Sign in to comment!



5 years after crisis in Spanish enclave in North Africa, a different conflict simmers

MELILLA, Spain (AP) — In this crowded and muggy speck of Europe perched on Africa's shoulder, with the Mediterranean to one side and gigantic Morocco to the other, a person might be forgiven for going a little stir crazy.

The few aircraft that come to this far-flung Spanish enclave are smallish, noisy prop planes that bank gut-wrenchingly to negotiate a short runway. The drone of propellers over deep blue sea is a throwback to another era of travel, like going somewhere stuck in time.

Border crossings are often tense places, but perhaps more so at this loud, dirty and chaotic conduit point between Europe's wealth and Africa's poverty. Every day more than 30,000 Moroccans trudge into Spain to do menial labor or shop, often smuggling goods back home — everything from booze to toilet paper — hiding it in their clothes or cars to dodge customs.

In 2005, Melilla endured a humanitarian crisis as several thousand sub-Saharan migrants scaled razor-wire fences to enter the city from Morocco, pouring across by the hundreds day after day over the course of two weeks and raising tensions between Madrid and Rabat.

Today, that crisis has gone away but an older conflict between Spaniards and Moroccans has flared again: tension at the Melilla border crossing as Moroccans try to eke out a living with help from the richer sister city just a few tantalizing meters (yards) away.

On the Moroccan side, the first town manages somehow to be dusty and muddy at the same time, with deep brown puddles of foul, stagnant water. Paint peels from faded salmon-colored apartment blocks where pots of dying flowers sit by unscreened windows thrown open to stifling heat. People have bad teeth, or few at all.

And everywhere, roaming the streets or hunched in the shade outside dingy little grocery stores, are gaunt, rough-looking young men who appear to have nothing to do. A lot of them look high on something.

If the people of Melilla suffer from cabin fever, it probably got worse over the past 10 days as Morocco — which claims sovereignty over this city and another Spanish enclave — twice allowed a protesters' blockade of the Melilla border preventing truck deliveries of fresh produce and fish, a staple of the Melilla diet. It's been an odd midsummer crisis.

The flap — sparked by repeated Moroccan allegations of brutality and racism by Spanish border police dealing with Moroccans entering the city — was put on hold Wednesday with a pledge by the handful of demonstrators who launched it to refrain from any more strangleholds until the Muslim holy month of Ramadan concludes next month.

Along the way, the dispute prompted a phone call between the countries' kings to try to ease tensions — it did not — and worries that ties might sour between two allies that work together on key issues like fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the two countries have been in further contact and he now considers the case closed. "It would be going too far to call it a diplomatic crisis," Moratinos said Friday.

Here in Melilla, a centuries-old vestige of the Spanish empire that was once used to ward off Berber pirates in the Strait of Gibraltar, people say skirmishes at the frontier passage are nothing new but this time the Moroccans let things escalate. Why they did so is anybody's guess.

Among locals, theories abound: Morocco wants to ensure continued Spanish support for its efforts to hold onto the disputed Western Sahara; Morocco's government has internal problems and raised this fuss as a diversionary tactic; or maybe it wants more European aid money and is badgering Spain as a way to get it.

The Moroccan government has not said anything publicly about the blockade, nor returned calls seeking comment. Spain's interior minister might be enlightened when he visits the Moroccan capital Rabat on Monday.

The border crossings at Melilla and the other Spanish enclave in North Africa, Ceuta, constitute the only land borders between the two continents.

The locals and many in mainland Spain say that in an authoritarian kingdom like Morocco, a few dozen protesters could not have halted trade at an international border without the tacit approval of police, who watched and did nothing. Many call it quintessential Moroccan diplomacy — trigger a crisis, sit back and keep quiet, and hope to reap some kind of benefit in its resolution.

"They confuse, they do not clarify, they leave things up in the air and they drive everybody crazy," said Bernabe Lopez, a professor of contemporary Islamic history and expert on North Africa at Autonomous University in Madrid.

The potential for trouble at the border is seemingly great, because on one side of it there is so much desperation and on the other so much promise.

For the most part, Melilla is a handsome and safe city of 70,000, its avenues lined with palm trees and well-kept, pastel-colored buildings, its residents chattering away at sidewalk cafes serving fried squid, marinated octopus and cold beer.

Natives and Spaniards who come here from the mainland admit living in an isolated city that covers just 12 square kilometers (4.6 sq miles), has only two movie theaters and can be traversed in a 30-minute stroll takes getting used to. University-age youths head to the mainland to study, and try not to come back.

But to leave Melilla and walk across the border into Beni-Ensar on the Moroccan side is to venture into another world altogether. The disparity is so great that the heat, already punishing in Melilla, feels hotter still in Beni-Ensar.

Thousands of Moroccan women work in Melilla as maids, and even here a time warp kicks in: there is a two-hour difference between the towns — it is later in Melilla because Spain keeps its clocks on mainland time. So they have to get up very early to make it to their jobs in time.

For them and others, Melilla is a lure both as a source of work and a place to buy in bulk — everything from second-hand clothes or yogurt to cigarettes and alcohol — and they sneak it back in for resale at a profit. People gut the dashboards or rear seats of decrepit, limping cars to hide stuff, or stash it under the hood next to the engine.

Moroccans can get into Spain with their passport or a special permission card. They generally return home after working or shopping rather than try to live in Melilla clandestinely.

Many Moroccans complain of racism and mistreatment while trying to enter Melilla, with jumpy and insufficiently trained officers who do not speak Arabic or Shelha, the Berber language most common among Muslims in the border region.

Abdelmalik Bouyachfar, a 22-year-old computer student with a soft voice and easy smile, says everybody has a nasty story to tell, but he got his first taste only recently: a bus traveling through Beni-Ensar with a Spanish driver who repeatedly ignored passengers ringing to get off.

"I had heard a lot about racism but this was the first time I actually lived it," he said.

Bouyachfar said local Moroccans fall into two groups over Morocco's claim to sovereignty over Melilla: those who agree and those who say it is best just to leave the city as is, to help poor Moroccans eke out a living.

Were it to become Moroccan, it would just slide into misery like Beni-Ensar, adds Hassan Belcaid, 30, who works in a travel agency that has clients in Melilla.

"Just look around you," he said, pointing to filthy, trash-strewn streets and all those wanderers. Nearby, an emaciated gray cat with only one eye hid under a car. "This is what it would look like."

In Melilla, about 30 percent of the population are Muslims who trace their origins back across the border and the vast majority say they have no interest in joining their poor neighbor.

"We feel Spanish and we are Spanish," said merchant Yusef Kaddur, as he stood under a date palm tree outside the main mosque in Melilla's bustling Muslim quarter.