Tigers in the Woods

English

Meidling, a suburb in Vienna. The cool wind blows away the remains of the late summer day on the platform. Large yellow letters on the board show the destination – Roma Termini. Vinda briefly embraces his friends, climbs aboard, waves. Then the train departs, leaving nighttime Vienna.

It is one year ago, and it is silent on Monte del Renegado, only the cicadas are singing. »Two of my friends died in the desert,« says Babu. The 25 year old holds his face in his hands and takes a deep breath. When he looks up again there are tears in his eyes. He self-consciously wipes them away and shakes his head. If only he’d known how the journey would turn out, if only someone had told him that he’d be robbed, beaten, imprisoned and humiliated, he would never have been part of it. Babu is one of 54 people from India who came to Ceuta as irregular migrants in 2006, and are now stranded in the Spanish exclave on the continent of Africa, to the north of Morocco. Only the 21km Strait of Gibraltar separates them from their dreams, from the Spanish mainland, from Europe.

Their home is a camp in the woods. It feels a little like a summer holiday camp, but it’s no game for the Indian migrants, it’s hard reality. They’ve spent two years in the Centro de Estancía Temporal para Inmigrantes, a kind of detention centre. It is intended as a reception centre, with social services, for people who have crossed the border illegally. The centre in Ceuta holds 512 people, occasionally even more. Many migrants have been living there for years; Senegalese, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Indians. In April 2008 rumours were going around that the Indians were going to be deported, after two years of waiting. The group has reached a decision, they’re not going to give up without a fight. The Indians flee into the nearby mountains, into the woods on Monte del Renegado.

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The Odyssey lasted two years. It all started in India, with an empty promise. »A man came up to me at the university,« Babu explains. He’d be able to live in the European Union and also be able to work, all legal, the man told him. He’d just have to come up with 8,000 euros. Most of the Indian migrants living in the Ceuta woods come from the northern province of Punjab, a region dominated by agriculture. To finance their sons‘ journeys, their families sold land or went into debt with friends, or the bank. They wanted to allow their young men to seize this chance. They climbed aboard a plane in New Delhi; heading for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

»We were met by men, who took us to a building. We had to give them our passports, for the visa.« Babu looks down at the ground and shakes his head. »We never saw our passports again.« The Indians had fallen into the hands of people smugglers. They spent months in the building in Addis Ababa as prisoners. Then the journey carried on to Burkina Faso, then Mali, then from there into Algeria, and the Saharan Desert. »We were on foot and in cars. We didn’t know when we would get anything to eat or drink, and sometimes the Mafia mixed petrol into the water, so we wouldn’t drink so much. That’s how my friends died.«

The Sahara is one of the most deadly stretches of the journey to Europe for an immigrant; not just because of the dangers posed by the desert, but also because there they are at the mercy of the police. Babu tells how he crossed the border between Morocco and Algeria several times. How often? Eventually he stopped counting, he says. Every time they made it to Morocco, the police came and took them back to Algeria. A phenomenon well known to experts; the Migreurop network of European NGOs quoted Hicham Baraka, president of the Moroccan human rights organisation ABCDS, in their annual report, which appeared in late 2009. In it he talks about a ping pong game between the Moroccan and Algerian border authorities.

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Vinda has a limp. He can’t put any weight on his foot anymore. This morning, as he went out the door, he heard a crack from his leg and realised he’d sprained it. He’d never injured himself during the whole three years he’d been in Ceuta, up and down the pathless slopes of Monte del Renegado, and now he tears his ligament, just as he arrives in Vienna to start work delivering newspapers. He can forget that now, he can’t even climb a staircase in this condition.

The day lies oppressively hot on Ceuta. One of the Indians is carrying a 25 litre bottle of water up the slope. He stops half way, puts the bottle down, and quickly catches his breath. »Pani,« Babu explains, »is a very important word; it means water. It took us seven months to cross the desert, and we never knew when we would get any water.« One of the immigrants comes closer. He has dark skin, and his dark eyes inspire trust. His arm is covered in large, long scars. »The Mafia wanted more money. I didn’t have any, and I couldn’t ring my family to ask them to help me, so they cut me with a machete,« he says.

Most of the Indian migrants are Sikhs, and they have put up a small Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, in one of the camps in the woods. They pray for a better future there every day. Life in the woods is heavy on the nerves and robs them of energy. In the humid summer of 2009 the future doesn’t look very bright. »We’ve been in Ceuta for three years now, and no news ever comes from Madrid. We’re just numbers to the politicians. If they wanted to deport us, why didn’t they just do it in the first few weeks?«

The Indians call Ceuta a Sweet Prison. The desert is behind them, they’re safe, but they’re still trapped in the Spanish exclave. »The worst part is the waiting, not knowing what the future will bring, not to be in control of your own life anymore.« After a short pause, Babu continues and explains that all male Sikhs have Singh as a last name. It indicates the equality, and means something similar to lion or tiger. That’s why the group call themselves Los Tigres del Monte, the Tigers of the Mountain. »We are strong, and we wont give up,« he assures me.

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It’s warm when Vinda arrives in Vienna, after a journey of two days. He set out from Barcelona and has crossed half of Europe to get to Austria. He has friends here, and there is supposed to be work; more than in Spain at least. He spends three or four days in Traiskirchen, where he applies for asylum. There is no other way for him to be in Austria. At this moment he has no idea that he’ll soon be heading back again.

December 2009, winter is making life in the forest unbearable. The cold is a constant companion on Monte del Renegado. Heavy rain has made the earth muddy and the rats shelter in the camp under the roofs. Babu is in town for the day, he has a job. There aren’t many opportunities to make money, to survive. The Indians help drivers park their cars near the city centre, or help people put their shopping in the car in front of supermarkets. They make a few cents this way, sometimes even a euro. The people of Ceuta show a lot of solidarity with the Indian migrants, and many assure me that the young men are always nice and friendly. But this doesn’t change much about their situation; their future is in the authorities‘ hands. The first news from the Spanish government came in September. The Indians were to be brought to the mainland, and their status was to be legalised. Hope. But four months later their situation is just the same, and there hasn’t been any more news.

Then things start happening all at once. Police. Where were they from, did they have papers. Ten of the Indians are taken into custody and spend two nights in Ceuta jail. They are brought in front of a judge on the second day. He has their deportation orders ready. And then came the moment the Indians had been waiting for so long. »I watched the ferries leaving harbour for Europe every day, but I imagined the trip would be different.« He is now in his seat, surrounded by noisy tourists. To his left and his right there is a police officer, he is handcuffed. »No, I never imagined it would be like this,« he says.

In the visitor area of the Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros, a Spanish deportation centre, the mood is subdued. People are talking in low whispers. A glass wall divides the bare room in two. »Ten minutes,« the guard shouts to the visitors, while four figures appear behind the glass. Like a zoo, is the fleeting impression. Babu smiles, says something, but it’s hard to catch the words because it’s gotten loud among the visitors, with everyone wanting to tell something to the person they’ve come to see. »I did a lot of thinking there. In the centre, deportation is no longer a distant possibility,« Babu says, weeks later in Madrid. He spent 58 days in uncertainty, before being suddenly set free. Without papers.

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»I wouldn’t have had a chance in Vienna,« Vinda says unequivocally, »I hardly know anyone there, and I couldn’t work with my busted knee. That’s why I came back to Spain.« He’s sitting in the Gurdwara’s small kitchen, chopping onions while Babu cleans display cabinets in the prayer room. The Indians have found refuge among the Sikh community of Madrid. They spend almost all day in the temple, cooking, cleaning, helping where needed. »I don’t want to just hang around in the city all day with nothing to do. I want to work,« Babu explains. According to Spanish law he is not allowed to work. This law does however allow migrants who have been in Spain for three years, and who can show that they have a contract of employment, the opportunity to apply for a temporary work visa and leave to stay.

»We’ve been in Madrid for a year, and we fulfil all the criteria, but the Indian embassy in Madrid hasn’t given us a new passport,« says Babu. He has been to the Indian embassy many times to try and apply for a new passport, but he keeps getting fobbed off, told to wait for a later date. Ashish Sinha, the second secretary at the Indian embassy claims to know nothing about the case, »Of course we do everything we can for our countrymen. Anyone who needs a passport is provided with one,« he assures me vehemently, »but nobody came and asked for one.« Babu and Vinda are angry. They feel that the authorities are mocking them. »The Spanish tell us we need our passports, but the Indian embassy won’t give us any. Why are they doing this?« The Indians can stay in Red Cross accommodation for another three months; then they have to go somewhere else. But where? »On the street,« Babu says in a whisper, »How are we going to rent a place if we aren’t allowed to work?«

Thirty-four of the Tigres del Monte, including Babu and Vinda, were taken to the Spanish mainland in late 2009. The remaining twenty were still in Ceuta in early 2011. They stayed in the woods until shortly before Christmas the year before. Then they gave up, after almost 1,000 days on Monte del Renegado. They went back to the Centro de Estancía Temporal para Inmigrantes, the centre which had been their first place to stay in Ceuta four years before. The head of the reception centre had promised to do what he could for them, to transfer them to the Spanish mainland. Three weeks later a visitor came. The Indian ambassador. Not a good sign, as the Indians already knew from experience, because a reception centre visit from an ambassador meant a deportation to that country. The visit was to confirm identities, but hope is the last to die. »We will keep on fighting,« Babu says, »for ourselves and for the people still in Ceuta.«

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