An Irishman’s Diary on hope and despair in the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais

 

It’s a bright, sunny day in the Calais “Jungle”. Bulldozers move slowly across the landscape, flattening wooden shelters behind a line of riot police, padded and helmeted like American football players. There must be at least 60 gendarmes here today, grimly overseeing the crushing of the southern part of the camp.

Just in front of the line of police, in a scrum of photographers, stand four Iranian men. Their faces are wrapped in scarves but their mouths are exposed to reveal their lips sown up with black thread. They have gone on hunger strike, demanding that a member of the European Court of Human Rights comes to the Jungle to meet them. There is perfect silence except for the crackling of a fire raging behind me, where another shelter has been set alight and plumes of black smoke are belched into the air.

Tear gas

“The French government has conspired with Assad and Daesh to destroy our futures,” says my Syrian friend Wassim.

And you can feel this crushing and eviscerating of futures going on in every interaction. Conversations peter into defeated silence or intensify into tearful assertions that “We are human beings”.

It’s horrendous to see people stripped of their dignity like this. First the police, for no reason, stopped the kids playing football and cricket in the previously razed area; then they cut off the Jungle wifi that some volunteers had set up. Now this – an inexorable destruction of months and months of work and hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations. Claire Mosley, the inspirational woman behind Care4Calais, tells me that only two weeks previously it had completed the organisation’s goal to house every Jungle resident in a proper shelter.

What have they done, these people, to earn such contempt and cruelty? Their crime is that they’ve been bombed in Syria or had their lives threatened by the Taliban, or been tortured in Eritrea. It’s impossible not to think of the words from the New Testament: “He that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

I’m sitting on a mound of rubble sketching my Sudanese friend Mo. Initially I sketched and painted here with the idea of working up an exhibition. But seeing how much my sitters loved having their portraits done, I started giving them away. Mo (23) sits in perfect stillness as riot police tramp past us. I can hardly bear to look straight in his eyes, which behind his beautiful face, contain such loss and sadness that it would break your heart. He has just been evicted. The diggers have reached the Sudanese area and officials are tossing duvets and furniture out of the shelters into a mound which is scooped up and dumped in a skip. I have no idea what will become of Mo now. He hasn’t the strength or determination to be one of the few lucky ones to make it across to the UK. He had found a little community here and volunteers could check in on him. Now where will he go?

We finish the portrait and he is thrilled. We walk down past a line of riot police and he waves it at them saying, “Look it’s me. What do you think?” They stare back coldly.

Protests