Diary entries of a long-term volunteer, from the last two difficult weeks in Calais:
Sunday 23rd October:
Today I sat in the shelter I have stayed in for 10 months, the shelter that will be destroyed tomorrow.
I was trying to make some arrangements for the next few days, getting people ready for their departure, working out logistics for personal belongings, making phone call after phone call.
A young Syrian boy, a very good friend who I’ve lived with, loved, but failed to ever communicate with verbally due to our poor grasp on each other’s languages, stepped into the shelter with his prayer mat.
He knelt by the open door in his trackies, illuminated by the little light. He sat on his feet, bent his head back and prayed. It felt like too intimate a moment to be privy to.
Today he waited for four hours for a lawyer to hear absolutely no news about his ongoing application for family reunification in the UK. He came back defeated and all I could do was just hold him, there’s never anything I can say.
Last week he ran into a fire in the Jungle to put it out, like all of the Syrians always do, always attempting to solve any problem at all. He came out of the fire coughing and wheezing, his breathing worryingly laboured. I gave him my inhaler and he settled after a while.
This is another beautiful boy to be failed by our system, totally legally entitled to live in the UK but stuck praying in the doorway of a shelter that’s about to be torn down.
Monday 24th October:
The eviction today began quietly, without a sound.
A few people have started to pack their things and leave. The beginning of another journey. People are making plans for different countries, different crossings, different chances.
I can’t stop wondering how people in the camp remain so strong when the rest of us feel so defeated by this eviction?
Everyone is prepared for this, they’re expecting it. NGOs have been working tirelessly for weeks, doing what the authorities haven’t: guessing at eviction dates, and trying to distribute as much information as possible to our comrades, our friends, our brothers and sisters.
Registration began today at the warehouse up the road from the Jungle. It was disorganised, humiliating mayhem. No proper system for queues or registration, no information given to people about where they are going, or why. Many people were turned away without explanation. The children’s line has closed by 11am leaving loads of them with nowhere to go.
Thousands of people that we know, that are our friends, were pushed against metal fences into a huge warehouse to be taken to who knows where. This is the French government’s master plan.
It’s so dehumanising.
Only 1900 of the 3000 people planned for today have actually left on buses into the unknown, into the centres across France that we have little or no information about.
Well-functioning centres where people have proper access to hygiene, information, and human rights is obviously a much better option than the makeshift shanty town where the people displaced between France and Britain currently reside. But no one has any faith that these (verbal) promises have any backing.
Why would they?
People have been stuck in the Calais Jungle for over a year in many cases. And both governments have just left them there.
At around 3 o clock, there is a beautiful march through the camp by the Oromo people. Shouting ‘Viva Oromo’, hands raised above their heads, the small group of Eritreans walk through the camp defiantly, but with rucksacks on their backs. When they got to the registration warehouse, they cried and hugged each other.
They said goodbye.
Tuesday 25th October:
The registration process is just as chaotic as yesterday. People began queueing as early as 4am, and by 7.30am were being told to sit down to avoid the crush. Press are everywhere, documenting what should be a private and dignified departure.
By 12am, some children had become injured in the queue. The line for minors was closed again at 11am.
The “demolition” began around 3 with one man in a miniature digger, going for about 8 shelters. Press crowded around, trying to find an angle from which this could look like the brutal and explosive demolition we were expecting. This pantomime ended at 5pm. This wasn’t the real eviction. This one was for show.
Tonight, the fires started. I felt the urge to take a walk around the camp with my friend Khan. He is a man of little words and I welcome the silent company. In hindsight, I’m really glad we took that last walk.
A few hours later, ‘Code Black’ is called in the camp. It is too dangerous for any volunteer to be in the camp and we are asked to pull out. Refugees don’t seem have the choice, so we drive to and from the camp with blankets and bring a couple of people back to where we are staying for food, water and a bed. We can’t house everyone though, so many people sleep in blankets under the bridge at the entrance to the camp. Children included. It’s light here so they feel a little safer. Thankfully there are volunteer medics and cooks on hand. No sign of the authorities intervening.
Not allowed in the Jungle, and nowhere to go now its ash and bonfires, children who were refused registration in the past few days, have nowhere to sleep. Children who managed to register, with wristbands, are allowed into the container camp, although there have been many reports of police removing minor’s wristbands. Children without wristbands are not allowed entry. They sleep outside the containers in the road. There are children sleeping outside in the rain and the mud. Volunteers intervene with tea, coffee, tents and blankets, once again filling the gap of the authorities, whose blatant refusal to face what they have done.. causes one of the worst abuses of children by a European government of our time.
Wednesday 26th October:
The Jungle is ash and debris after the fires of the night before. Skeletons of buildings propping up bubbling, melted tarp and rubbish. There are many theories about the fires. Anarchists, Fascists, refugees, authorities. Personally I don’t know… but it doesn’t matter, whoever it was, the Jungle is finished.
At 10.00am, women from the camp lead a beautiful and defiant protest.
“WHERE ARE THE WOMAN’S RIGHTS?” They shout; their children holding up signs, all faces covered with scarves to protect their identities. Journalists surround them and practically kettle them to standstill on their march.
“UNDERAGED, OVERAGED, WE ARE ALL THE SAME.
I see that one female journalist is on the brink of tears. She’s not the only one.
Staring into these women’s eyes, you see anger, trauma, power and beautiful defiance. I am awestruck and humbled, yet again, by the people I know in this camp.
A watched as a child was arrested tonight by the back of the camp. I don’t know what for, but it was awful to see.
The fires started again tonight, and they’re worse. Everything in the Calais Jungle is basically kindling, so things go up in flames quickly. Thick black smoke gushes upwards into the sky. Everyone covers their mouth but they are still coughing anyway. Gas bottles explode with violent bangs and the clouds of smoke roar and bloom into balls of fire above my head.
“This looks like Syria” says my friend who stands beside me.
Everyone evacuates the Jungle but are unable to go anywhere, as the police are blockading the bridge entrance.
I make my way to the already cleared South section of the camp, for some respite by the Eritrean church. I roll a cigarette and watch the fires rage on. I hear something behind me and turn my head to see…
It’s a sight I was not expecting…
The Syrian community are leaving the Jungle.
They wanted to resist, but as a group, have instead decided to leave the Jungle together, and register to be transported to an asylum centre. There’s around 70 of them. Syrians make up just a tiny percentage of people in the camp. The Syrian area of the camp is where I have been living for one year, and now they are leaving.
I guess it’s time for me to leave too…