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‘Fireside, Calais. The Eritrean Stadium camp. There’s a strong north wind, and channelled by the high security wall, it drives the smoke horizontally southwards. A game of draughts is underway, an intense and silent focus. Outwitting the opponent. ‘You want tea or coffee’ asks the ever-smiling Sheshy placing the kettle on the grid above the flames. The black skin of his hand is marked by a vivid rose-pink scar from a burn last year. I remember his bandaged hand. Seeing the scar tissue has caught my attention, his grin broadens, ‘I like this, it’s a good memory…I don’t like things to be easy, I prefer when there are problems’. He strategically lays more wood on the fire. ‘Tomorrow they will stop bringing you wood because it’s May’ I tell him. ‘Maybe!’ comes the instant comic retort from Negus, sharp-witted, the convincing yarn-spinner.

‘Watch this!’ Negus leaves the fireside, grabs the bike leaning against the security wall, and mounting it backwards like a circus performer, he sets off with a grin on his face. Completing a wide circle, he dismounts, does a little bow, drops the bike and returns to the fireside. ‘It’s like your government; we want to face forwards, they make us look backwards, push us back to Africa, to Rwanda.’

Since the UK government’s April announcement*, the word ‘Rwanda’ has been a staccato fire cracker in the flow of Tigrinya, repeated again and again and again. It needs no translation. In the pauses, in the silence, it’s the ticking of a time bomb. And then questions, questions: Is it safe to go to UK? What is the news about Rwanda? Is it true or not true? ‘If I they send me to Rwanda’, declares Sheshy, ‘I will go back to Eritrea and live like we do here in Calais, hiding, in secret’. For Yoel, it is darker: ‘If they send me to Rwanda, I will kill myself.’

Another bike is propped against the security wall. A bulging rucksack is attached to the cargo-rack, plastic bags hang from the handle bars. The bike is Moustapha’s. Sitting fireside, downwind, his eyes water from the smoke, yet despite repeated invitations to move his seat, he resolutely stays put. A small white globule has formed in the tear duct of each eye. He’s an Arabic speaker from somewhere in the Middle East but apart from his name, nothing more is known. Negus tells me he has given them 40 euros.

It is Ramadan and zakat is required of Muslims, the charitable giving of money to those who are less well-off. Some of the guys at the fireside speak Arabic and it is explained to Moustapha that the camp is only for Eritreans. Offering to show him another Calais refugee camp where he can sleep, Osman sets off with Moustapha. Minutes later, they’re back. Moustapha looking bemused, returns to his fireside seat in the full flow of the wind-driven smoke. Once more his eyes begin to run.

There’s a sudden blast of traditional Eritrean music, the legendary Yemane Barya. Sheshy, now the DJ, has linked his phone to his speaker. ‘You like this? Listening to music is the only way I can sleep at night’. Negus chips in, ‘I listen to Mozart to get to sleep. Eine kleine nachtmusik is the best. I like Beethoven too.’ He mouths the famous opening motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, da-da-da-dumm, da-da-da-dumm. ‘During the Second World War it was your symbol for victory, V for victory. Da-da-da-dumm. Never give up!’ And as if to illustrate this, he leaves the fireside, picks up the bike and once more mounts it. This time he faces forward and spirals out in ever widening circles. He raises one hand and makes the V for victory sign. ‘Da-da-da-dumm, da-da-da-dumm. We never give up!’

*14 April 2022; UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a plan to relocate to Rwanda ‘those arriving illegally into the UK’

Text and images by Alex Holmes - long term volunteer at Maria Skobstova safe house in Calais, France-UK border. All names have been changed.

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