Calais Red, Calais White, Calais Blue: A Poem
Calais Red. Washed red trainers tucked into the rotting tree stump, red Berbere spice, red Harissa, the hot chili pepper paste, in a large tub at the food distribution, but too much, says Yonas, is bad for the stomach.
Gebre shows me his cracked phone screen. “The CRS* he hit me and broke the screen, he hit my friend too, in the face” – he points to his nose – “blood, too much blood”.
A red candle burns, a red sanctuary light, signifier of God’s Presence, but God’s Will, a young Nigerian exile has gone, killed by the fumes from the makeshift heater he hoped would warm him through the cold night. His orange tent is now a small shrine, red sanctuary light burning, a dozen small candles flickering. His photo is set into a shallow wooden box. It’s near midnight. Amidst the dark shapes of small tents, dying fires, the dripping black trees, there’s an intense and sad silence. France 3, the French National broadcaster, have run a piece on the young Nigerian’s death. “It was our brother who died,” says one of his friends, “why does no one want us?”
White on red, the No Entry sign near the stadium. It’s here, on a Sunday morning, that the Eritrean Orthodox Christians meet for prayer. Bound to the post bearing the red and white sign is a wooden cross, and on the cross, a rosary and a small icon of the Theotokos, Mary, the God-bearer, with the Child Jesus. A tarpaulin is laid onto the cold tarmac, shoes are removed, heads bared, and the young men sit listening attentively to the words of the Eritrean deacon. As he speaks, a white minibus parks twenty metres away. A CRS officer winds down his window and films.
More white. The whites of eyes veined red from exhaustion. Tonight, the white full moon. Breakfast before Sunday prayers; on the fire, steam rising from a white circle of milk. The Sunday sun bleaching white the prayer shawls of the two deacons.
Woldu’s shoes are perfectly white. The small encampment where we meet is cloaked by tall poplars shedding their late season blackened leaves. After weeks of persistent rain, there’s water everywhere. Eastwards and spreading ever closer to the camp, a lake has formed. There’s a sense of battlefield, wooden pallets as duckboards snaking across this wasteland swamp. The half-dozen tents are all raised on pallets. Woldu in his perfect white shoes is balanced on a section of pallet that acts as decking to his tented home. “I clean my shoes everyday,” he says. He needs to go to the other Eritrean camp and leads me out of the swamp, past strangely incongruous heaps of farmyard manure, through fences and under the road bridge to a line of sagging tents. Semere is attempting to light a fire but the wood is wet. By burning white plastic jerry cans and dousing the wood with cooking oil, the fire comes to life and Tesfay starts preparing a meal.
The wind is getting up and the acrid fumes of burning plastic sting the eyes. The flames light up the blue tarpaulins that protect the sagging tents from the rain. More blue. A discarded blue camping mat floating on the large puddle besides the tents. It’s cold and damp and Birhan is without socks and wearing blue flip-flops. The only shoes he has.
The other side of the fire is Aziz. Tesfay tells me that Aziz was badly beaten three nights previously. Midnight beside the warehouse with free wifi. A car rolled up.
“Four white guys got out of the car, they kicked me and beat me and took my phone”.
“I’m so sorry, Aziz. Are you ok now?”
“I’m ok, and it’s not your fault. There are good and bad people in Eritrea too.”
Beside me at the fire is Fessehaye. He has his phone open on google maps, satellite view. He’s located our Calais location, and then he moves the cursor back and forwards across the Channel. “Small small distance” he says. He then flits across the world to Eritrea, to Massawa, the Red Sea port. He locates his house, then opens his photos and in the dark and damp of the Calais night, the smoke from the fire blowing chaotically first westwards then back into our faces, there he is, in a boat on an absurdly blue sea, smiling in the bright sunshine. Blue.
Red, white and blue.
Behind us, the artery road connecting the autoroutes of France to the port of Calais. By some strange quirk, in rapid succession, three lorries speed by towards the port, towards the UK; the first is red, the second is white, the third is blue.
Tesfay looks up from his cooking at the passing lorries, the only means for him and his exiled friends in Calais of crossing the Channel to seek asylum in the UK. “Getting to UK,” he says, “is too hard now. It’s Mission Impossible.” Somehow, he manages a smile.
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