Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Priorities and permanence: The lost lives of war.

A great deal has changed in the eyes of the world since I visited Calais a mere month ago: One thing that is noticeable is the amount of cameras that are present now; before I saw only a couple of journalists in the week that I was there, now every fifty yards I was able to see the fluffy end of a microphone boom amongst earnest, animated faces.

This, in turn, has helped: I saw four rental vans from the U.K with open rear doors handing out donated toiletries, clothing and food, even a minibus belonging to a primary school was parked near the entrance, driven to Calais on good intentions and empathy.

The overpass that stood as a gate to the Jungle no longer does so; tents now sprawl from underneath it and out into what was the approaching road. The reasons being that more refugees have arrived and land within the camp has been lost to water. On arriving I sought out the art tent, in which I had previously found it so easy to talk to people, but it seems to have been moved or shut as the area it was in is now rancid and waterlogged.

On the left is where the Art Tent used to be.
I circumnavigated the camp, past what was a large expanse of sand that was now two hundred yards of water, leaving only a narrow path that two people could not simultaneously pass. As I bore right it became apparent that the whole map of the Jungle had altered in my absence; where there previously paths there were now ramshackle gatherings of shacks, where there were dwellings and open ground are now large pools of stagnant water.

The camp is certainly more inhospitable than before, even some of the road wide thoroughfares are now unnavigable despite the day being a warm one. A sea breeze thankfully relieving the smell that settled over the camp during the still hot summer.

I was walking towards the church and the books in the Jungle tent, a small library that had a dozen books and a leaky roof on my last visit. It was locked up and looked very similar to before, perhaps there are more books inside now, but whether added permanence to the site is positive is a question which nags at the back of my mind, not quite identified at this point.

There is a throng of people by the church, a huge pile of battered footwear is piled neatly at the door. The church has grown in my absence; a large canvas wall surrounds it and murals adorn the outside wall. Within the makeshift walls of the churchyard a large grill is set up, people sit around on the floor eating rice dishes from polystyrene takeaway cartons. As I line up to take a photograph of one of the new paintings a man sits down on the floor to my right holding his food; he kisses the yellow tray and then taps it gently with his forehead, repeating the process three times before opening the lid. Even as an Atheist I am made thoughtful by how grateful people can be no matter how little they have.

Time spent: by someone with nowhere else to go.
I leave the makeshift gates of the church, opposite this there are two people building a platform on wooden stilts, the idea being to move their dwelling on to it to avoid the rising water that will quickly follow the first days of autumn. This, along with elaborate decorations on the church, seem to indicate that many people here see no end to their state of affairs.

I was doubtful there would be anyone at the school, but set off in that direction, moving to the edges of what was the path to navigate numerous litter strewn pools. In the middle of a dry section stood a small girl looking disconsolately down at a brimming bucket of water. I asked her if she wanted help and she stood straighter and nodded, examining my face. We both held the handle and bumped gracelessly along as I asked where she was going. She pointed with her free hand at a group of buildings not far in the distance.

She was an eleven year old from Eritrea, and had been in the Jungle for two weeks. I asked what she thought of the place, she managed a shrug. "It is safe." She conceded eventually. "It is the only place I know that is safe." Her perspective on the world was a dark one and I reeled slightly from it, although I can see why to her it is a valid one. Her father had fled with her to avoid conscription or imprisonment, a choice with no positive option. He is the sole guardian, her mother, like many women, never had the chance to leave Eritrea.

I tried to shake off the melancholy feeling that follows me whenever I walk around the Jungle; it had been emphasised by the last meeting and is not helpful. I stomped toward the school once more along what had in August, been a path. There was a hut in front of me, two men sat outside it in the gentle afternoon sun and heating an open can of beans on a small fire. They waved me to a halt as I passed.

Where an eleven year old girl lives with her father: An hour
from the British Library.  
"You can not get through that way." He pointed to a path back to the wider road. "You have to go that way." There were large white words painted on the door of their canvas shack: Kamal smile please. "Why are you going there anyway? There is nothing
good over there."

He was smiling as he spoke. The other man pointed to where I had walked from.
"There is nothing good over there either." They both laughed and the nearest slapped me on the back. They were both Syrians and had been on the camp for nearly two months, both now in their early twenties they had fled the civil war in their teens. I asked about the words that filled the door.  "Do you know who Kamal is?" The first speaker smiled mischievously and I shook my head. "I am." He said, poking himself in the chest. "After three weeks here my brother painted it, he was bored of me being sad."

"Did it help?" I asked, Kamal shrugged and produced a half smile, curling his bottom lip under his upper at the silliness of the conversation.

"Sometimes it is the small things." There was a sadness still in his eyes, but he seemed determined not to let it show. I sat with them for a while, they occasionally poked at the can of beans with a fork as we chatted and asked me to write down the link to my first article for them. "When you are famous we can say we met you." Kamal's eyes smiled with his mouth this time. We shook hands once more and I wandered off towards the school.    

The school was closed but surrounded by people nonetheless, I continued past as everyone looked busy and focused around cameras without me getting involved. A high metal fence stood on my right and the entirety of the camp on my left as I navigated pools of water and passing bicycles. There were more signs and decorations than my first visit, as people tried to make things more like a home in the face of the circumstances.

From the art of the jungle (Look it up on Facebook) to the poems and the paintings, the planned stilted housing and the assistance of everyday people, the entire situation has altered from refugee to migrant and from crisis to permanence.

We are unable to repair the political situation in Eritrea, I cannot see a way to make peace in the Sudan, there is certainly nothing that can be done for Syria, especially if we continue to bomb it. These are not practical solutions for a separate symptom. Spend all winter on the coast of Dover in a shelter you have manufactured from waste wood and canvas, then picture your children perpetually living there.

Everyone wants to go home, somewhere one feels safe, a place to retreat to. For some children and young people the Jungle is the safest place they have ever been; as a result it has become their home. This is their time, their memories, their childhood and in this case not providing is as bad as taking away.