A few Afghani men gather around me and gently push books at me. “Teach me, teach me,” they say.
After a while of reading books in the sun, moving my finger from one word to the next as they pronounce them, I begin to ask about their lives, and I ask if I can record it. They’re instantly wary. “Are you a journalist?” they ask me. “Sort of”, I respond, unwilling to lose their trust. They visibly back away from me and I half expect them to get up and leave. The man I’d been reading with has his head down and looks extremely uncomfortable.
“They come and they ask us about our lives, but then they put an angle on it. They don’t give a shit about us. They think we aren’t human, but we are,” interjects one of the other men.
I tell them that I want to publish their stories as they are, that I want people to hear what they have to say, in their own words. Eventually one of them agrees to speak to me, and begins to tell me the story of how he left Afghanistan. The others stay cautious and quiet on the bench with us.
Shah is 31 and has perfectly groomed curly hair, with striking red highlights, no doubt a product of the many expert barber shops in the Calais camp. He tells me that he worked for the US army in Afghanistan, a common story among Afghans in the camp.
I was a driver of a tanker, so I was supplying fuel for the US army bases. So therefore, I put myself in a problem.
Once I was carrying the fuel and I was with my younger brother. I drive from Jalalabad, the main city, about thirty kilometres, and there were two check points along the way. So when I was leaving Jalalabad, there were some people, and they were blocking the road, holding weapons in their hands. They stopped me, and they had a big box with them. They told me: “You can take this box and our friends are near to the base, you can take this to them”. But there was an Afghan army check post before their friends. So I told them, “I can’t do this, that’s a risk, how can I do this?”
When I refused to do that, they hostaged my younger brother, and they told me: “If you do not do this, we will kill him”. So because of my brother, I did that, I took the box.
When I reached the first check post, they start searching my car. So at last they find the box, they opened the box that was full of ammunition and weapons, so on the spot they arrest me and they beat me – for two months straight. I have scars on my hands and my back.
They told me “because you are doing this work, you want to explode the American bases”. And I said “I am not the one doing this, the men standing on the roads are doing this, and they hostage my brother”.
I told them the whole story. They beat me, and put me in prison. Then they go and they fight with these people on the check point near the army bases, and some people were killed on the Taliban side, and some people on the Afghan army side. When the Taliban knows that the driver made a problem for them, they call these people who hostage my brother, and they shoot my brother.
Then somebody bring my brother’s body to my home, and my father started searching for me. He found me and he bribed to the police, and they release me. When I come to my home, my brother was lying there and all my family are crying and shouting. And they’re saying “this is because of you, you did that work, and you put us in this shit”.
But that was because of my economic problems, I have to look after my family, I had to do something.
Then I cried for the whole night, and thinking there was nothing I could do.
After some days, they threaten me again. “We’ll do the same as we did to your brother”, they say. Then my father told me, “you have to leave the country”. So we sold some property and I make $10,000 and I pay the people smuggler and he took me from Afghanistan, through Iran, to Turkey, Greece, by foot, by walking, sometimes freezing containers. Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany. It took three months and nine days.
I stayed in Germany five months. But, the German refugee process is very long, it’s 5 years, 6 years, when they are giving you paper to take your family from Afghanistan. So that’s a long time for me. So I decide to go UK. When I came here [Calais], I tried several times to cross the border, but I can’t. Once I was climbing on the containers, and I fell down, and I got wound, injury. I broke my coccyx. So the doctor told me, “don’t try again, it’s too risky for you, you have to stay in France”. So I decided to stay in France, and now I am learning French. I am going to save my life, whether it’s France or UK – it doesn’t matter for me.
He seems determined, but I wonder what he’ll do if France reject his asylum application. “I haven’t applied yet,” he admits. “I’m going to. But I’m scared of the Dublin. I am scared that if I give them my fingerprints, they will send me back to Germany and that’s a long process for me.” Like many of the men I’ve spoken to in Calais, this man doesn’t really know what he will do, where he will go, or what will happen when he gets there.
He quickly changes topic, away from his uncertain plans, and towards social justice.
99 percent in the jungle are the same as you. But the people outside are thinking something else about us, they’re thinking that we are not human, we are something else. They are scared of us, but we are humans, we have the same heart like you, the same dreams, the same hopes.
Who put us in this trouble? I know, all the world know that. 42 countries are involved in our country, they are fighting there. But they do not live there. I am the one suffering there. I am Afghani, I am living there, so I know. Hundreds of people are dying in Afghanistan, and I know that could be me, could be my father, or my mother. So how can I live there? When you walk in the streets, there are explosions in the street. When you are sitting on a bus, you have to check your seat for explosives, you have to check the driver. How can I live there?
And now, the same stresses in the jungle. We are facing stress, stress, stress. We are human. We’re not machines or something else.
I’m thinking about my finger prints, I’m thinking about how they will send me back. I put myself in a problem, a big problem. In the night, we’re not sleeping, we’re just thinking, thinking, thinking.
When I ask him which family members he will bring over if he is granted asylum, I am surprised to hear him mention a wife and children for the first time. He laughs at my surprise: “Yeah. I have a wife and children. My eldest child is about ten years – he is a boy. I have five children.” This is even more of a shock to me and he laughs again.
“That’s the Afghani tradition,” he explains.
“When you’re 18 or 19, they’re getting you married. So I married early, therefore I have five kids. That’s the way in Afghanistan. I am thinking about them too much; they are uneducated, they are in a part of Afghanistan where there is no electricity, no mobile. Once a week I am calling them. No school. When I’m calling them – there is a hill near to our village – they are coming to this hill for me – there is no signal where they are living.
“I have a daughter – she’s talking with me – she’s saying to me that ‘father, you are lying to us. Nine months you are saying that “I will take you, I will take you, I will send you this”. Papa I am not talking with you, you are lying to me.’ I am just saying to her, ‘please’. She’s a child, she doesn’t know I’m in a problem. She’s six years old.
“My wife knows I’m in trouble. I’m explaining every day, she knows well. She’s a little bit educated.”
I ask how they are surviving, living under Taliban rule, without his financial support.
“So my father is bringing them something, just to survive. But my children are not going to school, there’s no school. They are living in the countryside. There is no electricity, nothing.”
I assume the women are not able to walk around freely to collect food, or earn any money.
“Oh no. They are just in the room. Nobody, a woman especially, can walk alone out of the home. They are restricted by these people. When I call them, a man goes with them. When a man is with them, nobody says anything to them. When they are alone – that’s a problem yeah.”
I ask him about the Taliban and he seems cautious, conscious perhaps that I have a strong opinion on the subject.
“What do you mean by this?”, he asks me, twice.
“Let me tell you something. They are saying ‘we are fighting with these people, because they came to our country. They captured Afghanistan. We want to take control of our country.’ That’s their position.”
So would he want the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan? I ask.
“How can I say something?” he protests in response to such a controversial question. I reassure him that I am not expecting a certain answer, that I’m genuinely interested in his opinion.
He sighs. “I want a peaceful Afghanistan. If it is anybody, I want my country to be re-built, so I can stay in my country safely. Anybody. I want my country.”
“I want my daughter to be a doctor. I promised her, I will make her a doctor. And Insha’Allah I will make her a doctor.”
The men around us have relaxed, and begin to join in on our conversation. We discuss the camp, the physical and psychological difficulties of staying there, their confusion at how they are viewed by so many Europeans. They look tired and weary.
Many of them have been in the camp for six months or more and their hopes of reaching the UK are fading. Now all they want is to settle somewhere, anywhere, where they can be reunited with their families, and somewhere where they can begin a new life, one where they keep promises to their children.