The dreary winter wind is howling.
Bleak desperation is on show in the haphazard row of weather-beaten tents along a disused railway line. People, pushed away by people, with gritty resilience, huddle over the occasional fire, one women tries hopelessly to dry a soaked boot over a choking flame, the rain doesn't let up to help her. They all want to leave, but it's hard to. French authorities don't let them stay in one place for long, and they are often moved on. Crossing the Channel to get to the UK is the ultimate goal for most of the residents of this wet jungle camp, but it's treacherous.
Asim looks up at the dismal picture of the camp, he lives there, if you can call it live, maybe not.
Asim sleeps there, more like.
Asim tries to sleep there.
Partly because of the leaky cold tent, but partly because of the memories, Asim doesn't sleep well.
As he sits watching the woman still persevere to dry the soaked boot, he is reminded of the perseverance of his father, who had been a farmer in west Darfur state; to be a farmer there, in Sudan, requires relentless work and toil too, he muses to himself as the woman turns the boot over to dry the other side of it. That's where Asim learned to swim, in the creeks of the Blue Nile. He smiles weakly as he remembers that brief happier memory.
That was before the conflict had driven him to flee Sudan. He had ended up in Libya, being sold from one man to another, as a slave, until his family could pay for his freedom. After his release, he managed to get to Tripoli, where he worked for a bit and could pay smugglers to get him across the sea to Italy.
I was glad I could swim then, he thinks.
Making his way across Italy and France, he had had a dream of finding a better place, and hope; other Sudanese people gave him food on his journey, they had been kind to me, he remembers, feeling a bit comforted by the warmth of that memory.
But then, thoughts of his sorry state and desperation run through his mind.
How long have I been in the camp?
Is it weeks? Months?
Time has blurred and he's lost count of exactly how long it has been.
Everyone has a story here, they can't go home because their government will kill them, or there is a famine in their country. Asim talks to them about it sometimes, and sometimes they can relate to each other. He knows though, like him, they only tell part of the story, some of the details are too much to retell.
Masoud is his friend. He is a wiry, kind man, who carries more experience in his bones than years to his age, he sleeps in a tent a bit further down the line. Asim spends the evenings with him, he looks forward to the long chats, both of them wrapped up in all their clothing, freezing, with only each other as company.
Masoud has tried to cross the Channel to get to the UK twice now, once the boat broke down, once the swell was too strong, it pulled them under and they were forced to abandon the crossing.
Tonight they huddle closer, it's particularly cold. They talk again in hushed voices about how to cross. Masoud, weary of the journey, looks at Asim with stern and frank eyes, he says in his thick Iranian accent:
“Life and death are too close to each other on those crossings.”
Asim stays silent, waiting to hear what he is going to say next.
“Asim, I ran away from one dictator, and straight into the hands of another: those smugglers are not your friends”.
Asim raises his eyebrows,
“but Masoud, how do you cross without them?”.
“Asim, friend, I regret giving my money to those criminals. I shouldn't have trusted them. My path, I think, will end here in France.”.
Asim already knows how dangerous it is, when he goes for walks on the beach he sees debris from failed crossing attempts: washed up life jackets, bags of tattered belongings and tattered dreams. Abandoned attempts.
Maybe Masoud is right, Asim thinks on one of his walks as he kicks a big piece of plastic, which was once part of the engine cover of a boat.
There is a guy Asim has been in touch with, Masoud gave him the number, not without repeating his warning, he's offering a place in a dinghy for €2,000. Asim feels in his pocket; a lighter, an old pencil and a couple of coins.
I can't pay those guys anyway, even if I did want to.
A few nights later, Asim sits on the beach looking over the dark water. The moon is out somewhere up above the misty cloud cover and relentless freezing drizzle. His hoodie is heavy from the constant dampness in the air.
“Tonight is the night'' he had said to Masoud only a few hours earlier.
“I can't stay in the camp any longer, I've met a few other guys from Sudan, we're doing it together”.
Before he headed to the beach, Masoud had said to him, “Hey Asim, you know that tonight the sea is bad, there is wave, and wind, you can die. You know it's dangerous?”.
Asim had looked defiant and angry “Yeah, I know the wind is strong and the waves are high, but if not tonight, when? We can't wait another week, I have to end this journey in England. I see my dreams in England, there is no racism there. The English people are warm and kind, I want to live there so much.”.
Masoud looked more serious then than he ever had before, “Asim, you are ready to die to go to England?”.
Asim said quietly “I don't have any other options.” He continued, “It's not just me, Masoud. People arrive here normal, but they go crazy. People come here with an ambition, but they lose their minds.”.
Those last words run through Asim's head as he looks over the sea, maybe I've lost my mind, but whatever Masoud says, here there is nothing for me. Here I am dead already.
He has no doubts now of what he is going to do.
At about midnight Asim meets the other 3 men, and they manage to break off the chain of a locked up pedalo, they heave it down to the shoreline together.
They leave for England on a toy boat, designed for having fun.
Not designed for crossing the wild December sea.
Goodbye France, Asim thinks under the din of the waves and wind.
The weather is bad.
The French rescue team has been alerted and they come, but the little group in the pedalo don't want to be rescued, and they manage to keep going.
After 8 hours at sea, the the boat fills up with water from one side, then it turns over.
Asim doesn't remember much then, he is conscious, now, that he's lying in a sand dune, but is he in France or England?
He's not sure.
Did God send us luck? he wonders, I know that I was about to die.
Now lying in the frozen dunes, with sleety dribble falling from the sky, all he can think is; I'm so cold, I hope I'm arrested or I think I will die here. It all goes a bit black then.
Asim feels himself getting picked up. By who though?
Two French police officers are escorting him up, he is put in the police car and driven off, he doesn't know where to, but he is warm for a moment. He looks out of the car window, they're driving down a busy street.
Asim sees a bright shop, full of Christmas lights and cheer. It feels like a hallucination.
He sees a family all together, the shop attendant is wrapping something up for them. A gift, they're buying a gift for someone.
Asim closes his eyes weakly, and lets himself dream of another world, one where he too can buy a gift for someone he loves.
Maybe next time God will send me luck, and this humiliation will end, he thinks as the shop disappears out of sight.