Back in Calais this weekend I met the men on hunger strike. At the start of the strike, they sewed up their mouths and I was shocked upon meeting them to watch the restricted movement of their lips as they talked. They are Iranian Kurds who, like everyone in The Jungle, have their own stories. But the aim of the hunger strike is not to force an improvement in their own living conditions. Instead, it is to give the people of The Jungle a voice to engage with the French and British Governments so that solutions can be found for the thousands of people still living in the camp and, since the demolitions, in 10-15 smaller camps around Calais and Dunkirk.
The men are based in ‘Jungle Books’, a functioning library and school before the demolitions destroyed the surrounding cafes, shops and homes. Now this colourful shed is huddled next to the Church and Information Point in a wasteland of abandoned possessions: socks, toothbrushes, pots, a tube of face cream, an umbrella. Looking over the 800sqm southern section of the camp – once a lively shanty town now razed to the ground – I can’t help remembering stories of the Barbarian Invasions.
When I meet the men they are welcoming. They sit on mattresses laid across a third of the floor-space. The other third is reserved for people’s shoes, which they remove as they enter, and a table housing juice and water. Each man’s body is responding to the starvation in a different way. One is now so pale that his skin looks almost green. Another has a permanent sweat across his brow. Another, large red bags beneath his eyes. A steady stream of people enter, hugging the men, sitting for a while. A young British woman has assigned herself their carer. She brings them cups of liquid, which they drink between their stitches through a plastic straw.
The men have held meetings with the Prefecture of Calais. Their demands include: better and safer living conditions for people in the camp, an end to police violence against the inhabitants, and for Britain to process asylum claims in Calais. However, the Prefecture has made continuing discussions conditional on the men moving into one of the giant, industrial containers that now feature in the camp. But the men refuse to do this. They say it will cut them off from their supporters, and from channels of communication with the outside world. Access to the container park is through palm-print recognition, and security is tight.
This is the film we made that day in ‘Jungle Books’. It was edited with the help of the young man who appears in it – Sasan – along with fellow hunger strikers, Ismail and Mohammed. The music comes from the mobile phone of the young Afghan interpreter, and critique was given by two British women who were visiting the men in solidarity while we were editing.