Searching for a territory

Original Spanish version published in Incorrecta from La Diaria – La búsqueda de un territorio.-
Translation by Claudia Simón & Kimberly Collins – (Thanks for that girls!)

* Refugee Camp 300km from Paris

La Mancha” already had a less than charming name—it means “the stain” in spanish, a synonym of filth—, when seven years ago men began to arrive from the outlying roads. There, at the edge of the water, between the factories, the large trucks, and the highway, rises a landscape that we might a priori call “different”.

Sticks, wood, nylon, tents, broken glass, stony paths, sand dunes, and the remains of garbage, mud, and shit. A deep smell of shit in every corner. And rats running around like dogs.

At the entrance of “The Jungle,” as this corner has come to be known, born on the outskirts of the French city of Calais just three hours from the Eiffel Tower mere meters from the English border, and past the police post, there lies a map. And there begins the absurdity, because it’s hard to believe someone could have started to draw nothingness.

The official numbers speak of three thousand and six hundred people living there. But the others, the associations working in the area, indicate that the figure exceeds nine thousand inhabitants. At least two thousand have arrived in the last few months.

In the annals of history, where the official and unofficial versions coincide, this place does not exist.

These days, the French parliament discusses if they might create a third refugee camp (there is already another one in Dunkerque, thirty kilometers from “The Jungle,” in which a thousand people live), whether to put it in the neighborhood of La Chapelle in Paris or elsewhere, who they should accept, and who to reject.

For now, here, in this nonexistent place, ranches are built and destroyed almost naturally, Arabic is spoken in the streets, and languages and dialects are heard within the homes. People come from Afghanistan, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea and Chad, but we might also happen upon a man from Bangladesh who set up a little kiosk and a family from Vietnam who’s started to settle in. An old box reads, “we are all refugees of capitalism.”

They are surprised that this is Europe. But then what is there? Newcomers wonder, “Does Europe end here?” Someone at some point lied to them. Perhaps it was the television. But the obvious is left aside, where there is no room left to think. You can say that this was Europe. And then it might be believable to those who were forced to return to their nomadic pasts and emigrate.

Faced with open eyes, large and open wide, it is difficult to discern between astonishment, hunger, and severed disillusion. In the boxes—those that have walls— people hang photos. Photos of themselves on their lands, with their families, their smiles from back then. That was how they were.

The Jungle” seems to move outside of time, the silence reigns absolute until almost noon. Just before the sun breaks overhead, when someone mentions it’s about eleven o’clock, a file of men appears with notebooks in hand. They head to “L’Ecole Laïque du Chemin des Dunes,” about fifty of them altogether. Later, children will arrive, and in the afternoon another fifty or so people, mostly men. Nearly two years ago, two educational centers with volunteer teachers were installed in the town, maintained by a mix of Kurds, Africans, and Europeans, who have moved their whole lives to this place.

The rest of the thousands of people sleep while they can. Only a few businesses remain open. Some kiosks, three restaurants, and two barbers await closure orders while another fifty stores, mostly groceries, were already forced to close; first by the health code department, then by court order, and finally by the constant police harassment and looting. Again the absurd: the ridiculous idea of controlling the health of those who live in a box in the shit and who have to dodge vermin just to wash their hands in makeshift drains.

Among the first sounds, while the bodies in the streets sway sleepily before brushing their teeth, one lonely box is of illusion. Nobody moves inside. The hours pass, the call to prayer rings from the mosque, the songs of women sound from the Orthodox church, and nothing. It is suspected that they were able to “pass through.” In a few days the smell of stagnant water, rotting clothes, abandoned food, and slamming doors comprise a landscape of hope. Every night hundreds go out with their bags, no one stops them. The night is the sister of discretion. They go where they have not been, they head where nobody knows, and they take what they don’t have. In the morning, mostly all of them return. The light usually keeps a tight friendship with reality.

They return gassed by the police, beaten, bitten by dogs, or tired, just sleepy, as if locked in a deep dream that seems to never end. Some, the least of them, estimated between zero and twenty, get in contact with the mafia, negotiate a price, and pass hidden in truck beds, on floors or hanging on the sides of the wheels. People say the price is around five thousand euros and it must be true.

Despite the drop in activity in the shops on the main street, this morning the police are preparing to enter. They want to be sure that the preventive closure orders have been complied with. Some people say they might cut the water. Electricity is already gone. Only at night, when the sun goes down, do the generators start whirring and people come to town to charge their cellphones. These people that did not used to have water, headstrong people, who refused to die in war, perish in the wilderness, or drown in the sea—they understand that this is not a place.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, the streets begin to empty, the restaurants that defined the resistance now close, in the back door movement is heard, reservations are hidden. Riot officers that have been barking for days to residents and volunteers now multiply by the hundreds, but only twenty enter “The Jungle.” A police van, carrying a mixed group of police officers covered with plastic and toting bottles of tear gas, moves along the main street.

Out of the corners, journalists, photographers, and association member emerge in solidarity. Those who previously were hidden now join together, film, and take pictures. The surveyors survey; they have nothing, but they know that losing is not definitive, and that getting up is daily. Finally, the inspection softens, the van stops at every store, observes, takes notes, and moves on. A thousand meters later, they decide to retire. Hands begin to rig up flags, two Afghans raise a stuffed tiger. “No pictures,” some of them say. The others, those who come closest, look on in complicity. A withered hand rests on the arm of a girl who works as a volunteer in the field; “We are together” he says as he squeezes tightly.

Ibrahim sits down to look at the street, at the stones, at the nothingness. He looks inside. He is twenty-seven years old. He studied dentistry and had a band when he escaped Sudan. He’s nice but today he does not feel like talking. His neighbors know he speaks German, English, Italian, and Arabic without difficulty. He is tired, but the sun is hitting the tent and it’s too hot to be inside it. Since Monday he’s been staying in a tent of someone who left. . He knows there are some spots left in the community tents but he prefers privacy; it’s the only way he can sleep. He comes from Paris, but he was previously in Germany, and before that it was Italy who saw him arrive swimming alongside a “patera” with another hundred people. And before that path, there was another, one in the desert, one that was supposed take him far away from repression.

A little later, after the first volunteers distribute food, I see him coming, with his football jersey and baggy pants. He goes to the library where they give French classes. Yesterday he confessed that he did not want to cross the border to England—he has Italian papers but in Italy he couldn’t get a job, and ultimately love led him to Germany. His parents helped him every so often, but like many in the field, he does not want his family to find out about the conditions in which he lives. On Facebook, their lives seem normal enough for someone their age.

In Germany he separated from his partner, and shortly after that he fled after being beaten by a racist group. Despite this, he says that life is better there but that he does not want to return. In Paris, he came to know the streets, the cold, the sting of loneliness, the fierce competition over sleeping in a subway station, and what it’s like to face drunkards, dumb, with no language in common. After enduring solitary confinement and constant control by anti riot squads, he headed north, where he knew there were some of his own. And thus he arrived to “The Jungle.” He is confident that this is temporary. He wants to eat Sudanese food, to speak his dialect, to return to his humor. Though even here it is difficult to know where you have to adapt.

After a few days of walking over the stones and in between the passages of the dune tents, sympathy becomes habitual. At each corner salam Alaikum intersects a good morning and a bonjour, hands shake, someone comes up and offers help, and light- and dark-haired alike sit together and drink tea.

That morning, the last one of the week, the morning of the verdict, when everyone in town was expecting the worst, something changed. A judge from the district attorney’s office of Lille issued a countermand preventing the police from entering to demolish the businesses in “The Jungle.” Those who had previously closed out of fear had the right to reopen. From early in the morning we began to hear music again, plastic wrappings that had covered signs for “falafel,” “Afghan naan,” or “peace coffee” shook off their dust, full of energy. They smile in complicity, with a drop of the eye, a hand on the chest, and in the end a celebratory embrace. In the afternoon they played soccer in a small field and ended the tournament with a hip-hop show. From the least expected corners wafted smells of rich seasonings and the rhythm of rolling pins. In between animated conversations, a man revived a poster with a broad paintbrush, and another man invited him to celebrate.

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Valentina Viettro

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