Spain retains political control over two semi-autonomous city states in northern Morocco that are protected by fortress-like fences and high-tech surveillance equipment. Their very existence has prompted allegations of racism and a renewed hold on colonialism. David Meffe reports following a visit to the enclaves.
Somewhere in the lush forest, I realise I’m lost. But given the complex geography, it’s not altogether surprising. There are no landmarks, trails or friendly placards anywhere; at any moment, a chance encounter with a soldier could land me in detention, or at minimum lead to a few awkward questions. Caught along the barrier between two nations plagued with centuries of bloody history and mutual conquests, the dirt beneath my feet is African, but I’m officially still in Spain.
Roadblocks and sentries have forced me into the bush in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the most closely guarded borders in the EU, which just so happens to be in North Africa of all places.
I meet an old man somewhere on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea and ask which way to the seemingly invisible fence. “The border? The border is all around us! Walk in any direction long enough and you will find it,” he says, laughing casually. “But do not let the soldiers see you. There are no photos here; they will think you are a spy.”
Finally, two parallel chain-link fences appear amidst thick greenery and overgrown trees, clearly accustomed to plenty of sunlight. A small asphalt walkway outlines a winding length of no man’s land that stretches off in both directions into the Mediterranean. Both barriers are topped with heavy barbed wire; the Moroccan side is rusted red, while its Spanish counterpart shines with sharp and uninviting clarity. It’s exceedingly clear who is welcome, and who is not.
The feeling is one of latent paranoia, exacerbated by a line of sentry towers manned by vigilant soldiers wielding rifles and binoculars. Along the beach, throngs of soldiers jog in the early morning sunlight, away from the prying eyes of tourists. There is no war; these are peacetime patrols. Their battles are ongoing, their fight is never-ending. Their enemies are swarms of unnamed, unarmed illegal migrants for whom the border demarcates more than the partition between two nations. It is the division between two separate worlds, just close enough to home to be worth fighting over.
The last Spanish colonies
Though both Spain and France recognised Moroccan independence in 1956, following a long period of colonisation, the Spanish retained political and economic control of Ceuta and Melilla, two port cities in the north of the newly founded country.
Today, both remain overseas territories that use European currency and have Mayor-Presidents; they hold the title of semi-autonomous cities, giving them a rank between a standard city and an autonomous Spanish community like Andalusia or Catalonia. Ironically, Ceuta and Melilla function much on the same Finders, Keepers principle as Gibraltar, a disputed peninsula and military strongpoint in the south of the Iberian Peninsula that has been under British control for 300 years – to the dismay of the Spanish who have repeatedly called for its annexation.
These two North African cities hold bragging rights as some of the most guarded territories in all of Europe. The fences are just a portion of the intense security that goes into keeping the cities militarily cordoned off from surrounding Morocco.