‘The life here is very difficult. That’s why we drink. That’s why we dance’
There’s an air of resignation that hangs heavy over the rickety makeshift bars in the Calais ‘Jungle’. The people here are tired – tired of living without their family, tired of searching for peace and happiness, tired of trying to make it to the UK, tired of police brutality. The bars offer a kind of ersatz respite for refugees who are losing all hope of reaching what they see as the promised land.
There are several bars in the ‘Jungle’. They form part of the camp’s mini-ecosystem, alongside shops, restaurants and a barber shop, each a uniformly uneven combination of wood and tarpaulin. With schools, churches, mosques and a library, the ‘Jungle’ has the core ingredients of a town, in a way – but one that everybody wants to leave.
The Peace & Love Bar is run by an Eritrean refugee named Daniel, who gives me a quick tour when I peek my head in for the first time. He built the place four months ago. It has since become a well-established reference point in the camp, and until a designated centre was built recently, weekly distributions for women were held there.
My friends and I had been invited down by a Sudanese refugee named Sadiq. Sadiq was a farmer in Sudan until the civil war split his country in two and the borderline ran straight through his land. Like many in the camp, he wanted to go to the UK because he can speak English and he’s loved British culture since he was a boy. Now, having spent more than six months in the camp, he has all but given up on ever realising his dream. By day, he helps volunteers build shelters for the most vulnerable in the camp, and by night he drinks away the pain with friends from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
We took a seat at one of the tables that frame the dancefloor and ordered some Perlembourg 7.9 per cent beers – essentially European Special Brew. Most of the people here didn’t drink at all in their homeland but have since turned to alcohol to numb the pain, settling for a figurative rather than literal escape. “Alcohol is banned in Sudan,” Sadiq’s friend Nader told me as we took a seat. “But I didn't even want to drink there. The life here is very difficult. That’s why we drink. That’s why we dance.”
As in any bar, there were people laughing, dancing and drinking. It soon became obvious that the jokes and the dancing were a thinly-veiled coping mechanism; that the spectre of war, persecution and loss haunts each punchline and every step. Kirtliko fled Eritrea’s oppressive government before finishing his law degree, and dreams of finishing his studies in the UK universities he has read so much about. He is tormented by the trip he made across the Mediterranean: “My brother, my mother, and my sister died in front of me, on the boat,” he explained, before reaching for another beer.
“We need drink because we need to forget. I see the people dying in my eyes but the news tells me the problem is only in Syria,” said Ismael, who fled Darfur in Sudan, where 100 people continue to be killed each day by a government that has destroyed more than 400 villages and displaced millions of people. “We are human. What is the solution?”
As I listened to these stories, others hit the dancefloor, the lilting polyrhythms of Eritrean artists like Abera Beyene and Abraham Afewerki mixed in with big Western hits by Shakira, 50 Cent and more. The people who had shared their awful stories with me eventually danced themselves, creating a circle and showing off their best moves. They hugged me and danced and drank beer and then danced some more.
At around 2am, the final song of the night: Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’. If I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed, that Disney-like chorus – “don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright” – sounds cloying and saccharine, but hear it sung by people who have lost everything and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.
When you’re dancing, you don’t think about your friends and family back home. You don’t think about the war. You don’t think about the people you have lost on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. You don’t think about how dangerous it’s going to be when you try to make it onto the train to the UK tomorrow. So that’s what you do. You dance.
*some of the names have been changed in this article.