FNIDEQ — In the middle of the dense crowd gathered in front of the great mosque of Fnideq, a small trading town in northern Morocco, Amina stands silent, as if paralyzed. Dressed in a white djellaba and scarf, she holds a picture of her neighbor in her hands. The man, in his 40s, poses with his four children in front of the sea. His name was Ahmed Bouhbou.

A few weeks ago, the Spanish coast guard fished his body out of the sea. He had tried to swim to Ceuta with two young people from his neighborhood, dragging a handmade buoy held by a fishing net.

"Ahmed just wanted to find work there to feed his children," Amina says. "There is no hope here."

The March 2020 closure of the borders with the nearby Spanish enclaves due to COVID-19 dealt a severe blow to the economy of Fnideq and the surrounding area. The entire region depends on trade with Ceuta and Melilla (located further east), especially smuggling.

This "atypical trade" had been depriving the kingdom of 4-5 billion dirhams (between 370 million and 460 million euros) in tax revenues every year. The government had tried to minimize the loss by closing the border post of Tarajal — which was used by tax-free carriers of goods — at the end of 2019.

"It's been almost a year since we had any income," says Halima, 39, who also came to demonstrate in front of the mosque on Feb. 12. Like all the inhabitants of this border area, this single mother of three children had a resident card allowing her to enter Ceuta without a visa.

"I was a cleaning lady there, with a contract and health insurance. I lost everything overnight," she says.

"We are hungry," adds Bouchra, a 27-year-old seamstress who lost her clients because of the drop in purchasing power. "But no one listens to us, not even in Parliament. The street was our last resort."

It's a whole ecosystem that's collapsed.

Over the past few days, food baskets have been distributed to the families most affected by the crisis.

"We are not begging for money! We are asking for real actions to create jobs," says Chaimae Amaachou, a young activist with a law degree who is unemployed. "An entire ecosystem has collapsed. People found themselves without water, without electricity and without enough money to pay their rent."

Some have sold their refrigerators, mattresses or clothes so they can feed their families.

In the typically bustling Massira Khadra souk, 40% of the shops have been shuttered, according to the market traders' association. Before the closure of the Tarajal crossing point, foreign merchandise was available here at discounted prices.The vendors are trying to sell the last remaining imported items.

The perimeter fence that separates Spain from Morocco in Ceuta — Photo: Antonio Sempere/Contacto/ZUMA

"Our model was based on the absence of customs. Customers came from all over the country to buy foreign-branded products at reduced rates," says Larbi, a 58-year-old pajama salesman. "Here, we only receive local goods, which we sell for more than in Casablanca."

After a first demonstration on Feb. 5, four young men between the ages of 18 and 25 were arrested and subsequently sentenced to six months in prison with suspended sentences for "violating the state of health emergency," "unauthorized assembly" and "violence against law enforcement officials."

An activist from the Moroccan Association of Human Rights who wishes to remain anonymous explains: "The authorities were particularly aggressive. These young people did nothing wrong. They were used as an example to calm people down."

To calm the protest, authorities announced on Feb. 9 that 400 million dirhams (37 million euros) had been released in 2020 to allow the development of free zones in Tetouan and Fnideq. "The construction of these industrial zones began eight months ago, but it is a rugged terrain and COVID-19 has slowed down the work," says Mounir Bouyousfi, director general of the Agency for the Promotion and Development of the North. "You don't build such a project overnight."

Another economy is possible.

In the meantime, opportunities for retraining are scarce, even though initiatives have been launched bit by bit. On the cliff of Fnideq, a brand new training center, which serves as an incubator, has just opened its doors.

"Since 2019, we have financed 90 projects and 120 are in the process of being prepared," says the head of the center, Mohamed El Barkouki. "Our goal is to show that it is possible to succeed without smuggling. Unfortunately, these people have worked in border trade all their lives. It is difficult for them to imagine that another economy is possible. It will take time to restore confidence."

The prefecture, for its part, promised to create more training programs for "women mules," so-called because they carry huge bundles of goods on their backs between the Spanish enclave and the Moroccan territory. Rachida, 37 years old, hauled 100 kilograms three or four times a week for 20 years, even during her five pregnancies.

"In Ceuta, we were mistreated and humiliated, but at least we had an income," she says. "When my husband found out I was begging for money, he couldn't stand it; he broke my teeth."

For the inhabitants of Fnideq, living without smuggling still seems unthinkable. Even though the crisis has not spared Ceuta's economy, the Spanish enclave remains, in the eyes of many, the only way out.

Every day, Azeddine goes to a hill facing the Mediterranean to contemplate the coast. The small and frail 15 year old is training to prepare for the crossing. In this neighborhood, no one tries to dissuade him.


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