Posted by steven greaves photography on January 22, 2010 · 


“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” (Matthew 5:5) 

It is cold…. but not cold enough. There is no moon and “the jungle” is cloaked in darkness. A small fire burns faintly in the distance not too far away. It is the only light. The ochre glow illuminates the phantom silhouettes that pass by. They are like wraiths. The ground, still covered in autumn debris, is damp underfoot and the tree branches sway softly in a slight breeze. Pashto and Dari floats on it. 

I am huddled with a few Afghan men in a tent. With a single flashlight, we smoke cigarettes, split a biscuit into four pieces and try to keep a cheery mood. It is difficult. Vapor leaves our mouths as we breathe, laugh or speak. Our tent is one among the 30 or so scattered across this woodland space. We are out beyond the rail-road tracks, out beyond the factories and out beyond the warehouses on the perimeter of town. We are away from public view. The eyesore of the European asylum seeker “problem” is conveniently buried for another day. 

The local government ordered the squat closed this morning. With temperatures above freezing, a national law no longer requires the state to provide housing for the poor and the destitute. Tonight, at least, this issue is the province of charity organizations as the state shrugs off any humanitarian or moral obligations. These, it seems, do not exist under law. 

A dumpster was dropped in front of the squat at 9am and the area ordered cleared. A steady stream of sweat-soaked mattresses, blankets, cardboard and other debris was deposited. Blank stares and solemn faces gathered up their few personal possessions as they made their way out the door. Like the infections that rapidly spread among them, confusion made its’ way through the squat as each man and boy assessed his plight. 

With charity organizations hindered under state laws from providing shelter, each refugee was alone to face a night on the street, under a bridge or in one of the unofficial squats about town. These, however, are mostly occupied by an African asylum population. Alone on the streets these Afghans were powerless against arresting authorities. Their strength, what little they have, lies only in numbers. 

As dire prospects became certain truth, frustration and anger quickly set in. A few Afghans among the many asserted leadership and a movement began. Sharif, an Afghan 30-something who has taken me under his wing, spoke to the throng. Having already spent time in the UK, his communication skills are well honed…at least for this environment. He is the paternal type and has demonstrated this character in his relations with me. Having attempted to calm tempers, he continued with packing what little he had and joined me outside. It now seemed that a united front had been organized and vows of solidarity were taken. Banners were created and strung between dumpsters and attached to poles for passing traffic to see. “We Want Human Right!” declared one. Despite a local charity promising distribution of tents later that evening, a hunger strike was declared and breakfast foregone by most. With stomachs empty and emotions piqued, a mattress was set alight and, with it, the dumpster. The garbage caught quickly and flames pierced the thick black cloud that rose over the squat. Local volunteers and the asylum seekers rushed to quickly quell the blaze before authorities could respond. The tone for the day was set. It would last well into the cold night.
As darkness fell, spirits sank. Tents were given to those 100+ who had not found a roof for the night. There were not enough; some would have to do without. A clearing near the squat was chosen as the tent-city site. It was surely to be met with opposition and, I suspect, chosen for this reason. All began to set up their homes under the guidance of a few French volunteers. The mood turned festive for an instant. Many laughed and joked as others struggled through the process of erecting their tents. 

Across the street a storm gathered. Five police vans drove up and parked at a distance. As the asylum seekers finished, members of the media frantically shot footage and spoke with the refugees. The tenor of the night had again changed. A nervousness prevailed and the impending confrontation a foregone conclusion. Han, a young Afghan, approached me as he fought to restrain child-like tears. “Why they do this?” he asked. I could offer little to console him; I felt absent. “I go to Paris. I go home.” he offered. Home was a war-ravaged nation, the tales of which I had now heard for days- civilian casualties that had taken loved ones and promises of death for those that collaborated with ISAF forces many of whom were now here. Days earlier Han had told me that “home” was not a possibility. He had given up. 

Dressed in black riot gear, body armor and with pistols, the police took their positions and assembled a line from one end of the camp to the other. It appeared as though they were going to bulldoze the area and all in their wake. Asylum seekers and the few French volunteers gathered. They clung to a rope that stretched across the front-line and steeled themselves for the onslaught. An older man, French, approached the line of riot police and spoke at length. All, including the police I suspect, did not want this. Intently staring through round spectacles and with frantic body motions, he sought to broker a peace with the police commander. A woman in her late 30’s, she held all the cards. The official line: the asylum seekers must break into small groups and disperse into the night. All believed this merely a ploy and a simple Machiavellian strategy of divide and conquer. These are Afghans and, as the West has found out with deadly results, they are masters of maneuver. Slinking into the night in small numbers where arrest was a certainty was not an option. Negotiations resumed and another offer extended: the asylum seekers would be permitted to go to their “jungle” and would have exemption from arrest but for this night only. Sharif moved to the front of the line and out into no-man’s land. In English he pleaded with the officer for humanity and understanding. “Animals live in the jungle.” he proclaimed.  “We are not animals.” he pleaded. The woman had heard enough. “You have 15 minutes to make a decision. If not, I will make the decision for you!“ she sternly promised. With this, she turned and retreated back to the ranks of the awaiting force. 

“It is your choice.” The old man kept repeating. When asked what to do, he would not answer but merely left it in their hands. A few looked to me but I cowardly offered no response. I knew what I would have done but I have luxuries they do not share. In fact, I only know what I think I would have done and can merely hope I had half the measure of courage that I have seen displayed in them. 

Silently the tents were brought down and, with heavy hearts, the exodus began. Back to “the jungle,” like animals from whence they came, they would return. I would follow.
In Terre des Oublis (the land of forgetting), theirs is a struggle unheard. Despite the cries, resonance is found only in a few. I see the same maternal faces each day. Quick with a smile, the offer of a cigarette or the extension of a helping hand, they have not yet forgotten about the huddled masses gathered on their doorstep. While the state wears down the spirit of the asylum seekers and volunteers alike, some will march on. After this day’s events however, some, like Han, will leave. No longer will they run from famine, war and poverty. Now they will run from “the jungle.”
I remain deeply moved….

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