Seydou Kamara’s pants are completely ripped. A few hours ago he crossed a cloud of black smoke, fell down the stairs and narrowly escaped a virulent fire on the third floor of an industrial warehouse in Badalona. The fire originated next to his room because of a candle that lit a mattress, he says. In a few minutes the whole plant was burning like I had never seen a fire burn.
“It was total chaos,” explained the 27-year-old from Senegal on Thursday noon. “People were screaming, we fell on top of each other to try to escape.” As Seydou recounted what happened the night before, the media reported the third fatality found in the rubble. “I honestly think there will be more,” he added with glassy eyes. “It has been a horror,” he added, pending what happened to the four critically wounded and the four seriously injured hospitalized since the night before.RELATED
No one knows how many people were inside this old abandoned painting factory on Wednesday night, located in the Gorg district of Badalona (220,000 inhabitants). Neither the police, nor the social entities, nor the Badalona City Council nor even those who lived there can offer a reliable account. They all agree that there were at least a hundred. “A few years ago we were much less,” said Alaji Yaya Fofana, 32 years old and one of the veterans of the ship, where he has resided intermittently since 2009. “But first the pandemic and then the cold had filled this with people “.
For at least 12 years, this Badalona warehouse had become a refuge for groups of migrants who cannot access a home. The owner of the property, who has known about the situation for a long time, had never wanted to denounce the occupation of the property for “sensitivity”, according to the former mayor of the city, Dolors Sabaté. The community, made up of young Sub-Saharan Africans mostly from the Gambia and Senegal, had settled in the area and, until recently, they had hardly had any problems with the neighborhood.
Most of them lived very poorly from collecting scrap metal and selling it, others from street vending, and all of them say that they are dedicated to this because they have no other alternative. “Without papers, there is no work and without work there is no home,” lamented Seydou, who when fleeing the fire was left without the few belongings he had. “We have to do something to eat.”
In the compound also resided some migrants with valid papers such as Alaji Yaya. This Gambian has worked as a kitchen helper and butcher for years. He managed to leave the ship some time ago and rented an apartment in Santa Coloma de Gramenet (Barcelona) with some friends. When the pandemic broke out, he lost his job, couldn’t pay for the apartment and returned to the occupied building. “Everything has become very complicated with the pandemic and many of us have met again who had already left there years ago,” said Alaji, who was in his room on the second floor when the fire broke out. “With the confinement a lot of new people arrived and we had nothing to eat.”
From the interviews with half a dozen residents of the ship it appears that among them there was a group of regulars and another more intermittent, who only went to the place when they were unemployed or when the cold was pressing, as in the case of the night of the 9 from December. “Everyone has their room and takes care of their part,” explained Ibrah Dafs, a Senegalese and a resident of the compound for two years. “But we always leave space for the kids who are suffering on the street, we invited them to come.”
Some had their own room delimited by walls and perfectly decorated, others had built shacks inside the building or separated their room with cardboard, curtains or plastic to have some privacy. In the building, with three floors in addition to the lobby, there was no electricity or water and its residents cooked in the rooms with small butane bottles. The lighting was done with candles or lanterns. Downstairs and in the inner courtyard, residents gathered, had group meals, and put away collected scrap that they had not yet sold. “The last time we were in the building, they were making furniture with pallets,” said Angelina Lecha, an activist for the Badalona Acull entity. “It gave us the feeling that there was some organization at the time of allowing the entrance to the place and organizing the meals.”
Both the neighbors and the residents of the ship explained this Thursday that the first problems of coexistence came with the declaration of the state of alarm. The ban on being on the street brought more migrants to the ship and suddenly there were many more, but with fewer resources than ever. The arrival of new residents together with the tension of the pandemic created the first friction.
“Until the confinement there was not a single problem,” noted Alaji Yaya. “But at that time no one could collect scrap metal because you couldn’t drive on the street or sell anything.” According to the residents, the tension was building as the days passed and the hundreds of migrants had less and less money and food. “It is normal that more than 100 confined starving people have an altercation,” added Harun Zerbo, from Burkina Faso, who regularly came to the settlement to help its residents.
Despite the complaints from the neighbors – which there were, especially during the last summer – none of the inhabitants of the area explained having had a single problem with the residents of the ship. What bothered the neighbors were the brawls between those who lived inside the compound, which became common as the pandemic increased the misery. Despite the complaints, a good part of the migrants interviewed pointed out that many residents of the neighborhood had helped them in recent years by giving them food, clothing and blankets.
“There were no problems with the neighbors,” said Calixto Palomares, 71 years old and a resident right in front of the ship. “They are all very friendly, they helped the elderly to carry the purchase.” According to this neighbor, the problems in the ship were related to coexistence among its occupants and began in summer. “That was a tower of Babel, people from all sides and all starving,” concluded this neighbor.
When Xavier García Albiol (PP) regained the mayor’s office last May, in a state of alarm, he established the illegal occupation as one of his main obsessions of the mandate. Albiol began to tweet police actions, to appear in conflictive places and even announced that the council had acquired an “anti squatter drone” to improve security in the city.
When tension with the ship’s occupants increased in the summer, Albiol came with a camera crew to confront the migrants. He took advantage of the visit and the recorded material to announce that he would recover a unit of thirty agents destined to combat conflict and “impunity” for illegal occupations. He also took the opportunity to accuse the residents of the ship of selling drugs, a statement he made again this Thursday while firefighters continued to search for fatalities in the burning building.
“If we sold drugs we would have money, do you think we would live here piled high if we were selling drugs?”, Seydou ironized with the little humor that he had left after a traumatic night.
The migrants who lived on the ship explained that Albiol’s arrival in power was a turning point. Police checkpoints in the vicinity to ask for papers became common. A good part of the occupants left after the mayor’s summer visit, fearful that they would be expelled from the country when they were identified without their proper papers. Those who stayed organized to respond to the “fabricated” accusations of the mayor and some neighbors. On the same Wednesday, a few minutes before the fire broke out, a patrol from the Urban Guard and the National Police had approached the site to do a documentation control.
“Albiol changed the settlement’s social treatment for a police treatment,” explained Dolors Sabaté, a former mayor of the city until June 2018. According to Sabaté, his team collaborated with the Red Cross to register the occupants and assisted them in trying to register. A housing alternative was also found for a family with minors who resided in the warehouse and “community self-management” works were promoted so that residents could organize and designate different shifts to do tasks. “We knew it was a settlement with its complexities, but at no time was there any conflict,” stressed the former mayor of the city, who acceded to the leadership staff in 2015 leading a coalition of different left-wing forces.
Ricard Vilaregut acted as mediator with the residents of the warehouse between 2015 and 2018 and has a similar opinion. “The situation was unworthy, but within the indignity it was controlled,” he said in a telephone conversation. This mediator, who was inside the ship on several occasions, explained that at the most about 60 people lived at the time and had quite strict rules. For example, it was not possible to enter or leave the ship between nine at night and nine in the morning. Remember that some neighbors were against it, but also the involvement of neighborhood associations when it came to helping migrants.
Sabaté denounces that during the night of Wednesday the attention to those who escaped the fire was initially markedly police, an unthinkable treatment for any survivor of a tragedy of this type. “Until three o’clock they were not properly attended to by social services,” said the former mayor. Seydou, after escaping the flames, was also surprised to see so many policemen. “It seemed that we were at war when the problem was a fire where our friends were dying,” he said.
Both those affected and the public representatives interviewed – with the exception of Albiol – agreed to highlight that the problem of this ship was not one of drugs or fights, but of poverty and lack of papers. The pandemic, which always hits the weakest, made everything worse. “When I saw the fire yesterday it was clear to me,” Vilaregut stressed. “I quickly thought of how cold it was and the difficulties these people currently have in getting food and money.”