The meaning of life

A leap to the border, a struggle for freedom in a dystopian future, a desperate escape, a story by Antonio Moreno.

March 1, 2023-Reading time: 9 minutes
frontier life

(Unsplash / Marco Bianchetti)

Tonight is not like other nights. The new moon and the thick clouds of the approaching storm have left the camp completely dark. It is as if God has turned off the lights in the sky to go to sleep as well.

Silence reigns on the plain, next to the border fence. The children rest, exhausted, but this is "D" night and perhaps there will not be another opportunity like this to jump until who knows when.

Honey, wake up, it's time," I whisper in the ear of my wife who is sleeping cuddled up to Fatima, our little 4-year-old, whom I had covered with plastic to protect her from the dew.

-I'm coming! I'm coming! It's time! It's time! -she shouts, sitting up, frightened and disoriented, with the palm of her hand pressed against her chest, as if trying to prevent her heart, beating at a thousand per hour, from breaking her ribs. 

-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. What happened to you? Were you having a nightmare?

-A nightmare? Any nightmare would have been better than this crappy reality.

Hearing our conversation, the girl opens her eyes, pulls aside the improvised plastic sheet to get a good look at us, gives us a smile and closes them again, as if nothing had happened.

-Come on, finish getting up, I'm going to wake up the rest," I warn my wife, while I go to wake up the neighboring families who, in turn, begin to wake each other up.

There is no backpack to prepare, everything has fallen by the wayside. Our only belongings are our lives, which we have managed to preserve with great effort, and that of our families. Our only goal: to cross the border, the line that separates certain death from life. But they were not going to make it easy for us. There are too many of us, and the country uses its "right to immigration control" to justify violence against those who, like us, are trying to enter illegally, as we plan to do tonight. In my family we have always lived the saying that where three eat, four eat; but some people don't seem to get it through their heads in the current circumstances.

Despite the fact that almost nothing is visible and everyone is obeying instructions about the need to be quiet, for their own sake, the buzz caused by the movement of the nearly 400 of us in the group can be dangerous. So I run to find Obama, the head of the last set of families to join us, to see if they are ready. He doesn't like the nickname, but his people gave it to him for leading them in the cry of "Sí se puede" (Yes we can). 

-It's time, we can't wait any longer," I tell him, offering him my hand to help him sit up.

-But we are still tired," he answers as he stands up, careful not to wake his wife, who is resting beside him. Some of our people have barely slept two hours after three nights.

-I know, but we can't risk it. The conditions are optimal, there is zero visibility, I can hardly see you in front of me.

-I understand, but I do not vouch for the strength of my people. We will do what we can.

-That's what we'll all do, Obama, what we can," I tell him, grabbing him tightly by both arms and shaking him to encourage him. Getting this far has already been a miracle. If you don't come with us, you'll be throwing it all away because who knows when there will be a night like this again. Besides, if you don't come, you'll have to go back a few kilometers so that you won't be discovered once we make the jump.

-Back off, not even to gain momentum, my friend," he replies with a special gleam in his eye, "Count on us!

We have planned to attack the fence in the Nahr Saghir area, as it is the intermediate point between the two checkpoints farthest from each other in the whole enclosure. We must arrive before four o'clock in the morning, because at that time the guards usually take a coffee break and wake up for the rest of the night. We want to catch them as unprepared as possible, so we set off without fear. The terror from which we have come has been so intense that risking our lives in a jump seems like a childish game. We have to go through this trance and all we want is for it to end as soon as possible. 

So, as soon as we arrive, we start the maneuver as planned. Two teams, equipped with shears, were in charge of opening two holes in the first wire fence. To get around the second, the younger ones have prepared two ladders with scrap metal found in the surrounding area, but they have remained firm and secure. We have rehearsed the movement hundreds of times: climb quickly, without stopping, but without pushing. The first to go up place tarpaulins over the concertinas to minimize their cutting capacity. Once at the top, you have to jump to the other side and, holding on tightly to the fence, descend to a height from which the fall is acceptable, and, once back on the ground, get out quickly to avoid being crushed by those coming behind. 

The plan is being carried out to perfection. In barely five minutes, the first families are already climbing the steps of the second fence without attracting the attention of the border police. The worldwide internet blackout has rendered the thermal surveillance cameras and motion detectors useless, which gives us a certain advantage. In fact, it's our main asset. But things seem to be starting to go awry because the thunderstorm has made its dreaded appearance. The strong lightning turns night into day leaving us sold in the eyes of the guards who do not take long to discover us. The alarm begins to sound, however, when more than half of the group has already managed to pass to the other side.

The protocol was clear: once past the fence, we all had to run and get into the city, without looking back, to avoid being sent back in the heat of the moment. Everyone except me, who has to go back to check how many of us finally made it and to help the stragglers. So, as soon as we find the first car to hide behind, I stop with my wife for a moment. 

-Are you all right, are you cut or bruised? -I ask her while the girl lets go of my hand and runs to hug her mother's legs, who inspects her from top to bottom looking for wounds or injuries.

-No, my love, everything is perfect. And Fatima?

-Fatima has been a champion, hasn't she? She held on to my neck as we rehearsed, as tight as she could and only let go when we got downstairs and started running. How mommy runs!

-Of course, daddy," the little girl answers proudly. When I grow up I'm going to be a runner and win lots of races.

-I'm sure you will, my love, you'll be an Olympic champion, you'll see," her mother answers, hugging and kissing both of us. Thank God we are all well. 

-Yes, thank God, but let's stop talking and separate. You won't be completely safe until you get to the city. 

-Don't worry, honey, we know where we have to go. We'll meet you there in a little while. I know you have to go back, but please don't risk more than necessary.

-I promise I'll be right back, my precious," I say as I hug her, "Did I ever lie to you?

While the two women in my life run towards the alleys of the city, I turn towards the fence, where the smoke from the tear gas illuminated by the powerful spotlights of the police 4×4's make the gap we had managed to open in the fence look like the very gate of hell. Along the way, I pass several survivors. Some run alone, others in pairs or small groups. Some are crying with fear, others are complaining of a blow, but all the faces betray the joy of having managed to save their lives.  

Oscar, one of the guys who helped build the stairs, comes up to me, overjoyed. 

-Thanks to daddy, thanks to my daddy! -she sobbed, sending kisses to the sky.

-Congratulations, son," I reply as I hug him. I'm sure your father would be very proud of you. He was a great man and he gave his life so that you could be here today, safe and sound.

-The guards took a long time to arrive, and by then almost everyone had already jumped. They gave a lot of firewood, women, children... Then they took out their guns and started shooting at those who were still trying to jump, who fell dead from the stairs or as they were running here. It was horrible. They have no mercy, the sons of bitches.

-Of course, Oscar, on the other side there is no law and no one will worry about us. Courage, keep running, you have very little left.

-Thanks boss, be careful," he wishes me as he runs towards the city.

A little further on, a woman in her 40s was being helped to walk by her two teenage sons, one on each side. She was dragging one of her feet. It was obvious that she had dislocated her ankle, but she was also beaming with happiness. 

-Don't go on, boss, there's no one left," one of the guys tells me. We are the last ones because we had to help her. Besides, we have to take cover because it looks like it's going to rain soon.

The boy is right, but at the last glance towards the fence I think I see the silhouette of a man silhouetted against the bright cloud of the battlefield. He couldn't be dead, because he was kneeling, so I decide to approach, but not before telling them where to take his mother for treatment.

As they walked away, I turned to the silhouette that turned out to be Obama. With his eyes lost in infinity, he repeated in a loop some words that, as I approached, I recognized as Hail Marys.

-Obama, come on, don't stay here. We have to get to the city -I hate to ask him about his wife and two children because, seeing him alone, I understand that nothing good has happened to them.

-They are gone, they have been riddled like rabbits, I have nowhere to go, I don't want to go anywhere. Let me die in peace! -she moans.

-After coming this far, I forbid you to die, Obama! Come on, get up, there are only a few meters to the city.

-I am not Obama, my name is José Luis! Obama and his family will be so comfortable in their bunker scheming how to dominate the planet that his friends have blown up.

-Come on, Jose Luis, are you going to keep worrying about conspiracies? Your wife and children will be happy to know that you have managed to survive, and that you have been able to reach this blessed African land. There is nothing left of Europe. The cities that were not destroyed by the nuclear bombs are contaminated, but you have managed to get here! Don't you see that it is a miracle?

-And to think that before it was them, the Africans, who used to climb up to Europa What did they expect to find in the West, civilization? Civilization? Animals! -That's what was in our land! Plain and simple, animals! Murderers!

Seeing the state of shock in which my fellow escapee is, I try to incorporate him to take him forcibly towards the city. I put my shoulder under his arm and, as I try to wrap mine around his waist, I feel his shirt warm and wet. I look at my hand and immediately realize.

-You are wounded, José Luis. We have to run to the aid station to stop the bleeding. 

-Let me die here. Seriously, Ricardo," she asks me in tears.

The fact that my first name was known produces in me a mixture of pride and sadness. Ever since we fled Spain on that ferry-boat we managed to hijack to Africa, everyone addressed me as "the boss". That he called me by my name showed his interest in knowing who I was. Or rather who I had been. Hearing "Ricardo" reminded me of when I worked from eight to three, when my worries were only how expensive fruit, gasoline or electricity had become, when I had a country, a house, a huge family, hundreds of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. But the nuclear attack wiped it all out in just one day. The former "civilized" countries were now an infectious wasteland, where no human being could survive for centuries. 

-Come on, my friend! -I encourage him. It's going to start raining and we have to protect ourselves from the radiation that the water will carry with it.

-I don't care about radioactive levels anymore. I've lost everything. I just want to die peacefully," he manages to say before fading away.

I carry him on my back and manage to get him to the aid station where, shortly after, they confirm that it was only a syncope. The bullet had entered and exited cleanly, without affecting any important organs. They give me his personal belongings - a wallet and a plastic bag with several passports - to keep for him while he recovers. I am impressed by the welcome of the medical staff and volunteers at the refugee camp. All locals. Not a word of reproach: only affection and comfort. We have invaded their country, the same people who just a short time ago prevented them from crossing the border in the opposite direction. From south to north, from north to south, what is now the meaning of life?

The rain patters on the tarpaulin of the tent in the refugee camp where I rejoin my wife and daughter. Some families, sitting on the beds, talk about the fate of this or that friend. Others discuss the different possible routes for the next stage of the journey to the south, looking for safer and cleaner areas of radioactivity. I stay in the center, next to the stove that heats the room and boils water for tea. In the light of the embers, I open José Luis' wallet and see that, among his documents, there is a political party membership card. Despite the dramatic moment we have just experienced, I can't help but burst out laughing, which suddenly silences the conversations of all the refugees in the tent.

-Boss, are you all right? Why are you laughing? -worries Montse, a Catalan woman who managed to reach the African coasts alone, without hardly knowing how to sail, in her small sailboat.

-Yes, Montse, don't worry," I answer and throw the ID card into the fire without being able to stop laughing even harder. 

As I watch the plastic of the document melt, hysterical laughter gives way to tears, and I can finally release all the accumulated tension. Hugging my loved ones, I weep bitterly for the day that the humanity lost his senses.

The authorAntonio Moreno

Journalist. Graduate in Communication Sciences and Bachelor in Religious Sciences. He works in the Diocesan Delegation of Media in Malaga. His numerous "threads" on Twitter about faith and daily life have a great popularity.

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