Postcard — February 3, 2017, 4:03 pm

Closing Calais

Though the refugee camp may have vanished, its inhabitants will not

Trailers housing refugees in Calais, after the camp was demolished. Photograph by Paul Lorgerie

Trailers housing refugees in Calais. Photograph by Paul Lorgerie

In October, French authorities deployed trucks and bulldozers to raze the migrant camp in Calais. On the morning before the demolition began, hundreds of migrants and refugees lined up on the camp’s perimeter, waiting for government buses that would relocate them to one of 451 so-called Welcome Centers in towns and villages across France. Those who left early in the process were those who left willingly, carrying backpacks and duffle bags filled with what belongings they had. Others refused to go, despite threats of detention by French police. The press cast them—perhaps not wrongly—as dreamers unwilling to relinquish their hopes of reaching the United Kingdom.

I volunteered at the camp in August. For weeks, I worked with a few aid organizations, including Jungle Books, a French-English bilingual school on the camp’s south side. There, in the middle of a ring of trailers housing ramshackle desks, chalkboards, and shelving units stacked with battered novels donated by British families, I met a twenty-four-year-old from Darfur whom I’ll call Benjamin. He entreated me to return each day so that he could improve his English, even though he was nearly fluent.

In the days that followed, Benjamin did not complain about where he lived. He’d left his home in Darfur in 2014, after his family’s farm was burned, his brother was arrested, and his mother was killed. One night, after dark Benjamin offered to walk me to the exit. He was lithe, dressed in flip-flops and jeans, carrying a small French dictionary filled with papers on which he’d written lists of conjugated verbs and vocabulary words, and paragraphs of English describing his education, his focus on engineering, and his ambition to continue with his studies. As we approached the boundary, Benjamin stopped talking and turned to face the dry expanse of trash-filled grassland, which I would soon leave, and he would not. We stood together in silence. Our position granted us a wide view of the camp, along with the only permanent features of so provisional a place: cobbled-together shacks, fire pits, and broken glass scattered in the sand. “This is freedom for me,” Benjamin said.

Calais was a grim freedom. The camp—or The Jungle, as it came to be known by aid workers and refugees—was often described as the worst slum in Europe. Water and electrical systems were primitive. People washed their dishes, feet, and T-shirts at the same cold-water pipes, and charged their phones at the information centers, which were housed in decommissioned double-decker buses. The majority of shelters people slept in were holiday tents, sagging and shapeless from bad weather and overuse. The camp’s swelling population had resulted in overcrowding. The smell of sewage and rotting garbage first hit me from half a mile away when I turned my bicycle onto Rue de Greniere, the long road leading to the camp’s entrance. 

I wasn’t prepared for the poor conditions or the shortages of basic necessities. At the bottom of the main walkway, which was lined mostly by Afghan-run restaurants housed in dilapidated shacks made of particleboard and corrugated iron, there were usually at least fifty migrants lined up to use the ten or so portable toilets. Walking down a narrower path, opposite an Iraqi’s tent, were shops stocked sparsely with earbuds, phone chargers, cooking oil, toothbrushes, and rolls of single cigarettes piled in pyramids. Their owners often stopped me to ask for help obtaining shoes. Each day, hundreds of migrants waited outside the One Spirit Ashram marquee, one of a group of volunteer-run kitchens.

It is not surprising that French president François Hollande’s given rationale for the demolition cited the living conditions. The aim was to transfer the camp’s population—10,188 in September, according to the final census conducted by L’Auberge Des Migrants—to sanitary housing. Bernard Cazeneuve, who was then the country’s interior minister, stated that the centers would offer shelter to those refugees eligible to apply for legal asylum in France. It was reported that between 5,000 and 6,000 migrants had left on government buses.

But it was political expediency more than humanitarian concern that precipitated the action. Conditions had been appalling for more than a year and a half, which suggested to some aid organizations and charities that the camp’s closing was a bid by Hollande to boost his popularity. His decision not to run for reelection, in the hope that abdicating leadership would salvage support for his party’s platform, exposed the extent of his failure to unite France’s left-wing parties, particularly around issues of unemployment and immigration. Hollande’s plan for the people living in the Calais camp was not only hastily executed but also ill-conceived; he promised opportunities shadowed by uncertainty.

“It is really likely that refugees will come back to Calais,” a French volunteer named Valentin told me. Many of the people newly installed in shelters had called him in the days following the evacuation, distressed that basic necessities were hard to come by. Conditions at some of the centers were no better than they had been at the camp, and the food offered was not halal. To make matters worse, many residents in rural villages were unabashedly racist. Some teenagers relocated to centers in northern Calais had been forced to pick apples for French supermarkets for no pay.

Another significant confusion created by Hollande’s plan has been over the definition of the legal right to live in France. Many migrants and refugees who experienced unforgiving, months-long journeys from Sudan, Eritrea, or Afghanistan have, in crossing several borders, inevitably had their fingerprints registered in another country. According to the Dublin rule—implemented by the European Union in 1997—the first country a person arrives in is responsible for receiving them. Were migrants’ fingerprints to be discovered by French authorities, they would risk deportation to the country in which they were registered—including such countries as Hungary, where treatment of migrants is known to be inhumane. (In May, the U.N. refugee agency expressed concern at reports of beatings and abuse of asylum seekers, including women and children, by official and civil militia at the Hungarian border.)

In the camp, several aid workers and migrants I spoke with said that the government had told them evacuees would not be subject to the Dublin regulations. But they were skeptical. “We’re not sure if it’s really true,” Valentin said. “And the accommodation centers are only slated to be open for three to six months. What will happen next? Deportations at the end of this time will be far easier to implement than before.”

In the long term, the reception centers do not present a viable solution for those intending to reach the United Kingdom. Care4Calais, a nonprofit that has continued working to end the refugee crisis in Northern France, estimates that a third of the refugees and migrants have family in the U.K. Many more want to go because they speak English better than they do French, and because France has a higher rate of unemployment.

Though the camp may have vanished, its inhabitants will not; to many, Calais still seems their best hope.

The recent demolition is one in a series of muddled efforts by France and the U.K. to protect the border—all of which has done little to prevent refugees from trying to overcome it. Without safe and legal routes, refugees hoping to get to the U.K. have created their own by attempting to climb inside vehicles bound for the ferry port or the Eurotunnel terminal. To block them, French authorities began construction work on a U.K.-funded concrete wall to run the length of both sides of the Rocade, the main dual carriageway leading to the port.

Calais is a port city, and has long been a locus of migration. Refugees and migrants have been arriving there with the aim of reaching the U.K. since the opening of the Eurotunnel, in 1994. The first “jungle” established itself in Calais in 2002, in the form of makeshift shelters in the woods erected by Afghan and Iraqi Kurds. It arose after the closure of Sangatte, a reception center administered by the French Red Cross, and was shut down by the French government largely in response to xenophobic propaganda pedaled by the British tabloids. 

In 2003, France and the United Kingdom signed the Le Touquet treaty, a bilateral agreement that allowed British officials to carry out border checks in Calais, and French officials to do the same in Dover. As part of the agreement, the U.K. contributes funds to French police units working at the border. The French police I interacted with most often at the camp were riot police—a mobile unit called the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. To many refugees, it appeared that France’s ongoing state of emergency, ordered after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, had intensified hostility from law enforcement toward outsiders.

The more time I spent in the camp, the more I encountered allegations of police brutality. Karen Moynihan, a child-protection officer from Dublin who works with the Refugee Youth Service, told me that she encountered injured children almost every day. All of them told her that the CRS had used “very excessive force” against them. “One child, we thought his eye socket was broken,” she said. “We’ve seen a thirteen-year-old boy get cracked in the back of his skull.” 

“They think this violence is normal, that they deserve it, for doing something illegal, [like] getting into the lorries or trespassing,” said Solenne Lecomte, a legal adviser working at the camp. “But we tell them, this is not the price you pay. Imagine if there were no more migrants. Who will be the police’s next victim? Everyone in France needs to consider that.” 

At best, the camp’s demolition is an incoherent response to a complex crisis. And the proposed solution—evacuating refugees to randomly located and provisional centers—seems likely to perpetuate some of migration’s root causes: blocked safe routes to the United Kingdom, and processes for legal asylum that are both opaque and unreliable.

A few days after the demolition, a friend still in Calais sent me photographs of the decimated site. In a few, I spotted the ruins of “L’Ecole,” a school for minors near the Eritrean Orthodox Christian Church. Unraveled rolls of string and toys flattened by the bulldozers lay next to crushed bottles of paint, which had colored the blackened rubble with bright streaks of yellow and green. I remembered walking to the school with Benjamin one afternoon, as he made his way back to his tent. He’d asked me about my life, where I was from, what I did, and what I’d like to do next. I replied that I lived in New York, where I worked with writers, though I didn’t write much myself. “Well,” he said, “I hope that you write about me.”

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August 2018

Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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