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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Seeking Europe's 'promised land'
As hundreds of Africans seek to storm the fences of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa - some dying in the process - the BBC News website's Joseph Winter reflects on his trip to meet the migrants in the Moroccan forests near Ceuta.

Moussa Sakho
Moussa saw no future in his impoverished homeland
Moussa Sakho from Mali said he went "on the attack" every night.

He took a ladder fashioned from branches and whatever else he could get his hands on and tried to get over the imposing double fence topped with razor-wire which separates Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

He usually returned to the mountain camps where he lived with other would-be immigrants - with a few cuts and bruises from the Spanish border police and maybe a lungful of tear gas.

When I met him, he lived in hope that one day, he would strike it lucky.

I have no way of knowing what happened to him - whether he made it, was sent back home, died trying or is now involved in these attempts to rush the fence.

Mali is one of the world's poorest countries and Moussa felt he had no future there.

He dreamt of being able to find a job where he could earn enough to support his family and maybe buy a few luxuries, like a television or even a car.

And he thought he could only do this in Europe - or "Eldorado" as he and the other "comrades" call it.

With visas increasingly difficult to come by and airlines refusing to take people without valid papers, Moussa felt Europe's only land borders with Africa offered his best chance.

Ceuta and nearby Melilla are magnets for thousands of Africans dreaming of fleeing poverty and conflict from across West and Central Africa.

Flea bites

The ones I met were too worried about being found by the police to take me to the camp itself - "the ghetto". But I could see a few patches of blue plastic glinting in the sunlight across the green wooded mountain valley, along with wafts of smoke rising from their fires.

When the wind blew in the right direction, I could also hear the sound of distant singing and chattering.

Men collecting water

Near the pipe where they got water supplies, I met migrants from across West Africa: Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.

Each nationality apparently had its own separate section of the camp but they said their common goal - one Nigerian called it the "promised land" of Europe - united them despite their diverse origins.

I was even told that the "ghetto" had its own laws - thieves for example were punished by being tied to a tree.

Although there was some water, my nose soon told me that this was used for drinking, not washing.

Some had spent several months living rough and the stench was at times difficult to bear.

I did not mention it, but they readily admitted that there was a lack of hygiene. Moussa pulled up his T-shirt to show me the flea bites that covered his body.

No return

But for those with money for the Moroccan people smugglers, there was a menu of alternative ways to reach Spain: 800 euros for getting around the border to Ceuta in an inflatable raft, 600 euros for digging a tunnel or 500 euros for cutting a hole in the fences.

Moussa Sakho's flea bites
Moussa Sakho from Mali shows the flea bites that cover his body
"If we are caught cutting the fence ourselves, we are sent to prison, instead of just being thrown back into the woods," Boubacar Drame from Senegal explained.

After enduring extreme hardship and the ever-present possibility that each day would be their last as they crossed the Sahara desert to reach Morocco, many of those who attack the fences are no longer afraid of dying.

Moussa had seen a close friend from his home village die and did not have the courage to let his family know.

Another migrant - Mamadou Saliou "Billy" Diallo - recalled that after a policeman knocked out his front tooth with a rifle butt as he was trying to reach a tunnel under the fence to Ceuta, he "reached the point of no return".

"I was determined to reach Europe or die trying. After everything I had gone through, I didn't care any more," he said.

So the death of four people trying to storm the fences will not deter those left behind.

'Good odds'

Indeed, the attempt to storm the fence in Ceuta may well have been encouraged by the "success" of a similar attempt in Melilla, further east.

Some 500 people stormed the fence at the same time - about 100 got through and are now being processed on European territory.

Ceuta viewed from Moroccan forest
The would-be immigrants can easily see Ceuta from their homes in the woodland
Another 50 were arrested and 18 were injured, but for these desperate people, those represent good odds.

After similar mass attempts to storm the border several years ago, a second razor wire fence was built around Ceuta and the number of migrants getting through dropped from around 10,000 a year to about 1,500.

Now, Spain says it will send in the army.

But the alternative to trying to get over the fence is the sea crossing, which is far more hazardous, taking migrants either over the Mediterranean Sea to the Spanish mainland or the Atlantic Ocean to the Canary Islands.

The bodies of would-be immigrants are frequently washed up on Spanish and Moroccan beaches after their rickety wooden or inflatable boats capsized.

But unless living standards are raised in Africa, young men and women will continue to risk their lives trying to reach Europe.

"They say that to die once is better than dying 10 times in the face of your parents' pity," says Khalil Jemmah, from the AFVIC group set up to defend the immigrants' rights in Morocco.

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