Having only visited the Calais Jungle on Sunday I wasn’t expecting to go back for a few weeks – but seeing the destruction of the camp begin on Monday, and the violence used by the police towards the people there, I was feeling very angry and helpless, Four of our team – Anna, Darrell, Dan and I – decided to do an additional trip to the camp yesterday. We wanted to see for ourselves exactly what was going on with regards to the demolition of homes and police aggression, and get an idea of what the general feeling is like. We also heard about an #istand demonstration taking place on the No Man’s Land area between the camp and the motorway, so we were all geared up to take part in that, but for various reasons it didn’t happen.
Rather than give you a chronological account of our trip, this time I’ve going to focus on the main themes of the day…
When we got back, Anna posted on the Swindon-Calais Solidarity Facebook page:
I didn’t think I believed in heaven and hell .. Until today! Now I know at least one exists …
Iranians with their mouths sewn together
A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….
So here are our themes for this post.
The biggest issue we encountered yesterday was fire – seemingly random fires breaking out in houses around the camp. The first one started directly opposite the Iranian area that’s been cleared. A shout of “Fire! Fire!” went up and several volunteers – including Darrell and Dan – ran across to see what they could do to help. From a small plume of smoke, very quickly the flames took over. Dan helped pull the building apart so other people could get water and fire extinguishers onto the fire, but it caught hold too quickly and very soon not one but two homes had been totally destroyed.
A few minutes later we again heard “Fire! Fire!” this time from the opposite side of the road. Smoke billowed from one house and was quickly smothered, but then a house a couple of metres away was on fire, and then another a few metres further along. At this point we began to question what exactly was going on. There have been plenty of fires in the camp, mostly accidental ones from candles or cooking stoves. It’s also thought that tear gas canisters can ignite and start fires. But this – this seemed different. No one was in any of these homes when the fires started so there were no open flames, and despite the heavy police presence there was no tear gas. So what was the cause?
The media has reported fires as being started by refugees, who would rather burn their own homes than see them destroyed at the hands of the French government. But the long term volunteers we spoke to aren’t convinced about that at all. The first mysterious fire, on Sunday night, started in the famous pink caravan, the place new arrivals go to get a sleeping bag and some advice. Why on earth would refugees set light to that? It doesn’t make sense. So the theory is there is someone working undercover in the camp who is deliberately starting fires for some reason. It could be the police, creating diversions from the demolition – if everyone is away fighting fires there’s no one left for the police to deal with. But a more sinister theory is that it could be the work of fascists, who are looking to cause chaos and damage the refugee cause…. Whatever the answer, there definitely seemed to be a pattern to those early fires yesterday.
Later on there was another, much bigger fire that destroyed a huge, solid building with a corrugated metal roof. This time the fire truck (a jeep with hoses in the back) was employed and again Dan and Darrell got involved with fighting the flames with Dan waiting till the fire was nearly burned out to check it didn’t spread. It was interesting to see how many people used it as an excuse to warm their hands! Again we don’t know what the cause of this fire was – I have read that it was a simple cooking stove accident, or kids messing around, but no one really knows. It’s all a bit worrying.
So obviously there was a lot of smoke in the sky, plus the sky was leaden grey for most of the day anyway. But for me, the real “black sky” was the air of depression, desperation and despondency that has taken over the camp. Every time I’ve been in the past I’ve been inspired by the atmosphere of hope within the camp. People were so positive they would make it England, that their God, whoever he may be, would look after them. Even when people suffered injuries or were arrested and beaten or were separated from friends, they said “Maybe England tomorrow, inshallah” and smiled and laughed. But yesterday very few people were laughing. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone has given up; they are resigned to whatever happens now. No one really knows what to do any more. Many people are trying, trying trying to get to the UK (and some are still succeeding – just as we drove onto the train to go over to Calais, I had a phone call from John, one of our Eritrean friends, to tell me he had made it to London in a lorry, along with another lad we’ve met. Yay!). But others simply don’t know what to do any more. They know they can’t stay in the camp, they know their home is going to be destroyed, if not in the next few weeks, then in the coming months – but they don’t know where else to go. We were told that the last of “our” Eritrean boys to be in the camp, Filimon, had also made it to England – but alas it wasn’t to be, as we later found him and were shocked to discover he’d been badly beaten by the police. Seeing his beautiful face battered and bruised nearly broke me. Later, Anna and I had tea with Muna and Auguta, two lovely Eritrean girls and when we went to leave they were both tearful. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” one asked. And we didn’t have any answers. In our hearts we wanted to bundle them up in the boot of the car and bring them back with us, along with other dear friends like Filimon and Gypsy. But in our heads, although we’ve never once been stopped and searched on the way home from Calais, we know that the one time we tried anything like that would be the one time we got caught – and we just can’t take that risk. Instead we have to walk away with promises to come back soon. There were a lot of tears in Calais yesterday.
Now in my experience, when it hails, it does it for a minute or two. Not yesterday. Not in Calais. As the sky got darker and heavier, the heavens opened and we endured a hailstorm the likes of which I have never known before. It went on for at least ten minutes with no let up in its ferocity – tiny bullets of ice pounding down on the ground, the tarpaulin roofs, and anyone unfortunate enough to get caught outside. We dived for cover in an abandoned house but even then, it was pretty scary hearing the ice crash down and the wind whip around, and my hands very quickly went numb! It was a hailstorm of biblical proportions that turned an already difficult situation into a scene from hell…
Fortunately once it finished the sun came out and we were offered some warming soup in the Ashram Kitchen. Although I’ve heard about this place loads of times before I’ve never actually been there. it’s one of five (I think) kitchens in the camp that provides thousands of free meals every week, to both refugees and volunteers. We had a cup of delicious chunky vegetable soup and some pitta bread, and we took shelter and warmed up. The Ashram Kitchen is a place of happiness and comfort, where everyone is welcomed warmly and invited in out of the cold. It’s devastating to think that places like this are also going to be demolished very soon.
And of course the storm made me realise a little about what it’s like to live in the camp. We were soaked and cold and didn’t warm up until halfway back to Swindon, once we’d filled our bellies at the terminal and put the car heater on full. But what if you live in the camp and have nowhere warm to go? How do you survive the elements when your only home is a small wooden shack, your only clothes are the ones you stand in? What happens then?
Iranians with their mouths sewn together
Perhaps the most chilling part of the day was when a group of young Iranian men appeared in a silent protest at the way they have been treated by the French government in particular (but also, by its inaction and erection of the fences, the UK government). In a bid to be heard, these men have taken the decision to sew their lips together … to be heard, they have to be unheard.
There was a lot of media around and I wasn’t able to get very close to take decent photos – which is as it should be. After all, my photos only go on here, whereas the media pictures have been all over the internet. But you know what was really weird? Usually when you see a media scrum on the TV there’s a gaggle of accompanying noise as the journos ask for comments. But this time there was no noise at all. Just as the Iranians have taken a vow of silence through the act of sewing their mouths up, so too the journalists entered into their own vow of silence, perhaps as a show of respect. There was certainly a very eerie atmosphere as everyone realised that this was France in the 21st century – and these are the lengths the refugees feel they have to go to, to be heard. It’s not something I am likely to forget for a long time.
A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….
A strong police presence meant we couldn’t get close to the area currently being cleared but we could clearly see the bulldozers and diggers smashing into homes in the Sudanese area of the camp; the Iranian area has already been cleared. Anyone who has been to the camp will know how tightly packed together the homes are in most areas – so it was a real shock to see how big an area has already been destroyed, just since Monday.
Staring across land that once held hundreds of homes was really depressing, especially as I wondered where all the people have gone now. We’ve heard that some have simply left the camp – perhaps to try their luck in another country, but more likely to find a new base somewhere else in Calais; there are already reports of smaller camps springing up around the area. Some have been rehomed in the Jungle, but with the available space decreasing all the time, it’s going to be more and more difficult to house people safely.
The idea of destroying the only home someone has is horrific, and it’s such a waste of volunteers’ time and money too. Volunteers and refugees alike have worked so hard to build something from nothing, and yet it’s pulled down without any thought at all. We had something of a stand-off with the CRS at one stage, and it was interesting to note that very few of them could look us in the eyes … I don’t know how they and the prefecture demolition team can sleep at night.
So what next for the camp? Who knows. The plan seems to be to destroy the south side within the next four weeks, then take a break and apply for a court order to remove everything from the north side. People will be encouraged to move to other refugee camps in France, apply for asylum in France or enter the prison-like storage containers the government has erected, at a cost of 12 million euros. So there are some tough decisions to be made. And of course we will be watching the situation closely and assessing when or if we return again.
Many people have asked me how they can help, so here are a few ideas:
1. Make a donation to one of the many charities working on the ground:
– Care4Calais (purchase and distribution of supplies I’ve sleeping bags, tents, torches etc) http://care4calais.org/donate/
– Calais Kitchens: providing free meals and food parcels:https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/calaiskitchens
– Help Refugees: supports the camps at Calais and Dunkirk, and also funds the women’s centre, youth centre and other facilities:http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/donate
You can also donate to Swindon-Calais Solidarity to ensure we continue our visits there: https://www.gofundme.com/7x2uq3dk
2. Write to your MEP ( MPs have no influence in what happens in France; MEPS can have mor of an effect) via https://www.writetothem.com (I found a great post earlier today with some ideas of what to say, can’t find it now but will post if I come across it again)
3. Buy items to send directly to Calais: go to http://www.leisurefayre.com a click on the banner at the top. The site shows the most needed items and offers a 20% discount plus free delivery direct to a Calais charity warehouse. Just make sure you choose “Send to a refugee” as the shipping option
5. Join your local Calais solidarity group … Searching in Facebook for your town and with Calais or refugees should find something. (There was a list but it doesn’t seem to be working right now) Local groups raise money, collect donations, visit the camp, organise events etc.
6. Tweet a photo of yourself with #istand in the photo
7. Read and share blog posts written by people on the ground – including mine! http://www.alisonmthompson.co.uk