I am sitting on the floor of a small wooden hut in the new Dunkirk refugee camp with a young mum called Runa. She is a midwife, in her early twenties. We’re drinking sweet black tea and eating bread that she made that morning. I am in awe of this lady, who can find the will and the means to bake bread for her family while living in the horrors of a refugee camp.
The reason I am here is because I wanted to do something practical to help the refugees in Dunkirk. As well as distributing ‘dignity packs’ donated by the kind people of Herefordshire, I came here to take photos, in an attempt to humanise the situation and bring it home. Confronted with the reality of the situation, I feel helpless before the scale of the task. The unendurable pain of what these people have withstood is leaving me feeling inadequate and speechless.
A few days ago, Runa, her husband, their eight month old daughter, Amira, and their two year old son, Olan, moved here from the recently dismantled Dunkirk camp where they’d been living for four months knee deep in mud, human faeces, and rotting debris. I went to the old camp yesterday to take photos, and it was the closest thing to a war zone I’d ever witnessed.
This time last week 3,000 people were all crammed into this boggy, wooded area right next to a housing estate. Everything is as they left it; tents, clothes, boots, sleeping bags, toys, countless plastic bottles and boxes of urine, and rotting food. As I tiptoed through the carnage, the sun shone, the birds sang, but it felt eerie, even sinister, and the stench of the rotting, wet, dirty remains was unbearable.
Runa tells me that they lived in the old camp for more than a hundred nights through the winter months, in sub zero temperatures and snow, in a wet, mouldy tent. The closest I’d come to anything like this in my own life was one particularly cold and windy night in a tent in Wales, and I couldn’t find adequate words to respond. What could I possibly say to her?
It got worse. While living in these conditions, baby Amira had chicken pox, and there was no treatment. She screamed every night, had a high temperature, wouldn’t eat, and scratched so much that she drew blood and her skin became infected.
When my eldest daughter had chicken pox, she had two weeks off school. I remember feeling really anxious during that time: not only did we have a bad case of chicken pox in the house, I also had a broken wrist, and a birthday party to arrange. By anyone’s standards, that was a tricky situation. However, I was at home, in my own country, I had my belongings with me, I was safe, I had access to medicine and clean water, and my own mother to support me. Runa’s mother is dead.
I hand Runa a ‘dignity pack’ containing toiletries, a pair of leggings, a couple of t-shirts, pants and a bra. She holds up the tiny pink bra against her large chest, and we both laugh. Amongst the chaos and devastation, she can still see humour in things. I feel another surge of admiration for her.
In the new camp, where we’re now sitting, living conditions are better, but things are still desperate. The hut, their new home, is a few square metres, and everything I see in that hut, is all they have left in the world. And even these few belongings are unsafe. The future of this camp is uncertain, there is widespread fear of demolition, and the people may be moved on again.
As we talk, baby Amira wobbles next to the gas stove which sits in the corner. The baby already has a really nasty burn on her hand from sticking it through the bars of the heater and scalding herself yesterday. I get out some bubbles from my bag to distract her away from the gas stove. I am neurotic when it comes to health and safety, at the best of times. When my babies were this age, I wouldn’t allow our woodburner to be lit at all, and even went as far as winding bubblewrap and blankets around the woodburner to prevent them banging their heads on the hard edges.
Amira is distracted by the bubbles for a while, but she is soon crawling back towards the hot stove.
Feeling overwhelmed, I step outside the hut to see where two-year-old Olan has gone. Thankfully he is still there, sitting in a dust pile, playing with a broken guitar he has found.
The sun is beating down, all the wooden huts sit in neat rows, children are playing on donated bikes and scooters, and kicking balls, grown-ups are sitting around fires, washing is hanging out to dry. I see a group of chattering ladies in the communal washing area, which was built yesterday, washing clothes, and pots and pans. For a weird moment it reminds me of a holiday camp, a place where people might have chosen to come to have a good time, and relax with family and friends. A happy place.
I’m jolted back to reality when a man comes to tell Runa that his wife made it to England last night, but he and his three year old son did not. They were spotted by the police at customs at the ferry port, but his wife (Runa’s friend) was better hidden in the lorry, so she made it to Dover. They don’t know if they will see her again. They behave as though this is good news - it gives them more hope. At least one of the family has made it through.
‘Coughing and bad headache is no good when hiding in lorry,’ Runa jokes. Coughing and bad headache is no good in a warm, safe bed, I think to myself. She tells me how they tried to get to England two nights ago, hidden in a lorry. She was unwell, and both her children were screaming and crying, while trying to hide and go unnoticed. ‘I was very scared. We got caught. We try again soon,’ she says, almost matter-of-factly, like she’s talking about a stressful trip to the supermarket with a tantruming toddler. This failed attempt at getting to England cost them thousands of pounds.
The people here are trying to get to the UK because they speak English, or have family and friends here. Runa has an uncle in Manchester. Of all the options available to these people - proud people; people like my friends back home; people who are doctors, lawyers, business owners - the best option open to them is to try and smuggle their families into the UK via a lorry. It is like a surreal, slow-motion war.
As I finish my tea, Runa, who is now tearful, physically tries to put her baby into my backpack. ‘You take to England with you,’ she keeps pleading. ‘You hide her’. ‘You look after her.’ Olan thinks this is a hilarious game, putting his baby sister in a bag. I cuddle the happy, babbling baby, who is oblivious to the horrors her parents are going through. With my whole heart I want to help, I want to try and help her. But instead I have to tell her: ‘Sorry, I cannot take your baby.’ I try not to cry. I cannot imagine a situation where I would be begging a stranger to take my baby away to a safer place.
‘More tea?’ Runa asks. She tells me: ‘My country not good, we had to leave. Lots and lots of fighting and bombs. Friends and family dead.’ She then describes their horrific journey from Iraq. She mentions a country I have never heard of. She laughs heartily and tells me my geography is very bad. Still laughing, she gets out her iPhone and points it out on the Maps app.
Crossing from Turkey to Greece, 140 women, men and children (including elderly people and babies) were squeezed onto a wooden raft in the middle of the night. The crossing took four and half hours on rough freezing cold seas. “There was screaming and crying all the time,” Runa tells me. “Boat almost sank, and we nearly drowned, but Greek police come with big boat and helicopter and help us”. More unimaginable horror. I remember the fear I felt on a boat in Wales with my two precious babies, crossing from Caldey Island back to Tenby on rough seas. Unlike Runa’s journey, however, that was a legal twenty minute boat trip in daylight, and there were plenty of shots of whisky in a friendly pub to get over the shock.
I learn that traffickers helped her and her family for part of the journey from Greece to France. ‘They treat me very very bad.’ She looks terrified and mentions sexual favours. ‘You take my baby?’ she begs me, again.
We hug, and I tell her I will get her baby milk and nappies, which feels like a pathetic gesture compared to what she needs, but she thanks me profusely. I tell her that I will see her tomorrow with the supplies. She cheerily waves me off.
When I say goodbye to Runa and her family on my last day, she asks me for my backpack. ‘Very useful to me,’ she says. She tries to give me the necklace from around her neck as payment. Without thinking, I tell her that I need the bag as I have my things in it. But while sitting on the ferry a few hours later, I realise that, of course, she needs it more than I do.
The pain and guilt and anger I feel at having to leave Runa and her beautiful children in such squalor and suffering, and being able to simply drive onto the ferry with my British passport - thanks to sheer accident of birthplace - and return to England, just twenty miles away from by the worst human situation I have ever seen, is overwhelming. I don’t know what the solution is for these people, but this situation can be solved, and it must be solved quickly.
When I get home I’m overjoyed to see my children. I hold them tight, and thank God I am not in Runa’s situation. I am lucky. Wonderful, kind, loving, doting mum Runa. We both want the best for our kids, and care for them the best way we possibly can. We are just the same, with only one real difference: we happened to be born in different parts of the world.
*Identities have been changed. All photos © Billie Charity