Up in Flames

Bear with me as I try to put the past few days into words. It feels as though months have passed since Monday afternoon.

Monday.

Monday began as a “normal” day – for me, that means that I spent the day in the Free Shop on camp, serving food that people could cook for themselves. It was a standard day – busy, a bit manic at times, we ran out of bread, bartered with teenagers over fruit and, in what was possibly my highlight of the week, had several oranges stolen by an eight year old girl who then proceeded to ask me to peel one for her. This amusing moment was interrupted by a fellow volunteer running into the shop saying “close the hatch, lock the door, there’s a fight just outside”. It appeared to fizzle quickly, and as we left camp that day I’d already forgotten about it – looking forward to my day off the following day.

I realised, on Monday, that I cannot get angry at people living their lives and not paying attention to the refugee crisis when I myself, whilst volunteering in the midst of all this shit, was equally blasé in the early hours of the crisis unfolding. I had certainly settled into a routine, and was enjoying a beer and dinner in my caravan when we were suddenly thrown into action around 9pm.

“The fight escalated when we left”.

“There’s a fire on camp.”

“Free Shop 2 is up in flames”.

“There are shelters on fire.”

“Gunshots have been heard”.

Within minutes, volunteers from RCK and Help Refugees were speeding towards the warehouse in search of food and blankets. In the space of an hour, we filled our vans with several pots of tea, sliced up mountains of bread, biscuits, flapjacks and gallons of water, before splitting into teams. Eight of us, in three vehicles, sped towards Dunkirk, with three of us taking up a position outside the camp while the others headed to a sports hall being used as a refuge centre. We were swarmed initially, but it soon became apparent that we had mobilised with enough food and water to feed everybody in the car park several times over and the rush eased off. Considering the situation, and the smoke billowing in the air nearby, it was a peaceful and reasonably optimistic situation. We were there from midnight till around 3am, while vans and minibuses shuttled people from the entrance of camp to various sports halls around Grande-Synthe and Dunkerque. We then went in search of a group of kids who were believed to be in the woods near camp, but to no avail.

If you are looking for an analysis of why the fires began, then please look no further than a fellow volunteer’s article in the Huffington Post.

Tuesday.

After an hour’s sleep, we were back at it, adrenaline still surging. We spent the morning preparing huge quantities of rice, curry and salad before splitting into two teams. Our team headed to a field in Craywick, in which 400+ Afghan men and teenagers had slept. Thankfully, the weather has been great this week. We faced a never-ending sea of hungry men, and I am unbelievably delighted with the efforts of RCK to be able to say that we had enough food to feed every single person, and some twice. I was glad, too, as I had been the night before, to see that many familiar faces were (physically) unharmed.

Wednesday.

On Wednesday, families gathered outside the entrance to camp in an attempt to return and prevent the camp from being permanently closed, and were prevented from doing so by a wall of police and CRS. After we had fed several hundred Kurdish men and sent a couple of Afghans sitting at the side of the road to a shelter, we parked up near the camp and started to prepare boxes of food for the 140 men, women and young children sitting outside the camp gates. We weren’t sure whether the CRS would let us past as they had blocked a blanket distribution earlier in the day, so we devised a cunning plan. One volunteer – Maddie – would walk ahead with two bags full of empty boxes, the plan being that if they were taken off of her then we wouldn’t lose any food, because the rest of us could turn back and make a new plan. Thankfully, the CRS did not stop us, and we were able to rapidly distribute food to people.

However, on our way back to the van to stock up on biscuits and water (provided by Care4Calais), the sous-préfet of Dunkirk appeared, angrily shoving one of the volunteers (who had previously been barred from distributing blankets) as the CRS gathered around us. When we asked “why can’t we distribute food?”, he replied “Because they are migrants” which I cannot hope enough was caught on the camera of the documentary-maker who was filming us at the time. Scumbag. We then had a stand-off about where we could distribute biscuits – BISCUITS – wherein the CRS made us stand on the opposite side of a busy road, stopping traffic so that young children and pregnant women could cross to get a pack of custard creams. An utterly ridiculous operation all round, but thankfully nobody was hurt.

Thursday, and beyond…

Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty… The camp will not be re-opened, and is getting officially evicted this weekend. People who want it will be bussed to comfortable accommodation centres around France, where they can stay for a period of one to six months before deciding whether to begin the asylum process in France. This seems like the best option, even just to give people some headspace after an intense few months, and some are keen to go. Others are not keen, and have said that they would prefer to head to Calais and, eventually, the UK. With tightening police scrutiny and increasing tensions between different ethnic groups, Calais is not the safest option – but of course, we’ll feed them wherever they are. Good luck to everyone, and one day we’ll see each other on the other side of this madness.

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Featured image: Help Refugees UK. Please donate to their emergency fund here.

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