Our first day in Calais all the trucks were backed up along the road, guys running alongside the cabs, gesturing desperately. Many more were just standing, resigned, on the verges, their faces blank, blinking with shock. We heard later the BBC reported ‘Tunnel Traffic Delayed For Hours By Migrants’. Like these human beings were some pesky fly on our economic face, an irritation to be swiped away without a thought. Razor wire and cops all over the place. A place where we value the stuff in the trucks more than the people out on the road. Where the goods have more worth than human beings. Where the movement of products has precedent over the movement of people fleeing war, persecution, hunger and poverty. Crazy, crazy world.
‘Why does David Cameron not want us to have a life?’ a middle-aged doctor from Kurdistan asked us. ‘The bombs were dropping, my brother was killed, we had to leave.’ His eyes were so sad and uncomprehending. His niece showed us a photo of her kitchen back home. ‘Now I have this.’ she pointed around her, the bare candle, the one pot in the middle of the tent, the smoke from the fire outside making all their throats sore. Her little child has been coughing since they arrived a week ago. So many sore throats here, their voices stilled, their story untold. ‘ISIS is not Islam – Islam is salaam. We are peaceful people, we are afraid of ISIS. They are not what we believe in, we believe in salaam – peace.’
All through the camp we heard these stories of family members being killed – of persecution – and desperate flights across Europe. One village had come as a group, months walking slowly with little help along the way. ‘In Hungary we were kept by the police and fed one slice of bread in 24 hours. They beat us.’. Many couldn’t even describe their boat journeys. A Sudanese man shook his head, ‘awful, too awful, a lot of people died. We ran out of food and water for the last two days.’ How many words are there for sadness? Because you wouldn’t have enough.
‘My mother is waiting for me to get to England so I can send money back so they can survive.’ A man from Darfur told me. ‘But I can’t get to England. Sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve this life here. What did I do to deserve this?’ He looked down at the floor. ‘And the longer I’m stuck here, the more the craziness comes…but I can’t get out of here. How do we get out of here?’
He tells me how he goes every night, like so many in the camp, to try to jump the train. The police beat them, set dogs on them, pepper spray and tear gas them. Workers in the hospital told us there are over 200 amputees in the hospital – victims who fell on the tracks. The police take the jumpers and torture them in cells. Many are blown off the train and killed. The drawing in one of the photos is of one such young man. Their sadistic treatment by French police was described to us by people all over the camp. ‘They hit us on the legs, they beat us, the dogs chase us and bite us.’. On our first day there, we got footage of an unprovoked attack on women. Every day 20-30 riot police parade through the camp intimidating, sometimes tear-gassing the people there.
In contrast to the beautiful, kind people offering us water, coffee – whatever they had. The resilience and strength of these people is staggering. After one shoe run, Malik was still standing in flip-flops. I started crying. ‘No, no please don’t be upset. I didn’t get shoes today, but maybe tomorrow. Would you like some water?’ Welcoming us into their tents, while they’re shut out of Calais, of England, of the world. He told me his story, how he’d had to leave, the tortuous journey and now the choice between risking life and limb jumping the train or staying here. ‘I don’t know how much longer I can stay here. I don’t know how much more I can take.’
And are we going to stand by and allow this to happen? Are we going to pretend we don’t know? Are we going to reduce people to numbers, immigration statistics, our bottom-line society, flat-lining empathy?
‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’- Howard Zinn.
Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity page
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