CNN Photos

Desperate migrants find ‘heaven’ past fence

For more than 20 days, Spanish photographer Jose Colon sat in a pitch-dark corner by the border fence of Melilla, Spain’s southernmost point of entry for African asylum seekers.

“I sat there with a group of journalists and photographers waiting for clues, such as the sound of a helicopter or the scampering of the Guardia Civil,” Colon said. “It all happened so fast, I barely had time to think.”

Around 3 a.m. one night, Colon heard the sounds of stampeding feet and heavy breathing. These ominous sounds grew to a deafening crescendo as, all of a sudden, hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans began cascading down the razor-wired fence.

Jubilant, frenetic with joy, the new arrivals shouted slogans while ignoring severe wounds caused by the fence - wounds that would later become emblematic scars in the history of Spain’s African community.

“The sounds were unforgettable,” Colon remembered. “Immigrants shouting, ‘Espana, Espana, liberte, liberte.’ The Guardia Civil scampering around. Those two minutes seemed like a lifetime.”

In “Llamando a las Puertas del Cielo,” roughly translated as “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” Colon captures the seasonal tidal wave of sub-Saharan immigrants as they enter Europe through some of Spain’s entry points. Each instant snap freezes long narratives of hard individual journeys lost in the barrage of human despair.

“The first images I see when I think back are of great suffering, from all sides,” Colon said.

“After talking to (the immigrants), I found that, once they overcame the metal barrier that is the Melilla fence … they shouted they had found their dream, their heaven. But heaven, what kind of heaven was that?”

Colon said he was shocked by the lack of emergency services and structure to help immigrants, many of whom braved the desert, organized crime and other obstacles to reach Spain.

“The situation in Melilla is dramatic,” he said. “There is no basic care for immigrants, and only one (nongovernmental organization) was present.”

Colon has made several trips to Melilla, which borders Morocco on the north coast of Africa. Some of his photos show the calm after the storm, such as the one of 23-year-old Abdourahman Giallo, who exposes his fence wounds like a type of stigmata.

Colon’s photographs draw us near his subjects through each character’s gaze. Some of his close-up images show the facial creases, the sweat, and the look of despair — faces and expressions that help memorialize the journey of these African immigrants.

The landscape of the journey is also heavily featured: barbed wire and endless fencing, derelict buildings and rotting furniture. Behind them, the Mediterranean Sea, now dubbed by many as “the great African cemetery.”

More than 160,000 refugees have arrived in Europe this year through the Mediterranean, more than the double the amount of 2013, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency. More than 3,000 refugees have died or are missing at sea, the agency estimates.

“And it is only going to get worse,” said Colon, who has followed the situation closely.

Looking back brings him hard feelings.

“On a personal level, in my heart, I felt the desperation, indignation and the suffering that, albeit subtle, gets inside your soul,” he said.

“It’s that landing shout they call ‘boza,’ which means victory. The way they look at you and hug you. ... It’s an incredible energy. I nearly felt torn apart.”

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN