Snapshot of the Calais jungle

Joram’s eyes flicked open as a rat’s sharp teeth bit into his leg. At 2am, the Calais Jungle held terrors both real and imagined, but there was no mistaking the searing pain. Joram slammed his fist down on the rat’s head and winced as its skull cracked. Fumbling for his torch, the rat still attached, he shone the dull beam of light, pulled apart its jaws and threw it in the corner of the shack. Hasan was still sleeping, and Joram noticed a gathering pool of water next to his son’s pillow. He would scavenge some tarpaulin in the morning after he had taken Hasan to his makeshift school.  

Football in a refugee camp

At 8am, he and Hasan joined the breakfast queue in the aid workers tent. Most days, they had bread and jam, on rare occasions a croissant. Calais was a dump, but at least they wouldn’t starve. The Jungle was a melting pot of nationalities and languages, united by the dream of a better future. If Joram could get regular work, he would smuggle himself and Hasan over to England, although it might take years to raise the money, and the risks were high.

Joram eventually found what he needed in exchange for five cigarettes. They had proved a useful currency now he had finally quit smoking, although blood still punctuated every cough. Holding the nails in his mouth, he stretched the tarpaulin across the roof and fixed it to the rickety frame. Absorbed in his work Joram didn’t see the man approach until he was standing next to him.

‘Have you lived here long?’ asked the stranger.

Joram glanced at him briefly, then returned to his hammering. He knew most of the faces in the Jungle. The man didn’t look like the usual official, but that could be deliberate.

‘Who wants to know?’

‘I’m Arnaud Rossi, I’m a photographer,’ said the man holding out his hand. It hung in the air like an unanswered question until he withdrew it.

‘There’s no need for photographs here. Anyone can see what a dump it is.’

‘I’m here to document stories, to show life in a refugee camp. I wanted your permission to take photographs of your home and the conditions you are forced to live in?’

Joram turned to face him. ‘Who sent you? Why do the authorities need pictures when they can come any day to see for themselves?’

‘I work for myself.’

Joram spat on the dirt. ‘Do you know what will happen when you show off your project? The people in my country will say - Ah there’s Joram - and drag my son and me back to Syria.’

‘I promise that won’t happen.  I can frame the shots, so you can stay anonymous.’

‘Leave us alone, we have better things to worry about.’

‘Ok, sorry to disturb you.’

As Arnaud headed off, Joram called after him. ‘You say you’re a photographer, but where is your camera? You officials think we are stupid.’

Joram forgot about Arnaud until mid-afternoon when Hasan returned from his lessons waving a polaroid.

‘Look, Dad. A man came to our school today. He took my photograph.’

Joram pulled his son over. ‘Didn’t I warn you about talking to strangers? You mustn’t trust anyone.’

Knowing Joram’s temper always ended with a hug rather than a smack; Hasan pressed the photo in his dad’s hand, ‘He was nice, Dad. He brought three different cameras, and one was amazing - the photo appeared straight away.’

Joram studied the picture. He hadn’t seen his son look so happy in months.

‘He wants to help us. Tell the world about what’s going here. Then they’ll find us a proper home.’

Joram wanted to tell his son no one would help them. The world hated them and wished they would disappear. Instead, he said, ‘Go finish your homework. Just be careful of this man.’

Joram’s head started to pound as his son’s smile disappeared. 


The following day, Joram was out looking for odd jobs when he spotted Arnaud chatting with a group of Sudanese men. They were laughing and were posing for photos, then they led Arnaud into a shack. Joram waded over through the mud and stood by the entrance, listening. He recognised the voice of Asim, who had stolen his toolbox. Asim was recounting his journey from Darfur, a fanciful tale that sounded as unreliable as the man. Joram feared Arnaud’s camera would go the same way as his tools.

When Arnaud finally emerged, Joram beckoned him over.

‘Were you were talking Asim Younis?’

‘Yes, he was sharing his story. Why do you ask?

‘Asim is a thief and a liar. Make sure you’ve still got everything you went in with.’

Arnaud put his hand in his pockets. ‘One minute,’ he said, ducking back into the shack. He came out again holding a small plastic package. ‘My new memory card was lying on the table, so Asim couldn’t deny that he had it. He said it must have fallen out of my pocket.’

‘You need to be careful in the Jungle. You won’t find many friends here.’

Arnaud nodded. ‘It’s been hard to find people who’ll talk to me.’

‘Do you swear you’re not from the authorities?’

‘No, I’m from Columbia. I’ve worked all over the world with anyone who is oppressed.’

Joram saw an opportunity ‘I’ll help you if you give me a job. I’m Joram. I can introduce you to people who are genuine, with stories you can only imagine.’

‘I can’t pay you much, but I’m here for a month. Let’s see how we get on.’

They shook hands, and to Hasan’s delight, his father became the photographer’s assistant. 


 Joram was as good as his word, and over the next few days, Arnaud heard stories of tragedy and fear, of families, separated and dead children, washed up upon the beach. Faces etched with suffering softened and relaxed as people shared long-repressed memories. Arnaud’s photos showed them a new aspect of themselves and their surroundings. And they found understanding and kindness - a witness to their bravery. Joram, too discovered a sense of purpose, even the beginnings of trust.



  But a week later, the evictions began. Rumours from the other side of the camp told of demolition men pulling down tents and removing anyone who refused to leave. Arnaud took Joram over in his truck to see for themselves. Anger and fear mingled in the air. No one seemed to know what was happening.

Then one morning Joram woke up to find an official at his door.

‘Do you speak French?’ said the man.

‘A little,’ said Joram.

‘You have four hours to dismantle your home before we bring in the bulldozers. Report to the Relief tent at 10am for rehoming.’

Joram closed the door in silence.

‘Where are they sending us, Dad?’ said Hasan.

‘We’re not going anywhere. I’m going back to bed.’

‘But we have to get out.’ Hasan wondered why his dad’s face looked so blank of emotion.

Joram lay down on his mattress, ‘Forget it, Hasan. We’re not leaving.’ He turned and faced the wall.

Unsure what to do and confused by Joram’s behaviour, Hasan said, ‘I’ll get us some breakfast, then we can work things out together.’

After no response, Hasan ran out of the hut towards the relief tent. As he did so, a man skulking behind the shelters took out a cigarette lighter.

The breakfast queue was unusually empty, but Hasan spotted Arnaud unpacking his equipment by his car.

Hasan ran over. ‘It’s my dad. ‘We’ve been told to get out.’


‘Today, but my dad won’t go. He’s just lying on his bed, not saying anything.’

‘Get your breakfast, and we’ll go back and see him. Maybe I can get through to him.’

The smell of smoke and burning tarpaulin hit them as they headed back. Flames were already engulfing the left side of the shack.

‘Joram!’ cried Arnaud aiming a kick at the door, but the heat from the fire held him back.

Inside they heard Joram’s muffled cries, his damaged lungs constricting from the acrid smoke.

Holding back Hasan, Arnaud shouted, ‘I’m sorry, Joram, I’m so sorry.’ As the roof caved in, Joram called back, ‘Look after my son.’

‘I promise,’ he shouted, but Arnaud’s voice was drowned out by the roar of flames and the tormented cries of Hasan.

When Hasan’s sobbing finally subsided, Arnaud led him back to the safety of the Relief tent. He called over an aid worker. ‘This is Hasan. His dad has just died, please look after him. I’ll be back for him soon.’


 Arnaud returned to the burning shacks as the Fire engines were arriving. He took out his camera and began to document the scene in front of him, shot by shot. As the fires died down, he walked back with tears stinging his eyes. With every step, he vowed to keep his promise to Joram. He would find Hasan a home.

* * *

Read next: The Suitcase - a horror story


Popular posts from this blog

The Girl who fell to Earth

Tiny Tales of Terror: Rockpool

Tiny Tales of Terror: The High Chair