A shorter version of this was broadcast on RTE Radio One’s World Report on July 26
The charity’s office was clean and bare, with two pcs humming on office desks, and some generic charts on the wall. The administrator was apologetic. The director had had to leave for an urgent meeting in the capital, and wasn’t there to meet me. He didn’t know when he’d be back.
I’ve travelled 12 hours across Morocco to meet him, I said. He was sorry, the administrator said. But there was nothing he could do.
Could he take me to the migrant’s camps himself, I asked.
No, he said. The migrants were very distrustful of people they didn’t know. And the security services were watching closely – did I know I was being followed? Since the shipwreck, their organisation had been constantly monitored. He didn’t want to run the risk of being seen taking me to meet the migrants.
The shipwreck was an incident in late April, where 30 or so migrants from sub-Saharan Africa drowned when the small inflatable boat they were using to cross the Mediterranean to Spain sank. Some survivors had been reported as saying that a Moroccan naval officer had caused the boat to sink by puncturing it with a knife. I had travelled to the town of Oujda, on Morocco’s eastern border, with Algeria, on the promise of being brought to meet some of these survivors.
Later that day, I was sitting in a local restaurant, disconsolate, when I met Manuel. He was French, but from Oujda: a sixty-year old son of colonial parents, who had returned to Oujda from France to visit his father’s grave. His visit coincided with a celebration at Oujda’s Catholic church: it had been founded one hundred years ago, at the vanguard of the French colonial drive across North Africa. He invited me along.
At the church, through a series of small coincidences, I met John. John was involved in a church group that provided support to the local population of illegal migrants. Oujda has become a kind of staging post on the long land journey from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. Migrants trekking across Algeria rest in squatter camps in Oujda before attempting the final leg to the coast, and then perhaps a boat to Spain. Others, caught by the Moroccan police or navy on the way, have been “deported” by being dumped in the desert on the Algerian border, and have trekked back to Oujda as the nearest Moroccan town. The main migrants’ camp is in the grounds of the university, and John introduced me to a young Nigerian, Smile, who agreed to take me there.
It was Sunday evening, and the students were ambling down the long university avenue like in any city anywhere, clutching folders or briefcases, or carrying rucksacks or plastic bags, in groups of young men, or women, or mixed, or couples. There are stalls selling sweets and savouries along the avenue, and internet cafés and grocery stores set back from the road. And all along, were small groups of young black men, hanging out.
Smile brought me up to one such group, and introduced me to his brother. We passed a net café and Smile pointed it out – that’s where we go to ‘chat’, he said. We went into a nearby café and I ordered chicken and potatoes and mint teas. And then we were joined by Eric and Kelvin. They had been on the boat that had capsized, they said. They were caught in the middle of the night by the Moroccan navy. A Moroccan naval officer had approached their boat in a small speedboat, and stabbed at the rim of their boat with a knife tied to the end of an oar, they said. The boat capsized. Eric’s wife and four year old daughter drowned. Kelvin’s brother drowned. Eric and Kelvin, amongst 40 or so survivors, had scrambled or been pulled aboard other Moroccan boats, and were then brought to land, and then taken to the Algerian border and dumped in the desert.
We were hunched around a white plastic picnic table at the back of the café, an expanding group of young black Africans, and myself. Another young black man approached, with a mildly threatening swagger. ‘Hey’, he said. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’
I told him I was reporting on the shipwreck.
‘Get that on CNN’, he said. ‘We need the Americans to do something. They need to intervene. Tell the world.’
That night, back in my hotel, Manuel and I toasted my success in getting the story with a bottle of Burgundy he had brought in his suitcase from France.
I wrote the story for the Sunday Tribune, and then tried to place it in the international media. The Independent, the New Statesman, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the BBC World Service, the Counterpunch website. Nobody was interested.
Back in Dublin, I got a call from a Moroccan phone number. It was Smile.
‘Hi Mr Colin. Can you call me back? I don’t have credit.’
I called him back, and called him back numerous times over the next few days. He wanted me to send him some money by Western Union. I knew I would, but didn’t want to appear a soft touch. Eventually, I said I would send him €50 the following Friday. Friday came and went. I forgot, or was too busy, or didn’t prioritise it.
The following week, Wednesday, I think, I made it down to the local net café in Phibsboro with a Western Union sign in the window. I wired €50 to the name Smile had texted me, and then phoned him to alert him. There was no tone on the phone. That was two weeks ago. I have tried a number of times, and there is no tone. He hasn’t collected the money.