afghanistan

Bělá-Jezová: Inside a Czech refugee camp

Delarockedit

Illustration by Delarock

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

I wanted to pay the Bělá-Jezová detention camp a visit after reading some rather negative articles late last year on the subject. In a recent DW article, human rights official Anna Šabatová said the camp in many respects, offered worse conditions than a Czech prison. Upon first glance, it seemed that the camp had improved, however after speaking to a refugee there about her own personal experience within the camp, I started to doubt some of these improvements. On top of that, the staff were unable to divulge any information whatsoever. As you read on, keep in mind that the names and details of some people have been changed in order to protect their identities. This is also the only ‘People in Prague’ interview I have done where I have not been able to put a photo of the person. Due to not being able to capture details on camera, Czech artist and illustrator ‘Delarock’ was kind enough to interpret my description of the grounds.

I arrived at the camp with Jonatan and his wife Eliška – 2 local volunteers who were bringing some supplies such as food, literature and other materials. The camp, which was formerly a military training facility is reasonably well concealed and had I been driving I would’ve gone straight past it without blinking an eye. We were greeted by security who closely examined our ID, but surprisingly didn’t ask that many questions about a native English speaker carrying no supplies for the detainees. Lucky for me.

After receiving our entrance key cards, we were escorted to the main building where we were instructed to lock up all of our possessions including phones, keys, lighters, wallets – anything that could be stolen, used as a weapon or as a recording device.

We then started to walk to the main building through a narrow path carved through the thick snow that had fallen the night before. During the walk I took in everything around me, the high 4 metre fence with barbed wire sitting coldly behind a snow-covered children’s playground that reminded me a bit of the opening credits of Terminator 2, but the apocalyptic fire had been replaced by a thick blanket of monotonous snow – later I realised that this image painted a depressing portrait of the monotony and loneliness felt throughout the whole camp. The playground was there, but the high barbed-wire fence made it almost invisible. Eliška informed me that the playgrounds and children’s art on some of the walls had obviously been put up after Šabatová’s visit to the camp in an attempt to make it more comforting and friendly for children. While we passed through yet another security gate, Eliška and Jonatan also spoke about the conversations that the workers had about the refugees and other migrants, that they referred to them as objects or things rather than people.

Finally, we entered the main accommodation building and our ID was taken before entering the recreational rooms through a prison-like gate. We were then told that the Macedonian migrants, whom the volunteers had ordered books for, had since been released. According to Eliška and Jonatan, the staff never make known how many migrants or refugees are present in the camp, so we were unsure of what numbers to expect when we entered the ‘tea room’.

Upon entry, we removed our shoes and entered a living room with a small TV, a few armchairs, a bookshelf and a table and chair set where four women were sitting, two Ukrainian and two Serbian. A volunteer told me that most of the people now in the camps were not refugees anymore, but rather regular economic migrants and that maybe some of them had simply forgotten to submit paperwork or made another mistake in the visa applying process. According to them, it wasn’t like that before the refugee crisis. Apparently there was even an American in another camp in Drahonice that actually used to be a prison. While listening to this, I started to think about my own visa status and they warned me to keep a close eye on the process or maybe I could end up in the same place.

We were soon greeted by a woman with a purple head scarf that had entered from the other room who spoke to us in English. I soon learnt, that she was the only person who spoke English in the camp, not even the staff did. After serving some tea and biscuits, we sat down together at the table and had a lengthy two-hour conversation about how Naciimo, from East Africa, ended up in the camp.

Surprisingly, she was not there alone but had her teenage children upstairs that refused to leave their room because they were angry. Angry at the staff and angry that they had to be there at all. It was then that I learnt that despite several meetings with lawyers, their situation hadn’t improved. It had almost been six months since they arrived to the camp. She seemed to believe that the staff were simply exercising their power by keeping her there. Her release date should be some time during February, but the look on her face told me that she wasn’t too optimistic. I found this interesting because the whole camp is run by SECURITAS – a private security company, and I wondered who these people in power were. Since November, the Czech government have also stationed prison guards there.

Naciimo used to be a teacher before they began to be executed by rebels in her town, so she fled. “10 countries in 4 months,” she repeated over and over again. She spent most of her time travelling in a large group with mainly Iraqi refugees and walked a lot of the way, aside from the occasional boat, and a car ride through Syria.

When I asked her about her trip through Syria, she replied that “it was dangerous, but here is worse.” She wanted freedom, and felt that it was a waste to be stuck in the Czech Republic after travelling so far for so long. I could see that she was incredibly lonely. I thought back again to the picture of the snowy playground. Her daughter was in another camp in Belgium and she wanted to meet her. Since her phone was taken away from her upon arrival, she didn’t have many opportunities to speak to her. There was a landline phone in the camp but with limited access.

Naciimo’s dream was to eventually move to Ireland. As we sat there drinking our tea she was holding a book about Ireland that she said she’d been reading. She also made it clear that she didn’t want to go to a country where there were a lot of refugees. It sounded as if she wanted to be immersed in something completely different, and from her journey so far I don’t blame her.

Something that had the most impact on me was that during her time in the camp so far, she had seen many families come and go and couldn’t understand why families from Afghanistan or Syria could leave before her. She was convinced that it was because she was black. Her frustration escalated until she organised a one-week-long hunger strike with other detainees in an attempt to get some answers, which she didn’t get. This caused her to become sick and she was eventually sent to a nearby hospital which started her on a course of medication to clear any infections as well as medication to help her sleep. Naciimo averaged about 3-4 hours of sleep a night.

However bad things had been, I kept thinking about how much was still to go for her and her children. Thankfully, the volunteers had managed to keep her optimistic about leaving and helped in every possible way that they could.

Our two hours were soon up and I was quite upset to have to leave her there. We said our goodbyes and it did seem that the detainees were in higher spirits than when we arrived. The two Ukrainian women were getting out the following day, the Serbian women probably not much later. As we crunched our way through the snow and gravel in the playground one last time I kept thinking that Naciimo’s story is just one out of millions.

I continued to think about that on the train ride back to Prague looking at the man sitting across from me with a ‘BLOK PROTI ISLÁMU’ (Block against Islam) button badge on his sweater – quite a difference to my arrival to the camp with the cheerful and caring volunteers.

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