Increasingly in the Calais jungle, people are giving up on their dreams to reach the UK, and going elsewhere. For some, this means back home.
Speaking to one of the men who was working in the newly-established kids restaurant* on Saturday, cooking the kids lunch and playing their favourite films on the large television in the middle of the room, he told me he had a flight back to Afghanistan booked for the next day.
I was shocked. Surely he wasn’t considering returning to a life that he had risked so much to leave? I asked, naively, if he wasn’t in danger in his home country. “Yes, but it’s better than this shit life,” he replied, motioning around the make-shift restaurant, and the mud track outside.
This man had left Afghanistan two years previously and sought asylum in Italy. He’d be granted it but struggled to find work and couldn’t support himself. “Yes, I had a document, but what could I do with it?” he asked me. “Could I eat it? Could I make a pillow out of it?” Instead of sleeping rough in Italy, he’d decided to try and reach the UK where he thought he would be able to find work with his grasp of the language. Since 2014, he has made it across to the UK from Calais on two occasions. The first time, he was detained and spent three months in jail; the second six months. Both times he was sent back to Calais.
What would he do upon his return to Afghanistan, I wondered. “I’ll join the Taliban,” he told me, without ceremony or the expectation of any kind of a reaction. Feeling increasingly like a naïve child, I protested that the Taliban were helping to destroy his country, and generally coming across as rather evil.
He shrugged. “There are good Taliban, and bad Taliban,” he explained, and for the second time in a few seconds, I had absolutely no idea how to respond, having never considered the possibility that there was anything other than ‘bad Taliban’. This person had met members of the Taliban, had seen them in the skin; for me, they were faceless embodiments of suppression and violence.
“The good Taliban just kill the military and foreigners. The bad Taliban kill the public. I’ll join the good Taliban.”
“I’m a foreigner, would you kill me if I came to Afghanistan?” I asked.
“Yes, I’d kill you. When I try and come to your country, it’s legal this, illegal that, blah blah. But you’re allowed to come to mine?”. He seemed angry, but in a controlled way, in a distant way. He wasn’t accusing me directly; he was coolly explaining that the world was unfair and imperfect.
“What’s the difference between me and you? Because you are white, and I’m not, you have the right to a better life than me? Because I have black hair, and you fair hair?”
I agreed that it was perplexing and unfair, and eventually he relented. “I wouldn’t kill you,” he said, “I was joking”. Still, I persisted, did he really have no other options other than to join the Taliban?
“If I join the military, the Taliban will kill me. If I join the Taliban, the military will kill me. What choices do I have?”
Couldn’t he get a job in the city? “I risk getting bombed every day I work in the city,” he retorted, flashing defiant eyes at me.
It was dawning on me that the Taliban, like ISIS, is not primarily made up of religious zealots, but ordinary people; people happy to help children in refugee camps eat properly, and happy to kill the military and foreigners if that was a way to survive.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say to this man, who seemed so much to dwarf me in terms of worldly experience. I left to make a meeting with some of the medical teams. I thanked him for chatting to me, and wished him luck.
His response was warm. “Goodbye. Thanks for coming here, and for looking after the children,” he said, returning to his cooking, and pouring a cup of Chai tea for one of the teenage boys.
I left, wondering what conversation we’d have had, had we been in Afghanistan and he’d been a member of the Taliban. Probably there wouldn’t have been any conversation at all.
* The kids restaurant where this man was working is not associated with either the Baloo’s Youth Centre or the Women and Children’s Centre on the camp. It is a refugee-run initiative.