The Lost Boys Of Ceuta


The Lost Boys Of Ceuta

Ortiz and Maciaszek are filming a group of illegal immigrants in Spain. MANJULA NARAYAN finds out why these Punjabi boys are special
Across the water On a clear day, one of the boys gazes out longingly at Europe

TWENTY-THREE-YEARold Gurinder Singh gropes about the interiors of the cabinet he shares with a group of five Punjabi boys, part of a 57-strong band stranded in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco. He emerges with a misshapen phulka. Then, looking straight into the camera he says wryly: “Mom, these phulkas aren’t as good as the ones you make but this is what we can manage.” Hundreds of miles away in rural Punjab, a tear slides down his mother’s cheek as she watches the clip. Mother and son haven’t met since Gurinder boarded a flight for Morocco two-and-a-half years ago, having been assured of a job in the UK by agents.

But within the little democracy of the damned that the boys have created on Ceuta, a community that’s part Lord of the Flies, part Robinson Crusoe, and part nightmarish reality TV show, Gurinder is one of the lucky ones. He flew straight into Morocco and was spared the ordeal of getting off the plane in, say, Burkina Faso. He escaped being relieved of his passport by the human trafficking mafia and being packed with other immigrants into vans that then sneaked their human cargo through various African nations and the Sahara desert too before reaching Ceuta.

“Imagine these Indians getting off the plane and seeing only black people. At first some of them thought, ‘Europe’s strange; this isn’t what we expected!’” says Alberto Garcia Ortiz (36) who is collaborating with Agatha Maciaszek (28) to make a documentary on the Punjabis, all of them in their early twenties, who’ve set up camp in Ceuta’s mountains.

Ortiz reveals the desert crossing is especially fraught with a few young men literally dying of thirst on the way. The dead boy’s companions would then have to throw his body out into the desert. Rituals surrounding death are particularly sacred to all human societies and the anguish of the boys compelled to send a fellow traveller on his way without even a modest ceremony can only be imagined.

“Most of these boys have met each other in transit or at the detention camp in Ceuta. When they recount their traumatic stories to each other, they begin to think that their pain must have some meaning and that their arrival in the city is a new beginning,” says Ortiz who first heard of the group during a rally in support of 27 Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in Ceuta.

“The Bangladeshis had arrived a year-and-a-half before the Indians. One day, they heard that an official from the Bangladeshi embassy was going to visit. The last time that happened, 20 people had been deported. So the group decided to run away from the detention camp and live in the mountains,” explains Ortiz who adds that after their political action, the Spanish government decided to take the Bangladeshis to the mainland and give them residency papers for a year.

The success of their Bangla brothers and the ever present fear that the Indian government, too, would seek to repatriate them inspired the Punjabis to attempt something similar. But while the Bangladeshis lived al fresco for just three-anda- half months, it’s been a year and four months since the Punjabis began their desperate bid.

“In Spain, there are a lot of stories of immigrants but this one is special because it’s rare for 57 people to live in a forest on a mountain for an extended period,” says Maciaszek who’s struck by the egalitarian lines along which the camp is organised.

“The community is divided into seven small camps. Each has shacks made of wood and plastic sheet and has been established according to the boys’ places of origin. They work and live together. Since they aren’t allowed to have real jobs, they help people park cars at shopping centres. The money earned in tips is put into a common kitty. Even domestic work like cooking and shopping for groceries is done in rotation,” marvels Maciaszek whose own experience of being a Polish immigrant in Spain has made her sympathetic to the boys’ struggle.
Documenting lives Filmmakers Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek

It’s not all work for the boys who sometimes take time out for a game of cricket. And judging from the video clips, they are not averse to occasionally breaking out into bhangra-inspired jigs. Only the heart wrenching lyrics that warn of phantom buildings toppling like their own dreams give you an inkling of their distress. But however straitened their circumstances, the one thing these boys won’t do is beg. “They are very proud. When everything has been taken away from you, all you have is your self respect. Nobody can take that away,” says Ortiz who reveals that while the film is supported by a Madrid government grant, it is largely funded by the savings from the duo’s other job — subtitling English films into Spanish.

Undaunted by the paucity of resources and impressed by the indomitable spirit of the young Indians, it seemed like a natural progression for the film makers to visit the boys’ families in Punjab. “We taped the messages of 13 boys and then got their families’ reactions,” says Ortiz who admits that meeting the families was emotionally harrowing.

“One guy, Amardeep, was so depressed he didn’t sleep for weeks and had to be hospitalised in Ceuta. We filmed him in the psychiatric ward there. His parents know he’s prone to worrying about the family — they are in big economic trouble — but have no idea of his condition. We felt like we were playing with fire,” says Ortiz who explains that the as-yetunnamed documentary tells the larger story through individual ones.

“In the villages, we learnt that while a few of the boys are graduates most have just passed their 10th standard and were looking at a future as farmhands. In most cases, the families had sold their lands and mortgaged their homes. The agents who duped the boys had assured them they’d be able to help their families once they began working in Europe,” says Suraj Dhingra of Teamwork, which has line-produced the Indian leg of the film.The desert crossing is fraught, with a few young men literally dying of thirst along the way

Clearly, Ortiz and Maciaszek are no longer just film makers training their cameras on a group caught in circumstances whose roots can be traced through the colonial period and back to an earlier age when those who controlled the spice route to India automatically controlled world trade. Indeed, Ceuta, which has a 70,000 strong population and passed from Berber to Arab to Portuguese and eventually Spanish hands 300 years ago, has always been strategically important to control the trade routes to Asia and the Americas. But it was only after Spain joined the European community in 1986 that the tall barbed wire fences encircling the city, protecting it and Europe from the hungry hordes of the Third World, came up.The boys can see the mainland and are often overwhelmed by a sense of Europe being so near and yet so far

For the young men who’ve struggled through Africa and smuggled themselves into the enclave in the front boot of cars, the city’s location is painfully poignant. “You can see the mainland from Ceuta. It’s only 14km away. So they are overwhelmed by a sense of Europe being so near and yet so far,” says Ortiz who reveals that the boys readily participated in the project because they wanted people back home to know how they had been tricked by human traffickers.

Ortiz and Maciaszek believe the story of the stranded Punjabis will have a happy ending with the Spanish government allowing them into the country. “I’m optimistic that will happen because you can’t deport people after they’ve spent two-and-a-half years on your territory,” says Ortiz who hopes the Indian government won’t push for repatriation through some warped sense of national pride. “Then, these boys will never get a chance to pull their families out of the debt trap and will themselves become bonded labourers,” says Dhingra. Maciaszek prefers to think of cheerful things. “Our last shot will be of the ferry carrying them to the mainland,” she says. For the sake of the brave Punjabi boys of Ceuta, you hope she’s right.