For four days this week, Karwan Tahir shared a tent in the woods around Dunkirk with a young man named Karim. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Karim set out for the UK – a journey in the dark to the nearby beach, and from there into the vast and uncertain canal in a fragile dinghy.
“I don’t know if he succeeded or if he drowned,” Tahir said on Friday, showing the living space he and Karim had briefly shared. âHe didn’t come back. I only knew he was coming from [Iraqi] Kurdistan, like me. We met at the camp. He knew I spoke English so he invited me to share his tent.
“Now it’s mine,” he added.
Karim’s last known location was a sprawling shelter camp on the outskirts of Grande-Synthe, next to a bridge and a canal. The camp is home to several hundred people, almost all of Iraqi Kurds. Most likely, the 27 people who died in the icy waters on Wednesday had lived and slept here before leaving on their last trip.
However, it is difficult to obtain precise information. In this makeshift community, people look out for each other, but outside of family or buddy groups, relationships are temporary and transitory. Although everyone has a cell phone to keep in touch with family and friends, it is difficult to get reliable information about the dead.
The grieving loved ones will likely be back home.
There is no point in asking too many questions. The atmosphere changes after dark, when deals are made and the Kurdish Mafia carrying out smuggling operations is present.
According to local aid workers, a 23-year-old Iraqi Kurd was shot twice in the leg after an argument on Wednesday, and was taken by ambulance to hospital. A smuggler reportedly opened fire after the man refused to board a boat, hours after news of the deaths of 29 people spread. He had paid Â£ 1,500 – half of his fees – with the Â£ 1,500 promised once he landed in the UK.
It is not known whether Karim was among 17 men who drowned, along with seven women – including one pregnant – and three children, or whether he made it to Dover. Tahir showed off the life jacket he had bought for his own crossing – “it cost me 35 â¬ [about Â£30]He said – as well as a cuddly tiger left by a newly deceased family.
Tahir described the tortuous journey that had taken him to the northern coast of France. He said he left the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah a month ago and then flew from Dubai to the Belarusian capital, Minsk. He reached the EU border with the help of Belarusian border guards who showed him where to cross, he said. From Poland he traveled by car to the north of France. So far the trip had cost Â£ 12,000, he said, including Â£ 3,000 prepaid to smugglers for his next boat trip.
Most of those camping in the rain and mud are unaccompanied young men, but there are also a few families.
A little boy, Muhammad, was playing with a plastic helicopter under a tarp, next to an open log fire built by his father, Adil. Adil’s wife, Sarah, and her grandson, Malik, took shelter in a tent.
The camp is grim and littered with garbage, with no toilets or running water. Charities provide clothing and food.
Despite Wednesday’s tragedy, many of those camping here have said they are still determined to reach the UK.
Sokar Mawlud, 20, from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, admitted that the bad weather made the trip even more perilous and that he was “stuck”. He was planning to go to London with his brother Sarhand, 13, and their mother, Shawbo, 42.
Mawlud’s odyssey has been a long one. He said he left Iraq in 2015 and spent six years in the German city of Nuremberg, going to school, before being forced to leave and catch a flight to Turkey. From there he returned to France. Why the UK? âMy sister lives there. She’s a hairdresser, âhe said. He thought he knew one of the people who drowned, but he wasn’t sure.
On Thursday, Mawlud and his family headed for Loon-Plage, the beach west of Dunkirk from where the 29 victims are said to have left. A boat was waiting. They turned around, Mawlud said, after spotting a French police patrol in the sand. âIt’s dangerous, actually. The smugglers buy a canoe for 20 people and take 50 people on board. “
On Loon-Plage, there were haunting signs of migrants who had left. A collapsed canoe lay in the middle of the dunes; further on, against the backdrop of the bustling port of Dunkirk with its cranes and smoke bombs, was another abandoned dinghy, manufactured by the German firm MaRe Boote. Nearby were a red life jacket and a left shoe, half filled with sand. The fate of its owner was unknown.
Most of those who camped around Calais and Dunkirk have family ties to Britain – uncles, siblings, friends. Others said they learned on social media that it was easy to find a job. Tahir said he had lived in Bury St Edmunds for seven years, worked for Pizza Express, and returned home to Iraq in 2006, believing his country was safe. âA mistake,â he said.
Nationalities tend to cluster in different camps along the Nord-Pas de Calais coast. Akhmed Wikky, 21, was one of a handful of Afghans who had gathered in Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk. He said he left Afghanistan five months ago on foot from his home in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif. When he reached Turkey in August, the Taliban had seized his hometown and the capital, Kabul.
What would he do now?
âMy brother lives in Luton. I will try to join him there. If I can’t, my plan B is to stay and learn French, âhe said.
The greater politics of the migrant crisis, he said, had ignored it. âI am not a drug dealer, nor a terrorist, nor a bad guy. I just want my human rights, âhe said. âMy ambition is to study in the UK. I would like to be a town planner â.