Border stories: Melilla

I wandered around Melilla during siesta the other day. I drank espresso and brandy in a cafe near the art deco synagogue, then found a tapas bar behind the old bull-ring. The bartender poured me a short draft beer and cut me a few slices of salty serrano ham. In the old city, at the Church of Our Lady of Victory, a priest said a quiet Mass for five Catholics among the statues of weeping virgins and bleeding Christs. And in the Plaza de Espagña, just in front of the city hall and the modernista casino, two dozen illegal migrants lay on the sidewalk weary from their third day of a hunger strike.

Melilla is Spain´s other autonomous enclave on Africa´s Mediterranean coast. It is a fascinating place that takes great pride in its mix of cultures. Christians, Jews, Muslims and a scattering of Hindus all live in relative harmony in the city. Each group sticks to their own, but everyone seemed to get along, and the local tourist board portrays the city as a rare beacon of tolerance.

But everything is not well. Just like Ceuta, Melilla is a popular destination for African and south Asian migrants trying to live the European dream. Once here, however, most find that they are stuck. They languish in the immigrant detention centre, some for years, waiting for passage to mainland Spain. Many end up deported to where they came from. The strikers on the square – Algerians and Indian Kashmiris – are tired of waiting and hope their action speeds things along. Sadly, though, no one is paying much attention.

Melilla´s ´wall´is a high-tech fence that runs for 11 kilometres along the Moroccan border. The green-posted structure leans into Morocco and has a distinct reptilian look. Three high fences are equipped with motion-detectors and barbed wire. A ´moat´seperates the first and second fences is filled with a tangle of steel cables meant to trap jumpers. It is impressive. At one point, a vine of pink flowers breached the barbed wire and were growing across the cables, but since the Spanish erected the fence two years ago, no human has made it through.

The fence is clearly visible from the immigrant detention centre. It is just outside the front gate and across the road. The irony is that the residents of the centre made it into Melilla by circumventing the fence. They paddled in on overfilled boats, strapped themselves under trucks, and stuffed their bodies into the trunks of cars. In a way, they defeated the wall. But now the wall has become a symbol. It is a visible reminder that they are trapped here, not by the fence itself, but by bureaucracy, politics, and poverty. I asked a man at the centre what he thought when he looked across the road at the wall. He was from India and said in imperfect English ¨I feel terrible. I feel like we are bounded here.¨

While I stood outside the centre, an African woman came out of the front gate on a bicycle she borrowed. Her braided hair bounced in a pony tail as she pedalled up the hill in front of the fence. Two of her friends came out to watch. When she reached the top she turned around and coasted back down. She lifted her hands from the handlebars, and her friends cheered her bravery. Once she reached the bottom, she pedaled back up the hill, getting breathless, and sailed down again past the wire, barbs and steel.