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Exodus From Africa: In Search of the Promised Land

Aired June 3, 2001 - 22:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, HOST: They are literally dying for a better life. Fleeing war and poverty for a promised land.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is obviously the place where almost every black African sit and see Spain on the far end, hoping dream is inside.


HARRIS: But theirs a journey fraught with danger.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The desert is a gigantic filter. Only those young and strong make it through.


HARRIS: A rising tide. Besieged towns. Agony and exodus.

Good evening and welcome to CNN Presents. I'm Leon Harris.

Would you leave behind everything you have ever known? Would you brave the desert on foot or the sea in little more than a raft? What would you risk for just a prospect of a better life?

For some Africans, no price seems too high. Tonight, a swell of humanity, a reluctant gateway and the peril of promise, as award winning journalist Sorious Samura chronicles an "Exodus From Africa.


SORIOUS SAMURA, NARRATOR (voice-over): Africans like this man are dying by the thousands trying to flee their continent. Danger is abound and the odds are terrible but desperation pushes them to attempt to escape anyway.

Just last summer, thousands abandoned their homes and made the long and dangerous trek toward the shores of Europe. What is it that drives them to take this great and desperate journey?

I know only too well what awaits African refugees if they make it to Europe. Five years ago, I was a new arrival myself in London. I needed money to buy a camera, because I wanted to go back and document what was happening in my country, Sierra Leone. So I walked.

I got a job cleaning stations for London underground on the night shift. I work from 11:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning. Expectations before we come here always great, but this is the reality that faces us. And what can we do? It's hard. It's difficult.

I was not saving enough money to buy a camera, so I took a second job from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night. I was a burger man. I did both jobs for a few months, but I still wasn't getting ahead. So in the evenings I did a third job at a video store. Once I finished the video stint, I would rush back just in time to start my night shift. I worked 24 hours a day, six days a week, for two years. On Sunday, I slept.

Vomit and pee all over the place. Sweeping, mopping, dusting. Every day. I'm telling you all this because my experience is not that unusual. What I experience is the reality that awaits most Africans that embark on this journey to Europe. I know many, many people who just like me used to work around-the-clock in worse jobs, but we all had to do this. We have to do it simply to be able to send money back home to families and loved ones and also to be able to justify the journey that we embarked on from Africa.

Can it be worth the risk for this?

I returned to West Africa to meet some of the thousands of people that clearly think it is, and who are willing to make one the greatest human journeys of our time. This is the gateway of their dreams.

Most refugees head to cross Mali's vulnerable border. With no money and no legal right to chase their dream of the future of the First World. They come from every country in West Africa and beyond and they are prepared to risk everything for some peace and security.

Sierra Leone have lost families in all hope of the civil war that started ten years ago. During that time as many as 50,000 people died, an estimated 100,000 others have been maimed both physically and mentally.

Liberians. Though their civil war is now over, their economy is ruined. 200,000 were killed and lots of people still live in fear of their very lives. For many, the risk of staying is greater than taking the chance on the journey to Europe.

They even come from apparently stable countries like Ghana, where young people believe that life in Europe offers them a better future than at home.

Even Nigerians leave in the thousands from West Africa's biggest and most important country. It too is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by ethnic violence and corruption. Lots of Nigerians have had enough, and have left on the long journey north.

Every country has people who just want to escape. Mali and its capital Bamako is the first major staging post on the long road towards Europe. It's a peaceful haven for those fleeing violence. But most are here because they want to escape poverty. They are using Mali as a staging post, the first part of their long journey.

(on camera): This is the center of Bamako. Just walking around here, I have bumped into many foreigners and many Africans: Nigerians, Liberians, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), all of those guys who are here on transit more or less waiting to make the journey.

(voice-over): I could identify my fellow countrymen here, it's a tell-tale sign. They are using a skill they have learned in their home country to make money, to keep them alive here, and fill their pockets for the long journey. Everybody here has to find a way to make money. Sweeping streets, cutting hair or pushing carts.

The women who have fled my country were not so visible, but I soon found there were many here too. They like the men dream of escape, but most will go no further. The dangers along the way, heightened by the risk of rape and sexual exploitation, are deterrent enough. Coming from countries full of war; it's a risk most are not prepared to take.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We do have peace in Bamako. That's not a problem. The problem is that things are difficult here. Wherever you are. If you have no money, you are nothing. You lose all your self respect. If you have to rely on begging, what self-respect do you have?

In some families, the daughters are forced to work as prostitutes. And it's wrong for them to do that.

QUESTION: What do you do now? Go back home, stay here, or continue onwards?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): My plan is to continue onwards. Because there is nothing left for us back there. We've lost everything. Our houses have been burnt down. There's no future for us in Sierra Leone.

SAMURA: It's no place for them, because of the fighting going on there. They have given up all hope.

Behind the wall was a group of young men that also fled the war in Sierra Leone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now I'm afraid to return back, because they killed my father. And our home is destroyed. All over Kono. Kono is burnt. So now I can't return home because of fear of persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They've killed my father, killed my father, I've got no family. No shelter. So I decided to go to Europe. That's why I took the risk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I want is peace in Mali. Why not stay here in peace rather than moving on again? Because this country is, this country is no good. I don't know the language they speak. The people don't like us because we're English people. The Malians don't like us.

QUESTION: Will the Spanish like you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. I belief that if I go to an English country, I'm an Englishman. That's why I decide to go to Europe.

SAMURA: Don't think it is that easy in Europe as well. Don't think that. A lot of people I have met with there have been there and find out that even in Europe the streets are not paved with gold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm kind of weak swim to swim cross the sea, if God give me that power, I will do it. I must reach there. There is nothing that will discourage me now. As I'm sitting down here, I'm thinking of how I will reach there. The other thing I'm thinking that really discourages me, the talents that are wasting in this Sierra Leone war.

SAMURA: I was lucky. I was invited to study in England, sponsored by UNICEF, meant that I got out by plane. I never had to confront the terrible dilemma facing so many of my countrymen. Sierra Leonians are by no means the only refugees here in Mali. In Bamako, I found travelers from every West African country, even peaceful Mali itself.

I was really, really fortunate to get out of Sierra Leone and make my way to London but it could have been me. And listening to some of the stories, yes, if I were to be in their position, knowing what we are going through in Africa, knowing the desperation, knowing the war situation that everyone is fleeing, I probably would have done likewise, and I don't think I would given up at all.

This place is almost lifeless, beyond life. Too hot, too dry, too big. If you get it wrong, you can die of dehydration, starvation, being killed by vicious bandits.




SAMURA: Every refugee who travels northward on the two most common routes over Africa has to cross a great natural barrier. The Sahara Desert stretches 5,000 miles across and 700 miles from top-to- bottom. Every refugee I talked to that has made the journey through the desert has encountered death along the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very good friends died in the desert. You have to -- passing through the desert. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) People inside the jeep all died inside the desert.

SAMURA: This place is almost lifeless, beyond life. Too hot, too dry, too big. If you get it wrong you can die of dehydration, starvation, being killed by vicious bandits. The desert is a giant filter. Only the young and strong and those who can pell well can make it through. You always travel as light as possible through the desert. So, bread, torch for the night, spare T-shirt. Mobile phone. Essential to contact book.

Of course you need some cash. But just enough water. No one ever carries enough. In fact, nothing -- here is anywhere near enough. What you need most of all during this journey, is luck.

Migrants only travel during the day when they are far away from civilization and when they can't find or can't afford the human traffickers who carry hundred of orders, the lucky ones packed into open trucks and transported like livestock. For the poorest and those who can't really afford it, they walk much of the time, and, you know, no one knows how many die, only God.

The tough determination of so many Africans is exposed, by enduring in this remarkable journey. Risking their lives, they are very clearly sending a message to Africa and anyone else who will listen; and that message is: we seek freedom and opportunity to look after ourselves, and if we cannot fine these things in our own country, then we have to find them somewhere else.

The desert is only the first of great barriers the refugees face. Tucked in the corner of the Moroccan coast lies the enclave of Ceuta, the last bit of Africa that Spain holds onto.

This hill is in Africa but those buildings are in Europe. The First World dropped tantalizingly into the Third. If you get in there, you have made it to Europe. You can then apply for asylum (ph) and begin the claim that you are a refugee. But for Africans trying to escape their continent things are not that easy.

This guard showed me the lengths they are going to, to stop African refugees getting in. They have spent millions on making Ceuta impregnable. The latest high-tech fortifications were finished this year.

As soon as you start cutting through the first fence, sensors will detect you. Even if you manage to get through, there will be Spanish guards on to you well before you cut through the second barrier. They say once this fence is completed, no one has got through.

(on camera): These guys should just forget it. No chance. Not whatsoever.

(voice-over): Back on the other side of the wall back in Africa, I expected to find many refugees waiting for their chance to fight or bribe their way across the fence. I had to arrange to come and meet these two guys there, because that's the only safest place they can talk to me.

In this secluded spot away from prying eyes, I tracked down a man from Nigeria and his friend who was from Ghana.

(on camera): Sorry to have kept you guys waiting.

(voice-over): They took me to a place in the bush, where hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans had been camped out, waiting for a chance to bridge Europe's frontier.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Moroccan authorities traded us. It was like tents, makeshift tents, made with black (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It burnt down, that was about the end of April.

SAMURA: The refuges lived here for the whole winter, sleeping in the mud, standing up with plastic over their heads when it rained. Most of them were captured and deported by the Moroccan police, and others simply fled.

For a few weeks, just nine refugees remained, hiding out a mile away in the bush. Now, they were the last two left. All the others had given up their hiding places and moved on.

SAMURA: Don't tell me they were drinking that water.

(on camera): I don't quite see why anybody would want to lose their life on the journey to try to make it a place where it's possible that if you get there, you can't even make it as well. You might not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me tell you, my friend. Living life is taking risk. Everything about life is a risk. You just have to take risks. It's better to take risks and die, or take risks and survive, then not taking a risk at all.

SAMURA: Even to the extent of losing your life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what I just said.

SAMURA: They then took me to a concealed spot in the hills that was now their home. He told me back in Nigeria, he was a qualified economist.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I struggled to go to school, in order to lead a decent life. And after all that, you're not able to get anything. You look for employment; you are not able to get one. You almost turn into a beggar even in your own country.

SAMURA: You know my friend, a lot of people have lost their lives on this route.


SAMURA: Can I in any way, persuade you?


SAMURA: You want to go back to Nigeria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't try to persuade me because you're just going to say it. And i don't think I will hear you. SAMURA: Osas and his friend abandon the hills the same evening, heading west for Tangier, another weigh station for migrants. Europe's barrier has complete victory (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Tangier was where I headed, too. Along the coast line where Morocco seems almost to touch the coast of Spain for 100 kilometers. In most of Tangier, you hardly see a black African face, but suddenly in the marina they start appearing.

Almost all want to go to Europe and almost all are men. The best hope for the women who stay behind is for these men, if the make it, arrange the money and walk, to secure a safer passage at a later date.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of them are undercover, so it is difficult to allow themselves to be seen.

SAMURA: However, as a fellow African, I was able to win their trust and went to see how they live. They call themselves the comrades, and spend their time crammed into Tangier's boarding houses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a refugee, man.

Since 1990 I lived in Nigeria. Ten years.

SAMURA: Ten years now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm still in Morocco, fighting for the same Europe. This is all I have. This is my life. This is my wallet. All I have in my life. And my Bible. Because it's hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We go begging for it in the market in the evenings. You first insert it into the water to soften up the skin and scales. You bring it out, and start peeling with your knife. You peel it and clean it thoroughly, and you put it back. This is how we survived all that long. One day we will be able to eat the chicken itself. Thank you.




SAMURA: This is the only place where all the Africans converge in order to share ideas, to share the latest gossip, that would probably help them in their outward journey to Europe.

They may be here for months or years, trying to raise the funds to pay their passage, calling on relatives and friends back home. The Moroccan authorities, however, under pressure from Spain, track them closely and swiftly arrest those trying to leave illegally.

With no formal deportation agreements with sub-Saharan countries, they send most immigrants to a camp across the border in Algeria. From their, they are taken back to Mali, back to square one, where they have to decide whether to try again or return home. It's not surprising that many are hostile to our presence, wary of our camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is obviously the place where almost every black African sits and sees Spain on the far end, hoping that dream is in site.

SAMURA: It must be said that not all the comrades are saints. Some resort to prostitution and pimping to pay their way, and I found only a few that would qualify for asylum in Europe as refugees from war. Most were not from Sierra Leone or Liberia, but Nigeria.

Mainly they were escaping poverty (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Europe will deliver them from a grinding cycle of misery. But that conviction will soon face its greatest test. Each day is a narrow stretch of water. This is their final barrier and the most dangerous part of their long journey.

(on camera): This is the new battlefield between comrades and the coast guard. It's no longer land. It's right here on sea. During the day, the comrades will be waiting, hiding in the bush, and nightfall they will take off for the small beaches in these small boats. They will try to dash across the water, right through into Spain, before the guards stop them.

(voice-over): At night, if the weather is good and the sea is calm, the terrace is full of expectation. I have spoken to a lot of people here tonight, but they all seem tense, and that is because the sea is calm. The boats are going out tonight.

They can see the coast guards on way out to look for the zodiacs, small inflatable boats crammed full of African refugees. The battle went on this sea almost every night I was in Tangier.

June 2000, Strait of Gibraltar, a group of 40 African immigrants are picked up the Spanish guard, tired and bewildered, suffering from extreme cold, they are placed under arrest. They are among the 15,000 illegal immigrants from Africa to be detained during that year. A dramatic increase. Countless more will have got through undetected.

This group made it alive, but not all are so lucky. The perils of the journey extract a high toll. The zodiacs are often unseaworthy, overcrowded and speeding to evade coast guards, many overturn or sink. Once in the water your chances are slim. Strong currents, pitch darkness and bitter cold claim many lives. The bodies of thousands of Africans are washed up on the shores of Spain. Several hundred are believed to have drown in the year 2000 alone.

Back in Tangier, the comrades would sometimes return to the boarding houses with reports from the frontline.

QUESTION: Sorry, what happened again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The police turned up and they chased everybody. They caught almost 50 people.

QUESTION: Moroccan military?


QUESTION: So, you were running? That's why your shoes are soaked?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I'm supposed to be in Spain.

QUESTION: How many of you are there? Do you know how many people are caught?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were caught was up to 50, I'd say 50.

QUESTION: What did they use to raid? They use any helicopters?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They used helicopters to trace the second Zodiac, wherever they went.

SAMURA: Later on land, those 50 hopefuls were caught on the boat and deported to Algeria.

One morning, I found Osas, the Nigerian I met in the bush outside (UNINTELLIGIBLE), had made it here. He was almost caught by the police in his first night in Tangier.

QUESTION: What exactly happened when the police raided yesterday?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't have to see the police. We were upstairs,we just heard noises in the background. You don't have to see the police. That's how I almost fractured my leg. So all we did was jump from two stories down. That's how I almost fractured my leg. You just take off and run for your life.

SAMURA: Osas pooled his money with his friend to make sure one of them could get across and the next day he had disappeared. I did not see him again in Tangier. The majority of the refugees I met in Tangier are here out of choice. They will get no sympathy in Europe. A few have lost their right to eat, but most only want a chance to make a life.

Call these guys whatever you may: economic migrants, or whatever. But these are guys who have spent years, spent their last pennies in trying to get a decent education. Now all they want is to give back to society to fulfill their wishes. All they want is to live a decent life, but their societies don't offer them these opportunities. I won't condemn these guys. I'll just wish them good luck.




SAMURA: It is certain that some of the people I saw in Tangier will have died trying to cross the water to Spain, but thousands made it alive. This is the Spanish town of Tarifa in September of 2000.

A group of African immigrants are brought ashore after coast guard intercepted them. Such scenes could be seen on Spanish TV every night. Clearly drained after their long ordeal, many of them will be suffering from hunger or thirst. They may be cold, dehydrated, and unsure of their fate.

Any Moroccans among them may be sent back over the water. Most others will be detained. Having broken the law by trying to enter Spain illegally. However, with no deportation agreements in place, there's little the Spanish authorities can do to the immigrants, except release them. Whatever hardship they now face, pride will not let them turn back, having come this far.

Many head for Malaga, the biggest town on Spain's southern shore line. That's where I went on my final destination on my journey. Here they begin their new life, starting with nothing and searching out possibilities.

I had (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that traveler I already met right met twice in Morocco, and made it to Spain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hard to believe!

SAMURA: Great! How is everything?


SAMURA: I just can't believe this.


SAMURA: How did it go? I'm curious; I want to know the story.

It's unbelievable. You said it, you'd make it, you'd be here and today, Malaga, Spain, you are here. Tell me, how did you do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was in my power. I gave everything to the special grace of God. I paid one thousand, and spent a month in the bush. And eventually, about 12, we went to the sea shore and we saw the zodiac. But of course we didn't know that the zodiac was.

About 36 of us entered the zodiac. Eventually, after setting off for about 30 minutes, about an hour, the whole thing got leaked. The engine stopped because (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Everyone was of course shouting, shouting, praying. We were all confused, really confused, doing all sorts of things just to attract any rescue around. We were all confused, really confused. We were just dreaming of debt any second. A minute was too big, because just that second, anything could happen. And if anything had happened, we'd all be dead.

SAMURA: Do you at a time think for one moment that I told you, you should not take this risk? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I never once. I was just scared that it was possible I was going to die. But I never had any regret about taking the journey. My mission was to get into Europe. We were just there until about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the morning.

We were paddling, paddling, paddling, until about 7:30 in the morning. A fishing boat came to rescue us. That's how we came to get to Tarifa. We were taken to a police station, then allowed to go. They told us, we now have liberty.

SAMURA: So they didn't deport (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They said I came in legally, but I don't see it that way.


I don't see it that way. Because I just believe the whole world is for us all.




SAMURA: Later, Osas take me to his new Western home.

(on camera): You sleep out here?


SAMURA: It's just worse than it was -- in fact, worse than the bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think so. This is outside, there is in the bush. You can't compare.

SAMURA: This is world you risked your life for, is it worth it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really think it's worth it because I believe with what I've seen so far it's not the first time people are passing through this phase. This is always the first phase you pass through when you get into Europe.

And eventually, with time, maybe 2-3 months, as the case may be, things will start falling into place. And eventually, if you know what you're doing, you achieve your dreams.

SAMURA: In Nigeria, you had a proper house. You were not sleeping in the street, do you think you deserve this now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Samura, it is not a question of deserve. What I deserve is a good living. A good living where I have a house of mine, have a car to myself, the ability to take care of my children as yet unborn. That is the kind of life that I want. The ability to help my younger ones.

SAMURA (voice-over): Africans will keep on coming. Next year there may be even more.

The gamble is a real game of cat and mouse with illegal immigrants chasing them and catching them only to let them go because of inadequate laws, is now stepping up the battle. Loopholes are being tightened, and new tougher immigration laws are being put in place.

Too many comrades don't even try to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Yet sill, Europe is erecting more and more barriers that will drive people to even more dangerous attempts. How many more of us Africans will have to die before we are accepted as members of this world. But maybe there's even a lesson in this for us, that it's about time we Africans get our acts together to solve the problems that drive people away: war, corruption and needless poverty. We cannot just keep running away.

He always wanted to have the whole chicken. When he arrived in Spain last September he got his chicken and temporary permission to stay. He's living with his brother in Barcelona. But he still is determined to make it to England.

The young man we met with Osas in the bush is still in Tangier, hoping to make the crossing. He's waiting for Osas to send him the money he needs to pay for it.

Fortunately, for Osas he didn't spend long sleeping rough. Much to his delight, he was found a flat in Malaga, with help from a Spanish aid agency. He would like a work permit and his request to stay in the country has been conceded. He says he does miss home, and desperately, realizing his dream of reaching Europe is worried about his future. He may have good cause to.

Spain is no longer the safe haven it once was. The political climate there is changing. New measures will close down many of the options previously available to immigrants likes Osas. He may yet face deportation.

Having come so far and risked so much, his time in Europe may be short lived. The future for Osas and African immigrants who have made similar journeys it thus far from settled.



HARRIS: Last year, some 15,000 illegal immigrants were arrested trying to enter Spain from North Africa. That is four times as many people as in 1999.

That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Leon Harris; see you next week.


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