Destitute African migrants eke out existence on Moroccan mountain in sight of Spanish enclave

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After traveling thousands of miles from sub-Saharan Africa, destitute migrants who dream of making it to Europe are scraping out a tenuous existence on the rocky slopes of Mount Gourougou, a 900-meter (2,962-foot) peak with spectacular views of their destination — Spain's tiny North African enclave of Melilla.

The migrants live in makeshift tent camps scattered around the mountain while waiting for the best time to storm the barbed-wire border fences surrounding Melilla en mass in an attempt to overwhelm authorities. During a recent visit by an AP photographer, there were camps for migrants from Cameroon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali and Nigeria.

Each community functions as a cooperative. Some migrants tote water from wells, some cut wood from the forest while others head into the nearby towns of Nador or Beni Enzar to beg or dig through the garbage in search of food.

Some days they can pool enough money together to buy a chicken at the market. Other days they return to the camps with only the chicken legs thrown away by traders. All the food is shared.

During April to October, thousands camp out on Mount Gourougou but with falling winter temperatures only about 600 remain now. Moroccan police frequently raid the mountain camps, burning the tents and sending the migrants to the cities of Fez and Rabat to deter them from testing the Melilla fences. But most return and rebuild the camps, because they say they have few if any economic opportunities at home.

Those who do make it across the fences to Melilla are usually held for several months in detention centers on mainland Spain before being released and told to leave the country. Most then make their way to northern Europe and try to find work.

One Malian man gave only his first name, Omar, because he did not want Spanish authorities to know his last name if he was detained. He said he came to the mountain 10 months ago and has taken part in three unsuccessful border-storming attempts so far.

What keeps him going is the knowledge that about 2,000 migrants have made it into Melilla in the 65 border rushes since January, according to Spain's Interior Ministry.

"The Gourougou is not a place for human beings," Omar said. "We live like animals and it is hell. You have to be strong to live under these conditions."