Jungle – the infamous Calais refugee camp is about to close. Renu Dias is just back from a week in there as a British voluntary aid worker. This is a moving excerpt from the diary she kept
Wednesday 19th October
The Jungle’s ‘High Street’ is now a ghost town. Once it was lined with restaurants, shops and cafes. Now, on police order, all the ramshackle huts are boarded over One or two restaurants on the other side still continue to serve food: naan, rice, chicken and vegetables. One of the long-term volunteers tells me that she used to have dinner in the Jungle and that the food was always delicious. Back before the demolitions when things were safer. Now, no volunteers are allowed on site after dark. Tensions are high, everyone’s guard is up. We only travel in packs.
The tents meander up on either side of the high street and it’s impossible not to think ‘it’s just like Glastonbury!’ Some are no more than a flimsy two-man lie down tent. Others are more like small houses where you can stand up. Inside one, we see a man praying. Outside another, a Sudanese man chops an onion by holding it with his left hand and deftly cutting into it with his right. A frying pan balanced over a small fire crackles in anticipation. Two tents down, a man is cutting hair.
As we walk along we see these little glimpses of life, little glimpses of humanity prevailing despite the squalor and desperation. People playing cards, someone shaving, someone singing, another one improvising an axe with a broken piece of shovel to chop wood for the fire. I see lots of lentils, cooked with spices over tiny open fires. I see people boiling milk, perhaps for chai. Some of it looks and smells quite excellent. We hear the call to prayer, wafting from a loud speaker. Look up and we see a bright blue kite bobbing in the sky. Amidst all this wretchedness, someone is flying a kite. Someone is looking up.
There are only so many faces you can see before you start to see the same faces recycled but with a different twist. Standing for hours on end in our hand holding formation, I see the Sudanese Hugh Jackman. The Eritrean Jeremy Clarkson. Unlike his British doppelganger, Jeremy is delightful. He offers a shy smile and the automatic ‘How are you? Fine thank you!’
When we hand out supplies, we form human barriers to contain the line of people as they wait. Fights are quick to break out at distributions unless there is order so we hold hands and form a solid wall that is harder to breach than a gate. We are human gates. Talking gates. We ask where the refugees are from. How long they’ve been at the Jungle. When they speak enough English, they answer us gladly. They ask me over and over where I am from. I tell them ‘Siri Lanka’ and the Afghans, grinning, recite names of Sri Lankan cricketers to me.
Today we walked through some of the Sudanese tents, collecting people’s orders. We waited in Khyber Pass restaurant for our translator John. Our previous translator apparently made it to the UK last night, stowed away in a refrigerated lorry. The volunteers that worked with him are concerned for his safety. Lorry drivers get fined thousands if they are found to have stowaways. Working through the tents, they ask for shower gel, deodorant, boxer shorts, t-shirts, joggers, hoodies. And bags, lots of requests for bags. Eviction fever is upon us.
Later, we gathered at the far end, away from the main area. A van was to arrive containing shoes and we needed to manage the queue. Very quickly, there was a crowd of men, all absolutely desperate to get in line. After much swearing and even a ‘RUN!’ from Kimo, our badass, Arabic-speaking Heavy, we were in formation to contain the queue of men looking to exchange their tickets for brand new walking boots. Several men had no tickets and of course we had to turn them away, regardless of how desperate they looked. Two children turned up in the queue, one could not have been more than seven years old. We chat with the guys around. One smokes a joint and giggles and laughs with us. He tells us ‘I smoke and then I feel chilled and then it doesn’t matter if the police come’.
It is bitterly cold but we stamp our feet and try to stay jolly. Until someone notices fireworks over the main area. Not fireworks, tear gas. Grey plumes of smoke roll down the hill and within minutes it’s in our noses, eyes, throats. Along with the gas, the wind carries the sound of shouting, of a large group of people in distress. And then at the same time, someone, not a volunteer, turns up with a pile of naan breads, piping hot from whatever makeshift oven they were made in and we pause from the queue and the tear gas and the cold to tear a corner of the chewy, salty bread and eat.
Eventually, the shoes are all gone. ‘Tomorrow?’ asks one. We do not know. We cannot say. We are constantly told never to make promises we cannot keep. The light is all but gone now so we walk fast, nervously. Looking back, we see a swarm of police cars gather in the distance, sirens ominously silent but blue lights swirling menacingly. In the car, I swerve to avoid a game of football. Humanity prevails.
Thursday 20th October 2016
Seven palettes of men’s boots have arrived. A lorry turned up in the night and dropped them. Thoughts turn to those men to whom we couldn’t give shoes last night, in the fading, tear gas-stained light and we are all elated. We set to work. One team sorts boots into sizes then labels boxes to load the van. Another team prepares the bags from yesterday’s ticketing – filling plastic bags with each request for small items of clothing and toiletries. Another team tackles the impossible chaos of the second warehouse, sorting out goods that are good enough to give to refugees. Anything old or dirty we reject. Wellingtons we reject – no good for walking.
For the second day in a row I am tasked with feeding the whole lot so I take a helper and we drive to the supermarket to pick up supplies. Then ensues the race against time to prepare lunch for 40 hungry volunteers on a single hot plate that is warm at best and a gas camping fire stationed outside the portaloos. The pasta is so bad that the metal ladle used to serve it breaks.
It takes all morning to get a decent amount of shoes ready for distribution. Then we eat and ticketers leave for camp first. That includes Alex and me. I’m on tickets and Alex has the ledger to mark everything down. We head to Khyber Pass to pick up our lovely interpreter John. Then we head to the same area we ticketed yesterday – section B, which is mainly Sudanese men. There, we go from tent to tent, noting down tent numbers, names of inhabitants and then items requested by each. The men invite us in from the rain and we crouch amidst their piles of bedding, bags of tinned food and card games. The cosy fug of the tents, filled with cigarette smoke and tinny music from a mobile phone, offers brief moments of respite from the constant drizzle outside. The point of the ledger is to ensure we don’t visit the same tent twice so that everyone gets a fair crack at getting a ticket. But we keep seeing the same faces. Alex asks ‘Didn’t we give you a ticket already?’ ‘No no! No ticket!’ comes the indignant reply. With one tent, Alex pushes back but the man is visibly upset. He insists he hasn’t been seen and the tent we’re by is his. Every tent has at least four or five different numbers as every different charity has its own way of coding the tents. Inside, he has folded his blankets with such precision. His makeshift bed is immaculate. All around the tents are the remnants of ramshackle fires, cooking pots and rubbish. But inside his tent, the edges of his folded blankets are lined up down to the millimetre. I am struck by the defiance, the dignity of this small detail.
We only have enough time to give out 80 tickets before we need to leave to get to the shoe distribution. The ‘shhhh distribution’ as I say to Alex for fear of another stampede like yesterday. A separate team of shoe ticketers has been handing out tokens to those most in need of shoes and the distribution will take place out past the church towards the very edge of the Jungle. There we get into our formation and the distribution begins. The rain is persistent. At one point it really starts to come down. The kind of rain where, if you’re indoors, you stop whatever you’re doing and go and stand at the window to watch for a while, transfixed by the force of the storm. We turn our backs to the deluge and within seconds my jeans are soaked to the skin, water dripping down the backs of my legs and into my boots. My gloves and hat are sodden. But any talk of being wet and cold feels a little brattish when you survey the queue of refugees, wearing handed down sweatshirts and flip flops.
At the pub that evening, our interpreter John has joined us. He looks immaculate – smart coat, clean-shaven. I don’t understand how he can look so well turned out when he lives where he lives. And how strange to be part of that world and then, just for an evening, to sit in the pub with us. He refuses food and drink but is happy to just sit and smile and chat with us.
- “Have just read Renu’s diary, I was so moved. I have supported various charities and obviously viewed the camps via the television, but this diary really brought home the reality of the situation. Well done Renuka for going to help and also for sharing the grim experiences of the people. Unfortunately I don’t think I see much light at the end of the tunnel (no pun intended) for them.” – Carol Murphy, Ackworth, 25 October 2016