Posted by steven greaves photography on February 27, 2010 · 

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In February, the fires burn day and night. There is a chill in the air and the clouds hang low on the horizon. The sun is trying to break through but the rains fight back; they always do. I have been at the squat since 7am waiting for the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité de la Police Nationale) raid but it does not come. I have already missed two since I have been back in Calais. It is always a question of timing….and mine has been off. I join a few men at a fire pit and am offered tea to start my morning. I hand out a few cigarettes. We smoke and I watch the day begin around me. 

The smashing of a wood pallet breaks the silence. It will soon be in cinders. Grunts and fits of coughing rumble in echoes through the abandoned warehouse. This is where about 40 Sudanese men and boys make their home. Filthy tents are scattered on the perimeter of the building. Fire pits and mattresses likewise dot the landscape. In some places, the floor has caved in; human detritus lies moldering beneath. One wall is blown out and the winds whip up dust and dirt sending it in eddies across the warehouse floor. The roof is a patchwork of clear corrugated plastic panels. Through a few broken pieces, light permeates in shafts that slice through the smoke and dust that is ever-present.
Men mill about in various states of consciousness. The early risers brush their teeth, collect firewood or tend to coffee making. A number wash their hands and feet and supplicate themselves on the lone prayer mat. It will be the first offering of the day to Allah; four more will follow before tomorrow’s morn. 

I have been living with these Sudanese asylum seekers for a week now. Much like the Afghans, I have been received with courtesies and accepted into their world. I have come to know their stories over nocturnal fireside chats and the sharing of innumerable cigarettes. Coffee and Sudanese tea has been sipped and “songs of freedom” sang as embers rose into the darkness. On these nights, the fire is like a television. It holds all transfixed as demonic shadows flicker across the brick walls and flames dance across black faces. As with the Afghans, I am taken with their strength and courage. 

Mohammed is 28. He is soft-spoken and overly polite. With curious eyes, he stares through me at times. From the Darfur region of Sudan, he now makes his home in this abandoned warehouse in Calais, France. Despite having seen him over the past few days, this is the first time we have really talked. It is still early and things are quiet. Over a cigarette, he relays his story in well-spoken English.  It is, like many others here, a tale of hardship and woe. Mohammed is a “black African” he tells me. Although his tribe and those like his are the majority in Sudan, they hold no political, economic or social power and are treated as sub-human by the government-supported Janjaweed- a minority tribe who consider themselves Arabs and not African. Although the colors of their skins are the same, the Janjaweed have instituted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the majority Africans. While Western governments turn a blind eye to this “genocide,” over 400,000 have died in forced famines or were butchered by Janjaweed tribesmen.
Although aware of the problems in Darfur, they were just words from the mouth of some newscaster or text in a headline. I had not seen this story recounted with emotion, fear and sadness… until today. Mohammed had come up through Libya, across the Mediterranean to Italy. From there he had made his way to this abandoned warehouse. A brother, 20, did not make it. He died during the crossing and lies buried at sea. A mother shares the same fate. Mohammed’s voice stumbles as he recounts this. He pauses as he struggles to regain his composure but he cannot. He turns abruptly and walks into the distance fighting to hold back the tears I can see forming in his eyes.
When he returns, he tells me of his love for America, the aid he received from NGOs and the conviction of Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes. He tells me of some members of his family who have settled in the U.S. and expresses his desire to join them. For now though, his sights remain on the U.K. where he hopes to study law- “nothing but law,” he tells me. It has been a long road for him and one fraught with losses. His future lies only 21 miles to the north but it could not be any further away for Mohammed. To get there will require patience, cunning and a lot of luck. I hope he has all in full measure. As our conversation comes to a close, he bids me farewell and turns away. Within a minute, he scales a wall, barbed wire already cut back, and makes his way to the trains….and another attempt at freedom. It is within reach.

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