Welcome to The Jungle
The ragged sprawl of tents, shredded tarpaulin and squatted buildings that line the outskirts of the French port of Calais is informally referred to as ‘The Jungle’.
First erected in 2009 before being destroyed by French authorities, the area has once again become a gathering point and de facto settlement for over 2,000 migrants and political refugees – all of whom are gathered here for one reason alone: to reach Britain or die trying.
Most hail from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan or Palestine, and all have fled war, genocide, famine or political persecution in the hope of beginning life again in England.
Many are crushed as they attempt to smuggle themselves onto Dover-bound ferries by hooking themselves under trucks, many freeze in the English Channel as they paddle under darkness out towards the boats. And many are routinely beaten back for attempting to rush the port’s fences en masse.
But amidst the newsworthy incidents, the migrants’ personal stories often go unheard. Late in 2014, photographer Henry Wilkins and I camped in the Sudanese enclave of ‘The Jungle’, along with over 300 refugees from Darfur and Eastern Sudan.
We wanted to learn about the worlds they’d left behind, the dangers they’d faced over the 4,900km journey from East Africa to northern France, and above all, about their unrelenting desire to reach England.
Nahar, 24, Hamada Forest, Southern Darfur, Sudan
Nahar is a Zaghawa tribesman. He lived in a small, impoverished village rearing sheep and cows to survive. One morning in 2013, as Nahar made his weekly market run, government-backed Janjaweed militias entered the area and began massacring its inhabitants with machetes and Kalashnikovs.
‘They burned my village,’ mutters Nahar, who returned home to find the bodies of his father and two brothers amongst the smouldering remnants of his home.
His uncle and two sisters survived the attack by hiding in the undergrowth, but despite fears of the Janjaweed returning, his family refused to be driven from their home soil. ‘My uncle told us he hid money in the earth under a [nearby] tree and [to] use it to escape if the militia came back.’
A month later, Nahar’s uncle was dragged away and murdered by the Janjaweed.
Amid the gunshots, Nahar fled on horseback, returning to the village three hours later to dig up the money. With £2,000 Sudanese pounds ($351) in his pocket, he set out towards the village of Tina, which borders neighbouring Chad.
In Chad, Nahar made arrangements with a Libyan goat farmer to transport him in a livestock lorry to Libya. The farmer demanded 30,000 Central African Francs ($51), but Nahar’s dwindling funds only amounted to only 12,000 CFA ($20). Nahar suggested he tend to the farmer’s goats for a reduced fare and the Libyan agreed.
Nahar and seven other Africans squatted among livestock, slopping out the faeces-covered trailer and sleeping upright until they reached the Libyan town of Madama.
‘When we arrived [in Madama] the driver of our truck called [the] Libyan militia and they took us to Sabah to a house. They told us that if you have someone in Libya you can call, bring us 2,000 Libyan Dinars [$1,450] each and we’ll let you go.’ But Nahar had nothing.
After two months held captive, a Libyan arrived, informing Nahar that if he worked for him he would be released. Nahar agreed, and was moved to a camel farm near Sabha. There, he worked round the clock without pay. Months later, Nahar managed to pry a crack in his door large enough to escape, stealing 1,000 Libyan Dinars ($730) and catching a bus to Tripoli.
In Tripoli, human traffickers told him he could be smuggled to Europe by inflatable boat. He was taken to a holding house and was pushed into a cramped room with hundreds of other refugees fumbling in the dark.
‘Libyans are bad people,’ says Nahar. ‘When I wanted to go to the bathroom, one screamed in Arabic and hit me in the stomach with the butt of his gun.’
Later that evening, on a darkened beach, the refugees were packed into tiny inflatable boats to begin the crossing to Sicily. Once there, Nahar made his way to Ventimiglia, then to Nice by train, before walking to the Calais migrant camp, hoping to reach the safety of England and end his journey. Nahar has been living in ‘The Jungle’ for three months.
Yassen, 24, Khartoum, Sudan
Like many young people, Yassen’s desire for political reform in Sudan was fiercely heightened by the domino-wave of revolutions that began to engulf North Africa and the Middle East in early 2010.
Yassen studied illustration at the University of Khartoum, and was a passionate exponent of Khartoum’s protest movement, drawing political cartoons and writing slogans that revealed the corruption and brutality of the Sudanese government.
In 2012, Yassen marched outside Khartoum University, holding a giant placard that read: ‘The politicians are piss pumpers.’ His placard was spotted by government intelligence officials in the crowd, who arrested him immediately. After a savage beating by the police, he was released.
‘I became scared for my future because there was no freedom, no liberty and I was on a government blacklist,’ explains Yassen.
That didn’t deter him, however. In September 2013, Yassen protested again in Khartoum, rallying against low wages and government corruption. At the protest, Yassen noticed a man dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses, with the bulge of a gun visible at his hip. The man was a government intelligence agent.
As Yassen spread the word among the crowd, the man drew his pistol, and shot Yassen’s friend, Ahmed Muhammad Ali, in the head. He was killed instantly and as the protest broke into a panic, Yassen was dragged off by government agents.
‘Because I saw the killer’s identity, the government made it terrible for me… they told me if you don’t give information about other protesters, we will kill you and your family.’
In a small, dank cell, prison guards broke both of Yassen’s legs and beat him around the clock. After three weeks in solitary, Yassen was released and ordered to comply. On returning home, his family made plans for him to escape Sudan.
Yassen walked for days through the heat towards Sudan’s South Eastern border with Libya. After slipping the guards a small sum of money to cross, he began to stumble in the direction of Kufrah, where his cousin found him a job clearing huge swathes of agricultural land. ‘It was hard work – very low wages, and when they were satisfied, they just left me in Libya.’
Broke and exhausted, Yassen was forced to ask his cousin for money to help pay for a boat to Europe. He made the crossing to Sicily from the Libyan city of Tripoli, and from there, began the journey up through mainland Italy and France by foot, reaching Calais after two months of sleeping on roads, fields and streets, harassed constantly by the police.
Yassen can never go back to Sudan, as he is wanted by the government. He wants to travel to England from Calais so he can finish his studies and express himself the way he desires, uninhibited by corrupt government regimes.
Yassen has been living in ‘The Jungle’ for three months.
Ahmed, 25, Khartoum, Sudan
Ahmed has an MA in Food Security and Agriculture from the University of Khartoum. During his studies, Ahmed was arrested over eight times, and after being stabbed by a policeman during a protest at Khartoum University, he decided to leave Sudan for good.
‘I get much violence from police and military intelligence because I’m not politically affiliated… And I was active in defence of the rights of citizens in rural areas. I chose my MA to get a few rights for those people…and this is a problem for the government,’ Ahmed explains.
In February 2014, he crossed from Northern Darfur into Libya and was escorted to a villa by a group of Libyans promising him a boat to Europe. Instead, Ahmed was locked in a basement and kept prisoner for over two months.
Eventually, he was loaded onto a truck to Kufrah, where he was set to work on a local building site. ‘When I ask questions about wages, food, a boat to Europe, the Libyans just beat me,’ says Ahmed.
On 7 August 2014, he was given the address of a car park in Kufrah and told to wait there. Seven hours passed before a young Libyan arrived carrying a Kalashnikov. ‘He was maybe 14 or 15… but he was armed and I knew he was dangerous.’
Together with five other Sudanese, Ahmed was driven through the night to a house filled with hundreds of African refugees, where they were made to stand on their feet in silence for over 20 hours.
More armed Libyans arrived and everyone was ordered out of the house at gunpoint and forced to run towards the sea. Against the boom of the darkened surf, they were made to wade towards a series of tiny plastic boats and were ferried to a larger vessel offshore. ‘They told us if we turned back we would be shot. Here, you can lose your life at any moment,’ he explains.
After two days at sea, the boat’s engine began billowing smoke, the vessel rocking wildly as refugees sobbed, screamed, begging to be saved. The Red Cross were radioed and after transferring the migrants onto a small rescue vessel, they were offloaded onto a nearby cruise ship and surrounded by picture-snapping tourists.
The ship ported in Sicily and the process of asylum was explained to them by members of the UNHCR. But Ahmed had other ideas.
‘I had a strong emotional draw to England. My grandfather told us stories of the English… they are organized people. We know the English well from our previous colonists, and many Sudanese received scholarships from Oxford University. I wanted to go there.’
After walking to Calais from Italy, Ahmed was beaten by French police and dumped at the Belgian border after trying to sneak onto a ferry. Aware that his quest was becoming increasingly difficult, he applied for asylum in France at the beginning of September 2014. His case is still under review.
Ahmed has been in ‘The Jungle’ for one month and five days.
Whalid, 28, Nuba Mountain, Sudan
‘Sudan is ruled by gangsters who pretend to be religious, but whose crimes have left more than 10 million people refugees,’ says Whalid, as he begins to recount his story.
Raised a Christian, he found himself a constant target of ethnic discrimination from both the Sudanese government and the Arab militias who ransacked local villages, forcing many Nuba tribespeople into hiding.
During one militia raid in 2011, Whalid was abducted and thrown into prison where he was beaten, whipped and ordered to convert to Islam. ‘And when I refused, they covered me in ice-cold water and electrocuted me every day until 2am.’
Two months later, an Islamic group arrived at the prison, each member taking 10 prisoners, including Whalid, to work as slaves on local farms. ‘When the farmer left to buy diesel fuel one morning, I escaped,’ says Whalid, grinning wildly and nodding.
He found a small, hand-operated rail car sitting abandoned on a nearby track and used it to travel around 80 kilometres before continuing his journey towards Libya by donkey. After reaching Libya four months later, Whalid was abducted and imprisoned by a Libyan gang which demanded $2,000 for his release. He escaped again, fleeing towards Ajdabiya, a port town in Lybia.
There, he found work moving crates of vegetables, and after two months, he and other Sudanese refugees managed to combine 1,200 Libyan Dinars ($870) for a boat to Europe.
The refugees approached a young Islamic preacher to help them, who transported the group to Tripoli.
‘This man pretended to be Islamic, but was only interested in money. We were locked in a small house near the water with around 300 others and herded like cows onto a boat,’ says Whalid. ‘The Africans were made to go below and were nailed shut beneath the deck,’ he continues. ‘We made holes in the wood just to breathe.’
The boat was small, rickety and without GPS, and it drifted for eight days straight. In the airless vacuum below deck, eight Africans died of asphyxiation from the diesel fumes, their bodies piled together and thrown overboard by the Libyan crew.
On reaching Sicily, the boat was picked up by the Red Cross, which allowed them to go free. Whalid took a train from Ventimiglia to Nice and then on to Paris. In Paris, he spent 10 days in prison for sleeping on the streets without documents. He then began the long walk north, and was arrested intermittently in Boulogne and Arras, before reaching Calais.
Whalid has tried to make it onto a ferry to England more times than he can recall, and his recent attempts to storm the fence saw him beaten, pepper-sprayed and dumped outside town by the French police.
‘I’d rather be killed in my own country than die here, but I will never stop trying to reach freedom,’ he says smiling.
Whalid has been living in ‘The Jungle’ for three months.