Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Day 2 - Tear Gas and Solidarity

We’re up and out trying to sort out the van in the hotel car park so we can distribute more goods today. The aim is to sleep in the van but we can’t because its just so full.  Its torrential rain which isn’t helping.  The other van and volunteers are leaving today so we need to fit in the items from their van.  They leave to catch their ferry home. Its just three of us left.  On our way into the Jungle and the rain suddenly stops. On our arrival, it becomes apparent that there is something going on.  There appears to be a lot more police on the main road at the other side of the Jungle.

We get our ‘security team’ and distribute some more donated goods.  A young man comes along to ask if we have shoes. I speak to him. He’s 14 years old and from Afghanistan. He’s alone in the Jungle.  How he got here is unclear but the Afghan community appear to be taking good care of him.  We notice so many men wearing small flip flops – one man is wearing a pair of womens Birkenstocks which were at least three sizes too small. We have small mens boots and shoes as we had been told that was what was needed.  It is apparent that we need all shoe and boots sizes.  We simply didn’t have what people needed.  I thought of winter approaching and remember reading that in Auschwitz, shoes were a priority as, without shoes, you died.

People are so grateful for everything we give them. One man is over the moon at Union Jack socks we give him and he wears them on his hands.  We are asked for Scotland flags so that they can put them on their tents.

I meet a very polite man who is 34 and from Afghanistan.  He speaks perfect English with a perfect English accent and is asking for shoes for his friend who is wearing flip flops but doesn’t appear to speak much English and appears quite shy. He tells me he was employed by the British Army in Afghanistan for 8 years as an interpreter.  He shows me photos of him with British soldiers with his uniform and helmet on.  He tells me there was a clause in his contract which allowed his employment to be terminated at any time. Which was exactly what had happened.  He then had to return to his home.  Working for the British Army wouldn’t have made him a popular guy and he had to leave very quickly because it wasn’t safe for him to remain. 

Appalled is the word that describes my feelings about this. And, the worst part is, he actually wants to come to the UK.  He likes ‘us’.  He blames the Taliban for the situation though he does tell me the British Army took £60m from the Afghan economy before leaving. Not sure how factual that is and to be honest, I don’t want to know because this is just awful.  Surely if the British Army employed him, the government should have had a duty of care to him and not dumped him in it?  I’ve subsequently heard this kind of treatment by the UK state isn’t unique.  I console myself with the thought that I’ve never considered myself as British. But actually its no consolation.

After we distribute, we head into camp to check our army marquee.  Its obviously been slept in but there is no one around. We head towards the central ‘main street’. As we near the middle, close to the main road, there is a young man running past us. He looks like his nose and cheek are broken, he has no top on and he has cuts all over his back.  We ask what is going on but there is no clear answer. We see a volunteer so go to speak to her. We’re told there is very high tension between the police and the people who live in the camp today.  Community leaders are trying to sort things out.  There are so many police in riot gear and so many police vans on the flyover above, under the flyover and on the main access road.  Apparently there was some kind of traffic jam outside and people from the camp were trying to climb underneath lorries to get out of this hell that is the Jungle.

We see a group from the camp try to charge the police on the access road and stones being thrown, we start to run back to ‘main street’.  One of us gets ahead but the number of people trying to run away creates a bottle neck.  We hear bangs then smoke.  As we run, we get to the junction at ‘main street’.  Smoke appears just behind us and just in front of us. It becomes clear, we’re being hit by tear gas.  I grab the girl I’m with and crouch down into a corner behind a shelter.  Our eyes are streaming, we can’t see, we’re coughing with this acrid horrible smell and taste which is burning our eyes and mouths.  We feel someone pull at us. 

We’re led to a shelter. Tears are streaming down our faces and we are coughing heavily.   Our rescuers are a group of men from Afghanistan. They stand in front of us and blow cigarette smoke in our eyes. At first I’m unsure what is going on but it helps and I start to be able to see again. But it still hurts. We drink water from the supply outside but this is taken off us by our rescuers and we’re told its unsafe.  Meantime more gas canisters are being fired into the camp.  My friend is crying, I’m swearing enough to make a sailor blush, then apologising to the Afghan men for teaching them words they shouldn’t be taught. 

Anger doesn’t cover how I’m feeling towards the French authorities.  Heavy handed would be an understatement.  They fired into the camp. Not one person who was hit in the area I was in was involved in throwing anything.  It was indiscriminate.  There are children in the camp.  I’m told this is normal – the police fire into the camp whenever there is a disturbance at the main road. 

There is nothing normal about tear gas. Nothing.  

I thank the men who helped us over and over and eventually once we feel better we make our way back to the van. We both have very sore eyes and are still coughing. I feel like I’ve been kicked in the ribs for several days afterwards. 

As we walk back towards the van, several people pat us on the back. One man tells us he was going to go to church and pray for us because we are good people.  He lived in the Jungle, the French authorities treat him like he’s not human and he wants to pray for us because we are good people?  Although I’m not religious, it is touching and the tears that run down my face were not related to the tear gas.  Everyone we passed knows we had been caught by the gas and it is almost like a show of solidarity. I feel more of an affiliation to the people in the camp than I ever will for the authorities who allow this to happen to them. These are human beings.  It shouldn’t matter where they are born or the colour of their skin.  No one deserves to feel the pain and discomfort tear gas causes.  

Afterwards someone finds ten empty gas canisters. I believe three canisters are fired at once. This means at least 12 canisters were fired into the camp.  And they were fired after the crowd who were throwing things dispersed.  I hear that one of the canisters hit one man on the head. I understand this man is seriously injured.  This is life in the Jungle.

Tensions are running very high in the camp and we see a group of men with sticks.  Initially we think that they are heading for the police but then we are told that they are heading for the other side of the camp. The men were Kurdish and someone tells us its relating to a stolen bike which has led to them to go look for the Egyptians who they blame for stealing it. Bikes are highly desirable items in the Jungle. The van is parked in the middle of the camp. On one side, the road is blocked by the police. This leaves one exit – the exit that the men are headed towards with sticks.  We know we have to leave as tensions are so high.  We take our chances with the rival groups in camp and head away from the exit with the police. Fortunately the ‘fight’ between two groups hasn’t escalated and we safely leave the camp.  I guess tensions are high, its pressurised living conditions and that is bound to cause contention between the many nationalities.  Its human nature. 

Along the back road out of camp, there are so many police around.  People are being marched back into camp by the police. We go to a cafe to discuss our next move.  What we witnessed today just feels surreal.  21st Century France.  Did we learn nothing from World War 2 about dehumanising people? We choose not to return to camp tonight and will make a decision on whether we should head home in the morning.

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