Mossy water and a piece of gauze
«Our group had six people. Three of us made it while the other three died on the way», said Alaa’, a young Syrian man who illegally crossed the Turkish-Greek sea border with the hope of reaching Sweden, the Mecca for Syrians seeking asylum in Europe since the start of the Syrian Revolution more than three years ago.
The 27-year-old software engineer from Der’aa is one of thousands of Syrians who have embarked upon frightful seas bound for the Scandinavian country. We know that the journey has cost many lives, though the total number of Syrians seeking asylum in Sweden is difficult to determine.
Wanted by Syrian Security Forces for participating in anti-regime demonstrations, Alaa’ was forced to flee to Jordan where he was repeatedly harassed by the Jordanian authorities. He had also begun to receive threats from «Al-Nusra Front», a jihadist group operating in Syria, which also has operatives in Jordan.
He made for Turkey; first to Istanbul, and then to the western port city of Izmir, where he immediately sought the services of a people smuggler from Aleppo. For 2200 Euros Alaa’ would secure a spot on the smuggler’s boat and would soon be on Greek soil. Little did he anticipate the perils of the crossing. No sooner had the boat set off than it began to experience mechanical problems, but the smuggler refused to sail it back to Izmir. Alaa’ and the other five passengers were off to a slow start as the boat idled and rocked for hours.
«The rickety boat was only the first of many unpleasant surprises», Alaa’ told The Republic. A Hellenic Coast Guard vessel spotted the boat as it drew close to the Greek port where it was agreed that the smuggler would drop the passengers off. Instead, he cast them out onto a remote and rocky beach, and made a swift getaway. «We were lost, surrounded by jagged rocks and with only the narrowest track to walk on», said Alaa’.
The group, consisting of Alaa’, another young man, and a family of four from Latakia, endured a long day in the unforgiving environment, without water, food, or shelter. They contacted Greek police from a mobile phone, to no avail. The Latakian father eventually decided to swim for help, while his wife and two children became so exhausted they stopped walking. The last thing the mother said to Alaa’ and the other young man was: «Please fetch us some water before we die!»
The two men kept on trekking. Alaa’ recounts that at one stage his companion, who suffered from back aches and low blood pressure, lost his balance and fell. He then asked Alaa’ «not to wake him up if he fell asleep and to let him die peacefully». Alaa’ continues, «After two hours of walking we stumbled upon a deserted, derelict and overgrown church. There, we found an urn full with mossy water, so I took off a piece of gauze I had around my knee and used it to filter the water. We drank all we could and collapsed on the ground soon after. Seven hours later we woke to the smell of smoke and the sirens of fire engines and police cars. A bushfire raged all around us. The police arrested us on the spot, took us to the police station and charged us with arson. We told them about the mother and two children we left behind, but they made no attempt to rescue them».
The next day the father of the children went to the police station and asked the Greek authorities for help with finding his family. Eventually, the police gave Alaa’ the opportunity to provide his testimony regarding the whereabouts of the family. The authorities failed to launch a search for the missing mother and children, claiming the area was inaccessible to the police. The father was left to conduct the search on his own. A week later, he found the corpses of his wife and two children.
Alaa’ faced myriad charges, ranging from arson to terrorism and spying for the Turkish government. He was detained for three weeks before he was allowed to make a two-minute phone call to his mother, who wept during the whole conversation. He was transferred to the central prison in Athens where he spent «the worst days of his life». He was eventually released.
Four passports and blue contact lenses
29-year-old banker Wassim had a similar experience. He and his wife boarded a ship with a group of 12; among them the smuggler’s own cousin and her three children.
Wassim knew all too well about the dangers associated with such a voyage. He had heard many stories about asylum seekers who perished crossing from Turkey to Greece. «Many are lost for hours while crossing the border while refugees who are reluctant to continue the journey for any reason are murdered in cold blood by the smugglers themselves», he told The Republic.
Wassim was deceived in much the same way as Alaa’. His journey proceeded from Gaziantep to Istanbul, then on to Izmir, followed by a five hour drive to a forest by the coast. From here the group was forced to walk through the water for an hour before reaching the boat. Following a 30-minute boat ride they finally made land fall in Greece. The smuggler told the group to proceed on foot up a gentle hill toward a police station, claiming the walk would only takes 90 minutes.
The group soon discovered that their journey was going to be far more arduous than the smuggler had implied. For eight hours they had to find their way through rough terrain in heavy rain. It was pitch black and they could not use their torches for fear of detection. They felt like they were going in circles and their attempts to call the smuggler for directions proved futile. Fortunately a member of the group was able to determine their approximate location by accessing Google Earth from his phone.
As the group walked on, their shoes ripped and clothes tore. Wassim added, «we often saw bits of clothes that belonged to those who walked before us and wondered whether they ever made it to their destination». Exhausted and with no drinking water, they stopped for rest twice. One young man experienced heart palpitations while another had an asthma attack. Wassim’s wife vomited three times, experienced hallucinations, and wept uncontrollably during most of the crossing.
Upon arriving at the police station, Wassim was detained for two days before being transferred to the central prison in Athens where he was incarcerated for 45 days. Following his release, Wassim started to devise a plan for himself and his wife to ultimately reach Sweden via another European country. He secured two fake passports, a Croatian one for his wife and an American one for himself, and headed to Barcelona. While his wife was successful in reaching her destination, Wassim was found out. His fake documents were confiscated but he was not arrested. He then used Swedish residency papers in his attempt to enter Switzerland, but this too failed. By his third attempt Wassim was successful in getting to Stockholm via Amsterdam. He used a French passport belonging to a man who looked remarkably similar to Wassim, though unlike the Syrian asylum seeker, the Frenchman had blue eyes. Wassim wore blue contact lenses and made it to his final destination.
While at a facility for Syrian refugees in Sweden, Wassim heard various stories of Syrians crossing into Europe. One such story tells of a young man who arrived in Greece wearing nothing but his laptop bag and underwear, while another tells of a man who travelled from Turkey to Italy by hiding inside the tank of a petrol tanker.
21-year-old Palestinian Syrian Huda also crossed from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. In 2012, she was forced to leave her life as a sociology student at the University of Damascus and go to Egypt. Accompanied by her nine-month-old daughter, husband, and mother-in-law, Huda then left Alexandria because «we had no other choice», she told us. «We could not go back to Syria, and life in Egypt was becoming a living hell for Syrians».
Huda had relatives who had already attained refugee status in Sweden and who assured her that getting to the Scandinavian country was quick and leisurely. «But we were shocked to realise that the boat that they told us was going to transport 60 people turned out to be nothing but a small fishing boat. They crammed 170 of us on this tiny vessel, like pickles in a jar», said Huda.
The family carried with them some food, drinking water, clothes, and life jackets. Five days later, still at sea, the passengers were told that they had to move to an even smaller boat in order to avoid getting spotted by the Italian Coast Guard. This next leg of the trip was supposed to take no longer than four hours, but the second boat lost its way for two whole days. Fuel and food were running low and eventually the boat’s captain used his satellite phone to contact the Italian authorities, who subsequently came to the passengers’ rescue.
In Italy, Huda and her family sought the aid of another smuggler who transported them to France and then on to Germany. There, the car in which they were travelling was pulled over by police and they were arrested. As luck would have it, the driver of the vehicle was intoxicated. They were transferred to a refugee camp in Germany but fled and carried on their journey to Denmark, finally arriving in the Swedish city of Malmö.
Seven days at sea
Like Huda, Othman also arrived in Italy from Egypt. Like many other Syrians, the clothing retailer from Jisr al-Shughur suffered the effects of the economic recession that paralysed his country. He decided to leave Syria when Regime army officers and soldiers occupied his shop. He first moved to Turkey, and then to Egypt where he spent nine months. He was initially apprehensive about illegal migration but eventually warmed to the idea after hearing stories of older people and children who had braved the journey and reached their destinations. He boarded a boat with one hundred other people; mainly Syrians and Palestinian Syrians, and some Egyptians.
The first three days went smoothly, disrupted only by occasional seasickness. «But everything changed on the fourth day», Othman told us. «The engine ceased, the weather turned, and we were hit by high waves. The boat floated but its course was beyond the captain’s control. Over the next three days, we had exhausted all of our food and water supplies. Ships and cruise liners spotted us but the high waves made it impossible for them to come close. Then the Italian authorities made a number of attempts to save us, but to no avail. Eventually, military helicopters dropped life jackets and food packages in the water nearby. I jumped in the sea and grabbed the food, as the children on board had not eaten in days».
When the squall eased the Italian authorities transferred the asylum seekers to Sicily. From there, Othman went to Milano, then Paris, before travelling through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, finally arriving in Sweden.
Othman paid his smuggler $3,200. He hopes to return to his home town when the conflict in Syria is resolved. «I have a shop, a house, and a future there. I want to marry and have a family in Syria, whereas here my life is limited to mere survival», he said.
Wassim, on the other hand, is not entertaining the idea of going back to Syria even if some kind of stability returns to his country. «Coming to Sweden was more of an investment for me», said Wassim, whose journey with his wife cost them 24,000 Euros, more than half of which they paid to the smugglers.
Huda is now learning Swedish. Her family’s journey cost them around 9,000 dollars. She has aspirations of going back to Damascus, if and when the political regime changes in Syria, «although, as a family, life conditions are much better for us here in Sweden».
At the time of writing, Alaa’ remains in Greece. He is broke but is still trying to devise a way to reach Sweden. His adventure has so far cost him 10,000 Euros.