Tarajal: transforming pain into justice

On 6 February 2014, 14 people lost their lives as they attempted to reach Spain when the Spanish authorities attacked them using riot gear. Their families launched an unprecedented mobilisation to transform their deep sorrow into justice.


In the early hours of 6 February 2014, we received a desperate telephone call: “a slaughter” was taking place on a Spanish beach. As the survivors reported to our hotline, 300 people had tried to swim to Ceuta from the jetty at Tarajal. The Spanish Civil Guard began to use riot gear (tear gas and rubber bullets) against the people swimming towards the shore.

The violence came from several different points at once: shots were fired at close range at the floats and bodies of the people swimming from the jetty at Tarajal and from at least one speedboat and one inflatable boat manned by Civil Guard officers. Shots were also fired from the Civil Guard control tower to dissuade the people protecting the bodies of their deceased companions.

“The first few times, they shot into the air. When they realised that we were reaching the Spanish part, they began shooting at our bodies. The first bullet hit my back and the second hit my jaw.”

“Sanda shouted for help and stretched his hand out towards the rock but the Civil Guard hit him and pushed him back into the water.”

The Civil Guard’s failure to render assistance or attempt to resuscitate the people left unconscious by the Moroccan forces made it impossible to save the lives of those in peril and eventually led to their deaths. The migrants themselves tried to help their ailing companions and carried their limp bodies to shore on the Moroccan side with help from the Moroccan forces. The Spanish State refused to help retrieve the bodies, alleging that the deaths had occurred on Moroccan territory. At least 14 people died and one remained missing. Among the survivors who reached Spain, at least 16 were subjected to illegal pushbacks, including a 17-year-old boy.


“I promised myself that, with God’s help, I would see the place where my son’s remains lie, even if it is only for a day, and I would bring his ashes back to the land of our ancestors to hold a decent funeral for him in the manner of our African traditions. As I speak to you, I still haven’t overcome the trauma caused by Larios going missing. In the name of my son, may justice triumph.”
Ndeubi Marie Thérese, mother of Larios Fotio

The families contacted us as they began to receive information about the incident; they wanted to know what had happened and how they could find the bodies of their deceased relatives. The first to contact us was the brother of Larios Fotio, who saw his friends mention Helena Maleno on social media after the tragedy and decided to message us at the same time as he informed his mother, Ndeubi Marie Thérese, that her son had died.

The families put their trust in Ca-minando Fronteras to reconstruct the events surrounding their relatives’ deaths, as no Spanish institution had deemed it relevant to do so. On 8 February, we visited the morgues at Hassan II Hospital in Fnideq and Mohamed VI Hospital in Mdiq with several of the victims’ relatives and companions. The Cameroonian embassy in Morocco provided support for this process and buried four of the people identified. On 25 February, we began to investigate the incident. After a few weeks, we released a report in which the tragedy and its consequences are reconstructed.

Amid great uncertainty and thirst for more detailed information, several visits to Cameroon were necessary as some of the victims came from the country. During the first visit, the victims’ families gave us their explicit consent to represent them via several organisations that appeared in court as a civil party when the investigating judge for the case summoned 16 Civil Guard officers to testify about the incident in February 2015.

At the judicial level, the ‘Tarajal case’ has been characterised by a succession of orders to open and close the investigation. Ca-minando Fronteras disputed the decision not to take statements from the survivors, not even by videoconference, and to reject the families’ visa applications, preventing them from visiting the site where their loved ones died and paying tribute to them. The court case was closed in October 2019, allowing the perpetrators to go unpunished and depriving the families of reparation for their loss. Despite this, Ca-minando Fronteras remains committed to supporting families in alternative processes outside the European justice system to obtain truth, reparation and non-repetition.

In 2016, we returned to Cameroon with the aim of filming a documentary centring the families’ experiences. ‘Transforming pain into justice’ (Caminando Fronteras, 2016) explores the fight to dignify the victims and the community-led process behind it: for the first time, families in sub-Saharan Africa mobilised to demand accountability for deaths at the border. Another outcome of the second visit was the creation of the Association of Families of Tarajal Victims.

“Justice is light, it means knowing the circumstances in which it happened… The ‘truth’. If we know ‘the truth’, the guilt of those involved will be settled. Reparation occurs when justice is done.”

(Brother of one of the victims at the founding assembly for the association)

In 2017, the Association of Families of Tarajal Victims decided to hold a tribute to border victims in Douala to mark the third anniversary of the tragedy. Dozens of families of people who had died at the borders attended. At the gathering, which we helped organise, families spoke of the violent situation at the borders, expressed their concern for the growing numbers of young people migrating and explained how hard it was for families to grieve amid such deep uncertainty. At the end of the tribute, a live link-up to the Spanish Congress of Deputies was provided following a screening of our documentary in parliament. Although it remains insufficient, this was the only gesture of reparation extended by a Spanish institution to the victims’ families, whose voices filled parliament to demand justice for the dead once again.