In a matter of weeks: a town (2/6), by Laurent Gaudé

Country : Irak

Tags : Refugees, Literature, Kurdistan

The second chapter of Laurent Gaudé’s travel journal from the Kawergosk refugee camp - in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.

When the Syrian refugees started arriving in the oppressive heat of August 2013, things had to be organised as quickly as possible. The Kurdistan authorities opened the border and took in their “brothers”. Three months later the camp before us looks well established, but if you look closely you soon realise it is constantly changing.  Every morning something new seems to happen. At first the tents had to be brought in and erected in a simple grid which allowed access routes for trucks. Then the authorities installed electricity poles, put toilets in the alleys and dug ditches for sewage pipes. As the days and weeks passed, a plot of land became a town.  

If, for a moment, you can set aside the misery and destitution before your eyes, it is fascinating watching a town evolving like this in a few months. Not a day goes by without some new event. One morning some yellow wheelbarrows arrive. They were sent by a Norwegian NGO and will be essential for transporting the water containers that have to be filled at the tank every day. Another day a truck full of kerosene turns up. The process of distribution is organised at the entrance to the camp: a long queue assembles. With kerosene, the refugees will be able to fuel the little heaters they have been given to stop them freezing in their tents. On yet another day, tent dividers are handed out. The HCR’s big white tents are meant for six or seven people, but families are often bigger than this, and everyone lives in the same space. With tent dividers the internal space can be carved up so that, for example, parents can sleep separately from their children.

 "In such impoverished circumstances there is no question of dowries or social class."


On the main thoroughfare we are astonished to discover a tent done up as a wedding dress rental shop! There are two different designs displayed on hangers. We ask whether there have been any marriages yet and the shop owner says there have, and that it is actually easier for the young to meet here. Everyone is thrown together in a confined space. The days are long. And, more significantly, in such impoverished circumstances there is no question of dowries or social class. All families are equal – which makes meeting someone more spontaneous…

There are deaths in Kawergosk too. Only a few to date, as far as we can ascertain. We are told about a woman who died of a heart attack. After her death, someone managed to make telephone contact with the family she had left behind in Syria. A rendez-vous was arranged and the body was taken back to the border in a taxi and, from there, handed over to her family. We can just imagine that journey home in the icy cold of December. And the moment of crossing the border again, but in the other direction. Sadly, people will carry on dying at Kawergosk but it will not always be possible to contact their families. The town will surely have to run to a cemetery one day…

Yes, Kawergosk is a town, but not like any other. It is a town propped up by lifelines, where people wait every day for the water trucks that come to fill the tanks. A hotch-potch town where people who should never have met end up as neighbours. That is what young Khaled tells me when I ask him what this ordeal has taught him. He was a web designer in Damascus. I can tell from his clothes and the way he expresses himself that he must have lived comfortably, above the socio-economic average. He admits that for him the real shock has been finding himself “thrown in with everyone else: lowlifes as well as smart people” he says, and he recognises that “they’re all the same”, in other words they are all housed under the same canvas, party to the same longings, the same fears and the same survival instinct. A town, then, but one in which people are neighbours and know each other with a deep intimacy, joined in genuine solidarity, when they should never have met and might not even have made eye contact in the streets of Damascus… So it is a strange town, where time stands still, where the inhabitants are captive and, simply by being here, are put on an equal footing… of abject poverty. I think of the great utopian experiments, Fourrier’s “ideal city” and Ledoux’s salt works, but turned upside down. The camp as an urban experiment of hell. The camp as the image of life constantly tormented by need and emergency. A calm, orderly town, but one full of resignation. 

Last modification the 31 December 2017