In Pictures – 7 days in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais

Markwin Kobus presents an eye witness account as a volunteer at the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp near the French port of Calais through photos and diary extracts he recorded between 28 February and 3rd March in 2016, originally published in the South Dublin/Wicklow Calais Solidarity Public Group.

Day 1

The first day back in the warehouse in Calais, so good to be back, despite the bad news about the court ruling. We planned to go to Dunkirk to build community kitchens, but this project is postponed for a week, so we just got stuck in at the warehouse.

We spend the day cutting firewood, it’s nice to do something that you know will keep the refugees a bit warmer. It was busy today, approx 75 volunteers(it is always busier over the weekend), so much got done, and you get looked after very well as well. A beautiful tasty lunch with rice, dahl, salad, and whilst it was being cooked, the most amazing smells spread through the warehouse and its surrounds. It feels so good to be surrounded by so many people that are only there to share their compassion 🙂

Day 2

We went back to the warehouse, and I expected to get involved into a building project in Dunkirk, but nothing ever works out the way it is planned in Calais, change all the time.

Every morning at the warehouse there is a physical warm up in a circle with all the volunteers. We also get a thought of the day, and news from the jungle. The news from the Jungle was that the CRS (French riot police) was going around an area telling the refugees to leave their shelters or else they be removed/burned out of their temporary homes even though the police can’t destroy homes/shelters that are lived in. So, they were manipulating refugees out of their homes so they could destroy those homes. This was happening throughout the day.

The message of the day was that we as volunteers hold a document that we all have and that we despise and that gives us entitlements that the refugees don’t have; our various identity cards (passports or other forms). We were told to use that identity whatever way we can, to let the world know what the refugees are experiencing, what’s done to them by our governments that we vote for, through the (social) media…..

So everyone, please use your official identity to inform YOUR world, and HOLD YOUR OWN!!!!!!!!!!!

Most of the day we spend at the warehouse organising firewood, we created mountains of it, stored dry, kindling, logs etc. We felt very good doing this, and rightly so, we did loads.

In the meantime, another volunteer was so brave to go into the camp to help whilst things were kicking off and she informed us about the goings on. I felt angst, anger, sadness, compassion, I was in two minds if I wanted to go to the camp. I also knew that we should go and not engage in the fear and violence but that we should witness it, record it, let the world know and be there with calm loving peaceful energy in whatever we we could.

We went, we witnessed, we felt, we didn’t engage with the negative goings on, then we went back to the warehouse with the request to collect tools for dismantling and moving amenities that were under threat. I’m able to tell you all this, please spread this, tell your governments that this is not acceptable, that this goes against all human values, let alone European values…..

Day 3

We planned to go into the Jungle before the riot police would close it off. We got there at 9.00am and managed to climb the ditch and at the top we were ordered by the riot police to stay there,to not to go into the camp.

It was cold, damp, mist/drizzle, and about 5 degrees colder then Ireland, so therefore no one was out to resist, just a few people watching. The police and personnel was busy taking down shelters, working their way up systematically through the camp. There was little or no resistance, no teargas. They were steadily displacing people, but for what?

We walked around and found another way into the camp. We walked into an African guy who just lost his home, asking us what he should do, where he can go…. We had no answer, all we could do was give him a cigarette and a bit of kindness.

Then we went to the women and children’s centre to find it trashed by some boys who freaked out, as they were thinking that they would be abandoned by the volunteers. They slashed the outside of the shelter and thrashed the inside. We spend a couple of hours tidying and patching, and as we walked on we became aware that lots of caravans were being moved to an area that wont be evicted for now.

We were asked to create an awning outside a caravan for a mother and 4 kids with wood and awning material. An amazing strong woman, the first thing she did with us was to show her photo album of Calais, probably all her other photo albums she had to leave behind, and probably destroyed by now. She was so proud of this one, which will soon be an album of something that doesn’t exist anymore.

Considering we only had a saw and hammer to be shared between 3 people it took quite a while, but we successfully put it up. Due to the weather we were cold and wet, so we had some hot lunch in camp, did some more bits and finished early. This evening we did live interviews with Clare FM and RTE, and we have another one in the morning. Tonight a big fire in the Jungle, we will see the fall out in the morning 🙁

Day 4

PLEASE, share this situation far and wide let everybody know what is going on. In Holland there is an expression, that says “living like a God in France” Now I suggest we change that into “living like a demon in France”…

Today had the most intensive, shocking impressions so far. Tears well up in my eyes thinking back about what happened in this place that some people are forced to call home. I am so lucky not to live here, I am also lucky with the people I am with, who are an incredible support.

Some refugees and volunteers occupied a roof of one of the shelters very near were shelters were pulled apart, braving the cold weather. Riot police very close to them and some guy playing a table harp at the police- beautiful music! The police slightly withdrew and started pulling down shelters elsewhere.

At some point in the morning we witnessed a group of 6 Iranian men walking towards the police line, faces mostly covered, but their SOWN UP mouths clearly visible. The ultimate expression of having no voice. They were carrying placards and there was loads of media people around them. they slowly walked towards the police line (One of the place saying “NOW will you listen”). The police got very nervous, not able to do anything because of all the media there. They withdrew a bit and you could see the horror in their eyes as well. The Iranian guys stood their for a while and then withdrew and dispersed.

After that we were invited into one of the shelters, a dome with approximately 20 young men, most of them asleep in a heap of blankets. There was a stove going and we were offered some juice and sat around for a bit, warming up. When we left, 10 yards down there was a shelter on fire.

One of the volunteers had converted a jeep into a fire engine, as the authorities do not allow emergency services into the camp. Big water tank in the back, and 2 power washers with long hoses. They managed to keep the fire reduced to only one shelter by keeping an adjacent shelter wet and quenching the fire as soon as possible.

We had some meetings about moving the children’s jungle books to the new family area, so as there is a space to run a school, which hopefully will happen over the next few days.

Day 5

First of all, I am so grateful of all of you, my dear readers, that you are informing yourselves of what is going on here, and that you are inspired to share it with others, however harrowing it is. That shows YOUR humanity. Please keep sharing this, do what you can do, we can all do something. Raise funds, inform, come over, meditate, send love and healing (also to the police) to name but a few.

Yesterday the clearing of the camp continued steadily, without too many incidents between police and volunteers/refugees. It’s bizarre, around the Ashram kitchen there isn’t a building left standing, so it’s now in the middle of the waste ground, but still in use. There is a desperation among volunteers mainly, as they don’t know how long this will go on.

There is also a desperation among refugees, in many many forms.

Some of the unaccompanied young people are losing it. They get violent, set fire to emptied shelters, risking other shelters going on fire, they are very volatile. You can’t blame them in the slightest, try and put yourself in their shoes on every level of their existence.

The Iranian guys with their mouths sewn up made another statement, and there was a few more. It also became clear to me that they are on hunger strike, and that as of tomorrow they will stop drinking water…When I went over to the BBC camera team to tell them about it (they were elsewhere filming the tearing down of the camp) they said they couldn’t move as they had a direct connection hotspot where they were.

When the Iranians moved over to them it transpired that they were not allowed by the BBC in the UK to film the Iranians. In other words CENSORSHIP….That is why it is so so important that we all become part of the media.

As you can see from my pictures, there is also a lot of beauty left in the camp, which is very heart warming. The north side of the camp, which is not under threat as yet, I heard it’s way more calm, people going about with their daily goings on, music being played, etc.

I feel a very strong drive to keep doing what I’m doing, running repairs and improvements on community buildings, reporting, witnessing, standing with the refugees. I have to fight back my tears regularly, and keep storing them inside my chest until I find a moment to release, I haven’t found it yet, there doesn’t seem to be a spare moment….

Thanks again for listening

Day 6 & 7

Dear readers of my diary, tomorrow will be the last day for us in Calais. There after I will miss it, probably cry regularly over news in relation to the sufferings of the refugees in Europe and the Middle East…. Still, I’m getting very tired and worn out here, it feels like it’s time to go home, to recharge my batteries, and spread the word and compassion in Ireland.

Yesterday I was struck by the destruction by the French authorities in the jungle, what they describe as a very humane eviction of the camp… The Ashram kitchen, first surrounded by shelters with people living in it, is now surrounded by a littered piece of wasteland that is ever growing….

We met a beautiful young man who had just arrived after 4 months of traveling from Afghanistan. He spent 2 hours talking to us about his travels and the situation in Afghanistan – a beautiful country torn apart by Russia’s and America’s interventions and invasions for approx 25 years. He was very lonely, lost his traveling companion, and just landed in the Jungle as it is being destroyed by the French government.

We made some improvements in the youth centre, and we walked around a lot, did another repair on the women and children’s centre and had a look at the Container camp. The container camp, which was built after the French authorities put out a competition for the best design for a camp made from containers, but they only gave 48 hours for designs to come in, and look what it became!

The showers are 15 minutes walk away from the containers, and people are queuing for hours from 6 am in the morning to have a shower. It is definitely an improvement from the shelters in the Jungle, but still way below any level of “European” humanity. The containers are full up now, and they are only half way through evictions of the south side of the camp.

Today there were lots of volunteers, like every weekend, and the police were on their best behaviour. They didn’t stop anyone entering the camp and their presence was minimal. I dread to think how they will be on Monday when most of the volunteers (witnesses) are back home.

We went to the camp with a group of 6 volunteers to dig a path from the double decker bus and discovered that a lovely guy with a digger had done our days’ work in 10 minutes.

We also helped an Afghani man move his house, which was quite an undertaking, the thing weighed about 750 kg. We attached lots of handles to the base, to carry it with 16 people. We didn’t get very far, as it was too heavy. We dropped it in the middle of a car track so that people were forced to find a flatbed trailer to continue moving it. Some guy with a van and remains of a half broken flatbed trailer with one flat tire moved it, but we had to stand on the back of the trailer to counter balance the shelter or else the trailer would break in two!

Some adventure! This took most of the day, and we had great help from a group of volunteers from Cambridge.

Thanks again for reading, sharing, and paying attention to what I have to tell you 🙂