags of grains, imported goods, and
hundreds of cans, each containing 30 litres of water on
the Mercedes-Benz army-like truck and covered everything
with hessians. They waved and the almost one hundred and
fifty passengers—men, some women, and a few
children—scrambled aboard the truck, jostling each other
for a better place. Perched on the right hand side of
the truck Seydou wondered if it could move under their
weight. But after the agency had paid the tax for each
passenger and the police had pocketed their backsheesh,
came a roaring of engines and the truck lurched forward
towards North Africa, each passenger praying in his own
way. Shortly Seydou got lost in deep thought. With only
the goods the tires squatted as if they didn’t have
enough pressure in them. Would they safely get to their
One of the Tuareg
drivers had assured them that if Allah wished they would
reach the southern Algerian town of Djanet in five days.
That had alleviated Seydou’s worries. After passing half
a dozen police roadblocks at which each of the
passengers dished out $3, they entered the Sahara. Soon
the temperature dropped. They pulled on their bonnets,
gloves, and blankets against the piercing cold and
tunnelled through the dark night in silence. Sleep often
overtook Seydou; then he would jar awake and grip the
hessian firmly for support.
Day soon broke and
minutes later the sun glared over the horizon and blazed
down. The passengers took off their heavy clothing and
wrapped turbans around their heads and faces to shield
them from the scalding sun, leaving a crack from which
they squinted across the wide expanse. Some chomped
biscuits and licked dried milk.
The truck stopped
for resting at an oasis. All guzzled water down their
parched throats. Some soaked cassava flour in water and
devoured it. Another driver took the steering wheel and
they bumped across the Sahara again. The wind howled
occasionally, pelting them with dust and blasting heat
over them. Soon the sun became unbearable and some women
and the children whined.
“I’m seeing the
last of the sun,” a Nigerian squatted at Seydou’s
shoulder bragged. “Soon I’ll be in Spain to wipe off my
years of misery in a car spraying workshop in Ibadan.”
Senegalese joined him, “we’ve left behind our big-mouth
politicians full of promises and never any imaginative
policies to lift us out of poverty. Europeans can erect
walls in the sea, we’ll still go.”
Just then a loud
explosion rent the air. Everybody jumped, screaming.
Seydou sighed. The truck tilted slightly to one side.
The drivers sprang out and peeked at the tires. They
waved everybody down. One of the rear tires had burst.
Many passengers profited to stretch their legs and to
urinate. Seydou stared around him: all was
sunshine-yellow sand and sand dunes. The tire was
changed after much effort and they continued the journey
exchanging words and wishing themselves good luck.
It was in this
atmosphere punctuated with long silences that they got
to Arlit, the Niger uranium mining region where they
made a stopover.
When after half an
hour the truck headed towards the Algerian Tamanrasset,
they picked up the conversation again. Most people
evoked the situation of impasse as the reason for their
departure. “Nobody is happy to leave home,” a pregnant
Cameroonian lady said. “Especially on such a long, risky
journey, but only a fool will accept to die of hunger
when food is available elsewhere.” The others murmured
in agreement. Many also decried the lack of economic and
social prospects. “Standstill society,” a
complained bitterly; “unemployment given full rein, mock
States, corrupt politicians. Who wouldn’t run away from
“For me war,
persecution, economic misery, and ethnic and religious
clashes are sending me away,” said a Liberian refugee
coming from Côte d’Ivoire.
As they prepared
to enter Libya someone recounted how on an earlier
crossing the driver had taken a detour to avoid the
frontier post of Tidjeri and got lost. “The vultures
circled over our heads. The driver used his cell phone
to call somewhere but before the Libyan search team
found us a week later we’d buried some forty people.”
“My friend, don’t
bring bad luck on us with your dark stories,” a Nigerian
“I’m not your
friend,” the man retorted, “and close your ears if you
don’t want to hear.”
“Do you think it’s
good to have such stories on such a journey?” the
Nigerian said to the passengers, but no one answered
“Dark stories or
not, whatever will happen will happen.”
first driver leaned out of the window and hollered.
shrugged. Silence fell, and soon everybody got lost in
their own thoughts. Although it was uppermost in their
minds, nobody talked about the dangers of the illegal
journey to Europe. Seydou pushed it away anytime the
idea sprang into his mind.
On the sixth day
they reached Djanet. Seydou had felt thrilled at Agadez
to learn that to evade the frontier posts, they had to
walk across the Tassili N’Ajjer. Having spent five days
in the desert, he now understood what three days of
walking over the arid, merciless, sandy expanse
represented. Boots on and braving the shifting sand, the
fiery sun at day, the penetrating cold at night, howling
winds, they clambered up dunes, slid down them, crowded
around fires at night and arrived dog-tired and
emaciated in Libya which they had entered in small
groups from the southeastern Algerian town of Tarat.
At Sabha, Seydou
and Moctar sought out a Malian wasif—intermediary—called
“You need health
certificates to work here,” Keita said and charged $150
each for false ones and the trip to Tripoli hidden in
stuffy vans. The suffocating journey to Tripoli and the
stay there were some of the darkest days in Seydou’s
life. The police often ransomed them and arrested those
who couldn’t pay. The Libyans clutched their noses or
spat contemptuously at their presence. “Slave,” most of
them shouted at the immigrants. Was this the country of
a leader espousing African unity? Seydou wondered. Can
Sub-Saharan Africa unite with people who have no respect
for them? The thought that he was considered worthless
saddened and angered Seydou but Keita had warned them
“You’d be dragged
to detention camps,” he had warned. “Life there is a
Seydou heard that
some of the worst camps were in the south. The
ill-treatment meted out to the Sub-Saharan detainees,
the draconian prison conditions, the extra-judicial
executions were enough to dissuade the toughest or the
Seydou and Moctar
followed Keita’s advice to stomach the humiliation and
arrived safely in Tripoli. He bit his lips at the overt
racism. Two days later he itched to go elsewhere but his
resources had run low and he had to replenish them. This
he did, working as agricultural labourer in the farms
near to Tripoli. The Libyan foremen often cursed them in
Arabic and booted their asses. Seydou always wondered
why some immigrants chose to remain in Libya. At home in
Ezzaouia where a large black African population lives in
very close quarters, Seydou often conversed with a
Nigerien lady who, like the other women, had had papers
falsified for her as married woman in order to be
tolerated in Libya.
“They call me
prostitute and AIDS carrier,” she lamented, sighing and
swallowing hard. It was to escape gender discrimination
that she had left Niger.
“These people don’t know that we just
want to live,” Seydou replied. “There’s no future back
home unless people in power know you.”
“We’re young, single and childless,”
Moctar added. “That frees us to make our lives the way
we want. We aren’t bothering anybody why should they
Police raids, deportations, and
arbitrary imprisonment gave the immigrants the feeling
of being hounded. Seydou saw security personnel tear
someone’s papers into pieces in the street and then
thrash him. From that day he avoided people in uniforms.
His objective was to enter Europe not to be humiliated
After working in
Libya for two months Seydou decided to head for Tunisia
from where entering Europe was said to be easier.
However it cost more than the $500 to $800 one paid in
Libya. Pestered by Italian authorities for not doing
enough to stop illegal immigrants from using its
territory to land on its coasts, especially on the
islands of Lampedusa and Linosa situated between
Tunisia, Sicily and Malta, the Libyan coast guards had
increased their patrol of the coasts and many immigrants
have been arrested.
“Let’s stay here,”
Moctar, who had found a Ghanaian friend, implored.
Seydou shook his
He traveled to
Zarzis and then to the island of Jerba only to learn
that it was almost impossible to cross from there to
either Malta or the Italian islands. The same was true
for the port of Sfax. He continued to Mahdia from where
daring crossings were still made to Isole Pelagie, but
like the first time he saw the sea in Tripoli, all that
expanse of heaving, roaring water made him swallow hard
while his shoulders slumped. He could swim but he had
done so only in a river. So he continued to Kelibia
which was a bare 70 km to the Italian island of
Pantelleria. Together with Lampedusa they were the
nearest European territories to Tunisia and therefore
attracted immigrants in large numbers. Seydou learned
that on clear days one could see the southwestern coasts
of the island opposite to Cape Bon and Cape Mustapha in
Tunisia. That bolstered his courage to do the crossing
For the moment
Seydou must first find a place to stay and then look for
an agent to book his crossing. Although Kelibia milled
with Sub-Saharan Africans, many of whom were stranded
immigrants working as touts of traffickers to make money
for the journey, he had been warned that many were
frauds, including the traffickers. So Seydou avoided the
clandestine apartments called gouna and booked into Le
Maghrebien, a dollar a day bed and breakfast, to study
That evening a
police raid against North African immigrants about to
board an inflatable dinghy was shown on television. The
authorities promised to step up such actions and warned
immigrants against attempting the dangerous crossing.
“My friend, it’s
always been this way,” a coal black Gambian wearing
dreadlocks cut in. “But we’ve always gone across.” The
Rastafarian, who was making his third attempt to Europe,
assured that the southern coast of Sicily—from Portopalo,
in the province of Syracuse, through Marina di Ragusa,
Pozzallo, Gela, Porto Empedocle in the province of
Agrigente—brimmed with immigrants who have crossed over.
“How is the
crossing, elder brother?” Seydou wanted to know.
The Gambian stared
at him with reddened eyes. “It’s not for the squeamish,
younger brother,” he replied. “It’s usual to find two
hundred people piled into a decrepit fishing boat.”
pulled on a rolled cigarette and blew the smoke through
his twirled tongue. “It’s not strange to run out of food
and water. It’s tough but many have been rewarded for
their courage with work in the greenhouses at Vittoria,
near to Ragusa, where tomatoes and early fruit and
vegetables are cultivated. Others work on fishing
vessels in Mazara del Vallo. I’ve friends earning good
salaries in the wine-growing provinces of Agrigente and
Trapani. If you need work quickly, your bet is those
areas in Sicily, boy.”
Seydou made a
mental note of it and swore that he was ready to travel
even on the tubs reputed slow and clumsy. Not even the
knowledge that the immigrants worked on the side, were
exploited, and had no rights discouraged him. Those
things were tsunami in a well compared to dying of
hunger, disease, political chicanery, or war. The
suffering abroad paled compared to what Africans endured
in their own countries. The voyage was risky but once in
Europe one forgot the suffering. It was like sunshine
after a rainy day.
revising Italian lessons the following day when news of
another tragedy came. A small boat carrying about 80
illegal Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants from Chott
Mériem on the gouvernorat of Sousse capsized suddenly
and sank barely an hour after departure for the Italian
coasts. Seydou shivered slightly. He wondered if it
scared the other immigrants too. All one talked about
was Sicily, the springboard to Europe and the Detroit of
Sicily which enabled one to reach there.
On the seventh day
Seydou strutted to the agency of a trafficker to enquire
if there was any boat crossing at that time only to find
the place cordoned off by the police. He sidled
backwards and rushed back to his hotel. In the evening
the two smugglers were shown on the television.
Passengers rounded up at the office affirmed they had
paid between $1,200 and $1,500 for the crossing. The
police warned prospective travelers to beware. Seydou
squirmed in his seat but he had come too far to heed any
warnings. Yet the passing days dampened his spirit
contemptuously remembering African politicians whose
lethargic way of running State affairs stifled their
economies and obliged their citizens to take
unimaginable risks to survive.
Seydou spent most
of the time in the hotel lobby or in his room because he
dreaded being picked up by the police. He became
increasingly nervous as the opportunities to cross over
to Europe seemed not to come so easily. Meanwhile the
traffickers were keeping watch on the police who had
stepped up their surveillance of the coasts. Had it not
been for the Italian TV programs with their irresistible
commercials that one watched in Tunisia, Seydou wondered
if he could have sustained his dream of crossing into
Europe. The images of posh cars, beautiful cities, nice
houses, elegant dresses in display windows, and night
clubs winking with kaleidoscopic lights all whetted
Seydou’s appetite for Europe. But nothing made him as
itchy to go as when he saw an African in the streets of
Europe. If that African has been able to land in Europe,
so could he. Then he would recline in a bench in the
hotel garden and stare into the ashen sky dotted with
blue puffs of clouds dreaming of the transformation he
would undergo in Europe.
Soon news got around
that the police have relax their supervision of the
coasts. The touts bustled about.
Everybody said this was a truce. It
was an opportune moment to go. Seydou paid $50 to one of
the trusted touts who connected him to a competent
smugglers’ agency. Seydou extracted his purse from the
shorts he wore as underpants and whipped out $1,800,
$300 more than usual for the crossing. That left him
“Be ready to leave
anytime the weather improves,” the agency told him. What
they did not reveal was that they needed the waiting
period to get the maximum number of passengers and to
buy a boat and have it refitted quickly. Seydou sat on
his haunches in his room that evening and offered
special prayers to Allah to help him safely cross over
Two weeks later a
phone call came from the agency. “Be ready by
four-thirty,” the caller told Seydou. “A minibus will
pick you up at the hotel between then and five o’clock.
By five-thirty we’ll sail for Pantelleria.”
Seydou jumped and
jumped. Europe at last. Oh my God. Let Allah the
merciful God be praised. The excitement wiped sleep from
his eyes. Many times the dangers of crossing flitted
through his mind but he told himself that he would only
die in the sea if it was his destiny.
called his room at five-fifteen. Seydou hurried out,
clad in a trench coat. He had taken seriously the
warning that it got fiercely cold on the water at that
time. Some of the North and Sub-Saharan Africans in the
bus dozed. They rode in silence for about fifteen
minutes through the sleepy streets. Then the car dropped
them at Cape Bon. Someone led them down to a small
makeshift boat, a patera, moored at the jetty. Seydou’s
teeth chattered in the strong, cold breeze from the sea.
After crossing the jetty he took one step into the boat
and froze. The 15-meter-long boat wobbled on the water.
Seydou imagined how unsteady it would be on the high
seas. Inside hordes of people talked in undertones.
brightening into dawn was beginning to etch out the
outlines of other boats. The old engine soon rocked the
boat and the captain swung its nose towards the sea, now
a scintillating mass. Two skippers piloted the boat in
turns using a GPS, Global Positioning System, and a
compass. People dropped their heads into their locked
hands and eyes closed, whispered what Seydou thought
were prayers. In any way, he prayed to Allah for safety
They hadn’t gone
far when the sun burst over the horizon, spreading its
silver light over the tossing sea. Seydou looked around
him and counted some one hundred and eighty people,
including children and women hunched shoulder to
shoulder. Barrels of water were stocked in the stern.
Seydou stared at the white, frothing wake trailing the
boat and the coast receding away into a small lump, and
then turned his attention to the sea ahead. Small waves
rippled its aqueous surface like a bunch of
multitudinous, writhing, bluish-green snakes.
“Three to five days on this thing,”
an adolescent beside Seydou whispered in French and
shook his head as the tent above their heads flapped in
the strong wind.
Seydou turned and gazed at him.
Sailing from Cape Bon to Pantelleria took two days but
the controls obliged the traffickers to take long routes
to avoid being detected. “Isn’t it scary?” he said to
The young man said he was from Côte
d’Ivoire. “The rebellion and the political chaos there
is forcing us to emigrate to Europe too.”
He was right. Some years back, the
citizens of the Ivory Coast, the showcase of West
Africa, hardly left their country which rather attracted
immigrants from all over West Africa. Seydou told him
why he was going and two Cameroonians behind them joined
in the conversation.
“We’re footballers going to try our
chances in Europe,” one of them said.
“Do you mean you’re going to play
football there?” the Ivorian asked and they said yes.
“That sounds exciting,” Seydou said.
“I’ve no choice. I’ll do anything that’ll make me money
unless it was illegal or immoral.”
“We decided on this route after
attempts to attract the attention of recruiters and to
obtain visas in Yaounde had failed.”
how the whole of the continent had come to such a mess.
The rising sun was
beginning to spew heat. People took out food and ate a
little of it in silence. The captain increased power.
The boat plowed her nose through the angry water and
Seydou clutched his cup of milk to steady it and braced
himself against the increased pitch and the roll of the
boat. The keel cutting through the aquamarine water
sprayed salty water onto them. The sea reeked
nauseatingly like a fish factory.
They cruised in
heavy sea now. The boat gored through the tumbling waves
which sometimes seemed to halt its movement momentarily.
The more the rolling waves battled the boat the more a
few men, many women and all the children felt nausea.
The boat flew high with the waves and plummeted into the
troughs. The horror of the sea which had gripped Seydou
when they left port now turned into an exhilaration even
though the tossing and the lifting and the descent
filled him with some trepidation. On the vast ocean the
boat seemed like a shack at the top of a huge volcanic
mountain. The dormant mass could burst into life at any
moment and blow the poor thing into smithereens. Allah
became greater than Seydou had ever imagined Him. Really
a human being was insignificant compared to the universe
and its Maker.
Soon one of the
skippers pointed to something far ahead and clutched his
head. The other squinted into the distance and sighed.
The passengers craned their necks and peered ahead too.
matter?” Seydou asked but everybody was busy scanning
the infinite distance.
When they got
nearer, Seydou understood. The dream of some immigrants
had ended in the sea. During crossing, people die either
of thirst, hunger, or drowned when their boat capsized
as with these people. Dots of bodies danced on the
tumbling water and the inflatable dinghy seesawed
farther away. Seydou sighed deeply. He whispered some
sura and rubbed his finger downwards over his face. Life
is nothing but a mirage. May Allah have mercy.
Stories of such
catastrophes at sea were rife in North Africa. Bodies
reduced to skeletons have been found on the decks of
rafts fifteen nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa
and as far away as Barbados in the Caribbean. Sometimes
when the captain loses direction and food and water run
out, the survivors throw the bodies of the unfortunate
passengers overboard. Cold is another factor of
mortality. When the sun descended behind the western
horizon and its rays died over the surface of the rough
sea, the cold pierced them like pins. The passengers
fetched heavy clothing and cocooned themselves into
The weather got
worse the next day with high winds. The engine which had
been whining erratically in the night, suddenly
sputtered and died out. Seydou took a look at the sea,
all that expanse of tossing water around him, and his
eyes widened. He wondered how deep it was here.
Bottomless, it must be. He began to shiver. Why didn’t
this happen somewhere near the coast? They may be able
to swim to shore or be picked up by fishermen. He
recalled from television news immigrants who had run
into trouble just off the coasts and were rescued. He
pitied them for not making it to Europe but now he knew
they were rather lucky people. How was one to survive
here? He peered around for any merchant ship or
sea-going fishing vessels which often picked up
distressed immigrants but he found only water within a
circular horizon covered with a powder blue sky.
The captain and
his assistant got to work. Everybody prayed hard. Most
of the men tried to appear stoic; fright was clearly
written into the haunted looks of the women and
children. While the captains troubleshooted the engine
the boat pitched and tossed wildly. Seydou prayed the
waves didn’t carry them deeper into sea. He wished they
would blow them to shore as it did bloated bodies. But
where was shore and how far was it?
“We’ve found the
failure,” the captain announced and everybody cheered.
watched them tinkering with the machine and soon the
fault was repaired and they cheered wildly when the
engine coughed into life again. The elderly captain
showed all his big, strong teeth. The North Africans
burst into a song of joy, clapping hands. The women
ululated. Seydou sighed and wished no mishap will happen
By the evening,
some of the children became sluggish and could only
whimper faintly because of the difficult crossing and
the erratic feeding and the lack of enough potable
water. And in the night the boat was caught in a storm,
the worst cause of sinking. Even the captain shook his
head. He cut off power as the mad waves tossed, heaved,
lashed, spun, and squeezed the small craft. Seydou knew
it was finished now. Did this happen to everybody? How
could his parents know he was dead? He began to snivel,
burying his face in the sleeves of his overcoat. Many
people felt queasy now and vomited freely. Hours later
the yowling over the sea ceased and it became calmer
than a lake. The captain rubbed his palms three times
down his long, sunburnt face and continued the journey.
Seydou again confided his fate to Allah.
In the night
Seydou could hardly close his eyes. The engine whined;
the erratic movement of the boat did not reassure him.
They sang to keep awake and to boost their morale. On
the third day, a-year-old boy became frail and two young
girls appeared drained of strength. Shortly before noon
the boy kept his eyes closed and breathed spasmodically.
Then he showed no signs of life. The mother yelled his
name. The parents turned him this way and that way. Then
they shook their heads. The mother clutched the body and
squalled over it, screeching boy’s name. The father tore
the body from the mother’s clutches, tossed it out to
sea and crumpled in tears. The others tapped him gently
on the back. Seydou had yanked his head aside in order
not to witness the sea swallowing the body. Yet the
image impinged on his mind and refused to go away. The
parents of the girls stared with compassion at their
daughters who lost energy with the passing hours until
at night, they also had to be flung overboard by their
parents in despair. Seydou shivered. Never had he
imagined he would witness these scenes.
“We’re getting close to Pantelleria,”
the younger captain announced by the middle of the
The passengers cheered wildly and
gave each other high fives. Some thumbed the skippers
who grinned widely, the triangular marks around their
“But there’re four dangers,” the
captain announced and the smile snapped out of the
“The first is the rocky and jagged
nature of the coasts of Pantelleria,” he said.
“Shipwrecks on the reefs are common.” He steered the
craft now while staring widely about for the Italian
coast guards,--the second danger. When he was assured
they didn’t run that danger, he now approached the coast
cautiously, skirting the ridges of clumps of coral near
to the surface of the sea. Seydou stared at those sharp
teeth which could rip a ship’s keel like a new blade
slashing through a sheet of paper. Others sighed but he
still held his breath when they slid through a gap in
the reefs: it wasn’t uncommon for the waves to ram boats
against the rocks which splinter them into pieces like
dried wood whacked against a boulder.
The passengers had contributed $20
each for the captain so that he did not force them to
swim ashore. Seydou murmured.
An Algerian beside him shook his
head. “Many people, especially those who couldn’t swim,
simply sank to the bottom with their dreams. Some crew
members even stabbed passengers or threw them overboard
when they refused to disembark way from the coast
because they couldn’t swim. This is a kind pilot.”
Seydou felt grateful; he hated why
they should be made to brave such dangers simply for a
little decent living.
When Seydou waded out of the shallow
water and set foot on dry land on the island of
Pantelleria, only one thing was uppermost in his mind:
disappear as quickly as possible from the shore. For the
fourth danger was to be picked up by the police.
Deportation was automatic. He must also quickly look for
the train station and go north to Sicily. Meanwhile it
was everyone for themselves as individually or by
affinity people scuttled all over. Seydou felt sorry for
the weak women and especially for parents whose children
had gotten sick at sea. But was there time for empathy?
Their clothes still wet from wading
to shore and clinging to their emaciated bodies, Seydou
and six other Sub-Saharan Africans roamed along the
sides of the street which curved round the island. Using
French, English, and some Italian, they asked for the
train station. People raised their eyebrows at them.
Unknown to them, no trains ran in the small Italian
islands like Pantelleria. Meanwhile they continued to
ask their way to a hypothetical station.
What Seydou and his fellow travellers
also ignored was that the more they went round looking
for a train to safety, the more locals spotted them and
informed the police. Seydou and his friends were heading
towards the center of the island when they heard sirens
wailing in their direction and feverishly looked for a
place to hide. The North Africans, less numerous, were
nowhere to be found. The dozen police vans had hardly
screeched to a halt beside them when burly policemen
stepped out and bounded after them.
Seydou whimpered as the police car
whisked them to a reception center. There their
identities were taken. The police next threw them into
detention for two weeks awaiting expulsion back to the
last country of departure. Seydou heard some people
managed to escape during custody but wondered how they
did it and if he should, where he could go to.
So far as he was
not going to be sent home, Seydou stopped worrying and
recovered his health through the medical care offered at
the center. He was also putting on more weight than he
had lost before and during the crossing to Pantelleria.
In the next few
days, the Italian authorities subjected them to
questioning and finally decided to expulse them.
Seydou’s eyes widened but he did not give up hope. So
far as they were not sending him back to Ouagadougou, he
would come back to Europe. The short time Seydou had
spent on Italian soil, even though behind bars, further
convinced him that Europe was where life was. If he
could live so well in captivity then what wouldn’t
freedom offer him?
The Italians flew him and other
immigrants back to Tunis. He had only $180 in his
pocket. He booked into another cheap hotel. Then he
clomped over to the agency and recounted his experience.
The traffickers, who were not known to be compassionate,
sympathized with him and offered him job as tout on
commission basis. Seydou worked for three months and
thought it was high time he tried his luck from Morocco.
How else could he pay back and thank his mother for her
sacrifice and the others who lent him money for the
trip? Trying one’s luck once again was not a question of
choice; it was like being ransomed at gun point. After
all he was young and energetic and he needed to work and
live. Where else to realize them than in Europe?
Seydou left Tunis
one fine Sunday morning over the long Algerian coast and
disembarked at the Algerian border town of Maghnia from
where local guides led him and other immigrants through
detours across the border to the Moroccan border town of
Oujda for $100 per head.
He had learnt that thousands of
Sub-Saharan immigrants camped at Bel Younès, Gourougou
and the university campus at Oujda. He would go to join
those in the wooded hills of Gourougou facing the
Spanish enclave of Melilla. There, one needed only to
vault from the Moroccan to the Spanish side without
crossing any sea. But the Moroccan soldiers, the barbed
wires erected by the Spanish in 1990 and the Spanish
guards constituted formidable obstacles. These obliged
the immigrants to hide in the forest waiting for a
hypothetical opportunity to rush across.
In the damp forest
Seydou asked for citizens of his country and he was led
to a pair called Hilaire Tapsoba and Issa Nebie. Hilaire
had left Burkina Faso two years before through Niger,
Libya, Algeria before landing in Morocco. Issa had
travelled a year later through Ouagadougou, Niamey,
Algiers, and Nador.
“How’s home?” they
wanted to know.
“The same old story,” Seydou said.
misery, political scandals,... ”
Issa shook his head sadly. “It’s
impossible to succeed in this impoverished continent, ”
he lamented. “All’s rotten.”
“We’re well organized here,” Issa
said. “Each nationality has its own chieftain and a
council of chiefs. These two elect the supreme chief of
the forest. You can’t live here without receiving the
assent of the Burkinabe Chief.”
They passed by makeshift mosques.
People nailing rough ladders, weaving coarse ropes and
sculpting bludgeons in front of their tents answered
their greetings gaily. Then they arrived at the chief’s
“You’re welcome to the stepping-stone
to Europe,” the Chief said. “All I ask of you is to
respect our regulations.”
The Chief nodded to his linguist who
read the bye laws and collected a tax of $50 from
“Now you belong to the Burkinabe
community of the Gourougou forest,” the Chief said.
“Live here in peace.”
“The Chief didn’t mean make this
forest your final destination,” Issa joked on their way
“Of course,” Seydou said.
said. “Our objective is to go over there.” He pointed
towards the Spanish territory. “A Malian friend of ours
who had spent almost two years in this forest living
like a rat is now somebody in Barcelona.”
something flutter in his chest. Europe pulled him like a
strong magnet and his determination to overcome all
obstacles and go there got heightened.
Life in the forest was hard. The
immigrants huddled in tents in improvised camps without
water nor electricity and lived by their wits. Some
begged in town for something to eat and the most
desperate rummaged for leftovers from dustbins. The
nights were bitingly cold—although they went to sleep
bundled up in warm clothes—and the days damp. Some
occupants had developed skin diseases. Others had
swollen feet and most looked emaciated. Nobody sought
With the passing days, the immigrants
talked insistently about crossing over. Seydou told
himself that Allah had brought him at the right time.
One evening they decided to force their way.
They waited till the Moroccan patrol
guards had gone a little way ahead from the Rostrogordo
check point in Moroccan territory.
Then a thousand desperate people
began throwing stones at them. Surprised and fearing for
their lives, the soldiers scampered away. The immigrants
surged towards the wall of the enclave which is
completely surrounded with two metallic barriers,
separated by a distance of five meters; the barriers
standing three to five meters high with barbed wires
running across the top. The immigrants ignored these
hurdles as well as the observation posts, security
cameras, and fibre optic probes with which the Spanish
Civil Guard equipped the barriers.
Issa and Hilaire clambered over the
first barrier and Seydou followed suit and they leapt
over. Other people, ropes and ladders plopped in between
the two barriers. Seydou picked up a ladder and propped
it against the second barrier. The owner jostled him
away. The immigrants worked feverishly to spring over
the barriers before the alarm rang to alert the Spanish
Seydou was clambering up a ladder
when the alarm shrilled through the air. Defiant cries
went up. In minutes the guards bounded towards them.
They punched on the immigrants and tried to pin them to
the ground. The immigrants bite them and clubbed them
with bludgeons. The guards retreated.
Minutes later the Spanish guards
returned and hurled tear gas at the enraged immigrants.
The immigrants replied with stones. Warning shots burst
from the Moroccans behind them and then from the Spanish
before them. The immigrants forced on. Real bullets
hurtled past now. The wounded and the dying bellowed.
The immigrants who had gone over the wires hoisted their
hands over their heads; Seydou slammed his fist into the
top of the fence and like others between the wires
plunged from the fence and scaled back to Moroccan
territory to join the others and all bolted back into
the dank forest.
“Should we give up so easily?” a
former Rwandan soldier harangued them.
Seydou found himself rushing back to
the barriers with hundreds of bellowing people. He had
bandaged his palms which oozed with blood from the cut
from the sharp wires. Issa and Hilaire were nowhere to
be found. Have they died? Been wounded? Or managed to
jump over? he wondered. During the dire attempt to enter
the Spanish enclave, all his energy had been
concentrated on going over the fence. This time the
immigrants found the Moroccans and the Spanish ready for
any eventuality. Bullets flew towards the immigrants as
they rushed to the enclave. Somebody bellowed and fell
at Seydou’s side. Seydou made an about-turn and bounded
back into the forest.
Seydou’s instincts told him that the Moroccan police
will storm the Gourougou forest and flush out the
immigrants and the events in the next few days proved
Seydou had learnt in Tunis how some
repatriated immigrants abandoned in the middle of the
desert where goats scuffled for paper to chomp had died
of thirst, hunger and cold. No, he wouldn’t perish in
the desert and he couldn’t go back home empty handed
which would be a humiliation not only for himself but
for his family too. He must be gone, now.
From the Tétouan
forests of northwestern Morocco where he had fled,
Seydou learnt that the police arrested everybody in the
Gourougou forest and expelled them by main force and
dropped them in the Algerian desert. The lucky ones were
picked up by Algerian police and transported in buses up
to Tamanrasset prison, and then repatriated to the
border town of Assamaka.
In the next few
weeks hundreds of illegal immigrants in and around Nador
were rounded up by the Gendarmerie royale and the Forces
Auxiliaires and expelled. Immigrants in the Tétouan
forest feared their turn will be next.
The desire to force their way too to
the other Spanish enclave of Ceuta got stronger the more
that anxiety seized them. Any more time lost could be
fatal. Two days later, under the cover of night, about
five hundred illegal immigrants burst out of the forests
and rattled and escaladed the Spanish double walls.
Transfixed by the unexpected sight
the eyes of the Spanish Guardia Civil widened and their
mouths fell open. Before they came out of their stupor,
more than a hundred immigrants had swarmed the fence.
Seydou’s not-yet-healed wounds opened and slowed his
progress up a coarse rope lassoed over the wire fence.
Cursing, he pitched down the fence and skitted back into
the forest. Although disappointed for failing twice to
cross into Spain, he thanked Allah for not being one of
the half a dozen dead or the many arrested. He pushed
deeper into the forest and waited anxiously for day to
The trunks of the
trees could hardly be distinguished from the pervading
darkness when Seydou left the forest and boarded a bus
for Tangiers where he stayed indoors until the hunt for
illegal immigrants died down. He asked from one
restaurant to the other and got work for three months as
a dishwasher in a small one belonging to a Moroccan who
had spent years without papers in the southern French
town of Marseilles. The restaurant owner accommodated
Seydou in an outhouse to the restaurant already occupied
by a Malian employee, Ousman.
They talked about
“Be wary of some
of the traffickers,” Ousman warned.
“Had it not been
for them I’d have been in Europe long ago,” he added
bitterly and pinched his lips.
“Twice they collected money from me to buy supplies only
He should really be careful.
“But I’m somewhat
lucky not to be the hostage of traffickers who promise
to cross people over to Europe and keep them for months
in an apartment hired out to several immigrants for 200
euros a month per head.”
Now that Seydou
had only a month to go on his contract, he and Ousman
followed more closely events concerning immigrants,
especially crossings. All that reached them was bad
The first one
announced by the coast guards said they had intercepted
a small wooden craft equipped with a 40 HP outboard
motor carrying nine illegal Algerian immigrants between
19 and 35 years. They claimed to have paid 60,000 dinars
(about 850 dollars) each for the trip.
The next two weeks
the television showed the skeletal remains of sixteen
illegal immigrants who had died while crossing from the
beach of Zouara in Libya to Italy. The twenty survivors,
rescued by Italian fishing boats off Lampedusa, had been
flown by helicopters to hospital in Palermo in Sicily.
The few survivors, many of whom were suffering from
hypothermia, said their small boat was adrift for twenty
days and for fifteen of them they had neither food nor
water. Some were obliged to drink the salty sea water to
quench their thirst.
A week later forty
sub-Saharan illegal immigrants, including a dozen women
and children, were saved off Boujdour in Western Sahara
by Moroccan security forces who had sighted their
drifting canoe. Barely three days later the wilaya or
super governorat of Laâyoune, the county town of Western
Sahara, announced the arrest of forty-five other
Sub-Saharan immigrants attempting to cross to Europe.
Although determined, Seydou began to wonder if he would
ever have the opportunity to go across the 15-kilometer
Straits of Gibraltar.
Seydou!” Ousman called excitedly one evening on his
return from town.
drawled, a little vexed.
“Some men are
organising a boat trip across the Straits of Gibraltar,”
he announced with a wide grin.
cried and they rushed to a Moroccan organizer and paid
$850 each for a place on an inflatable dinghy.
The twelve-meter boat left the
Moroccan shore two days later without any navigational
instrument. Despite the short distance Seydou was
worried because the weather wasn’t so good. Besides, the
captain said they had to take a detour to avoid Moroccan
coast guards. Ousman, who couldn’t swim, kept staring at
the water with wide eyes and whispering something.
Seydou kept peeking at the hawser coiled on the deck.
The outboard engine had been laboring
to push the dinghy for about fifteen miles. Then when
the skipper altered course towards Spain the din rose in
the engine and then ebbed. Fifteen minutes later the
rough sea silenced it. Again? Seydou howled in his head.
Why are the skippers so careless about their engines?
The captain and his assistant fiddled with the engine
for a long time. Then the captain straightened, sighed,
and shook his head.
“We can’t repair it,” he announced.
“It’s the end! It’s the end!” Seydou
and the other passengers threw their hands over their
heads and wailed.
Saltspray rendered the sea misty and
one couldn’t see farther than a few meters. The boat
began to drift and Seydou wondered if he was going to be
one of the numerous anonymous dead. For the first time
he regretted for his desire to illegally enter Europe.
He was furious against the sea, enraged against the
organizers, incensed against the captain, mad against
African leaders, seething against poverty, angry against
the world but doused the idea to be vexed against his
parents for bringing him into such a cruel world. Seydou
saw Ousman glare at the heaving water around them,
dropped his head into his palm and rocked with tears
like a lost child. Some passengers appeared wide-eyed
and only a few kept their calm. But Seydou knew that
like him everybody dreaded drowning in the sea and hoped
for a miraculous rescue. Instead they drifted till night
came. The waves began to tower higher and pitched the
craft. They clutched to the dinghy for dear life. Ousman
had been shaking like a leaf in a storm. Suddenly he
cried and they heard a splash.
“Ousman!” Seydou cried. He turned
madly, rocking the boat. The others hollered at him.
“Capitaine, fais quelque chose!”
“Quoi, par exemple? ” the captain
asked quietly, anger perceptible in his voice.
Seydou slammed down his fist and
stared where Ousman had tumbled into the water. Although
the night was a bit clear, one couldn’t see far. Seydou
sighed loudly, his chest heaving with pain.
The next evening, the waves became
higher and more tumultuous. Nobody talked to the other.
Each grappled with their own thoughts.
Night soon came,
and clearer than the day before; the waves pounded the
dinghy, threatening to overturn it. Seydou and the
others clutched the side of the small boat, their hearts
beating wildly. High waves pounded the deck now. Soon
the passengers found themselves knee-deep in chilly
water. The cold, which had been entering them through
the wind, now essentially crept up their bodies from the
legs. A huge roaring wave dashed towards the hysterical
passengers perched precariously on the bobbing boat and
crashed into the larboard. Seydou reached for the
hawser. The wave heaved the boat high onto its crest,
threatening to hurl the screeching passengers overboard,
and then plunged it into a trough. The craft was still
tilted towards the bow when a second wave smashed into
it, overturning it and flinging the passengers into the
When he surfaced gasping for breath,
Seydou found himself still grasping the hawser. He
glimpsed people thrashing in the frothing water,
hollering; some surfaced and others went down never to
appear again. Two people swam away from the boat. Why
had he been so stubborn to cross over to Europe to
suffer this fate? the thought flitted through his mind.
He cursed his situation back home which, had it not been
so bleak, wouldn’t have landed him in this raging water
threatening to suck him into its bottomless depths. He
didn’t notice the few others gripping the boat. The
night wind whipped them, numbing them, freezing them.
Several times Seydou thought he had let go of the rope
and seized with panic came back to himself only to find
his fingers closed tightly around the rope. They bobbed
in the sea, the waves throwing them about until day
Slowly the sun came out and the water
began to warm up. Three other passengers clung to the
dinghy. Seydou found himself sobbing and pining for
rescue. He believed he couldn’t survive another night.
Hunger and thirst began to weaken
Seydou; he thought he couldn’t keep on longer than a few
hours. He kept his eyes tightly closed and tried to
pray. He found his mind blank instead. Now Seydou knew
it was his fate to die in the sea. Many times fatigue
made him seem like letting go of the rope but strangely
he clamped at it. He shut his eyes and snapped the
danger from his mind. Hours later he heard his fellow
passengers crying as if for help. Seydou opened his eyes
to see a lifeboat approaching them. He began to wave
feverishly too, bellowing with the others: “Save us!
Save us! Save us!”
Anyone who had felt his kidney
bursting with urine but had contained it knows how
difficult it is to do so once one approaches the WC.
Seydou felt his fingers uncurling around the rope and he
began to sink. He felt somebody grab him by the collar
of his overcoat. “Merci! Merci!” he whispered and closed
his eyes as the trawler men fished him out of the water.
Then all went blank.
Spanish authorities airlifted the survivors to the port
city of Algecira. When he woke up in the hospital,
Seydou felt thankful. Learning that he was on European
soil his mind was taken over by a single obsession:
apply for political asylum. But for the moment he shook
uncontrollably and could hardly lift himself up.
“Are the other survivors okay?” he
asked a nurse in the evening.
She nodded and forced a smile. Later,
Seydou learnt that two of the survivors were in coma and
one had died immediately on admission. Two days later
one of the two in coma also succumbed. Seydou counted
himself lucky. Not only lucky to be alive but above all
lucky to be on Spanish soil.
A week later, when Seydou had been
walking around for some days, a police car whisked him
and the other survivor to a reception center. There
their identities were taken and they were allowed to
walk about. North and South Saharan illegal immigrants
filled the center. While most had hopes of being allowed
to stay, a few schemed to escape into town and disappear
eleswhere into Spain or other parts of Europe.
They got a warm
bed and the food was the tastiest Seydou has ever eaten.
Only they felt cramped in the rooms yet Seydou wondered
why some were so feverish to abscond from the camp. Now
that he was in Europe he threw away his cares and joined
the others to play football most of the time. Life was
beginning to be fun and Seydou often got lost in reverie
A few days later
the police took some of them to their headquarters.
“If you cooperate
with us you’d remain in Spain,” a plain-clothes man
Seydou knew it was
dangerous to tell the police the whole truth; he
fantasized answers in preparation for political asylum.
“Which routes did
“The Sahara and
Morocco,” he said.
“Who funded you?”
“I worked my way.”
“Who are the
smugglers in North Africa and Europe?”
only with their intermediaries.”
“Don’t know any.”
The police whisked
them back to the camp. The others trooped around them
and wanted to know what had transpired. Seydou and his
colleagues told them. They suspected deportation.
There’s nothing an immigrant dreads more than that.
Restlessness seized the detainees.
A week later
Seydou was woken up in the morning and asked to pack his
“Are we going to
be allowed to stay in Spain and work?” someone asked the
policemen as they strode down the corridor to the exit.
policeman nodded. The immigrants cheered and climbed
happily onto the bus. But when taken to the airport,
they gaped at each other.
“You’re going to
be transferred to Malaga where there’s a lot of work,”
the police chief explained.
They cheered and
gave each other high fives. But as the hours passed by
they stared at each other with furrowed brows. The
flight was taking too long, and they guessed the Spanish
might have tricked them. Their eyes widened and they
threw their hands over their heads when they came out of
the plane and saw policemen with arabic features.
They had been repatriated to North
Africa. Seydou found himself in Rabat, the Moroccan
capital. He wept
uncontrollably but the Moroccan security personnel
shoved them into busses which rumbled them away.
Now, he had
nothing in his pocket. Even if he was released by the
Moroccan police—which he doubted—he would find it
difficult to survive. But should he have his chance he
would renter Europe, this time through a West African
“Where did you
enter Morocco from?” the police asked him the next day.
Seydou presumed he
would be deported where he came from. The longer and
riskier maritime route to the Canary Islands from West
Africa had become increasingly popular after the points
from North Africa had been cut off by increased patrols.
“Mauritania, ” Seydou
The next day, the
police hauled Seydou and other illegal immigrants in
buses to the Western Saharan border town of Galtat
Zemmour from where they crossed over with a lot of
difficulty to the Mauritaian border post of Bîr Moghreïn
with the help of a black Mauritanian called Mohammed,
himself one of the deportees. Mohammed suggested they
work in the fishing industry to make money for the trip
from Nouadhibou—a port city 470 kilometers north of
Nouakchott on the extreme northwestern edge of
Mauritania—to the Canary Islands.
For three days
they bumped over 500 kilometers of desert land in a
large stuffy van which went round the eastern and the
southern borders of Western Sahara to arrive in
Nouadhibou. The city teemed with thousands of illegal
immigrants waiting for a chance to go to the Canary
Mohammed and Seydou found work as
deckhands on a fishing trawler. Anytime they went out to
sea, Mohammed and Seydou joked that they were on a
training period for the crossing to the Canary Islands.
The work on the
trawler was hard, the food poor and the pay scanty. At
times Seydou resented the Mauritanians for giving him
the dirtiest and the hardest chores.
“Plus vite! Plus
vite!” they shouted at him to work quicker, calling him
slave; but he had no choice; this was the price to pay
for the final journey to Europe. Mohammed did not
receive any better treatment. Seydou wondered why
light-skinned people loathed dark-skinned ones and why
the dark color had become such a bane for his kind.
They would go to
sea and after weeks bring back the catch. Seydou began
to like the life on a boat and wondered why he had hated
the sea. At shore Seydou learnt that the immigration
mafia, whose business dwindled because of the increased
police surveillance of North African shores, were now
using West African countries such as Sierra Leone,
Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and to a lesser
extent Mauritanian for crossings to Europe.
But as usual
tragic stories of crossings also kept reaching
Nouadhibou. Despite these, the gain, Seydou told
himself, was worth the risk. In Tenerife, where banana
fields stretch far to the horizon, he learnt there was
plenty of work. Even if he didn’t find work in the
fields, he could do so on one of the many construction
sites or on a fishing trawler. In Spain, he was told,
there was work to be had. If he could get a job, he
thought, he could help his family with money. Maybe
One evening the
television announced that thirteen bodies of Moroccans
had been found on the coast of Boujdour. The others were
Sub-Saharan immigrants were found dead a week later,
north of El-Ayoun, county town of Western Sahara, when
their boat capsized.
conditions were blamed for these accidents. All the
same, in the following weeks, canoe loads continued to
head for the Canary Islands.
“A friend informed
me that some boatmen are going on a fishing boat to the
Canary Islands in the week,” Mohammed informed Seydou
when they had worked for a few months.
They gaped at each
other. Neither Seydou nor Mohammed had the $600 to pay
the bargain fare. In the next few days Mohammed’s family
in Nouakchott got together and sent him the money.
Spurred, Seydou contacted acquaintances in Europe for
100 euros each which five of them sent through Western
Union. He added these to his savings of $150.
They paid the fare
one sweltering evening.
“We need spiritual
preparations before setting off,” Mohammed suggested.
They consulted a
black Mauritanian marabout. The clairvoyant heaped
cowries on a mat and asked them in turns to scoop
handfuls. These he counted in twos and arranged the
remaining piece or two in rows. Then he read the
for the trip are favorable,” he said. “I’ll pray for you
while you’re at sea.”
Mohammed left the marabout in high spirits. As directed
by him they drank black potions and took ritual baths at
three successive midnights. The following days they went
to the central mosque to give alms of clothes, food, and
Before dawn one
cold Sunday morning Seydou and Mohammed climbed aboard
the traffickers’ fishing boat and they soon hit the high
seas. Seydou implored Allah to make this his last
attempt to enter Europe. When day broke, Seydou looked
around him and estimated the number of passengers to be
almost two hundred. Some people went with their wives
They sat shoulder
to shoulder in the bow covered with tents fluttering in
the wind. Behind them provisions of fuel, water, rice,
dried fish, onions, and biscuits were stored in an ice
box for the 1,000 km journey across the Atlantic Ocean
to the Canary Islands which they hoped to reach in five
to twelve days or even more, depending on weather
conditions. Before them was a space for cooking. The
fisherman skipper squinted straight ahead.
The sea was a
placid green sheet. The boat slid effortlessly along.
Seydou interpreted this as a good sign. But soon the sea
became choppy. In the night they prayed for safety and
sang to keep their spirits up. A few times they had to
remain still and try to sleep. Seydou found this
difficult because of the tossing waves and the salt
spray which burnt their eyes, stung their faces, and
lacerated their lips.
After four days of
calm and turbulent sailing they came alongside Dahkla in
Western Sahara. Now gale winds and rough seas met them
and the boat rocked and pitched. Giant waves three
meters high lashed against the boat. Seydou shivered.
This delayed their progression for about two days and
their food and water, calculated to last two weeks, had
already gone half-way. They thrust through the high sea
and it was not long after that they saw three bodies
dangling on the water. Everybody prayed for safety.
Seydou shrugged as the captain swung the boat towards
the coast to avoid the sight of any more bodies but not
too close to the land to be sighted by the Moroccan
On the ninth day,
when they were not far from Boujdour, they ran into bad
weather again. Giant waves rose and tumbled all around.
Some banged the top of the boat with a boom. That
obliged the captain to reduce power and later to veer
towards the Moroccan coast.
“If this should
continue,” the captain said, “we’d be forced to dock in
Morocco to save our lives.”
God forbid, Seydou
said to himself. Everybody prayed for the contrary.
The wind freshened
after some time and the skipper altered course into the
sea again, cruising away from La’youn.
Soon they spotted
a cargo ship in the distance and the captain swerved
away from it. Since canoes, dinghies, and boats of
illegal immigrants began to capsize on the way to the
Canary Islands, big ships often approached such small
boats which appeared to have problems to offer them help
or to inform the Moroccan or Spanish authorities to
rescue them. That also meant the end of the journey. On
such occasions they would appreciate help but now they
had to shun it.
Two weeks had
passed and they were now barely off the coast of Tarfaya
in the south of Morocco. They had been rationing food
and water since three days and now ate and drank once a
day and everybody was beginning to feel hunger and
“Anyone who dies
will immediately go overboard,” warned the captain,
waving into the sea.
grumbled and squeezed their faces. The captain shrugged.
But soon they were
smiling as they approached the island of Fuerteventura.
Not long after their grins snapped out when a speed boat
tore through the water towards them. The Spanish
authorities intercepted the boat and directed it to
Seydou and the
passengers went ashore under guard, dehydrated and
exhausted. Bathers on the beach gawked at them.
Everything reeled as Seydou went on his knees and kissed
the soil. Their hope, on landing here was to be
transferred to continental Spain. The healthy immigrants
clambered into police cars and six passengers who showed
serious signs of hypothermia were rushed to hospital.
The police drove
Seydou and his friends to the La Esperanza center where
they were taken charge of like thousands others already
there. Each day hundreds of new immigrants arrived.
Spanish wish you Africans could stay here and help us
catch up economically, the way Italy did using illegal
migrants,” a social worker told Seydou and some friends
“We’ve no identity
documents, we’d be allowed to stay, wouldn’t we?” a
shrugged. “I don’t decide,” he said. “That’s for the
police.” Then he advised them that should they be
released, they must work honestly and not get involved
in any shady deals.
Seydou and his
friends thanked him and the hope of staying in Europe
burned stronger in their hearts.
As the days passed
the immigrants stuck more to the radio. The news that
the Spanish authorities were negotiating with West
African governments for the repatriation of the
immigrants in the Canary Islands made them gnash their
governments can’t provide for us and when we manage to
come where life is they scheme to have us repatriated to
suffer,” a Senegalese complained bitterly. “They’ll
learn the lesson when crime increases.”
“Would they care?”
another Senegalese said. “As for me I’ll go into farming
if they send me back. I wouldn’t want to end up in
“What kind of
governments are these?” Mauritanians and Senegalese
wondered when in the following week their governments
agreed with Europe for joint patrols of their maritime
borders. Spanish authorities were also keeping watch
over the ports of West Africa where the immigrants
departed from. Now that the points to paradise were
being sealed, how could they come back should they be
repatriated, Seydou wondered.
Two weeks later
helicopters transferred the immigrants to Gran Canaria.
From there chartered planes flew them back to their
Mauritanian police released him Seydou decided to go to
his businessman uncle in Lome. Distant relatives helping
in his electronic merchandise shop lived in his house
like princes. Often they accompanied him to Dubai where
he buys the items. From Dubai, couldn’t one easily enter
Seydou boarded a
coach headed for Dakar. In three days he hoped to be in
posted 7 September 2007
* * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
What This Cruel War Was Over
Soldiers Slavery and the Civil
By Chandra Manning
For this impressively researched
Civil War social history, Georgetown
assistant history professor Manning
visited more than two dozen states
to comb though archives and
libraries for primary source
material, mostly diaries and letters
of men who fought on both sides in
the Civil War, along with more than
100 regimental newspapers. The
result is an engagingly written,
convincingly argued social history
with a point—that those who did the
fighting in the Union and
Confederate armies "plainly
identified slavery as the root of
the Civil War." Manning backs up her
contention with hundreds of
first-person testimonies written at
the time, rather than
memoirs. While most Civil War
narratives lean heavily on officers,
Easterners and men who fought in
Virginia, Manning casts a much
broader net. She includes
immigrants, African-Americans and
western fighters, in order, she
says, "to approximate cross sections
of the actual Union and Confederate
ranks." Based on the author's
dissertation, the book is free of
academese and appeals to a general
audience, though Manning's harsh
condemnation of white Southerners'
feelings about slavery and her
unstinting praise of Union soldiers'
"commitment to emancipation" take a
step beyond scholarly objectivity.—Publishers
* * *
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update 21 March 2012