An African Odyssey Part VI A Fence Around the Promised Land

The journey covered well over 5,000 kilometers -- and ended at a fence. Only the lucky few manage to get into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta -- or across the sea to the Spanish mainland. Many more die trying.


Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final installment of a multi-part series. You can read the rest of the installments here.

Station 9: Ceuta, 5,515 kilometers covered

Ceuta is as stylish as Nice. The walls are white, there is an abundance of marble and trees are planted in every available corner. The government in Madrid does its utmost to keep this anachronistic enclave in Africa, which has belonged to Spain since 1668, as attractive as possible for Spaniards.

Ceuta has seafood restaurants and tax shelters for the rich. But Ceuta has a deep-running vein of cynicism -- while it may aspire to be a place like Nice, this 18.5-square kilometer (7.1-square mile) patch of Europe sits on African soil.

The fence that divides the continents, separating the rich from the poor, whites from blacks, is eight kilometers (five miles) long as it winds its way up and down the surrounding hills. It begins at the Mediterranean, wraps itself around the city and ends up back at the sea. Soldiers patrol the gray strip of land flanking the fence -- it is hard not to think of Cold War Berlin.

This boundary between two distinctly different worlds is divided into three parts. The fence on the Moroccan side is three meters (9.8 feet) high -- and growing. After the current construction is finished, it will be twice as tall. After the fence comes a five-meter (16-foot) strip of no-man's land, guarded by soldiers and monitored by forty 360-degree cameras. The Spanish side is marked by a six-meter (20-foot) chain link fence, its links spaced closely together to prevent anyone from gaining a foothold. The Spanish fence is topped with razor wire.

The border region will soon acquire yet another deterrent. It's called "sirga tridimensional," and it consists of a maze of steel strips installed vertically, horizontally and diagonally in front of the Moroccan fence. The steel strips will be colorful and tasteful -- modern art to deter the Africans from reaching the fence in the first place.

As he was wandering through Ceuta in January 1996, John Ampan came across a church called Santa Maria de Africa. The pastor, Padre Bigar-Sanchez, took him in, found him a spot in a refugee camp and gave him meals in return for Ampan cleaning the church and learning Spanish. The padre contacted Padre Andres, a fellow priest in Spain. Anyone who had made it to Ceuta and managed to secure an invitation could travel to Spain legally. The invitation arrived in March.

John Ampan reached Algeciras in April 1996, where he lived with Pater Andres for the next four months. He learned Spanish at "Algeciras Acoge," a non-governmental refugee assistance organization.

Pater Andres had a friend in Lerida, a town located about 120 kilometers (76 miles) west of Barcelona. John went to Lerida and found work, initially on a fruit plantation, where he was paid five euros an hour, and later with a construction company. He rarely wrote home. By then the connection had already been lost.

What could he tell them? And what did he consider home?

John Ampan's African truths:

In Africa there are no relationships between people without ulterior motives. People always want to know how a relationship can benefit them and what they can get out it.

Station 10: Algeciras, Spain, 5,565 kilometers covered before reaching the final destination

We are back in Algeciras, at John's orange row house with its green mailbox and its barred windows. The number 25 is painted on a tile next to the door. John cooks a meal and his girlfriend Isabel remains silent. The television set is on in the background. We make a call to Ghana to report on the trip.

We drive to see Andres, the priest who helped and cared for John when he first arrived in Spain 10 years ago, helped him find work and became his friend and almost a father figure. Pater Andres is the man for whom John's son Andres, who was born in Europe, was named.

Today fifteen men sleep on wooden bunk beds in the room in which John spent his first four months in Algeciras. Life in paradise is just beginning for these men. Pater Andres is an eccentric-looking man with a full beard and curly hair. He wears glasses and a red cardigan, and his eyes are warm. People who have traveled thousands of kilometers to reach a continent like Europe need someone like the 65-year-old Pater Andres Avelino Gonzales Perez, someone to give them blankets, to give mothers diapers for their children and to help families find their first house in their new world. Pater Andres has been doing this for the past 30 years, since the day a group of tourists spotted a capsized wooden boat drifting offshore.

There is a wooden cross high up in the mountains near Tarifa, a vantage point that offers a view across the sea to Africa. An inscription on the cross reads: "In memory of the immigrants who died in the straits." Aid organizations in Algeciras estimate the number of dead since 1990 at 15,000. "The direction is changing, but migration will always exist," says Pater Andres, "after all, migrating in times of need is a fundamental right of free human beings."

The last boat, at least the last one that was noticed, sank just a few weeks before this report came out -- a rubber dinghy with 22 people on board.

The 22 corpses were found on a beach along the Costa del Sol. No one knew where they came from.


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