Written by Rick Melling
One day the jungle was burning. The government were taking apart the southern sector of the site, and many of the Kurds and Afghans had decided to burn down their shelters rather than let the police have them.
I had recently accepted a reporting task from one of the operating charities. I was supposed to get pictures and stories from the site as the evictions were taking place, so that the charity could post them on social media, and accept more donations from the public.
We were all stood around in the rain with nothing to do but watch shelter after shelter burn. Now that the eviction had started, there was no real work schedule anymore. We were just out in the cold, putting out endless fires for nothing. The charity liked to write inoffensive, saccharine pieces about human empathy, kindness and need. Cute stories about children going to language classes. It was what got the money coming in. And it made sense. But it was a lie by omission, and it often made me feel sick.
I spotted three guys shuffling around a cluster of shelters. A few minutes later one of the shelters burst into flames and fell down. There were a group of white people gathered around taking pictures of it. I was one of them. I felt dead behind my eyes, purposeless, as I stared into the embers.
Then a little later I saw the same guys shuffling around another few shelters, and I went over towards them. Approaching the rat-warren from behind, I got out my phone and videoed one of the men, as he tried to light a fire in the shack. But then one of the other men saw me, and so I deleted the video and walked away.
About ten minutes later one of the men approached me with his face covered and asked me why I videoing him. I told him I wasn’t, but he said that he was sure I was. I told him I was sure I wasn’t, and that I was actually texting somebody. Then he demanded to see my phone, and I showed him my entire library. He said that he was still sure that I was videoing him, and that I must already have sent the video away and deleted it.
Then the man walked away to his friends. And he stood there with them, staring at me for a long time. He had anger and misery in his eyes. It went into me.
‘Are you okay there?’ I shouted over to him, uncomfortable.
‘I am not okay.’ He replied coldly. We now had an audience of volunteers and refugees. Some were close friends of mine.
‘But what can I do? I’ve told you I wasn’t videoing you, and I’ve showed you my phone. So now what can I do so that you believe me?’
‘I am sure. I am sure you were recording me.’ He kept staring, not breaking eye contact.
‘Well, why are you so bothered about it?’
He kept staring. I sighed, and threw my hands up to the crowd.
‘You are not a good guy,’ he went on, ‘I am sure. You are not a good guy. You are not here – for – help.’
And those last words hit me. Not a good guy. I had made an enemy. And for what? I had forgotten myself. The man’s eyes kept on bearing into me, and I felt weaker and weaker, more and more like a fraud, a liar. Not a good guy. Whose side was I on anyhow? Why was I here? What good was I doing?
Then one of the other volunteers suggested that I take myself out of the situation, and so I did. I went and sat in one of the on-site kitchens, and stared vacantly into a log fire. I listened to the gas bottles exploding outside. People were running in and out to get buckets of water.
One of them sat and talked to me for a while, and eventually I got up and went back to the yard. I felt better but I still felt like shit.
The next day I gave up on the reporting job. It wasn’t for me.
I would not do anything that could really be considered ‘work’ for the rest of my time in Calais.
‘Someday this place is going to end.’
I thought this quietly to myself as I lay in my trailer. Someday this place was going to end.
I had often said this, hopefully, to the other volunteers. I had believed it, too. And perhaps if I was speaking for just the physical place itself, I would have been right. I was in Serbia when the state finally came in to end the jungle for good, and the whole site burned. I saw the men and women walking away back into the streets, the children huddled together under bridges at night. I sat and watched the pictures and videos come in on social media.
And when I watched the smoke rising in those photos, blackening the sky, I couldn’t help but crack a smile, either. The problem certainly hadn’t gone away, in fact it had been made much, much worse – but at least that terrible place which had burned so many times in my dreams was returning to nothing again.
‘Someday this place is going to end.’
But the sentiment behind what I had said was nonsense. There’s really no end to it, ever. There will always be refugees in Calais. Calais will never go away. Not for me.
And indeed not for any human being – the undying spectres of hate and fear, which lay there in Calais, and are the nature of war, the natures of men, no matter how faded they may become, also continue to lurk just behind your own eyes, forever.