A Personal Account of No Borders Brussels
It’s raining in Brussels. It’s 2:30am and Pete and I are the only ones awake onsite. We’re sitting at the end of an old railway platform getting rained on heavily from all sides, despite having a roof, if not walls, over our heads. Our only other company, the alcoholics, went to bed half an hour ago. They think we’re crazy, sitting here with sodden blankets and chattery teeth. Perhaps we are. We’re doing the night shift on lookout for police. It’s the Brussels No Border Camp where we arrived last night to find a skeleton camp setting up and a lot of work to be done. There was no security, no communications system, no mediation or trauma group and very few toilets. At least the food is good – supplied by no less than six activist kitchens, including a French bakery and my favourite: the Dutch Kokkerellen Actionkitchen.
No police come on our shift and we change over with the next people, glad to snuggle up in bed and drift off. Tomorrow will be a busy day.
It’s Wednesday. A friend has gone with a few hundred other campers to join the legally organised trade union demonstration in the centre of town. Ten thousand people are marching against cuts and austerity measures. The trade unions have agreed for us to form an anti-capitalist block and have reportedly cleared a space for us at the end of the march. My friend is one of those unfortunate people with a tendency to trip into trouble, despite being one of the nicest, gentlest and most humble creatures I know. Hence he has my phone number written on his arm and I have my phone on and near to hand. Sure enough I get a text message before the march has even started – “Nicked! Only 50 made it to the demo. No-one hurt”.
Somehow he manages to keep his phone hidden on him somewhere, despite being strip-searched. The text reports keep coming… “Big station. Dunno where. Hundreds here. Could do radio interview…?”
I find the legal team, who are useless. Apparently in Brussels if somebody gets arrested there’s nothing whatsoever you can do for the first twelve hours. The police won’t even tell you if they’ve been arrested or not. “But I know he’s been arrested! He’s text messaging me from the police station!” “Nope, still nothing. Wait 12 hours and come back if he’s still missing”. My friend isn’t the only one – a reported 350 people have been “preventatively arrested” walking around, getting onto buses, going into shops… it seems if you look like a camper in Brussels today, you will likely be arrested.
More texts… “Hey J, been moved to a new cell on my own. Passport and bag gone. Lots of chanting and resistance in the prison. Everyone has removed and fucked off (got rid of) their plastic handcuffs. Cops are scared coz they can’t close some of the doors due to damage. No-one hurt.”
I find the media team, who’ve set up a cyber cafe in a corner of the massive derelict train station that’s housing half of the camp. One man starts typing my information onto Indymedia, but realises it’ll give the game away to the police who’re bound to be monitoring the site. They’ll surely take his phone from him and then we won’t know what’s going on anymore. A radio interview sounds good, but the equipment won’t be available for hours. This is so frustrating – there must be something useful we can do!
“They lost my passport and wallet. Then they claimed I attacked a police officer but dropped charges. They said they’ll let me out at midnight. Bastards.”
After that I lose contact. He stops replying to messages and I have to go offsite for a meeting. When I return, coachloads of people are being dropped off by police at the gate. I ask around and nobody has seen my friend, but reports say everyone has now been released and if he’s not back yet he will be soon. What to do? If I wait by the gate I won’t see him if he’s already back. If I go in and search for him he might come back without me noticing. This particular friend is very easy to lose.
I wait until 2am and decide I must have missed him. Clearly he came back on an early coach and went to bed, probably exhausted. I ‘m pretty tired myself and it’s not long ’til I’m asleep. Around 9:30am Pete and I are awakened by a light tapping at the van door. It’ my friend, just now returned on foot having been let out of custody early this morning. They said they lost his wallet, then later claimed he never had a wallet. The wallet contained €150. He thinks this is why they kept him so long. I feel terrible! I can’t believe I went to sleep without checking he was back first!
While in custody my friend noticed some posters. One of these posters was advertising a police recuitment event on Saturday. An idea is forming.
Reports are coming in of abuse in police custody. Women have been made to strip in front of male officers, at least one had clothes ripped off her when she refused. When allowed to go to the toilet, this too must be done in doorless cubicles while men stand and watch.
What shocks me more than the actions of the police is the attitude of the legal team and some of the other Belgian activists. All this is “normal”. It may not be legal, but it’s “normal”. We may as well get used to it, there’s nothing we can do. This attitude infuriates me. It seems so defeatest and I refuse to accept it – surely there must be something we can do?
It’s Saturday. My friend who was arrested before – let’s call him “Zak”, has gone with another friend, A_ and a French girl, G_ to ask some pertinent questions at the police recruitment event. Another friend, E_’s parents have a flat in the city and this they have used to wash, change clothes and make themselves look presentable. Zak has shaved his head, taken the safety pin out of his ear and is looking only very slightly strange in a black shirt and women’s fitted trousers. Unfortunately he only has sandles to wear, but that can’t be helped now. The plan is to wait for a time when they can ask questions, after which they will probably be kicked out, then come straight back to meet me so I know they’re all ok. If they don’t come back, they’ve been arrested and I can inform the camp Legal Team.
While waiting I can relax. I take a bath, do some yoga, check my emails… There’s a flaw in our plan and as the hours tick by, I realise what it is: We have no idea how long this thing is supposed to last. What if they have to sit through hours of talks and police videos before they get to ask any questions? At what point do I decide for certain they’ve been arrested and go back to camp?
Events decide for me. E_ returns and says we have to leave before her parents come home. We head back to camp. A demo happened while we were away and again there have been mass “preventative” arrests. The demo itself was arranged with police in advance and was allowed to happen, though in a tightly controlled manner.
I report the arrests to Legal, who are understaffed and irritated. This has the effect of really pissing me off and I won’t listen when they say again there’s nothing we can do. I’m adamant – there must be something and I won’t rest until we do it! Finally a man finds a lawyer for me who’s also a camper. She’s more sympathetic and makes a call to the police station right away. The police lie and say they don’t have my friends, but I still feel calmer for being listened to.
Finally A_ appears like a beautiful mirage, storming down the platform with a can of beer in one hand and a fist raised with the other. “I’m so fucking angry!” Her glasses are slightly askew, as though knocked to one side by her rage. Now we get the full story at last: Our three heroes entered the building and after a brief, dull talk, had an opportunity to ask some questions. G_ asked if it was common practice for male officers to strip-search women and to arrest people without charge. Deadly silence. The man behind the desk looked embarrassed. G_ turned to his superior and repeated the question. After having the question brushed aside by him, G_ turned to address the whole room, who by now had begun to pay attention. “Is this a job that you want to do? What are you going to do when asked by your superiors to strip-search women? To arrest demonstrators without charge? To round up gypsies, travelers and undesireables, take their finger prints and deport them?” Two policemen stepped forward and excorted her away. Zak continued asking questions and was dragged out, his shirt ripped. A_ followed. They were all held and questioned for some hours. A_ and G_ were released after signing a declaration, which they later regretted. Zak refused to sign and is still being held. On release, A_ demanded the release of Zak and refused to leave until he was set free. She was then literally chased from the building and down the road by a policeman.
So Zak is still inside. They say they’ll let him out at midnight, typical as that’s when the metro shuts down. Fortunately it’s not that late when I get this: “Hey J, just got out. Only got one shoe! Have A_ and G_ been released yet? ACAB x” Pete and I drive out to get him.
A man and a woman out walking are picked up by police. They tell the woman they are going to rape her and bundle her into a van. There are five of them. They drive her to the other side of camp and release her. It’s a while before the two find one another again and both are deeply upset and traumatised by the experience. This is the kind of fucked up shit we are dealing with here.
Meanwhile, the man who owns Tour and Taxi’s has hired out half the train station for one night to a “Brazilian dance party”, which sounds great but turns out to be a bad disco with a €50-€100 door fee. Half the indoor space is cordoned off with Heras fences and shit music booms through camp til the early hours.
Around 5am a stabbing in the disco prompts a police response, who use this golden opportunity to enter our half of camp in riot gear with dogs and raised batons. It’s Saturday night and 90% of the awake people are drunk. Men in balaclavas run past me shouting “cops with guns! Cops with guns!” which is not only untrue, but deeply uhelpful and has the effect of causing a lot of panic and confusion. Fortunately one of the police liason people is awake, sober and intelligent enough to calm the situation down. The police are persuaded to leave without incident, partly by Tour and Taxi’s own security, who don’t want their space destroyed.
It’s Monday. I leave camp in search of a quiet place to sit, write and digest the past ten days. Both the cafes I know are closed so I head toward the squats that were hosting events throughout the week. I walk for an hour across the city. A helicopter is still flying overhead and I feel certain it can see me with my backpack and my tent: I look like a camper. Nobody knows where I am. The police could take me now and nobody would know. As I reach the city, police cars with sirens blare past. I reach the 123 Squat: shut. I am now a bag of nerves. I get to the Gesu, the big squatted monastery and ask a couple of punks nearby how to get in. Fortunately somebody is at the side door about to enter and I go in with them. A girl asks if I’m ok. I’m not – I burst into tears as soon as I start talking.
How is it I can hitch across Europe alone from Bulgaria to Brighton and feel perfectly safe, but I can’t walk down the road in Brussels without having a panic attack?
After camp is ended reports continue coming in of violence, sexual abuse and torture in police custody. One particularly prominent account is that of the former Red Pepper worker Marianne Maeckelbergh, but there are many others. Four people remain in custody today.
(Continued from the last entry)
After a little sob in the toilets I drag myself out to the road and take up my position with thumb held high. I’m feeling little hope, a lot of sadness, tiredness and perhaps loneliness too, though it’s only been five minutes. An hour ticks by and I’m so deflated I’m actually trying to work out how much a train might cost and feeling like a total sell-out.
Then a van stops with two guys. I get into the third seat and balance my backpack on my lap. It’s another of those “helpful” lifts, giving me a ride to a better spot – only this one really is helpful. They take me past several signs that actually have the names of places on the piece of cardboard I’m carrying strapped to my pack and drop me on the road to Kalatina. This, they say, is the Turkish truck route.
Sure enough, a Turkish trucker stops before I’ve even put my pack down. “Beograd?” I ask. He nods. Great! But it’s better than that. After some introductions I ask where he’s going: “Belgium”!
I tell him I’m on my way back to England. He doesn’t speak any English, but I understand when he says with lot of gesturing that I can ride with him to Belgium, then he can find a colleague to take me to London. I nod furiously. We both smile and shake hands – it’s a deal. This proves my theory: the longer the wait, the better the ride.
Hassan and I don’t speak the same language, but we have plenty in common. We both like Turkish coffee and Turkish music, especially while driving through mountains. We do not like borders or border police – especially not Bulgarian ones who are allegedly the most corrupt in Europe. I see him handing packets of cigarettes and who knows what else over at each of the various checkpoints. A man resembling a bulldog orders me out of the cab and snarls questions at me. “Where are you going? Where have you been? What are you doing with him?” I spiel off a list of countries that spring to mind and tell him I’m a hitchhiker – “autostop” – I mime with my thumb. He nods. “Go!” he tells me. I get back in the truck and wait for the bribery to finish.
Eventually we can cross the border and Hassan tells me to wait. He gets out and I watch fascinated through the drive-side mirror as all the Turkish drivers gather together and drink coffee on a fold-down table on the outside of one of the trucks. After a few minutes Hassan comes back and hands me a coffee, then goes back to finish his. It’s clearly a man’s thing.
Time to go. We both cheer as we pass the “Republic of Serbia” sign. The music is turned up, the windows come down. Serbia – woohoo! Something else we have in common: we both like Serbia.
Hassan asks if I’m hungry. Well, I kind of am. He pulls into a Turkish truckers restaurant. I know the awkward embarrassing part is coming. Never have I valued my Vegan Passport as much as now. I find the Serbian page and hand it to the bemused waiter. His frown deepens with each sentence and by the second paragraph he’s called the chef. Fortunately, the chef speaks English, but they’re still not getting it. He asks twice if I’d like cheese, then comes back out of the kitchen to ask first if I eat onions, then to check about salt. At least they’re taking it seriously. I end up with boiled potatoes, carrots and pasta with raw onion on the side and a tomato and cucumber salad. I’m delighted. They all think I’m crazy, especially Hassan who’s busy reading the Turkish page.
The next time we stop it’s just outside Belgrade. I get some sly yoga in behind a service station and return to the truck forty-five minutes later as requested. One hour, fifteen minutes and five alarm rings later I’m forced to prod Hassan awake. “Why didn’t you wake me?” is what I know he’s telling me in Turkish. I did! Lots of times! We hit the road again.
Sophia to Brussels is a three day drive. My theory is that if I can get through the first night without any hassle from my driver then I can relax the rest of the time. I ask Hassan where he’ll sleep and when he answers the top bunk I give him a choice: I can sleep on the bottom bunk or I can go outside in my tent. First he wants to share, but I put my foot down and he leaves me be on my bottom bunk where I sleep relatively well despite his snoring.
The border crossings into Croatia and Slovenia are long queues, bribery and lots of paperwork. At each one, the border guard speaks to me in English, I suppose to check my passport is real. “So, this is hitch-hiking?” asks the man in Slovenia. “How did you guess?” I ask with a bemused smile. “Because you are with him,” he laughs and indicates Hassan, who hasn’t a clue what’s going on. “He doesn’t speak English,” I say to explain his confusion, “but we’re getting along just fine.” Getting into Slovenia is a relief. We’re back in the E.U. and now the borders will be open until I cross The Channel – no more bribery and paperwork.
We spend our second night in South Austria. Unfortunatley, the first night lulled me into a false sense of security. “Please Madam, no sex” - he insists he just wants to cuddle and maybe a little kiss. I am firm and state no repeatedly. “I go bottom bunk, you go top.” He puts his arm around me. I remove it. He’s more childishly annoying than physically threatening, but I’m tired and I want to go to bed in peace. I fetch the Turkish-English dictionary we’ve been using to communicate, find a word and point to it: “Respect.” He nods. “No!” I say. He holds up his hands, wishes me goodnight and turns off the light. It seems I said the magic word.
By the third day I’m drinking tea with the men at the little fold-down table. We’ve parked for the night near Wels in South Germany, next to a tiny petrol station near a big freight train depot. The Turkish man operating the gas station gives me the key to the shower, then joins us for breakfast: bread, olives, tomatoes, peppers, onions, plenty of oil, salt, paprika and of course, copious amounts of tea. It’s today Hassan tells me the news: he’s found someone to take me to England. We are to meet him in a service station later. I’m overjoyed, but Hassan seems almost regretful. This means losing his passenger. He seems to have grown quite fond of me and spends our last couple of hours looking forlorn and trying to persuade me to give him a proper kiss goodbye. When it becomes clear that isn’t going to work, he spends the final half hour demanding that I refuse to kiss or have sex with his friend, the new driver. I promise.
I swap trucks somewhere in South Germany. Hassan mimes tears on his face and points to words in his Turkish-English dictionary, like “sentimental”, “affectionate”, “love”, etc. I tell him not to be silly, but of course he doesn’t understand me. I point to the Turkish word for “annoying” and he apologises.
My new driver Bahadir is married and has a three year old son back in Turkey, which pleases me immensely. He points proudly to a picture of a baby just behind his seat. We park for the night near Brussels. He buys us some beers and we listen to music and share photos in the cab. Just one night with this driver and he’s not pushy at all. I feel quite safe and sleep well. He doesn’t even snore.
On our second day we drive through Calais. Guilt seeps through me and I almost panic and open the door. I should get out. I should just get out now. How can I go through Calais and not get out? I decide that if I see a single person I recognise it will be a sign and I’ll just get out. We pass by the dunes where the old Hazara Jungle was. I strain my neck to see. A year since I was last here and now I don’t know where the migrant camps are. I know all the old ones have been destroyed. I don’t know what to say to Bahadir about my obvious discomfort and neck-craning. “Arkadash” I tell him – the Turkish word I learned for friend. “Arkadash?” He’s obviously confused. What, you saw a friend, here?
I see nobody. We drive into the ferry terminal and queue for the boat. Another Turkish driver comes over to say hi while we’re waiting. The past day we’ve seen barely any other Turkish at all – driving in, through and out of many service stations looking in vain for the Turkish plates, eating our lunch alone. Bahadir is an excellent cook. He has a big gas stove, pots, pans and kettles in his side compartment, just like Hassan. All the Turkish truckers have them I think. They each have a box of tea glasses too. Hassan makes tea for us as we wait for the ferry. The kettle is boiled until a faint repetitive chinking begins to gather momentum.
Finally we’re on the boat. It’s the English boat and suddenly I’m surrounded by British accents. English – everyone’s speaking English! I can understand what they’re all saying! And my god, how they all moan about everything! I find it hilarious. I leave Bahadir and the other Turkish driver with our coffees and wander round the boat asking everyone where they’re going. I’m holding out for Clacket Lane Services on the M25 – a sure way to get a quick lift home.
I find my lift just as the white cliffs are looming and go out onto the tiny bit of deck you’re allowed on, although the view isn’t so great. Dover. What a sight. It’s been ten and a half months since I saw that view. I’m outrageously excited by it.
I grab my pack from the truck, hug Bahadir and bid him farewell. After a frantic search I find my lift and cram myself in with the others in the car, backpack on knee. I chat excitedly to them as we drive, buzzing from coffee, adrenaline and the old-newness of England. They drop me at Clacket Lane where I position myself by the entrance and ask everyone who passes if they might happen to be going to Brighton? Ten minutes later I’m in a car with a guy about my age who apparently thought hitchers were a myth. He drops me in Brighton and I walk that old familiar journey back to the flat…
I’m by a canal and a castle drinking coffee in Gent. Tourism doesn’t suit me. I just keep thinking one thing: I have to go back to Calais.
Maybe there is nothing I can do. Maybe I will end up standing and watching as they destroy the Jungles, too scared to even move. Or maybe it’s good to just go and see what can be done, or to bear witness, or something? Yes, I am still unwell and yes, I find situations like that very stressful, but how can I sit by a canal drinking coffee in Belgium when the homes of my friends are being destroyed?
Clearly I can’t. What’s the point in getting involved in anything if I’m not going to be there when I’m really needed?
First Pete got a text just before he left the forest saying Red Alert in Calais, next Zorro got one from a mutual friend on our way to Gent yesterday. Then I got one this morning from a friend on his way there. My inbox is full of people asking what’s going on, am I still there? Even my mum knows about it. It seems that this time the threat is for real: they are intending to clear out the Jungles tomorrow. I have heard reports that the Ethiopian and Eritrean houses have already been evicted. Other reports are coming in about bulldozers and soldiers armed with flame-throwers. I will have to go and see for myself.
Spent last night in a squat with cats and dogs, which I’m allergic to, with fleas. Shared a bed with a man who snored heavily. Still, very nice of him to give up half of his bed to a strange girl who just crawled out of the forest, and nice of the others to put me up at short notice.
Gent has a very active squat scene. The one I was in last night is part of a whole street which has been squatted. I just found another squatted street round the corner from the bar I’m writing in. The graffiti, posters and spray-painted squat symbol a dead giveaway, never mind the boarded up windows.
The other thing I have noticed is how many bikes there are here – thousands and thousands. Lots of people don’t even bother locking them up. They are just everywhere. Gent is a very hip place. It reminds me a lot of Brighton, or maybe Camden, but a whole city like that. Beautiful big old buildings in the historic half too. Interesting juxtaposittion.
Tonight I have a couchsurfing host. This may be a copout, but want at least one night where I can be sure of not getting bitten by anything new. I just spent €12 on tablets and cream for the bites now covering my right arm and upper leg. Face, fingers and left hand now healing.