I change into second gear as we take the motorway slip road down to The Jungle. A police van is parked at the intersection and two officers look on, nonchalant. ‘Welcome to the Jungle!’ I exclaim, rather nervously to the team. The picture unfolding in front of us is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. Across a wasteland, people are living like victims of a shipwreck. Tents reinforced with plastic bin-bags tied together with string pronounce this vision of destitution. Rubbish lies everywhere, dotted between tangles of low bush, lining the mud path like streams. To the right, the entrance to the camp. A parade of rickety shops flank one side, blue tarpaulin dragged over plywood frames make windowless pods. Opposite, a line of portaloos, stinking. A reminder the SOS was sent and received but still, the whole place looks lost. Directly ahead, a mound of grass rises up as the wasteland maintains its untrained contours, at least for now. A man sits atop this grassy mound and looks up, yearning yet undefeated. I’m reminded of statues in London, men cast in bronze with noble gazes. I park the car and we alight.
Wooden structures greet us as we leave the car for the heart of The Jungle. I glimpse back at my Audi parked awkwardly behind a khaki tent, and wonder if it will still be there when we return. Only a few minutes later and it has become apparent we are perfectly safe. The faces of these men are not hardened by abuse or neglect. They are the inquisitive eyes and open smiles of boys whose mothers dote on them, and whose children back home regale them. They walk mainly in twos, calmly. Or sit or stand on wooden blocks outside tents, placidly surveying the scene. They are the strongest, the fittest, often the ones with families sufficiently well-off to fund the long journey by land from East to West. Some have been living in this sub-ghetto for two weeks, others, three months, the impact of which we are only beginning to comprehend. In a recent Medicin du Monde report, findings showed that, ‘shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security are likely to have detrimental long-term health consequences for the camp’s residents over their life course’. As we walk deeper into the scrub, past the ramshackle Egyptian Coptic church, past the cafes with murals streaked across the tarpaulin, past a child sleeping discretely behind the flap of a tent, we slowly start to become absorbed into this transitory parking space; another group of individuals spending time there for a while, unconnected but accepted, left to get on with our own personal journeys.
For the month leading up to this, I’d been part of a grassroots mobilisation across Britain to help people in Calais. Spearheaded by a few individuals, a movement began to build in response to the human need on our border. Even before the heart wrenching photograph of baby Alan Kurdi shocked the nation into comprehending these were vulnerable human beings, Facebook messages, event invitations and page likes had been flying from friend to friend in an effort to co-ordinate a route for donations people wanted to give. I’d posted logistical updates mainly, and offered to run pick-ups in my car. But it was when I saw mobile phones on the list of much-needed items that I thought of running a film project there. The charity I set-up ran training programmes using mobile phones in refugee camps and ghettos in Brazil, South Africa and The West Bank. Now there is a refugee camp three hours away from London.
It’s five o’clock on Sunday morning and Osama, my co-tutor, is skipping radio stations from the passenger seat of the car. As we make our way towards the Eurotunnel in Folkstone, the music jolts from Techno dance to African party to remixed Bangla house. Outside Victoria station we stop to pick up Eyyaz, our cameraman for the trip. I have no recollection of how I came across Eyyaz. One of the many social media connections made while co-ordinating over the past week. We’d spoken once and never met. This didn’t change much that morning. With his camera equipment stored safely in the boot, Eyazz climbed into the back of the car and promptly fell asleep.
It was still dark when we collected Emma from Brixton. She and I had been communicating fiercely since Wednesday but hadn’t met each other either. Emma was our project manager. Despite her tender age of only twenty-two, Emma’s meticulous organisational skills made everyone feel secure. I greeted Emma as she approached the car, still bleary-eyed from late night packing. She’d brought cereal bars for the journey, along with a flask tea. We were off.
Dawn had broken by the time we picked up Ammar from the outer suburbs of South London. The first thing I noticed was his giant bag. Ammar signed up in response to a call-out on Facebook from an Egyptian friend of mine. An Architectural Surveyor by profession, Ammar writes articles for magazines in Cairo on the side. For the coming week, however, he was to be our interpreter. Ammar had been looking for an opportunity to help those trapped in this migration crisis and, like the rest of crew, is working as a volunteer. From teaching film making in Palestinian refugee camps, I knew how much I needed an Arabic-speaking interpreter as I just wouldn’t be able to achieve a skills transfer without them. We’d found a way to deliver the film making process in-phone, from shooting to editing to sharing on the web.
Standing on a dirt road beside the entrance to a tented restaurant, my eyes rest on a man walking towards us. Ginger, pale skin, glassy green eyes; with his North Face jacket and mountaineering boots, I assume he’s with an NGO. I catch his eye and smile, ‘Hey’. He smiles back, nods, replies in Arabic, carries on walking. Ammar falls in step and starts a conversation. It turns out his name is Hassan and he’s Syrian. He leads us to the Syrian section of the camp, a hillock beside a muddy swamp.
Abdu is keen to talk. His English is good and he wants to share it. Abdu has already been making films and sending them to his Serbian girlfriend in Belgrade. His eyes are large, ice blue and gentle. ‘You have very blue eyes,’ I tell him. ‘I know’, he replies with a shrug, half-smiling. Abdu plays us footage he has shot on his phone. It’s jerky and blurry. But it’s a start. ‘Will you come on our film course?’ I ask. ‘Sure’ he replies.
As we wait for Ammar and Osama, we are invited by a young man called Ahmed Younes and his friend Khalid, to smoke a shisha pipe with them. They have quite an impressive set-up, I muse, as Ahmed wrenches open the front flap of a M.A.S.H style army tent and pulls out two chairs. Conversation is limited. Ahmed and Khalid speak little English and my Arabic vocabulary can be counted on two hands. But I ascertain that Khalid is an Architect and Ahmed, a Computer Technician. The sound of water gurgles as I puff the fruit-flavoured smoke of the shisha pipe. Sitting here together, sharing a moment, I look over at Khalid. He is older than Ahmed, thinner. He crosses his bony legs tightly, rests his elbows upon his knee. When he smiles, his teeth are streaked with brown tar. I wonder whether this shisha pipe ever stops burning. He grips as if it is the only thing he has left to hold onto. I notice his hair is thinning, his body weakening. The grey shadow of depression elucidating lines of worry across his face. He smiles at me like a man who’s lost his job but wants to reassure me life will be okay. I smile back with all the reassurance I can muster, but it’s weak. I somehow don’t believe he could have made it all the way to Calais in this condition. And I can’t see how he’ll leave.
A distribution van pulls up beside us. I look away for a moment and by the time I look back a line of men has appeared. They stand with torsos pressed hard against each others backs. I see why when a young man slips between a gap. Those behind and in front might object but they are not going to push him away. For a place with so much frustration, violence seems markedly absent most of the time. At the head of the queue stand two men in high-vis. One wears Oakley sunglasses and plays the part of ‘Security’. The other hands out items randomly. A Sudanese man receives a pair of waterproof trousers, walks a few steps, holds them up against himself. They’re about two sizes too big but he seems satisfied, mounts his bicycle and pedals away. Meanwhile another, rather less satisfied, man receives a string of ties. A woman’s brassiere appears but resistance is strong and that gets flung back. A blanket becomes visible in the next fistful of items to emerge. The queue surges forward. The dude in the Oakleys dives into action, as if his entire existence is justified in this very moment. But it doesn’t take much for the men to remember their manners; an arm outstretched with an appeal to, ‘Come on guys, stand back’. I look back at the Syrian section and notice how few of them queued. Ammar tells me later that most of the Syrians refuse to.
Osama, Ammar and around a dozen potential students are leaving. I gesture to Ahmed Younes and Khalid to join us. Ahmed accepts, Khalid declines. Gripping his shisha pipe tightly, he feigns a breezy farewell. Abdu, myself and Ahmed follow the others past the swamp, which formed after days of rain and pushed the Syrian tents to huddle on the hillock. Past the men gazing blankly into a troubled middle distance, past the hammering of wooden frames as another structure rises, until we reach the Afghan tent that will become our classroom for the next six days.
I’m sitting opposite Ahmad Darwish. Ammar sits beside him. ‘If you were to make a film, what would it be about?’ I ask, reading out number three on the list of interview questions we’ve prepared for participants. Ammar translates, gesticulating as he does. I glace nervously at the shisha pipes lined up along the head of the small table. Red, green, blue glass only inches away from his moving hands. ‘I’d make a film about the Eritreans and the Sudanese,’ he answers, ‘about what friendly, decent people they are.’ At thirty-three, he still retains the spirit of a child. His big blue eyes are guileless, his smile, cheeky. On short legs he wears short trousers, and he bounces on his trainers as he walks. I look down my list of questions, ‘Will you commit for six days?’ I ask, a hint of schoolmistress in my tone. There’s a pause. Ahmad looks across at Ammar with a face that asks, ‘Are you an idiot?!’. Ammar turns to me and gently explains, ‘Alice, they are trying to get to Britain every night so they can register as refugees’. ‘Of course they are, yes… ’ I falter, ‘but if they don’t make it to Britain…’ Ahmad nods effusively, he’ll be there! We spent the rest of the week conducting an odd reversal of good manners with the students. At the end of each day we would say, ‘Goodbye, we hope we won’t see you in the morning!’ and in the morning we would say, ‘Hello! You are still here. I’m sorry’. But not all were there in the morning. By this time, Ahmad is itching to go. They begin their three-hour walk to the Eurotunnel at dusk. But there is one final question on my list, ‘Where are you from?’ I ask, almost as an after-thought. ‘Halab’ he answers, ‘Syria’.
At the time of writing this article, Halab – or Aleppo – is being bombed by the Russians. Those civilians still remaining in the Eastern part of the city are fleeing to the surrounding villages. Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has warned to expect a fresh influx of refugees crossing the border from Aleppo soon. The city, home to human civilisation since 5,000 BC, now lies in ruins. ‘Aleppo doesn’t exist anymore,’ explains journalist Francesca Borri who spent two years covering the conflict from Aleppo. ‘It’s been razed to the ground. For kilometers, you walk on rubble. There is no point In talking about the cultural heritage. We are talking about something that doesn’t physically exist anymore. You walk and walk and there is nothing in Aleppo.’ Refugees began fleeing Aleppo for Turkey in 2012 when rebels from surrounding villages mounted their first offensive on Aleppo. By spring 2013 humanitarian agencies had put the death toll at 13,500, of which 1,500 were under 5 years of age. More bloodshed took place in the early months of 2014 when ISIS was forced out of Aleppo. Eighteen months later, ISIS are back.
It is dusk as we leave the café. The sweet haze of late-summer hangs over the camp. Two Eritrean women walk past. They chat with each other lightly. Their rotund bodies and smiles are comforting. We make our way towards a restaurant for dinner. On route we pass one of the five water stations. Pipes popping out the ground with six or eight taps mounted at intervals, each about 30cm from the ground. Today the ground is dry and men stand on wooden blocks washing their hands, their feet, some in swimming shorts, locked in a private mental world where strangers are not passing by as they clean their bodies. It feels intrusive to look. As I focus ahead, I remember the slums of Calcutta, the only other place I’ve seen men wash on the street. But this is three hours away from London.
We walk into the restaurant, another ply-wood structure. Raised platforms in a crescent are covered by wool. Customers sit cross-legged on these platforms, shoes off. Food is served on plastic mats. On the walls hang curtains. On them printed jolly scenes of cars suspended in mid-air beside the Eiffel Tower and the British version, a London bus zooming past a poster of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The irony is bitter. I look around at men sitting alone, or in groups of two or three, and I notice how clean their clothes are, and how clean-shaven. We fall into conversation with an Iraqi Kurdish man. He is tall, chiseled. As he speaks, I can see him as a boy, innocent and naughty. He lived in Britain for seven years before returning to Iraq to get married. But then ISIS came, took what they wanted and burned everything else. I look at him sitting opposite me, his honest eyes, sharing his story with me and the acknowledgement of my part in his brutal destiny creeps over me. ‘I’m so sorry’, I whisper, ‘for what we did to your country’. He looks at me, smiles gently. ‘British people are good’, he answers, ‘I know it’s not what they want. I was there for the protest against Syria bombing in Westminster.’ A man to the other side of us begins to softly sing a song. It is not the song of the mad, although the quiet hum of insanity seems ever poised to drown out mental resilience here. Instead, it is the soundtrack to a thousand years of humans eating dinner side by side, cross-legged, plates of rice and stew laid out before them. I offer him my chips, but he’s too proud to take them. Again, I feel so desperately ashamed. The Iraqi Kurdish man is trying to pay for our meal. Osama stops him, insists we pay for his. Old customs of hospitality play out with life and charm. ‘La habibi. Inta daifna’. ‘No my friend, you are our guest today’. As he leaves, I wonder what will happen when his health begins to fail.
Walking to the car, we fall in step with men embarking on their three-hour walk to the Eurotunnel port. They are mostly young, bright-eyed, their spirits high. Lean legs stride forward, short legs bustle, warm jackets hang open in the balmy evening but layers of jumpers, scarfs and wooly hats presage the cold, long night ahead.
I’m indicating right but the traffic cones tell a different story. The junction to The Jungle is blocked from the highway. I exit at the next junction and return to the blockade. This time we stop along the hard shoulder. Being the only French speaker among us, I get out to talk to the police. Osama gets out too. The policeman panics, ‘Ne descendez pas la voiture!’ but we’re out by that time, and we want to know how to enter the camp.
The Jungle describes a patch of wasteland located on the eastern tip of Calais, right beside the ferry port. Its perimeters are made up of three roads with the sea cutting off the north. On the western side runs the N216 highway, the main thoroughfare to the port, which has recently been trimmed with double layers of fencing and barbed wire cradled in basins at the top. Beyond the highway to the west is an industrial estate, Zone Industrielle des Dunes. The road running through this industrial estate, Rue des Garennes, meets the slip road coming down from the highway at the entrance to The Jungle. Rue des Garennes is the road along which the men make their journeys every night. Along the southern perimeter of The Jungle runs the D119. Few houses feature on this stretch of road save a line of about six, just opposite the wasteland, each with little window boxes and a white picket fence. On the eastern side is the Chemin des Dunes, a road running from the D119 north to the sea. With no human habitation except a cluster of farm cottages and one or two houses set back, the Chemin des Dunes is a place for informal distribution, people arriving in cars loaded with boxes and handing items out themselves. The dimensions of the area measure approximately 1.5km by 0.5km.
Following the policeman’s anxious directions, we find ourselves on the Rue des Garennes, driving through the industrial estate in the direction of the camp. But police have blockaded the entrance there too. Walking towards the police line I am struck by a terrifying vision, of a camp that no one can enter, no one can leave. A human prison where inmates have committed no crime. A place where many have come to find refuge from barrel bombs, house-to-house fighting and ISIS. Instead they have found themselves trapped in a moment of history, when entrants to the UK, particularly from new EU member states, have tested many people’s goodwill; when the French and British Governments, conscious of the hardening attitudes in both their electorates, bounce the problem to and fro like players in a game of sixth-form ping-pong; when, responding to the outrage and compassion from other voters in the country, the shut down is justified using carefully constructed chimeras. We are working to help the most vulnerable, Theresa May told us in her conference speech in September 2015. But I look at the young man, barely twenty-five, amiable and confused, trying to make his way past the police line back to the squalid tent he inhabits, to the taps popping out of the ground where he washes, to the piles of rubbish infested with rats, to the toilets with cesspits below that splash back on his skin as he hunches over them, and I try to think of anyone I have ever encountered who is more vulnerable. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the townships of Cape Town, the refugee camps of the West Bank, whether I have met anyone less protected, with little or no kin to support him, no community to shield him, no resources save the clothes he stands up in, no rights and no voice. He is often the member of the family who has been sent on behalf of them all, the son, the husband, who will find refuge in Great Britain and save them from harm. Incarcerating him would be as easy as running a fence along two roads, the Chemin des Dunes and the D119. We have already spent twelve million pounds fencing the long approach to the Eurotunnel. This could be done with the left-over materials.
For now though, the scrubland is still accessible and, from the D119 with its picket fence and window boxes, we mount the grassy bank to enter The Jungle. At first, the terrain is like any other tangled no man’s land between a city and the pastures that surround it. But after only a short walk, colours and shapes begin to emerge from between the trees, ethereal, like scenes from a fairy tale. Across the branches that overhang a clearing, canvas has been strung, tent-like, giving the sense of an old-fashioned gypsy camp. Under this awning lies small fire, extinguished. Dotted around the circumference are tents. As we move closer, a shot is fired. I see Emma in front of me physically jump. A group of three Frenchmen wearing high-visibility jackets and carrying air rifles chortle beside a bush. They’ve aimed at a pigeon in the air but, like little boys, are finding other people’s fear really funny. We march on purposefully, but not without caution. The closer we get to the densely populated area of the camp, the more human faeces we are having to dodge. I myself have just done a pee in a bush close to where we entered the scrubland in order to avoid the drop toilets and their putrid smell. But living amongst human excrement can only enhance the risk of disease. According to the report by Medicin du Monde, evidence of faecal contamination has been found in the piped water supply, as well as in stored food that has been in contact with flies. This means that ‘pathogenic bacteria are present in infective doses in food and this is likely to be causing the vomiting and diarrhoea suffered by camp residents’. The rains were heavy last night and the paths winding through the camp are logged with water. The wooden blocks on which people had stood to wash yesterday are now sunken in mud.
Eventually we arrive at the Afghan café, over an hour late. Saleh, Zakaria and Ahmed Younes are waiting for us. The others have come and gone. Saleh is from Deir ez-Zor, a city in the eastern part of Syria, 200 km from Palmyra. At present, half of the city is controlled by ISIS, the other half by Government forces. Saleh is married with children. He and his colleague, Naeem, who also attends the film training, worked in a clinic in the ISIS controlled part of the city. Zakaria is visibly younger than the two other men. He is gangly and a bit unsure. In Damascus he was studying for his Baccalaureate before he fled the country afraid imminent conscription would lead to his certain death. Zakaria’s spectacles magnify his eyes. I picture him as the diligent accountant he may have become, after finishing the Economics degree he wasn’t able to take. We have a quick cup of tea before walking over to the Syrian section to collect the other guys.
We arrive to a commotion. Around fifty or sixty Syrian men have been evicted from other camps. They sit or stand on the grass beside the swamp, smoking and looking into space. Ammar chats to a few, comes back and explains what’s happened. Apparently, in an effort to concentrate all the refugees in one place, French police have been demolishing other camps around the city. Some of these guys were living in a disused warehouse further down the coastline. Now they’re all in The Jungle. Osama immediately begins recruiting for the programme, while Ammar seeks out the students from yesterday. I sit down again beside Khalid. The shisha pipe still burns, his worn down face still strains its breezy smile. A man in a dark jacket approaches me. He’s strong, solid, like a man who heads a family. In his hand he clutches a document. As hard as he tries to contain it, I can feel his panic. ‘Can you speak French?’ he asks. My French is conversational and littered with mistakes. ‘I can try’, I reply and he hands me the creased bundle of papers. As far as I can work out, it is a declaration from a court. From the sections I do understand, it seems the man was arrested by the French police for trying to cross the border, detained for five days and then ordered to leave France. ‘You were detained?’ ‘Yes’, he replies, ‘but now I need to know long can I stay here, in France’. I read the formal language. The instructions are hard to make out. I become increasingly nervous about giving him the wrong information, and then something catches my eye. On the second page is a declaration with a number of clauses, which at the bottom he has signed. One clause clearly states: ‘I want to leave France and go to Britain.’ I look up at the man, ‘Do you understand this declaration – here – that you have signed?’ ‘No’, he replies.
Back at the Afghan café, I’m surrounded by twelve expectant faces. Some are from the group that was evicted. I’m conscious that they need to pitch their tents before it rains. One of the new recruits is called Abu Waleed, a roly-poly man with a big smile. Over the course of five days teaching, Abu Waleed brings us a Snickers bar, cashew nuts, raisins and a small carton of chocolate milk. He also sings us songs. First up on the timetable is a brief explanation of why film is important, ‘because it humanises people’, I suggest, ‘and enables one person to connect with another through empathy, through emotions.’ Ammar translates. Contemplation resonates inaudibly at low frequency pitch. Abu Waleed cautiously raises a hand, ‘But Miss Alice’, he asks in gentle, lilting Arabic, ‘how will this help us?’ An acquiescent murmur ripples throughout the room. Ammar translates. I pause, try to pick words carefully. This is, after all, the reason we are here. ‘There are lots of people in Britain who think we should be accepting refugees into the country,’ I begin, ‘people who are willing to give rooms in their houses, contribute provisions and donate their energy and time. But right now, the government is taking measures to prevent you from entering to register. Through film making, we can keep reminding the British government and the British public that you are here and that you need our help.’
After a discussion about the different types of shots and the impact each one has, we distribute the phones that we have brought. Each has an editing app downloaded and is hooked up to the World Film Collective Youtube account. Osama takes the groups out to shoot. They have to tell us something about the camp using three types of shots: a wide shot, a mid shot and a close up. Most come back with footage of the facilities: the showers, of which there are few, the toilets, the water taps, the rusty camping stoves under which they burn twigs to boil water as they attempt to make a cup of tea. While the students are out, I take the opportunity to visit the loo. The intel from Emma is that the ones beside the Doctors Without Borders clinic are the cleanest and smell the least. I cross-check my tissue pack and head over there. On the way I pass what looks like an installation: empty plastic water bottles filled with sand have been placed in crescent with rugs behind them. I slow my pace in an effort to fathom its meaning when a young man kneels down and begins to pray. I calibrate my mental compass and realise the tip of the crescent faces east and the installation is a mosque. But it is over the sea that this young man’s prayers are being sent, to Britain, his Mecca to the north.
In the loo, I notice scratchings on the plywood door frame. In green biro, someone has written ‘fucking David Cameron’, ‘fucking Queen Elisabeth’ ‘fucking British Parliament’. In black biro, at a later date, another person has scribbled out the word ‘fucking’ from each caption and written at the bottom, like a benevolent teacher marking a rebellious child’s homework, ‘if you really love England you don’t have to say bad words’.
It’s the end of the day and I’m waiting in the industrial estate for the team to join me at the car. Set just a short distance back from the road is a SHELL petrol station where articulated lorries fill up. A lorry is parked on the forecourt and two women float around it, sidling up to the passenger door and mounting on tip-toes to try and speak to the driver. One holds a bottle of water close to her chest with both hands, almost in a gesture of prayer. Conscious not to become a voyeur of other people’s misery, I look away. But quite soon the girls have joined me. For a second, I’m afraid. Here I am, car keys in hand, a purse full of Euros and an iPhone in my handbag. And there they are, destitute and stranded, one seven months pregnant and the other with eyes that haven’t seen a good night’s sleep in quite a while. A split second later and I relax. These girls won’t harm me. They just want to talk a bit, like many in the camp. ‘Where are you both from?’ I ask. ‘Eritrea’ they reply, ‘and you?’ ‘Britain’, I utter, apologetically. ‘We are trying to get there,’ the tired one tells me, with no resentment, ‘but it’s impossible’. ‘Is it?’ I ask. They nod their heads. ‘Impossible’. The team have arrived and I unlock the car. ‘Goodbye’, they call as they begin walking further down the road of the industrial estate. ‘Goodbye,’ I call back, ‘and good luck’. ‘Thanks!’ I watch them make their way serenely past the massive warehouses and tubular machines and I consider what will happen to that child if it starts life here, a human being born in The Jungle.
We never did find out why police blocked the entrances that day. But next morning the junction was closed again. In fact, it remained closed for the duration of our trip. This time we simply exited at the industrial estate and parked on the Rue des Garennes as we had the day before. Most of the guys are waiting for us in the café when we arrive. Abdu is there, with his icy-blue eyes, Saleh from Deir ez-Zor, Abu Waleed overflowing with cashew nuts, Ahmed Younes, Ahmed Darwish, his brother Ibrahim, Zakaria plus a few others, Moustafa, Abdul Rahman and Naeem. We immediately get down to editing. Abu Waleed spreads nuts across the table and we nibble as we cut. He is anxious to leave before 12pm so he can queue for a hamam. Showers require a three-hour wait in the camp, and if you arrive after 12pm you may as well forget it. I picked up pace, increasingly conscious of the limited time we had with each of these men. Any moment they could leave the camp, and some of them do. Or they have other priorities, like showering, or waiting in another queue for the one free meal they receive a day, or for clothes, or for water handed out from the back of a transit van.
After lunch a small riot kicks off. Embedded in the Afghan café, we’re oblivious until we hear the sound of tear gas shots being fired. Osama walks in, agitated. A traffic jam on the bridge has led residents to mount the bank in the hope of getting on the trucks as they sit stationary on the highway. I imagine how terrifying this must be for the men driving those lorries, to be confronted with an exodus of desperate people suddenly appearing from beside of the road. The police response is to fire tear gas, and one canister has hit a man’s shoulder and wounded him. In response, the crowd has begun throwing stones. Riot police have blocked the entrances. Ahmed Younes hears this, leaps up, grabs a phone and runs out to shoot the action. For some reason, I’m quite calm. It would surprise me if the tear gas canister was fired deliberately at a human target, and I don’t believe the police will advance into the camp as a tactic to intimidate. Osama however, is nervous. Erring on the side of caution, we pack the equipment and follow him out the Afghan café to another tent, deeper inside the camp.
Outside, the men passing us have covered their faces with material to block out the gas. They walk with bandanas or handkerchiefs covering their nose and mouth. Some have jumpers wrapped around their heads, others hold the sleeves of their jackets to their nose. They stride purposefully, no one looks dejected. I’m reminded of images from riots the world over: the same ragged protection from gas attack, the same conviction in the justice of fighting oppression, the same fraternity. We join the stream until we reach another structure; plywood and tarpaulin on the outside, inside, a make-shift nightclub. Passing a huge pile of discarded beer cans, we enter. On the table where we sit, playing cards tumble from small piles. At one end of the room hangs a drape with Bob Marley emblazoned on it. There is a plywood bar in the corner and holes in the ceiling for a game that involves placing bets. A guy in a pair of Nike trainers is fixing his hair in the reflection of a broken shard of mirror. A party of Eritreans sit ensconced in a corner. Emma pulls out a bag of nuts, walks over and offers them some. I’m looking through footage shot by Abdul Rahman of the long queue for the showers. Meanwhile, Abu Waleed begins to sing a haunting Arabic song, strained and deep. It is the longing of a traveler for his homeland as he sits beside a desert fire under the silver moon of an Arabian night.
Sitting inside this nightclub listening to Abu Waleed sing, I reflect on the number of new structures, like this one, that are being built in the camp every day. Men sitting astride beams of wood banging in nails with hammers, other slicing through brambles and bushes as they make a new clearing to build on. The Syrians we are working with have eyes focused permanently north across the channel. But there are others who have seen an opportunity to make money. They will stay, presumably, for as long as there are people to buy meals and goods. And more people are arriving every day. While fewer and fewer are able to leave.
After the crowds have dispersed and the police have retreated, we make our way back to the Afghan café. We discover Ahmed Younes has been shot with a tear gas canister and taken to hospital. Abdu walks in. It’s the first time we’ve seen him that day and he’s been filming the riot too. Everyone’s excited to see his footage. We gather around. Images of police on the bridge firing into the crowd below, tear gas billowing out of a tent, people running, a transit van arriving to transport the wounded man. We discuss briefly how the shots might be cut together, but they’re keen to crack on. For the next hour we sit quietly, murmured exchanges on edits the only sounds. We watch the finished film before wrapping up. It’s good – amateur, but it tells a story. We have dinner in the camp that evening and as I’m walking back to the Afghan café to collect my bag I pass Ahmed making his way with the hundreds of other men to the road he hopes will lead to Britain. ‘I try!’ he exclaims, in a flush of elation. ‘Good luck!’ I reply and hug him. ‘I think I will see you in London!’ he calls after me, excitement ringing through his voice. ‘I will teach you filmmaking in London!’ I call back, as he disappears into the flow of men quietly believing, tonight it will be me.
Walking through the hotel later that night, I notice every minute fixture, every fitting, the way the staircase curves and carpet is laid down in our room. The basic living quarters of civilisation, a running tap, a heater. I think of Ahmed, bouncing along the coastal road towards the tunnel, his smile flashing playfully as someone cracks a joke. If he doesn’t make the crossing tonight, he’ll hope the police pick him up, retain him until morning, and then drive him back to the camp. More likely, he’ll make the three hour journey himself by foot, a bit of bounce still left for now.
The next day we hear that Ibrahim, Ahmed’s brother, has made it to Britain. ‘This is great news!’ we all declare, before getting back down to the training. I leave Osama to explain storyboards while I go and look for Ahmed. Fayaz, the young Afghan who runs the café, offers to come with me. While we walk he tells me his story. Back in the hills of North West Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest, lies his village. He is the eldest child of two, with a younger brother. His father was killed by a tribal leader in the village because he refused to work with the Taliban. At thirteen years-old, Fayaz left the village. In Italy his fingerprints were taken. He then traveled to London, where he lived for four years earning money and sending it back to his mother who needed medical treatment. During this time, his mother died. Fayaz left London to go back to Afghanistan. In Italy he was arrested and spent for four months in a detention centre. He then went back to London but was arrested there too as his documents did not let him travel. Now he is here in Calais, working in the Afghan cafe in return for food and a space at the back of the tent to sleep. He is twenty-two. ‘What will happen when you go back to Afghanistan, Fayaz?’ I ask. ‘I will have to join a group’ he states, blankly. ‘A tribe or Taliban or Dayesh. Everybody has to join a group now’. We walk silently for a few steps before he resumes, ‘Everything is bad, the whole world is bad. Taliban are not even from Afghanistan, they are from Pakistan and they come across the border where I live. But then America drops bombs and kills a hundred people for one Taliban.’ My phone rings. It’s Osama. Ahmed has arrived at the café. Fayaz and I make our way back, a heavy silence rests between us. I’m trying to comprehend the enormity of what he’s just said. We pass men banging together joints on a wooden frame and I break the silence to observe, ’They are building more and more now.’ ‘Yes’, agrees Fayaz, ‘they will stay’.
Ahmed looks despondent but is trying hard to hide it. Just then Emma arrives with Ahmed Younes who was given a lift from the hospital back to the camp by British volunteers. ‘I’ve just seen Abdu’ she exclaims, ‘walking the other way out of the camp.’ ‘Where was he going?’ I inquire. ‘I don’t know. I should have asked the driver to stop but it didn’t seem polite’. Ahmed Younes is smiley, as ever. He seems rather proud of himself for being injured in the line of duty. Ahmed smokes constantly and, like the rest of the group, seems to survive on sugar and caffeine. We have a cup of tea and head out to shoot his video diary.
Rain falls mercilessly from mid-morning the following day. It is the Muslim celebration of Eid and people greet each other with ‘Eid Mubarak’ as they trudge through the mud. Zakaria has been shooting scenes on his phone since early morning. In the Afghan café he shows us the footage. A Sudanese man swathed in a jalaba calls the muezzin through a tannoy as he glides along the path between the tents. In another shot, Zakaria approaches a plywood structure covered with white tarpaulin that functions as a mosque. From a transit van parked just outside, men are handed small rugs. They unroll these gently on the floor before dropping to their knees and bowing their head in prayer. Back in the Afghan café, a giant man sweeps through the door past the wooden counter that separates the kitchen. In his arms he holds a heavy cardboard box. With a thud, he drops it on the kitchen floor. We all assume he’s stolen it from one of the distribution vans that come each day. But no sooner has the box hit the ground and the giant is in front of the counter. With his enormous arm span, he takes items handed to him by Fayaz and gives them out to men standing in line outside the door. I look across at Ammar, ‘What’s happening?’ I ask, confused. ‘Its Eid,’ explains Ammar, ‘at Eid you give gifts’. As I watch this ritual unfold in a place where resources are so scarce, I realise this box wasn’t stolen from a distribution van, it was procured from one of the shanty-town shops. And against the odds, this giant is performing an act of charity in the name of his God.
Walking through the camp at lunchtime, I pass Ahmed on the path. ‘Miss Alice!’ he calls. I look back and, to my surprise, see Ibrahim by his side. ‘Ibrahim!’ I exclaim, noticing his knee bandage and crutches. In my pigeon Arabic, I ask ‘Shoo happened?’ Ahmed, who speaks almost less English than I speak Arabic, takes control of the situation. ‘He,’ pointing to Ibrahim, ‘Belgium’. ‘He went to Belgium?!’ I ask, unsure I’ve quite understood. Heads nod vigorously, ‘Aywa, aywa’. At the café the guys are enraptured by the story. I understand from Ammar that Ibrahim attached himself to the axel of the lorry and held on in the heat as the train sped through the night. It was from seeing the number plates on the cars when he arrived that he realised he wasn’t in Britain after all. So he came back to Calais, with a fractured knee and a swollen finger. We agree a film should be made of the story and I take Ahmed and Ibrahim out to shoot. Spending time in their company, I see two brothers as they must have always been. Ahmed the eldest bossing Ibrahim around. Ibrahim used to being told what to do, giving in when pushed. Ibrahim wants to tell his story with his hood up. I suggest he might look better with it down. Ahmed leaps on this, and pulls it off. In mournful tones, Ibrahim objects, self-consciously flattening down his very short hair. ‘Helwa, helwa! Beautiful, beautiful!’ I interject encouragingly. Ibrahim smiles, pleased with the compliment. Ahmed grabs his shoulders and yanks him to the left a couple of paces. Ibrahim touches his hair one last time as he prepares to tell his story. Satisfied with his shot, Ahmed begins to film.
Hunched over mobile phones, man-sized fingers press delicately on tiny screens. The editing session is in full swing when we return. Emma sits at the table with the shisha pipes and tries to get the phones online. Internet connection is weak in the camp and the phones are the cheapest we could find. ‘Everything okay?’ I ask. She looks up, ‘I’ll get there, don’t you worry,’ and then, ‘Abdu’s gone to Paris.’ I’m stunned, ‘What?!’ ‘He’s gone to Paris’ she says again, ‘He sent a message to Ammar.’ Not for the first time I am struck by how transient this place is, how fluid, how unpredictable. One moment someone’s here, the next they’re gone.
Outside, pounding drums play through battered speakers as a group of Afghan men begin to dance. Men of all ages, some boys in their teens, are dancing as their fathers did a thousand years before them. All are following the leader, swathed in blue silk, his head thrown back in ecstasy. The younger ones begin to drop their bodies as they kick in movements resonant of battle dances. The crowd cheers in joyful appreciation, clapping their hands. I imagine Eid celebrations in Fayaz’s village, high in the mountains of Afghanistan. The men dancing in a round, some bashful, others full of grace. All moving to the rhythm of their souls and ancient homeland. In the village, the men would be smiling, just as they are now, their wives and children smiling too. Complex bonds linking each to the other, understood, with the music running through them all. Now music is forbidden and the boys are miles away from home. On the road for ten years, like Fayaz, linked to no one in a world that makes no sense.
A boy turns as he passes, one arm extended outwards while the other cups his face, and I notice a bandage wrapped around his hand. And, as I look across the crowd, I see men on crutches, men with slings, men with broken fingers and I wonder, is this what places look like when in the midst of fighting war? In this case, the enemy is fencing and barbed wire, and before that, bombs dropped from the air, forced conscription, beheadings. And, like casualties in war, I wonder what will happen to them now they are injured and no longer strong. And I cast my eye across the thin wooden structures, some simply frames awaiting canvas walls, others open for business. And the fact of their existence sends a prescient warning that this shanty town is here to stay. And it reminds me of the other shanty towns I have encountered and the gangs and drugs and lawlessness that pervades them, and I ask myself, why would let this happen on our border? A place reeking of poverty, of neglect, a symbol of the failure of Governments, populated by individuals without anything left to lose, no employment opportunities, no rights.
Interviewing a man in prison in Brazil, I remember how shocked I was to discover he was a skilled accountant who had chosen to work for the drug dealer in the favela where he lived because it was the best of a series of dire options. With the ingenuity and capabilities of the people in Calais now, I can only begin to imagine the complexities of criminality they could muster once the honest goodness has been wrung from them through months of living in conditions it would be illegal to keep an animal in.
And in Britain we are told by the Government that these are economic migrants who wish to sponge off the state. This is simply not accurate. Many of these people are fleeing war and oppression, in some cases in countries where Britain has played an active role in destabilising their Governments. But if we remain in denial about all of this and keep telling ourselves the people in Calais are a bunch of freeloading chancers, then the logical response to the danger of this shanty town on our border will be to invoke continued brutality. And how long will it be before the people in the camp have nothing left to lose? And the Governments of Britain and France decide that the only way to protect the population is to enforce security in the camp? How long before the fencing and the barbed wire creeps along the D119 and up the Chemin des Dunes and the whole camp becomes a prison? And what will we name this, in an effort to avoid calling it the concentration camp it will be? ‘A Protection Zone’, perhaps? ‘A Gated Community’? And will we argue that the people inside do have freedom because they can apply for a pass and visit Calais once a month until the curfew hour kicks in? Those of us who have travelled to places where this already happens can see the parallels emerging. It’s no coincidence that the people in the camp call the fences ‘The Israeli’.
But for now, the men with shaven faces standing in clean clothes at Eid, refusing to surrender to the dirt and squalor in which they live, are dancing. And they still have hope. Please let us harness the capacity of our civil servants and our diplomats, our charities and our religious institutions to find a way through this human catastrophe without moving further down the road to inhumanity. These people are the casualties of a much larger problem, in the creation of which we are not exempt from blame. Winter is upon us and hope doesn’t last forever. The time to act is now.
Returning to Calais a month later, The Jungle has swollen to 6,000 people. Despite reading a month earlier that the French had committed half a million euros to upgrading the camp to refugee status, I don’t see any visible improvements to the facilities. Fayaz confirms this when we enter the café. While we wait for the guys to arrive, I notice a worrying scene. A man in dark glasses and a flashy watch sits opposite three young women, I suspect from Eritrea. A meal is laid out before them, clearly bought by him. The three girls look up in awe. He smiles broadly, enjoying the power. As far as I can tell he is also from Eritrea, but in the sunglasses he looks like a Tonton Macoute. A slightly younger, feebler man joins them and an odd taunting takes place. The man in shades dangles a piece of chicken above him like a dog. The weaker man tries to maintain his dignity in front of the girls but fumbles and fails. The more I watch the scene play out, the more convinced I am the man is a pimp. I catch the eye of one of the women and smile. Confused for a second, she smiles back at me, clear and beaming. She seems okay for now. But if I have read this right, the infiltration of criminality in the camp has already begun.
The guys arrive. Of the original group, three are still in the camp. Ahmad Darwish and Ahmed Younes made it to Britain, as did Abu Waleed and Abdul Rahman. Zakaria went to join his brother in Austria. Abdu traveled from Paris to Germany to register. Saleh, Ibrahim and Naeem are left. On the way to the camp, we drive around the ferry port. Unlike the facilities, the fencing has been significantly upgraded and everywhere you look are lines of metal railing and wire mesh. It seems completely impenetrable. We sit at the table with the shisha pipes and talk honestly about their options. They have little access to information as electricity to charge phones is scarce and most information sites are in English. We spend time researching the option of registering in Canada. It is only possible from outside the country if the person is referred by UNHCR. But UNHCR is nowhere to be seen in Calais. The hopelessness is contagious. I put away my phone with the heavy lethargy of surrender. ‘Let’s go out for lunch’ I suggest. And we leave the camp, get in the car and drive to Calais city centre to a French Bistro.
Installed at a table at the back, we all start to relax a bit and the conversation begins to flow. I’m conscious in this environment of the gulf that exists between us, to a greater and lesser extent with each. Naeem and Saleh escaped ISIS after being forbidden from treating patients in the hospital where they worked. Nevertheless, Naeem in particular is very conservative and Salma, a modern Egyptian women, unveiled and confident who has come to interpret, is offended when he tells her Islam is about right and wrong and not interpretation. It turns out Ibrahim is on the other side of the spectrum, following an off-shoot of Islam that seems more akin to Buddhism. He shows me the website on the iPhone but later becomes terrified when he mentions it in the video diary we shoot. ISIS would kill his family if they discovered they held these beliefs. He and his brother left Syria after Ahmed’s seven year-old daughter returned from school recounting how the headmistress had played a video to students that day, showing them how to kill a person.
As I sit there listening, a clear sense runs through me of how structured their lives must have been before the war: strong families, rigid hierarchies, an expectation of marrying and bearing children young, social mores and conventions followed and accepted. None of them feel like people from competitive or aggressive cultures. Instead, life was communal, simple and, most of the time, good. I‘m conscious that communities in Britain have been disrupted through the steady stream of immigration that successive governments have encouraged to replenish our ageing workforce, and I comprehend the mourning for the loss of these communities that many in Britain still acutely feel. But this is a different situation. Many of these people are refugees. And, if and when the war stops and ISIS are defeated, many will go back to rebuild Syria. But right now they need help, as fellow human beings, to get out of this mess. History will not judge us kindly if we pass up this obligation. And if we continue building fences and refusing to engage in diplomatic solutions, will we be able to look back in twenty or thirty years and tell ourselves Britain is still Great?
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