Eritrea to Sudan, Sudan to Libya, Libya to Italy, Italy to Calais: six months of killings, drownings, rapes, imprisonments, violence and threats in an attempt to escape the same back “home”. When we set out, we were over a thousand. Now we stood here a couple of hundred. But we were here. We never gave up. Our promised land was almost at our fingertips.
The tops of the ripped, windswept tents seemed to us jewelled, palatial turrets. The littered dunes, mounds of gold. And those spiked fences with their gendarmes and guns: those were nothing but gates to heaven. Beyond them, the road to England. England.
Biniam (“Lucky son”) and I chewed hungrily on bread handed out by the aid workers, spitting wet crumbs as we hatched our plan. The skies were darkening, and the barbed wired seemed to curl into sinister sets of teeth. There were few gendarmes stalking on either side tonight, which is why we chose it. Trouble back at Calais “Jungle” had distracted them: Sudanese and Eritrean boys setting light to one another’s tents.
I am not a strong man. My mother always laughed at my puniness, my reluctance to join the other boys as they laughed and kicked a ball round in the dust. But when I wedged my foot firmly into the first rung of that fence, I forgot that quiet little bookworm, sat on the sidelines and lost in his daydreams while the others roughed and tumbled.
Biniam was a much bigger man. But he faltered; fell a few times. Fear pinned him to the ground. Fear of failing when we were so close. “Hadde… kelete… seleste… arba-ate… hamushte…!” I counted him in on each attempt, trying to lighten the mood as I clung six feet above him already, concerned that my closest friend would not make it over with me and that I might have to leave him. But eventually with a deep grunt – and, I thought, a small trace of a tear – he finally heaved himself off the ground.
It took us a good half an hour to get to those teeth at the top. Me stopping, waiting, coaxing… persuading Biniam to carry on at all costs. “Come on, you still virgin, not dying yet!” I joked, practising the English we’d studiously tried to book-learn on the boat. Biniam called thinly back “Wedi sebaiti!” (“Son of a bitch!”). We were almost at the top. I had to keep him going now more than ever.
I dragged Biniam over as fast as I could. He roared out as it tore his coat and bloodied his chest; I bit my tongue as a spike razored through my jeans and across my genitals, making all the other cuts feel like touches from a feather. For one moment I thought we would both fall. He clinging by his hands, legs dangling. Me with one hand on him and one heel and one hand on the fence. But we flailed and swore and we did it. We were ready for the climb down.
Injured though we were, the relief we felt swallowed much of our physical pain. Biniam even began singing a few English songs. “I will suwrive, do you thenk I cromble?” he belted tunelessly into the night, making my tired limbs shudder with laughter. Biniam was hopeless at pronouncing English words and he knew it. It felt like no time before we bumped down to earth.
Just before we ran, Biniam squeezed my hand: something he had never done before. We had been friends since childhood. Comforted each other through failed romances, the deaths of parents, job losses. Celebrated birthdays, talked about the women we loved, passed long evenings smoking shisha, just the two of us. But never once had we touched each other in anything but manly backslaps, playful pushes, once in fisticuffs we both regretted, and then of course as I dragged him over that fence. This kind of tender touch was alien to us.
We ran crouched, as if we were skiing along the side of the tracks. But instead of snow, the night was as inky black around us as our thick hooded tops. Once our eyes had taken a half-second to adjust to the strip lights in the depot, I grabbed Biniam’s arm and moved us quickly into a hiding place next to the coupling between two trains. “Kuri ember koynu!” (“It’s freezing cold!”) hissed Biniam. I thought of jokily reminding him how much warmer he would be at nearly 100 miles an hour, spreadeagled on a metal box. But the time for jokes was gone.
Biniam wobbled around on the coupling, muttering irritably under his breath. My right foot was in his beefy hand, and I was feeling around for something to grab hold of on top of the train. After a couple of minutes, I felt a slightly oily protrusion that seemed to provide a handhold and hauled with all my might. My muscles stretched and burned, so I tried to forget my body: to become vapour. I had to get up there! And it worked. Biniam stretched his arms above his head, sighed, and with a lot of slipping, sliding and swearing we were at last two. Ready to start the final part of our odyssey.
It felt unreal when the train lurched into action. I surely had not got this far? It was impossible. So few managed it. Biniam, behind me, was rasping “H’ara, h’ara!” (“Shit! Shit!”) over and over, with gathering panic. I knew what he meant: after all the times we had almost died in the last six months, this was still the worst. If we had been shot in Libya, it would have been an honourable attempt at freedom, at a stage when there was still so much to fight against. To fail now, when it was so easy, would feel shameful. “Rd’uni! Rd’uni!” (“Help, help!”). I heard the words fade out quickly behind me as Biniam fell.
Lottie Dingle is a freelance journalist and illustrator. Find her on Linkedin : www.linkedin.com/pub/
On November 7th, she will be available to phone from our Literophone for a wonderful experience of short readings down the phone.