Fictionalizing the News is a writing exercise that I set for myself where I write a short story based on a news article. Though the following story has its basis in a news article it does not depict reality in any way and with it I do not purport to tell the truth, it is entirely fictional. The following story is based on this article. I call it The Stampede.
Malika was standing at the fence just a couple of meters from the Tarajal crossing, she had been one of the first to arrive that morning and now she was waiting for the checkpoint to open. The sun was just starting to rise, the world bleak and gray in the predawn light, and the air was still cool, but as soon as the sun was over the horizon it would start to get hotter. Looking over towards the other side, she could barely make out the faint outlines of houses of Ceuta just a few hundred meters away. How was it, that in 2017, the Spanish still had a colony on what was rightfully Moroccan soil? How come the government didn’t just kick them out? She stopped that train of thought, she might not like the Spanish but what she thought of them didn’t matter, the fact was that it was because of them that she and her sisters could make a living. If the government took back the little sliver of land beyond the fence she would no longer be able to provide for her family. Not wanting to dwell on the subject, she turned around, leaned her back against the fence and looked out towards where she knew the ocean to be, clearing her mind as she did so.
About an hour later, the small group of women gathered by the gate had grown to a crowd; a couple of policemen were trying to keep some semblance or order, organizing the women into a makeshift queue but it wasn’t working. There were simply too many of them, anxious to make it through as fast as possible, they were all pushing forward and Malika kept being jostled by the women around her as she fought to keep her place. The gate was supposed to open now but nothing happened. She looked over towards the Spanish side; the border guards, clearly visible now that the sun had come over the horizon, weren’t moving. She would complain but there was nothing she could do other than wait.
A few more minutes passed, the throng getting thicker all the time, then two of the Spanish guards sauntered up to the gate, unlocked it, then stepped to the side as it swung open. The crowed surged forward, passing through the gate moving as quickly as they could; they had to make as many rounds as possible before the border closed again at midday. Being one of the first in the queue, Malika showed her residence card to the border guard who let her through without question, and a few minutes later she was at the big parking lot just on the other side of the border.
She made her way to one of the parked vans, heaved her bale, probably 50 kilos of second-hand clothes wrapped in sacking and twine, onto her back then started the grueling walk back towards her home country. She got past the Spanish guards with no problem but as soon as she was back on the Moroccan side, a border guard blocked her path. Without looking at him, she dropped a five dirham coin in his hand then stepped around him. Two more guards stopped her on the way and she dealt with them in the same way. As soon as she was clear on Moroccan soil, she straightened her back, letting the big bundle fall to ground with a heavy thud. Her contact slipped her a fifty dirham note that she quickly pocketed then turned around to head back towards Ceuta for another round.
It was her third round of the day, the sun was high in the sky, shining hotly down on them, and the cacophony of voices and revving engines was almost deafening. She pushed and weaved her way across the parking lot up to the van. Her boss pointed to a gigantic bale on the ground, she could never lift that. She opened her mouth to complain but the man quickly silenced her by saying “If you don’t carry it, I’ll find someone else who will.” She nodded her begrudging assent, bent her back then braced herself for the weight. Her boss had to call in help from another man to manhandle the gigantic bundle onto her back and she nearly buckled under it. She took a few steps, already straining with the effort, hunched her shoulders then started making her way back towards the checkpoint.
The queue at the checkpoint was long and she joined the back of it, moving slowly under her heavy burden. Every now and again she would get jostled as someone with a lighter load would try to push past, the other woman’s bundle bumping against hers. A few times the force from such a push nearly toppled her but she managed to regain her balance every time. She though about what would have happened if she were older and weaker, she might have fallen and been trampled to death just like that other porteadora a couple of years ago. She whispered “Ach adu an la ilaha ila lah wa ach adu anna mohammadan rasulo allah”, sending a short prayer up to Allah just in case it did happen.
On the Spanish side pretty much the entire border area was paved but as soon as you crossed into Morocco the asphalt stopped just at the edge of the car road; the foot path and the surrounding area were just bare rocky earth, a few withered shrubs and patches of spiky grass here and there. By now the movement of thousands of feet had stirred up the upper layer of dry earth, forming a huge cloud of coarse dust that covered the border crossing and the path all the way up to the drop off point. Malika stopped for a moment to pull her shawl over her nose and mouth. As she was standing there she got a hard push from behind; she took a few steps forward to regain her balance, bumping in to the person in front of her in the process. The woman turned towards Malika, anger flashing in her eyes and shouted “Hey, watch it!” Malika made an apologetic gesture, hunched forward again to take some load off her shoulders then continued walking.
She trudged on for a few minutes, her back bent and head down, but with the queue and the load on her back it was slow going. She passed through the checkpoint unhindered, the guard on the Moroccan side took one look at her bale then stepped to the side, not caring about her five dirham coin. Shortly after passing the checkpoint she heard a sound that drowned out the general murmur of voices and trample of feet. She couldn’t tell what it was but she immediately knew there was some sort of commotion further down the queue.
She turned to look but whatever was going on was too far behind for her to see. As she stood there trying to see what was going on, she felt a hand on her shoulder, urging her forward. She started to walk again, a moment later someone bumped in to her then pushed past. She got jostled several more times as the women around her started moving faster. With the heavy bale on her back she struggled to keep up and she could feel people pushing her from behind, trying to get her to either speed up or get out of the way. Panic spread like a wave from the source of the commotion forward along the line, the people with light enough loads attempting to run, pushing and jostling those who were slower.
Still in the corral meant to keep people in a straight line, Malika realized she was in trouble because she was unable to get out of the way, however, she wasn’t willing to drop the bundle and lose the money. She gritted her teeth and dug deep into her energy reserve, pushing forward together with the rest as the mass of people and packages surging forward. A few tense moments later she was out of the corral and, trying to keep the panic from blinding her, she aimed her steps towards the swath of empty land to the side of the path where she could escape the throng. She made it, just, and stood back as far as possible, letting the stampeding porteadoras pass her by. Others were not so lucky, she saw one woman, just a few spaces in front of her, stumble and fall. As she went down, masses of other women pushed forward and in a moment she was hidden from view. The next time Malika saw her, she was lying motionless on the hard ground, and she noticed with horror that there was a small puddle of blood in the dust. She didn’t have to ask, she knew instinctively that the woman was dead.
After a few minutes, the police managed to halt the stamped and restore some semblance of order. Malika rejoined the queue and made it to the drop off point, her energy utterly spent from standing by the side of the path with the bale still on her back. She dropped it on the ground and took the 100 dirham note that was passed to her without enthusiasm. She had seen a woman die, right in front of her own eyes, and even though there was nothing she could have done to help without putting herself in danger she still felt regret. She decided then and there she would no longer do this job, there had to be some other way to make enough money to survive.