[ 12. Oct 2009 ]

Personal account from one week in Calais

Noborders campsite, Calais, June 2009

Calais No Border Camp 2009: This was one of the most interesting 'activist' camps we've ever been...


In fact, the first impression we got when we arrived on Friday didn't differ that much from other such mobilisations. Welcoming tent at the side of the main entrance, people buzzing around, meetings taking place, the kitchens busy preparing dinner, music blasting from a mobile sound system, and then, a further glance into the field quickly revealed all the necessary diy infrastructure set up to allow hundreds of people to live together for over a week: a drinking water system, toilets, showers, kitchens, as well as legal, media, trauma and well being support teams, medics, a cinema, meeting spaces, camp spaces, security, etc...

But one of the things I quickly noticed different from the 'usual' activist camp, was a field dedicated to playing football. "This way! ... you're standing right in the middle of a football game!" a friend shouts at me. I look around and I immediately notice a second characteristic of this camp that I rarely see in other such situations: a very diverse make up of people on site. Almost everyone playing that football match quickly reveal to me as 'non-activists', but rather a group of local youth and migrants trying to score at each other.

By the time we have set up our tents and had a proper look around, the presence of migrant people (mostly of the 'type' forced to an existence of permanent illegality) becomes more and more ubiquitous. They are around the kitchens eating in groups, talking, debating and planning with others. They are translating in meetings and watching films. Whilst some play football, others make use of the internet connectivity and the media centre at the camp to catch up with news, friends, relatives and so on. It is very clear to me straight away that this camp is managing to involve the very same people it is supposed to support, and not only this, but more importantly, that it is actually helping migrants in and around Calais in a very direct manner: it provides an immediate, safe, welcoming, friendly and helpful space even if it is only temporarily.

And the importance of this cannot be diminished. One only needs to talk to people from Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan or African countries around the camp to see how much of a break the Camp is providing from the usual nightmare existence experienced day in day out by those pushed into a permanent state of oblivion, a sort of non-existence whilst in hiding, and given the status of 'illegal' when caught.

Ali (I may be spelling his name completely wrong .. sorry) tells us his story. It strikes me the way he tells it to us. He is obviously very desperate - the look in his eyes testify of this - but he doesn't seem to be bitter. He talks calmly and very intelligently, and he shows a very broad smile when I ask him what is he going to do first when he finally manages to get to Ireland (his chosen destination) "I'll do a big, big party!".

He left northern Iraq (or Kurdistan to him) to join his sister that has been living in Ireland for over ten years (the same exact time that he hasn't "seen her face" as he puts it). I don't ask him why did he leave, whether it was his personal choice or if he was fleeding from some sort of persecution or destitution. And although I am slightly curious to know, I don't ask for two main reasons: one because I don't think it matters at all in relation to his rights to join his sister in Ireland, especially taking into account that he hasn't been able to see her for over a decade. And two, because if you are leaving countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, the chances are that, in a way or another, it will have something to do with the West's military, political and economical interventions (and occupations) of those lands.

In any case, the story he tells us and the way he speaks don't seem to go hand by hand. In a very soft and calm way he explains that he has had to pay around 20,000 euro to be smuggled all the way from Iraqi Kurdistan to Calais, but that the money "doesn't really matter at all" if he finally makes it through the Channel. That he has already tried to 'smuggle' himself under a lorry 18 times, but that he's been caught every single one of them. "And what happens when the police catches you?" I ask. "Well, they arrest me, and put me in a police station for a day or two". "So how many of you are trying this in an average night?" I wonder. "Oh, many ... sometimes there are as many as ten of us hidding in a lorry. Some make it some don't..."

"But now it is very tough" he tells us. Both, in and around the borders, as well as in Calais itself. He tells us about the recent police raids at the 'Jungle', a mainly Afghani makeshift settlement not very far from the Camp which has around 1000 young men (and some children as young as 12 and 13 years of age) cramped in trully inhuman conditions - no running water, no food distribution, nor the minimal sanitary or hygienic infrastructure. People are trapped in there, and not really existing as long as they don't leave the Jungle.

He suddenly asks us if we want to go to the 'jungle' and see it for ourselves. "Ah the jungle? Yes please, let's go" we quickly respond. He says that he doesn't want to take us to the big 'Afghani' one because there are too much police around the area, and also, possibly, because he doesn't really live there. He says that there are a lot of Jungles around, and that we can go to one nearer to the Camp. We set off and after a little while we enter a sort of small forest. We turn into a little track and suddenly there's a clear where we see a few huts made of plastics, the odd piece of wood and card board. One of them seems to be a kitchen where there is a pot boiling some rice. There's no one in there but we can hear voices coming from a bigger hut to the right, and quickly four Vietnamese men come out of it. They say hello, we shake hands and they ask whether we are in the Camp. We say yes, to which they reply "Good, good". They say they want to make it to London, but that it is "very, very difficult". We have some small chat with them, but they don't really need to explain to us how hard their existence is. It is pretty obvious to us just from standing in there. "It gets very cold at night" one of them tell us, "and when it rains it is very difficult to live here". We find ourselves a bit lost for words .. what can you really say. It is shocking to see, and I can barely imagine what it actually is living in those conditions, day in day out.

After a little while, we say good bye and we wish good luck to them. "See you in London" we say. "Yes, London!", they reply with a big smile. We then go a bit further down to another 'jungle'. This is actually a country house that it looks like it had been abandoned long time ago, and where mainly Iraqi people use to sleep in it. If the 'jungle' we've just seen seemed hard, this is almost unbelievable. The house is a mess, and some parts are almost in ruins. It hasn't got any doors or windows anymore. Just holes in standing walls. We climb onto a table which has a chair of top of it. From the chair we pull ourselves one by one into the first floor through the roof of what was probably a living room at some point. In there we find a room without any windows, but that is still fully covered with a roof. "It's warmer here" he says. There are several mattresses on the floor, but we don't see any blankets or sleeping bags around. No running water and no toilets. "Welcome to my house" he says. This time I can see a very sad look in his eyes. I can't think of anything clever or helpful to say, and I feel a bit stupid because of this. Fuck! .. I am getting angrier by the minute at seeing this at first hand, but the only thing I can muster is something like "Well, yes, it is really tough, but you never know what lies around the corner for you. Life isn't always the same, and things can change". "Yes, maybe." he says. "Look", he points to a graffity written in Arabic in one of the walls. "These are from one us us who made it through!". "What do they say?" I ask. "I can't translate it, I don't know how to say it in English" he responds.

We leave the room the same way we came in. We stay outside the house talking for a little bit, when he suddenly says quite nerviously "let's go, the police are coming". "How do you know?" I ask. "Lets go, let's go". So we follow him and we arrive at the motorway. The first thing I see at the other side is two police vans and around 15 policemen standing on the hard shoulder. He tells us to go another way, where we cross the motorway and we eventually make it back to the Camp. "How did you know the cops would be there?" I ask. "Well, that helicopter probably saw us outside the house. If they see us wandering around they come and arrest us, or they tell us to go. They take our things. It is very hard! They often come early in the morning, around 6 o'clock and they wake us up, and sometimes they arrest us". It is very difficult, and some people are going crazy. It's too hard".

"What about the people in town?" I ask. "Some are good, but others are very bad. They shout at us. The other day I had to go to the hospital to get some treatment for some rushes in my arm, and they told me to go away". So, "how do you do it for food?" I wonder. "There are some places in town we can go and eat at lunchtime, but the less we show our faces around the better. We don't want to go to the center anymore. It is too dangerous".

We have some food together at the Camp, and then, eventually, an Afghani party starts with the mobile sound system. People get to their feet, make circles and start dancing to what I guess are some popular tunes form Afghanistan. People are having a great time. They dance in a way that, to tell the truth, I find a bit alien to me, but the music is quite atmospheric, so we decide to hang around and watch people enjoying themselves. Tonight they can dance in an open field. And tomorrow, after breakfast, they can either choose to stay around and help out at the Camp, or to come to the demo. Or maybe to play another game of football. Whatever, but at least, whilst the Camp is in town, they can become visible again.

Some might argue that all this may not be crucial in terms of managing to do away once and for all with the fucked up immigration policies and border systems, nor in achieving concrete 'change' in a more general (and abstract) sense, but my guess is that, at least, the Camp has provided a good break from the 'Jungle', and hopefully a glimpse of hope too. How can this break is to become more permanent I don't know, but this is happening right in our doorstep, and it is not likely to go away.

Source [urlext][/urlexŧ], 29. June 2009 (with pics).