I’m sitting on a rock about the size of a human head. On the rock next to mine sits an Ethiopian journalist, who tells me he was persecuted at home for his critical reports. At our backs, wood and canvas tent walls. Ahead, one of the main thoroughfares through the Jungle, recently gravelled, chunky pebbles not yet muddied, still light-grey and glinting, just as the towering double fences along the nearby highway still gleam new-white. Some people’s boots and trainers look like fresh donations, with stout treads. Others wear sandals under pastel shalwar kameez, no protection against the creeping cold.
Right now, this late October afternoon, we are warm enough in the thin sunshine. The Ethiopian journalist pulls off his knitted cap, revealing a shaved head, and rubs his temple. Across from us, the painted gate of the camp’s Ethiopian church is set at an oblique angle to the pebbled way. It swings frequently open and closed, and each congregant pauses to kiss the bright panels – turquoise, ruby, gold – as they enter.
Will the journalist consider telling me his story? I explain our book project, short fiction based on interviews here in the makeshift refugee camp in Calais.
A lot has happened to him, he says. Then he pulls his cap back over his head.
But I can’t give you my story for nothing. It’s all I’ve got here.
I can’t pay for stories. I’m sorry.
I haven’t eaten all day.
I’m happy to take you for lunch, but I still can’t pay for your story.
He nods again, the first and only person I meet in Calais to ask for payment. I can see his point.
One of his compatriots emerges from a group of tents behind us, his toddler daughter in a pushchair. The men talk. I pull faces to make the baby laugh. People pass, non-stop foot traffic, some bicycles and, now, a police patrol. On my first day here, they seemed alarming, striding four or five abreast in black riot gear, armed and helmeted, with their bullet-proof sci-fi scarab chests. But now, like everyone else, I’m used to them, just like I’m familiar with young Sudanese men, gangly-tall, whisking on bicycles along the dune-sand paths; Eritrean women darting in and out of the café-bar; Kurdish families in thick coats, big-eyed children peering out from under their hoods; Afghan men behind the chicken-wire and raw-plank counters of ad hoc general dealers, selling headache pills, cans of coke and Red Bull, biscuits and batteries, and kindly plugging my mobile in with the others charging from their generators.
We’re stalled, the Ethiopian journalist and me, seated on our rocks, elbows on our knees under the watery autumn sun. We’re going nowhere. This is a story that isn’t going to be shared, at least not through me. Around us, many many others pass or stand, busy waiting. An Eritrean girl kisses the turquoise church gate. Closes her eyes. Leans her forehead against the gate.
One of my first interviews is with a thirty-year-old Sudanese man, D. We sit on a patch that is measured out with wooden stakes and string. There will be two new classrooms here, a ‘hospital’, a community meeting room. Zimako Jones, a Nigerian, is building it. He has been in the Jungle for months and works tirelessly; much of what he does has nothing to do with his own comfort.
The kids need to go to school.
I wait for D. as he carries an old mattress he has just acquired on his head through the busy main road to the other end of the camp, where his ‘home’ is.
I want to know you. I want to know what it is like to leave your home and be stuck here.
He looks ahead. Nods. Thinks.
His journey here has taken three years, he’s been here for five months. Leaving one month after he married, he imagined a future where he would have resettled by now. There is nothing in Darfur for him other than the threat of bombed villages. No future. He is thoughtful, quiet in his answers. He doesn’t look at me; he looks ahead into the patches that will be rooms made from donated wood pallets in a few weeks’ time. Once in a while I catch him observing me from the corner of his eye.
What does it mean to know another person? Here, where I can and will leave, and he will stay behind?
After the interview we sit in a tent to hide from the rain. It’s big; you can stand in its tallest parts. It protects building material for the family section that is being built by the mostly British volunteers. We sit on a heap of insulation boards that keep my bum warm after the damp wood we sat on outside. A Kurdish family from Iraq who have just arrived join us, as volunteers prepare somewhere for them to stay. A mother with two small children, a father and three other men. They ask me:
Is it worth it to try and make it to the UK?
What to say? Just last week the Sudanese community buried someone caught by a train.
D. shares his food with me. Rice cooked with spices and tomatoes, all from donations.
Eat. Please eat.
We chat with the family, the little boy is full of energy and smiles. I still catch D. observing me. From time to time he replies to a question of mine: Like I told you in the interview.
His voice is gentle, calm. His politeness makes me feel exposed. He will not repeat himself, even if the question is only faintly similar to the one he has already answered. He has already told me this, whether I think so or not. I could lose this fragile bond in a second. D.’s gentle but questioning look does not leave me. The quiet in his responses. I think about his life, which I have hardly got to know in the few hours we spent together. I also think about the interviewer’s gaze. Of being observed. Of observing. What happens when we try to know another’s painful journey? When we try to hold it in some way, to say: you are here. I see you.
I do not call it the Jungle at first. I call it the camp in Calais. On my second visit a young Afghan man replies to my question:
What are your thoughts on the camp?
It’s horrible, no facilities, nothing. When you go into town no one wants to sit next to you. They look down on you. Treat you like an animal. That is The Jungle.
I capitulate. Why fool myself with neat language? This is no place for anyone.