CEUTA, Spain — When Mamodu Jalloh left Sierra Leone in May, he had never heard of this Spanish enclave on the tip of North Africa, surrounded on one side by the Mediterranean and on the other by Morocco.
Jalloh, 28, wanted only to escape a civil war that has killed thousands, including his father, in his West African homeland.
He made it to Morocco. But Moroccan authorities, eager to be rid of transients from sub-Saharan countries, dumped Jalloh into this seven-square-mile sliver of Spain to join more than 350 other black Africans in the same plight.
Some of the Africans had been marooned for up to two years in Ceuta (pronounced THAY-oota), a predominantly Roman Catholic city of 75,000 people with a sizable Muslim community and smaller groups of Jews and Hindus.
Unlike Arabs who could blend into the city while trying to find passage across the Strait of Gibraltar to Europe, the blacks stood out and were easily kept track of. They were housed in a decaying 15th-Century fort beside the harbor, but were allowed to move around the city.
Ceuta paid little attention to the homeless Africans until they rioted in October, leaving 50 injured and a policeman with a bullet in his chest. The violence was touched off by the Africans’ frustration over the unfulfilled promises of authorities to move them to the Spanish mainland.
The riot stunned the normally calm city, and Ceuta, like border towns in Germany and Texas, was enveloped in heated debates about immigration. Many people voiced fears of uncontrolled waves of unemployed immigrants and demanded action by the national government in Madrid.
Officials sent more than 200 paramilitary officers of the Civil Guard to patrol the city’s border with Morocco. The line previously had been watched by only a handful of officers, making it an easy crossing point for Arabs and contraband, such as drugs, heading for Europe.
Eight days after the riot, the Civil Guard began putting up a barbed wire barrier that will run the length of the five-mile border.
Authorities moved about 150 of the Africans to mainland Spain, where humanitarian groups and city governments are trying to get them temporary accommodations and even jobs. But the remaining Africans were interned in a makeshift tent camp on a wind-swept hillside and put under heavy guard.
Although Ceuta officials say they sympathize with the plight of the Africans seeking a haven from bloodshed back home, they welcome a recently started $25-million border road and wall aimed at curtailing the flow of illegal immigrants. The project is expected to take two years.
“This city is too small and its economy too fragile to absorb these immigrants,” said Mayor Basilio Fernandez. “This situation is likely to occur again unless new policies are put in place.”
Such talk is bewildering to Jalloh, who says he wants only a safe place to live and a chance to work without the fear of war.
“I had no intention to come to Ceuta,” Jalloh said during an interview in the internment camp. “If my country was safe, I would have stayed. I only want to stay alive.”
Many of the young men with Jalloh talked of the painful irony of surviving beatings, hunger and wounds to escape hard times in their native lands only to find themselves in a precarious state again–this time in Spanish Africa.
Tomas Augustine, 30, fled Liberia for fear he would be killed by soldiers trying to force him to join the military.
“I left like a man running from a burning house,” said Augustine, who weaved through Ghana, Nigeria and Niger, often on foot, before being imprisoned and beaten in Algeria. He eventually was taken to the Ceuta border by a Moroccan acquaintance. “But I am afraid to say that things have not gotten much better.”
Augustine, who studied business administration in Ghana, said the internees fear for their safety since the October violence. “We want to go to ‘the peninsula,’ ” he said, using the local term for the Spanish mainland just 60 minutes away by ferry.
For residents of this ancient city, whose occupiers have included the Phoneticians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Portuguese, the riot signaled problems to come.
Many say that as strife continues in Africa and points eastward, more and more illegal immigrants are likely to try to enter Ceuta under the belief that they can gain access to the European continent.
“We know there will be more coming,” said Alejandro Ciriel, local secretary of the General Workers Union, one of Spain’s two main labor federations. “Europe is in the news, so these people imagine there are many jobs here–but that’s not true.”
Nonetheless, the Africans still in Ceuta hope to go to mainland Spain.
Emmanuel Anderson, a 25-year-old farmer from Liberia, remains nervous, wondering what will become of him and whether he will be forced to return home.
“There is no way I will go back–I must go to ‘the peninsula,’ ” he said. “I want to work. I want a future.”