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May 2024

Once again, we are honoured to bring the latest reflections from Alex Holmes , longterm volunteer in Calais, recently returned to the UK. All names have been changed.

“One word’s on everyone’s lips. It’s the focus of most questions, the punch in most quips, the lens through which most view their future. One word, the R-word. Every day.

RAIN today, as on most days, but then it stops, the sun breaks through and the Police Nationale arrive. They come with guns, with batons, with riot-shields. Structures are demolished, mattresses dragged across the mud and loaded into a van. A chain saw grinds its way through pallets. A trashing. The temporarily evicted Eritreans stand in huddles, helpless bystanders watching on. ‘Is this legal?’ they ask. ‘What about our humanity?’ Mid-demolition, La Vie Active, commissioned by the State to feed the refugees, arrives with dinner. Whilst the State gratuitously grabs with one hand, it gives with another. The police depart and a normality returns, minus mattresses, and pallets to raise tents off the cold ground. Fires are lit, there’s music; another evening.

WATA. What is wata? An education begins. Wata, a single stringed instrument played with a bow. Krar, a five-stringed instrument plucked with a pick. Guayla, traditional Eritrean dance. Senai is DJ. His choice, the late, legendary Abraham Afwerki. The beat is hypnotic and soon people are on their feet, a circle of dancers beside the fire moving with a rhythmical shuffling of feet and the shrugging of shoulders. Yoel and Tekle step centre-circle, dancing back-to-back. Guayla. ‘Now you DJ!’ The baton is passed. Bruce Springstein’s ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ weaves into the dusk. Biniam picks up a length of planking. It becomes his guitar. Bruce Biniam. He strums and grins. ‘…tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past’.

‘ALAM geza kri’, ‘the world is a rented house’. Fireside, the discussion progresses from Aaron’s question, ‘who should be closest to your heart, your wife or your mother?’ to quotes and proverbs and distinguishing between the two. ‘Money says “look after me today, and I will look after you tomorrow”’ Biniam’s offering. He then reflects on another recently posed question, ‘Who’s been your wisest teacher?’ ‘Time is my wisest teacher’, he says. ‘Time is my past. I learn from my past. It is my teacher’. Water is boiling in a blackened kettle on the fire. Cups of sweet coffee are handed around. Demsas, the natural comedian, greets Efrem who has arrived fireside. ‘Efrem, he’s so flat’, quips Demsas, ‘you can’t tell which is his front and which is his back’.

‘NO good for his people, but good for Eritrea’. Six guys sit around a small fire. Overhead attached to the scrub willow, a blue tarp keeps off the rain. The focus of the discussion is Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean dictator. Mewael is speaking. ‘He is good for Eritrea. It’s a small country. Ethiopia wants our sea, Sudan, our natural resources, Saudia Arabia, our oil. We need to be strong.’ ‘But we have no freedom, no future’, says Girma.

‘I have a bachelor’s degree in medical science. I started work as a laboratory analyst but they gave me a uniform and a Kalashnikov and sent me to fight against Tigray. After 3 months, I threw my uniform and gun into the bushes and fled to Sudan. I want to get to the UK to do a masters and a PhD. I want a future.’

DYE. Fenceside, Filimon opens a box of Garnier black hair dye, squeezes the ‘colourant’ and ‘developer cream’ into a small glass and vigorously stirs the creamy mixture. Aaron, his accomplice, dons the latex gloves from the Garmier box and applies the dye. A chemical haze drifts up from Filimon’s blackening hair. Meanwhile, beneath scarf and plastic bag, Gebre has a mix of avocado, egg and banana in his hair. The alternative treatment. Spotting a coin in the mud, he picks it up and rubs off the dirt. It’s a Swedish kroner. With palpable anger, he flings the coin at the fence. ‘ Sweden’ he says, ‘they rejected me’. Beyond the fence, helmeted Calais kids race around the BMX bike track.

‘A monkey is trying to reach the top of a very tall tree to reach a piece of sweet fruit.’ Aaron is looking up at the tall poplar after doing twenty press-ups, the penalty for losing the last round of cards. ‘The monkey tries again and again, but he can never quite reach the fruit. In the end he gives up, shrugs his shoulders and says “it’s bound to have been bitter anyway”. That’s not me. I will never give up trying to get to the UK.’ On his last attempt to cross the Channel, he nearly drowned. DJ Biniam is playing Bob Marley; ‘Get up Stand up…Never Give up the Fight’. ‘The threat of Rwanda will never stop me’ says Aaron, ‘never’. Rwanda. The R-word. Rwanda. The one word. Every day.”

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