Salah Eddine Ahmad Mousa embarked on a long, dangerous odyssey to Europe after fleeing war in Darfur in 2018, eventually identifying Morocco's land border with a Spanish enclave as the safest entry point, Reuters reports.
But the Sudanese refugee's journey came to a disastrous halt last week, when he and 2,000 other migrants tried to enter the Spanish possession of Melilla in northern Morocco.
The attempt led to the deaths of at least 23 migrants and triggered violent skirmishes with Moroccan security forces and Spanish border guards. Moroccan authorities said the deaths resulted from a crush after what they called a stampede, and from migrants falling from a high fence.
Lying among the lifeless and the injured, Mousa played dead to survive, he said, recounting one of the most desperate episodes of a years-long trek across Egypt, Libya and Algeria.
The 24-year-old told Reuters he had chosen Morocco as his springboard to a haven in Europe because its land border, he had heard, could be breached without the help of smugglers.
As a veteran of two failed attempts at the perilous sea crossing from Libya to Italy, Mousa was eager to avoid anything further to do with traffickers.
Alarmed by the disaster at Melilla, where he says the border post was stormed by migrants driven to desperation by hunger, he is now searching for a less risky route.
"I do not want to stay in Morocco. I have to find a safe country," he said, at a sit-in by asylum seekers in front of the UN refugee agency headquarters in Rabat.
Most of those in the sit-in had scars and injuries from the clashes with security forces at Melilla and attempts to scale the fence separating the enclave from Morocco.
Morocco denies using excessive force and said its actions were in response to a very violent mass assault by migrants.
The Kingdom is suing 65 migrants, mostly Sudanese, on charges including organising the crossing, attacking security forces and committing arson in forests.
Mousa admits some of the migrants carried simple weapons.
"We had to be armed with sticks for self-defence only," he said. "Moroccan security responded by beating and using tear gas and rubber bullets. We had to defend ourselves."
Mousa, a farmer from Western Darfur, said he left his home in 2018 for Egypt, after his father was killed by Arab militias that looted the family's cattle and polluted their only well.
He worked for four months in Egypt to earn enough money to travel to Libya, an unstable country torn apart by years of factionalism and war. There, he worked at a vegetable market.
From Tripoli, Mousa made two failed attempts at reaching Italy, before hearing from friends that "Morocco … had land borders with Spain that we could jump without having to pay any trafficker."
'I will die of thirst'
Mousa travelled to Algeria through the Sahara desert area of Debdeb, entering Morocco illegally in the summer of 2021.
"I cannot count the many days I thought I will die of thirst or hunger."
Last week's mass crossing was the deadliest ever attempt to breach either of Spain's two enclaves in Morocco and the largest since Rabat and Madrid agreed this year to bolster cooperation on border control.
After the deal, said Omar Naji of Moroccan rights watchdog, AMDH, in Nador near Melilla, a crackdown by Moroccan security on migrant camps near Melilla had intensified.
"The approach of zero migration will only lead to more violence," Naji said.
Mousa said Moroccan forces had destroyed the shelters where migrants live rough in the forests "and our food".
"For three days, we had nothing left to eat in the mountains. We were going to die of hunger. So we had no other choice but to march as a group towards the fence on Friday."