CALAIS, France (AFP) — Huddled under blankets, migrants in the Calais “Jungle” recounted Wednesday how they fled a fire that ripped through tents and shacks in the night after the death knell had sounded for the notorious camp.
A French spokesman said desperate migrants had started the blaze, which occurred just hours after the authorities began to demolish the settlement on Tuesday, although camp residents denied the claim.
Siddiq, a 16-year-old Afghan who said he arrived in the camp in northern France 10 months ago, sat on the icy tarmac with two friends, sheltering under a blanket, after spending the night under a bridge.
“Our tents were burning. Someone set fire to them, though I don’t know who,” he said.
“I have seen many fires before but not like this. First there was a gas canister that exploded, boom! Like a bomb,” he said.
“Then in the middle of the night my neighbor’s tent caught fire. I ran out,” said Siddiq.
The trio queued outside a registration center where they hoped to be interviewed later to make their case for being allowed into Britain.
The fire ravaged one of the jungle’s main alleyways, leaving an apocalyptic scene of blackened shrubs and electricity poles, broken glass and a scattering of pathetic belongings.
‘Fires all over’
The only structures that remained were the metal skeletons of the avenue’s makeshift restaurants, some of the many businesses that sprang up during the Jungle’s years-old existence. Those made wood were burned to the ground.
“There were several fires overnight. Every time one fire was put out, another would erupt. There were fires all over the Jungle,” said Mahmoud al-Saleh, a 22-year-old Syrian.
“It was clearly intentional. The firefighters came late. For a long time it was just us, migrants and volunteers, fighting the fires.”
A spokesman for the prefecture — the representative of the state — said firefighters had intervened immediately.
“The fires were apparently started deliberately. They were mainly Afghans who set fire to their tents before leaving. They say the Jungle is finished, and not a scrap should be left behind.”
‘Only the clothes on my back’
At another spot in the queue by the registration office, Arman Khan, 17-year-old Afghan, stood wearing a black hooded jacket and bright orange trainers, his hands in his jeans pockets.
“We had to run out in the middle of the night. I left all my things behind, I have nothing now, only the clothes on my back. I have no tent. No other clothes.
“I hope we will be interviewed today so we can sleep in the containers. Otherwise we will be forced to sleep on the street again. And I didn’t really sleep. I am exhausted.”
Gathering in the charred remains of a cafe at the camp exit, a group of Afghan migrants prepared to leave.
“I was asleep when the fires broke out. It is not true we Afghans started them. No one really knows what happened,” said Khan, a 32-year-old who wore a scarf around his head to try to stay warm.
Deeper into the Jungle, demolition work resumed in an eerie quiet as a thick early-morning fog shrouded the camp.
Workers dressed in bright orange jumpsuits dismantled each tent manually, while machinery cleared the area afterwards.
Riot police cordoned off the area where the demolition was under way while aid workers and government officials checked tents to ensure they were empty before demolition work could begin there.
The Jungle sprang up as a makeshift home for migrants — many of them young men from the Middle East, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa — who saw it as a staging post in their dream to reach Britain.
Lawless and squalid, the camp became detested locally and a deep political embarrassment.
The operation to clear it began on Monday, with its residents being resettled in centers elsewhere that will place them in safer conditions but leave them even farther from Britain, their coveted destination.
Saddiq said that until the fire, he had been unsure about joining the exodus.
“Now I am decided: I will take the bus. What choice do we have? There’s no way we can stay here.”