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The Universal Sadness Issue

Life In The Jungle

Calais is the closest point in France to the United Kingdom. Besides that distinction, it’s basically sort of a shithole.

by Mathieu Berenholc
Jan 2 2009, 12:00am


  Calais is the closest point in France to the United Kingdom. Besides that distinction, it’s basically sort of a shithole. And besides that distinction, Calais is also where thousands of refugees to France from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Somalia congregate in a massive, sprawling camp of improvised shelters. The refugees and the press alike call this provisional home “the jungle.” It’s a filthy place that sits in a grimy forest between a chemical factory and the harbor. It’s an ideal base from which to plan an illegal emigration to England. Recently, a young British journalist was raped in the jungle of Calais while on assignment there. It’s been one of the most reported stories in the French press in recent months, leading to angry debates regarding race, immigration, crime, poverty, privilege, and the end of the world. You know, the usual.

We recently went to the jungle ourselves to see if the reality lived up to the horror stories in the media. (Here, we’ll spare you the suspense: It does.)

Myriam works for a Catholic charity that serves the refugees in Calais. We are watching her and her coworkers distribute food to almost 200 camp dwellers. The situation is dangerously close to becoming a riot. “Stop pushing, please,” Myriam shouts. “Stop pushing right now or there will be no food at all! Jesus, they’re going to end up killing each other!”

A dozen volunteers are getting ready to distribute lunch from a small shack while, outside, a mob of refugees are banging on the walls. They’ve broken all the windows, which have been replaced by planks of wood. The exhausted crowd gets thicker and the refugees organize themselves more or less by nationality. Afghans with Afghans, Pakistanis with Pakistanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Somalis, and so on.

In the midst of the chaos, we strike up a conversation with 28-year-old Mohamat, who claims to be from Afghanistan (it’s difficult to know whether he’s actually a Pakistani because most of them pretend to be from Afghanistan, where citizens aren’t extraditable to their country).

Vice: Why did you leave Afghanistan?

One night when I came home, the Taliban had killed my mother and father because I worked with American people. I fled and went to Pakistan, then walked to Iran. I crossed the border at night. Then I got to Turkey, then Ankara to Istanbul to Iona, then Iona to Athens. Then I flew to Milan and got to Cannes, then to Paris, and now Calais.

How did you travel?

I drove, walked, took the train, trucks, buses… everything. I paid to cross a few borders, but I cannot pay any more. I cannot pay anybody, but every single night I still try to go to England. France is not too good for me. The police people come every morning with dogs. They catch me and I have to go to the station and they write my name, so I give a different name each time. I want to go to London because I have a brother there. I want to become a shopkeeper.

A little bit farther out from the food shack, about 20 women are queuing in a perfect line. A volunteer is getting pissed off because she thinks one of them has already been served. “We can’t recognize them because they all look the same,” she tells us, “and they take advantage of that.” That’s a wee bit rich, but we nod and walk on. On top of the volunteers’ shouting, screams of anger emerge from the crowd. Two guys are fighting. Apparently, a Kurd tried to steal a Somali’s crutches because the wounded migrants are served first. The Somali fought back. Immediately, ten Kurds jump on ten Africans.

A volunteer stuck in the middle of the melee passes out. His colleagues help him to a chair. A group of Afghans laugh, which annoys the only white hobo whom we can see in the crowd. “Dirty Arabs,” he screams out. The situation soon turns into pandemonium and the volunteers decide to stop the food distribution. They’ve still got a lot of plastic bags loaded with a can of tuna, some bread, a bottle of water, and a banana, but oh well. They have made up their minds. About 50 men who were calmly waiting won’t get anything for lunch today

As the crowd is dispersing, Claudie, a volunteer, spots Fredun, a refugee. It’s the first time she has seen him in three years because the 25-year-old man was in prison for hanging out too often with a group of Afghan smugglers. They’re the guys who help refugees jump on trucks that are shipped by ferry to England. The smugglers control the parking lots. Seven hundred euros per person gets you in a truck, whether the driver’s in on it or not.

Fredun says he’s never been a smuggler, but the French courts accused him of transferring smugglers’ funds to England. He spent a total of 31 months in a prison in Losse, where he learned to speak French. He was let out three days ago and doesn’t seem to feel comfortable in the outside world. His voice is shaky, his eyes full of tears. He visibly jumps at loud noises.

Vice: So, what’s next? What are your plans for the future?

I don’t know. I’ve lost my family. They all died in Afghanistan. I don’t have a wife or kids or a job. I’m stuck here. If I go to England, Italy, or Germany, I’ll be kicked out at the first checkpoint. I have to stay in France, because I applied for French citizenship when I was in jail. But until I get it, I can be kicked out of the country at any time. I’m sleeping in a foyer in Calais for a couple more weeks, but after that I don’t know what I’ll do.

Are you thinking of going back to what you did before?

No. I’m never going back to jail.

A volunteer who overheard our conversation comes up to me. “The smugglers are fucking everything up,” he says. “They make the rules here. Most of them are Kurds and they’re all bastards. I can’t stand them. Mafia! Business! Mafia!” he screams to a group of Kurds, who completely ignore him. It’s true that they look like they don’t belong here, with their new sneakers and their well-fed stomachs. The screaming guy tells me to call him Moustache. He knows the world of Calais refugees like the back of his hand, and he kind of looks like Abbé Pierre, the famous French Catholic priest and charity worker, with his big white moustache and his black beret.

He introduces me to Dominique, a British volunteer who lives in Calais. Dominique knew the journalist who was raped a few weeks ago. “The first time I saw her was in December 2006,” he tells us. “She asked me to take her to the jungle because she wanted to take photos of refugees for her final-year project at school. She came three times and the fourth time she stayed away from the volunteers, probably to reassure the refugees and to make them more comfortable. One Monday evening I saw her going to the jungle around midnight. People say that the rapist was probably a north-African smuggler, because he spoke French well. But no one knows what actually happened.” The police questioned a dozen people but never found the guy. “He’s probably far from here now. It’s dangerous for a woman to spend a night in the jungle. Even during the day the jungle is a terrible place, you know.” Moustache offers to take us there. “But first we’ll stop by my house and get some clothes for you. And you should wear boots; the ground there is slippery and there’s shit everywhere.”

In the car, Moustache gives us a little tour of the city. He’s 49 years old and used to be a teacher. Today he spends all his time helping the refugees. “I’m a real scout, you know. I can’t even think of spending a day without doing something rewarding, something good,” he says, laughing. “See on your right, these are three smugglers. The fuckers sleep well in hotels while the others starve to death.” He keeps on saying hi to groups of refugees and cursing groups of smugglers, who look at him like he’s insane. “Clean, yeah? Good hotel, yeah? Business! Mafia!”

After three kilometers, we start to understand that refugees are everywhere in Calais. We stop off in a small bar and eat a repulsive dish of cheddar and beer—clearly we’re not far from England. The waiter tells us that “the migrants are just like moles digging holes in our gardens.” He talks about his friend who worked for a sports shop and sold a boat with paddles to three Afghan refugees. The next morning he read in the newspapers that the boat had been found empty in the middle of the channel. “Either they paddled for 30 kilometers and got to England, or they were found by the police, or they drowned.” The crossing of the channel has become like a local sport. Some immigrants even try pedal boats or swimming. Most of them prefer trying their luck with the trucks on ferries.

Moustache is showing us around after lunch. “This is the African car park. It’s where they try to jump on trucks, day and night. A little bit farther is the Afghan one, and then in the back, that’s the jungle.” We park and cut through an abandoned soccer field where about 30 people are resting. Their bathroom is a water faucet on the ground, directly connected to the filthy chemical factory that blocks the view of the sea. We continue toward a little forest. Moustache was right. The ground beneath our feet stinks of shit. He speaks loudly so the refugees know we’re not cops. Apparently, every morning they come with dogs and tear gas, and they take ten people with them to fill their quota. Most of the time they just write down their names and let them go. Then they have to walk the 18 miles back.

The first camp we see is empty. In the makeshift plastic-and-tarp tent, there are two mattresses on which six men sleep. In total there are about 50 such dwellings in the jungle of Calais. It’s an indescribable mess. Hundreds of broken eggshells, empty tin cans, and dilapidated shoes litter the area.

In another tent, 19-year-old Hamili is preparing chai with a big smile on his face. “I wish I could wash,” he tells us, “but there are only eight free showers for hundreds of people. You hardly have a chance to have a shower more than once a week.” Still smiling, he tells me about Afghanistan. “Some people stand beside the Americans, some with the Taliban. Even President Karzai doesn’t have good security, so how can poor people have security? My family had to go to Pakistan, and when my father died my mother told me to go to Europe. That was when my journey began. In Iran, all was good because I was busy with work. Then I went to Turkey. I was there with an agent [that’s what Hamili calls smugglers] who didn’t take any money from me. I stayed for two months in Istanbul, then I took a boat to Greece, but it was damaged and I had to finish the trip by swimming. I was in the water for eight hours. Then I saw a helicopter. It was the Greek police. They took me to Athens. Of all the countries I crossed, Greece was by far the worst. It was too difficult. You would work and after that the people would not give you the money. They would say your work was bad. They didn’t have good behavior—they would insult you all the time, saying malaga. It’s a very bad word, you know. The people in France are very friendly, and in Italy too, but Greece? Very bad. As soon as I have time in England, I will write about it on the internet in my own language. I’ll make a book about it too. I can write, you know. I went to school for 12 years. I’m a tailor too. I used to go to the sports club to practice kung fu. I want to let my people know what’s happening in Greece—that they shout at you, and that they sometimes beat you. If I had the chance to kill a Taliban, I wouldn’t do it, but I would kill Greek people if I had the chance, because they are not good to us. Anyway, after Greece I went to Italy by train and now I’ve been in Calais for two months. I try to cross the channel almost every night.”

We wait for night to fall and then we walk to the industrial zone behind the harbor. Hundreds of refugees are hiding there, hoping that a truck will slow down enough for them to hop onto the back of it. They wait on the bridges, in the trees, on the street—a would-be stowaway fills every nook. Suddenly we see two very young African boys running. A police van chases them, but they get away. We park the car near about 30 trucks coming from everywhere in Europe. They are all waiting for the next ferry. Nothing happens for about an hour. The drivers stand around outside and smoke cigarettes. We notice two shadows sitting under the truck closest to us. Moustache tells us that they’re probably going to try and place themselves between the two wheels in the hinges of the truck. The truck starts its engine, and the boys are nowhere to be seen anymore. Looks like they were successful. Even so, Moustache tells us, their chances of arriving in England tonight are extremely low. “Customs officers check all the vehicles. They are equipped with dogs, and if they don’t smell anything they also use machines that can detect heat and human heartbeats.” Their only chance of getting through is if they get a negligent officer, or if it’s a period when the French government decides to let a few refugees sneak through to England because there are too many here in Calais.

Later, back at Hamili’s tent, he tells us that even though he hasn’t been lucky yet, he is positive he’ll get to England one day. “The truck drivers always see me, and they say no, they won’t take my money. Maybe there are some who will take money, but I haven’t met one yet. So I have to wait for my chance and I know I will get it because I pray to the sky. I know how to use my brain and I have hope. Any more questions?”
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