Posted by steven greaves photography on April 22, 2010 · 

There has been little reprieve and I smell the fear in the stagnant and smoke-filled air that circulates the squat. In an unusual show of prowess, the CRS have raided “Africa House” three times this week. I suspect the orders have come from very high above; the hammer is falling on the African migrant population of Calais. 

At 9am on Tuesday, as I lingered at a fire pit and awaited my morning coffee, the cry rang out- “Police, police!” It was not a surprise. Most of us had anticipated a raid; it had been at least a week since the last. Those that had official French papers stayed in place while others, not so fortunate, scattered. Many scrambled into dark nooks sought out days before for refuge. Others went under the moldering floor of the warehouse and into the filth and refuse that had collected there. Very few made it over the wall in time. I took my place in the middle of the squat, set my camera controls and waited for the assault. Unlike past raids, it came very slowly, evenly and without the rapid and forceful tactics usually employed. Like past raids, however, I was immediately singled out. An officer ran in my direction with arms raised and hands outstretched for my camera lens repeating “No photo!” As I snatched the camera away from his grasp, he came at me again. There was little I could do on the private property I stood upon. I dropped the camera, followed the orders barked at me and exited into the exterior compound where I was processed and escorted on to the street. As I waited beyond the perimeter, cargo vans and CRS officials with ladders entered the compound. Once inside, the steel doors closed and my vantage was again obscured. Unable to see, I walked to the rear of the squat, climbed a wooden pallet and peered over the wall into the compound. Four vans had assembled while cops milled about them. Against a metal gate, approximately 15 asylum seekers stood in line. Sunlight illuminated their despondent faces as they waited for their friends to be rooted out. It was only a matter of time. Stern glares turned toward me as I began to shoot and cries of “No photo!” and “Down!” were hurled in my direction. Touting the rights of the free press and now on public property, I declined to follow the instructions of the police and continued to work. One officer climbed a ladder on the opposite side of the wall and brought down a heavy baton on my knuckles. I dropped my camera to my waist, clung to the wall and steadied my stance. I held tight and felt the pain again…and again as two more assaults were made in an attempt to knock me from my roost. Rocks flew in my direction and a traffic barricade hit my head as it came over the wall. In disbelief, I retreated back to street level and amongst the company of those refugees who held French asylum papers and were safe from arrest. They looked at me miffed by what they had witnessed. Neither they nor I had seen this kind of behavior from the police before. I returned to the front of the squat and counted as 4 police vans exited. Each was filled. About 30 asylum seekers would be carted off to the processing center in neighboring Coquelles. Some would later be put back on the streets. Others would linger for days as we wondered as to their fates.  

As Wednesday’s dawn broke, I hopped the wall, announced my arrival and again saddled up to a fire pit. I was greeted with somber stares and vacant glances. Many of the asylum seekers were already awake, bags were being packed and an unusual number were leaving. Something was different. The oft-cavalier attitude to the raids had evaporated. Fear drifted on the smoke that circulated throughout the squat. Faces stared toward the dirt as heads hung low and shoulders hunched in defeat. Away from my leering lens, yesterday’s raid had turned toward the savage. Some had been beaten. Most had been manhandled. Swastikas and white power symbols had been left etched into a wooden beam. It was the newest calling card from the CRS. 

By 8am, the squat was vacated but for those that possessed the correct paperwork. In the neighboring rail yard, the remainder sat and waited. Here they were unconfined and, at least, had some chance of escape should another raid come. I sat under one of the train platforms with eight of the Sudanese migrants. We said nothing but merely stared toward the distant squat and waited. 

The weather in Calais was finally changing and Spring had arrived. I had been in town now for about 6 weeks (back and forth from Legion duties) and had felt the chill of the winter months; today was a welcome change. The sun swung around and dark bodies warmed in the heat. Smiles again appeared on faces and the hopelessness of the morning evaporated as if burned off by the rays of the sun. A football appeared and was kicked around. Conversations resumed. By 10:30am, all seemed again well. With the migrants returning to the squat and a de-facto “all clear” announced, I departed “Africa House,” returned to my crash-pad and laid my head on the pillow. 

I was not the first arrival on Thursday morning. No Borders, a leftist, activist organization, had inserted eight of their members into “Africa House” to serve as deterrents. After my morning departure the day before, the CRS had apparently come and pulled out 10 more asylum seekers. They had come about 15 minutes after I had said my “goodbyes” and left the squat. Word on the street had it that yet another raid would come on this morn. Two raids in as many days was unusual. Three in as many days, extremely rare.  A plan had been arranged by No Borders. Most of their activists would link arms and block any CRS vans coming down the main and easiest access route to the squat. This, it was hoped, would afford those inside an extra few minutes to scatter and avoid arrest. The other No Borders activists would remain inside to bear witness to any brutalities should they again occur. 

With most of the asylum seekers, I exited the squat and headed down the road to join No Borders. As we waited, they discussed the plan and commented on their principles. I listened intently and engaged their conversations. In the span of my years, I have lost the convictions of youth. It was refreshing to be reminded. As we spoke, a white unmarked van turned a distant corner and sped in our direction. Another followed very closely. The No Borders activists took their places and I, mine. A confrontation seemed apparent. As the leading van stopped, the human chain steeled itself. Doors opened and purged the black clad officers who rushed the line. Bodies fell over bodies as the forces collided and, with tear gas and batons drawn, the CRS police easily subdued the activists. Similarly targeted, I was quickly pushed aside, threatened with arrest and escorted away. Despite the seeming brevity of the action, enough time had been gained and most asylum seekers within the squat had managed to escape.  Five were later whisked away in a police van and a relative victory declared. 

As I left the compound and walked through the neighboring sunlit park, I spotted a lone CRS van and the dark faces inside. Two officers were standing outside, one talking on a mobile phone, the other smoking a cigarette. With camera raised, I approached and began to work. The officer with the mobile phone immediately noticed my arrival and met my advance with his barrel chest. He pushed me backwards but I kept advancing claiming my right to be on public property.  We jousted for some time as the other officer looked on humorously. He smiled as he pulled drags from his cigarette and leaned against the front of the van. Our sparring game continued and we moved further and further from the van. As I peered again at the smiling officer, I noticed the rear door of the van open. Before they had noticed, four of the refugees had exited and were now jumping hedges and cutting through the foliage making their way to safety. I let out a roar of laughter as the officers noticed their escape and began to pursue the fleeing migrants. They would not be caught. I declared another victory and returned home. 

After I did not return to the squat later that day, calls would be made to local authorities and to the processing facility at Coquelles. Most of the migrants believed that I had been arrested for my stupidity and Calais was searched for my whereabouts. 

For the first time, I had crossed the line from observer and witness to participant. I may be scolded by the credos of journalism for this lapse but felt it an appropriate response. For six weeks, I had lived with these men, shared in their food, drank their chai and listened to their stories. To them, I had become “Mehadeen.”  For their hospitality and generosity, I felt a debt owed. It is still not settled.

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