By Ashifa Kassam

The bright lights of the Las Vegas strip shimmered in the background as Francis Ngannou clicked on the video. Scenes of horror filled his screen; scores of young men, many of them motionless, lying on the bloodstained ground. In one shot, a man lay prone as a Moroccan security officer appeared to beat him with a stick.
The UFC world heavyweight champion instantly recognised the spot along the Spain-Morocco border where the video had been shot. “I couldn’t sleep for two days,” he said.
The images, along with the news that at least 23 people were killed that day after 2,000 attempted to cross the border, played over and over in his mind.
“I had to force myself to remember ‘you’re not there anymore. Look around, you’re not there anymore’.”
For the past decade, as Ngannou battled his way into the upper echelons of mixed martial arts – becoming the UFC heavyweight champion – he had tried to wipe out the memories of his journey’s unlikely starting point: the Spanish enclave of Melilla in north Africa, home to one of Europe’s most heavily fortified borders.
“You want to convince yourself that it’s not true, that it was a nightmare,” the 35-year-old told the Guardian. “You don’t want to keep being traumatised or have those scars on you for your entire life.”
Growing up impoverished in Cameroon, Ngannou had long felt the pull of American culture; whether it was snippets of Hollywood movies caught on the televisions of others or rap songs that had travelled 8,000 miles.
He began working in a sand quarry at the age of nine, the hours of gruelling physical labour filling out his sturdy frame. By his 20s, he was convinced that a career in professional boxing lay in the cards for him. “But I knew that in order to succeed I had to leave.”
Getting a visa to travel abroad was out of the question. “Coming from a small village and a very poor family, you don’t have any family you can call, you don’t have a bank account, you don’t have a regular job,” he said.
Instead, he set off on foot, following a path trodden by thousands of sub-Saharan Africans hoping for a better life in the west. He crossed through Nigeria, at times catching rides, other times walking for miles and sleeping wherever he could.
“Every single step you took, it was tough. And then the next one was tougher,” he said. “And then you find yourself at some place and there’s no way back. You’re trapped in your own dream.”
The full weight of what he was doing hit him as he stared down the Sahara. “That was the first time I started to ask myself, ‘What the hell did I get myself into? Where am I?’”
Smugglers packed him into the back of a pickup truck alongside 24 others, all of them jostling for space as thick clouds of sand swirled around them. The drivers were indifferent to whether they had enough water or could bear the conditions. “We were just goods that they were delivering.”
The desert landscape was dotted with reminders of what was at stake. “You get to some places and just see a bunch of skeletons. You don’t even need an explanation because you are in the same situation,” he said.
“If your car breaks down, it’s over. If you fall off the back of the truck, it’s over.”
Twenty five days after leaving Cameroon, he made it through Niger and Algeria, arriving in Morocco. He made his way to Nador – the city that borders Spain’s Melilla and the site of last month’s deadly tragedy.
He launched himself into the daunting task of trying to cross into Europe. Attempts to scale the six-metre chain-link fences that straddle the border left his skin sliced by barbed wire.
Despite not knowing how to swim, he tried to cross the western Mediterranean in a dinghy, steeling his nerves each time he clambered into the flimsy inflatable raft with as many as nine other people.
“You’re shitting yourself; you’re scared. You’re going into the ocean with this little boat that people use in swimming pools,” he said.
“You’re seeing these violent waves and you’re like ‘Man, I might not make it. This might be it.’ But what else can you do?”
His attempts to cross in a dinghy were foiled six times by Moroccan forces, who penalised him by dropping him in the desert or temporarily jailing him. As the months dragged on, he learned to live in the shadows, avoiding Moroccan police as he spent his days in internet cafes, researching how best to get across the border, and his nights sleeping rough in nearby forests. “You have to just sleep in the bush, like an animal.”
Ngannou made it to Spain on the seventh try, stepping foot on European soil exactly one year after leaving Cameroon. After nearly two months in a migrant detention facility, he was released thanks to the absence of any repatriation agreement between Spain and Cameroon.
Homeless and without papers, he made his way to France and found a covered parking garage to sleep in – “I had been through hell. The parking lot was like a four-star hotel” – and began canvassing for a gym willing to take a gamble on him.
His perseverance landed him a gym with a coach who persuaded him to switch to MMA – a career change that would catapult Ngannou on to the world stage as the “baddest man” on the planet.
It was these conflicting facets of his life – his celebrity status as a top-ranked athlete and the hellish, 3,000-mile journey that he had been forced to take in order to get there – that came crashing together as he watched footage of the tragedy in Melilla.
“It could have been me,” said Ngannou, his hulking frame filling the screen of a videochat from his home in Las Vegas. “What happened in that video, that’s what happens there all the time. It’s some of the most barbaric, inhumane treatment you could ever imagine,” he said. “It’s not [a journey] I would recommend to my worst enemy.”
Ngannou drew a direct link between the treatment of migrants and the EU’s policy of externalising control of its only land borders with Africa, providing Morocco with several hundred million euros in the past few years to counter illegal migration. “Europe is the one that finances this,” Ngannou said.
“Yes, it’s illegal but it’s our only way out,” he said. “Was that enough to cost them their lives?”
More than a month after the deadly incident, at least 64 people remain missing, according to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, suggesting that the death toll is likely higher than 23 people.
A recent investigation by the rights group suggested that the deaths occurred as Moroccan and Spanish authorities lobbed smoke bombs and teargas at the migrants in an attempt to deter them from crossing the border, leading many to die of asphyxiation while others were trampled in the ensuing panic. Neither country responded to the report, and generally blames deaths on human traffickers.
“These are people’s brothers and sisters, they are sons and daughters, they are fathers and mothers,” said Ngannou, a gold pendant in the shape of the African continent dangling around his neck.
While the images had stayed with him for weeks, he had been shocked at how fleeting global interest had been in the tragedy. “They act like nothing happened; like we are worthless. What have we done that’s so bad to deserve this treatment?” Ngannou asked. “Are we not human enough for you?” –

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