“Crossing Borders” an article by Nabi Kımran, published in Turkish on Duvar, on July 23 2021
Have you ever been forced to leave your country?
On this 28th day of September 2011.
We headed out of Istanbul at 6 AM. Around 9 AM we reached the district of Edirne. We stayed there for an hour and drank our last tea in our country. The vehicle that was to pick us up arrived. Embracing my prison friend for a last time, something shattered inside me. As he moved away, it was as if the country was moving away with him…
Fifteen, twenty minutes later, the vehicle we had taken was hidden in the fields. Shortly thereafter, the door to a van that had approached us opened suddenly, we ran and threw ourselves into it. The van, tightly closed, was full of people. The air was scarce, with a heavy smell. Each new arrival was looked at with confusion, curiosity, caution, fatalism. Half an hour later, the vehicle stopped near some bushes. “Come on, come on, come on, hurry up!” We ran to hide behind the bushes. Found ourselves in mud up to our ankles. We waited there until nightfall, then we would give ourselves over to Maritsa, the river.
There were 15 of us. Mostly Arabs, Kurds and Yezidis from Syria. Some Afghanis, one Azeri from Iran, two Africans I imagine were from Sudan or Ethiopia. One Kazakh or Turkmeni woman, married to a Kurd. They had a little girl, the convoy’s mascot.
Is crossing borders easy to relate? No.
“Left at 6 AM, arrived around 10h30, we were waiting for nightfall with 15 clandestine migrants…”etc… What about everything we left behind? In our backpacks, apart from a few miserable objects, the weight of emotion…Leaving your country weighs heavily, dear readers. To such an extent that, in order to manage your inner blaze, despite your lack of experience, you even dare to write a novel. Which I did. I wrote “Mekansız”, (Homeless published in Turkish by Kalkedon). I narrated the last day in the country of an exiled man and woman. I narrated what the places they encounter on their journey toward the borders inspired in them, and described this external crossing as if it were an inner one…
What stories then will be those of the people with whom I waited for nightfall behind the bushes? What did they leave behind, and what awaited them?…
Clearly, this convoy shared a common fate. With that intuition specific to children, the little girl adapted to these unusual circumstances. She played, silently. She ignored us all up to a point, yet played with everyone, joked. The entire convoy wrapped around the child. As if she were the binding element in the group, its soul, like the incarnation of a shared destiny, of the attachment to hope.
Around 6 PM, night fell. Sudden sound of brakes. “Come on, come on, come on, quick!”
The young guy from Thrace attempted to squeeze the “passengers” and their bags on the front and back seats. Along with the two smugglers and the driver, there were 18 of us. It couln’t work! The man had 5 or 6 of the younger ones lie on their bellies on the platform of the pick-up truck and pulled a covering over them. Inside, we were transformed into a Gordian knot, and bravo to the one who would manage to undo it!
He drove so quickly on the dirt trails that elbows, knees, heads within the Gordian knot bumped, everyone hurting everyone else. Don’t ask what it must have bben like for those lying on the platform! Heading straight for the river at maximum speed, you could clearly see the dust hanging in the air from the gendarmerie van. The driver headed the vehicle into the bushes with a sudden braking motion. The child cried for the first time. No one could stand it anymore, we opened the doors and breathed a bit in the bushes. The smuggler who picked us up in the village in the morning warned us: “brothers, I beg of you, until you make it to the other side, don’t speak Turkish, don’t give yourselves away, nor us.” We kept quiet, or we would have had a word or two from the young guy. The reason for the warning was clear: you can get away with being a smuggler, but smuggling out two communists, with a search warrant against them, is a curse. And each level of the network distrusted the others. The one who picked us up this morning knew we were “political ones” but he didn’t trust the one who would leave us by riverside. He could just as well have left us by the road without remorse, or handed us over to the gendarmerie. Because, one way or another, he would have his reward when they would “look the other way” at the next convoy… Ever since Sabahattin Ali 1 the fate of communists on these borders is well known.
This scenario – the danger of meeting with gendarmes – played out one more time. Finally, the pickup at maximum speed left us by riverside. Once on the shore, the two smugglers who had travelled with us started pumping air into the rubber boats they pulled out of their backpack. We took turns at the pump. And then, we were on the river. Still with the two smugglers, the 17 of us squeezed onto the two boats. I grabbed one of the oars and started paddling toward the other shore pointed out by the smuggler. In ten, fifteen minutes, we arrived in Greece. Henceforth, our country was that on the other shore…
As we were crossing over the embankment, we caught sight of another convoy of 15 people waiting: Chinese. (But perhaps they weren’t Chinese and I simply registered them as such because of their slanted eyes, small size and smiles like those of high school kids.) They greeted us joyfully. Perhaps the relief of having crossed yet one more border had put them in a good mood.
I talked with the young smuggler for the first time. “I thought you were mute”, he told me in his bit of Turkish. A young one, mischievous, from Southern Kurdistan. Şehnaz also speaks Kurdish, we managed to understand one another. Half an hour later, the smuggler asked us to get back into the boats. I asked “Why?” He answered: “Brother I have to get you to the highway at 6 AM. There are children, old people, we can’t get there on foot.” – “Which means? We will move slowly drifting on the river current, then we will walk a bit.” No later than a week earlier, the media had carried news of the death of a young Afghani, killed on the river, under fire from Frontex. There was nothing to be done about, we would have to drift along the river…
No point in paddling, the river brought us to our destination. The waters reflected the reddish tinge of the setting sun. No one said a word. A perfect calm descended on the evening. We moved along for an hour and a half. And, with the Chinese convoy, four boats thus reached the shore, in Turkey! We were back in the country. “What are you doing?” I asked the young man. He answered: “Someone else will come.” Shortly after, someone came out of the bushes. They exchanged a few words. We resumed the journey. Ten minutes later, we were on the other shore – again. Border games. I asked the young man: “Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?” – “Turkey is no problem, brother,” he said. “Greece is the problem.” Got it.
Greek shore. Following a brief respite, we took to the road again. In front of us, the Chinese group, then five, ten minutes later, our own convoy. Darkness fell and soon we were climbing a steep mountain. Some fell, got up again, my backpack got heavier on my back. (The smuggler from Thrace had even threatened not to take Şehnaz and I if we didn’t reduce our baggage to a single bag. We had spoken to the man “in Turkish”, a few word, “no bag”, “yes bag”. We had ended up throwing out some of our stuff and crammed the rest into a single bag so that we could leave. We were all around the child and her mother. During a break, the woman showed a plastic bottle in Şehnaz’ hand, then the child in her arms. The little one was dehydrated. Şehnaz handed her the bottle immediately. The poor child drank down in gulps. Her mother wanted to hand back the bottle but we didn’t take it.
At last, the climb was over. We were on the way down, still falling, getting up, in total darkness. We were about to reach the flat land when the apocalypse exploded in front of us. Sirens, flashing lights, red and blue neons, projectors above our heads, covering our hair: the Chinese group ahead of us had fallen into an ambush. Instinctively, our convoy turned around and scooted off into the mountain.
I couldn’t breathe anymore and the flight was endless. For a man of almost fifty with only half his lungs, this was not exactly an “age compatible sport”. I don’t know how he found himself next to me, but I clung to the arm of the young smuggler. “Let’s stop, I said, maybe they didn’t notice us. Even if they did, we’re far away now, they can’t reach us in this darkness.” He was very frightened, not anything like the cool customer he had been in Turkey. He was in no condition to pay attention to me. We climbed for another while. The convoy had spread out. We tried to re-assemble with discrete calls. The smuggler then said “wait here, I’ll be back” and moved away. I took off my T-shirt and wrung it out. The sweat ran out of it like after a laundry, then I put it back on again. The longer we waited, the cooler the weather became. My sweat became freezing cold. Time seemed to stand still. By early morning I could feel the cold in my bones, I was shivering. Hypothermia was not far off. I couldn’t stand or move, without risking to reveal our location. We were paralyzed there, on the side of the mountain. Şehnaz clung to my back. The Afghanis, the Kurds, the Azeris, the Africans, the Yezidis, everyone was embracing, hugging closely so as not to freeze in the night air.
The young man finally came back. We started moving again as the day was about to rise. We gathered behind the bushes, with a view on the highway. The smuggler told us we would be driving out by car, in three groups of five or six, and that we would head for Athens. We of the first group of six, ran and laid down behind the palissade along the highway. Traffic was fluid. A half-hour went by, no one… “What’s going on? They can’t locate us?” Apparently the phone guidance wasn’t working. My eyes fell on the half-full 5 liter jug of water in his hand. “Place the jug by roadside and tell them to stop near it.” He liked my suggestion so much he almost embraced me. Ten minutes later, a car stopped next to the jug. “Quick, quick, go on!” said the smuggler who grabbed my arm at the last minute “brother, until you get to Athens, don’t speak Turkish”. I say “agreed” and jumped up. (I would soon understand how useful was this warning). The highway traffic was still light with only a few cars circulating. The driver opened the back door, lowered the seat, allowing access to the trunk. He quickly shoved in two young Syrians, one who was an Arab and the other a Kurd. He asked us to raise the seat back into position and to get in. Sehnaz sat in the front, we were three in the back plus two young ones in the trunk. This took place in a few seconds, and we were on our way.
The day broke, the Greek plain started to appear.
We lay back our heads and started to relax but jumped out of our skins when basses and high notes of music took over. What was this song? “Bas bas paraları Leyla’ya bi daha mı gelicez dünyayaaa!“2 Instinctively, I yelled: “Stop that, bro!” “Are you Turkish brother?” “yes, stop that, we can’t stand that right now.” Our first disagreement started right there. The tension would keep on growing throughout the journey. He told us how many runs he’d made, what he’d put up with, that he couldn’t take it without music… He drank the whole way, eight, ten energy drinks – even the smell of them still makes me sick – I don’t know how my veins managed not to explode. In fact, the driver was a Bulgarian, Turkish-speaking gipsy. He didn’t stop talking Bulgarian on the phone, repeating, “da, da, da…”
The temperature started to rise. At first, after the freezing cold of the night, it felt good but soon it became unbearable. In no time, the young ones in the trunk started pounding, yelling. We heard their muffled voices. The kids were running out of air! I pulled back my seat and put my arm behind it. They grabbed on to it. I said to the driver “stop on the side of the road, they are going to die”, he answered “nothing will happen to them.” I understood that with the back of my seat half open, they could breathe. I stopped insisting for the driver to stop. The air circulating because of my arm holding the seat forward was enough. I did not remove my arm before we reached Athens. Two lives, that of the two children in the trunk; they did not let go of my hand, kissed it, held it to their cheeks. I managed to recover my hand so they would stop kissing it, caressed their cheeks, their heads. This is how we travelled for hours, all the way to Athens…
The driver told me a number of times to remove my arm, that we would get caught because of me… I ignored him. We drove on in a war of nerves. At one point he said “collect 10 euros per passenger, I’m going to buy some gas.” “Everybody’s sleeping, I’ll pay you and you’ll pay me back when we get there,” I told him. “All right. Give me 70 euros.” I did.
We arrived in Athens around 6 PM. We had travelled for 36 hours without sleeping – and we had hardly slept before leaving – without swallowing anything, and without another drop after giving our bottle to the little girl…
The car stopped on a quiet street. I let go of the young ones’ hands and told them in Turkish “we’ve arrived.” Şehnaz repeated this in Kurdish to make sure they understood. They calmed down. We were told to enter very quickly in a building. I said “I won’t leave without the young ones”. The seats were folded down, the kids had trouble coming out. They couldn’t walk except in trembling steps like newborn colts. They were covered in sweat. We held their arms. They clung to my neck, crying silently…
We crammed into a tiny apartment in the basement. It was already full with those who had arrived before us and who huddled there. The phones started to ring.
This is how the system worked: you handed over half the money before leaving, you left the other half with a person both parties could trust. Once you’d arrived, you called this person to say “I’ve arrived, you can hand over the money”, he then paid the smugglers in Istanbul. I held back on the call. First I contacted my friend from prison who was in Athens and had him speak to the smuggler to confirm the time and place of meeting. I said I would advise Istanbul once I had met up with my friend.
But first, the goodbyes. After this hard journey of 36 hours, we spoke a common language. The little girl, her mother, the young ones in the trunk…It was the language of tears, of sweat, of cold, of the will to live with the air breathed in thanks to a car seat kept half-opened by an arm. We embraced and said goodbye…
The whole time we spent in this apartment, I pressed the smugglers to “reimburse the 70 euros”. I understood they always tried to hold back. Let no one read this as meaning “the cheating gipsy smugglers”, smugglers have no religion, no people, this is a story of networks of smugglers of various peoples, religions, a kind of International of border smugglers…On the roads that stretch between Istnabul and Athens, we passed through the hands of four different groups/levels, obviously, all of them inter-related. Up to Maritsa, it was the Turks of Istanbul and of Thrace, from the river up to the the Greek highway, it was Kurds from Kurdistan, from the highway to Athens, a Bulgarian gipsy, in the apartment in Athens, they were Greek. Just as with the money, inhuman treatments are also shared between the different elements of the network of smugglers.
Finally the moment arrived when I finally embraced my friend from prison whom I hadn’t seen for years. The coyote who took us there started moving away stealthily. “70 euros? What 70 euros?” It was his wounded pride that was moving away like this. “Hold on!” I grabbed the man by the arm, and took the phone out of his hand. “Brother, I have no money. Give me back my phone, give me an address, may the Coran stike me down, I’ll bring it to you tomorrow,” he begged. “All right then, we meet here tomorrow, you bring the money and you get your phone back.” He lfet, moaning. His phone rang during the night. It was the smuggler who had picked us up in the village in Edirne and taken us to the river. Visibly a link of the chain with authority. “Brother, what have you done?” He told me, “the whole network is on pins and needles. I’ll give the money to the people over here, more even, but hand back the phone. All the information is on it, hand it back.” I said “no, not you, but that bum will bring me the money. He will give it back to me while looking me in the eyes. You know us”, I added, alluding to our political identity, “I won’t go to the police, it’s not a matter of money, but I won’t let those coyotes trample on my pride.” “All right brother” he said and hung up.
The following evening I went back to the same location with a friend who knew the region. No one. Visibly, the fact of being sure we wouldn’t go to the police was enough to make them give up the phone. Go figure what ideas they had of the challenge we were evoking, what “forces” they imagined we had behind us? They did not come. Yet, two of us went twice to the meeting place, with nothing on us, almost naked. It was a fine phone with two lines. I gave it as a gift to Burhan. Shortly thereafter, Albanian pickpockets grabbed it off him in the metro…
Was what we did reasonable? They could have riddled us with bullets and dumped us in a corner. In their eyes, human life clearly was less valuable than the energy drinks they consumed. I would be curious to know how many young ones who were asphyxiated in car trunks were thrown into Athen’s public dumps.
Such is their scale of values.
But the account of those who “cross the borders” cannot be weighed on the scales of “reason”. The smugglers are little coyotes. The real ones, the States, force people whose homes they have destroyed to “cross their borders”. They are the barons of capital.
Bertold Brecht said “what is the robbing of a bank, compared to the creation of one?”. We add “what are the little networks of border smugglers, compared to the State networks?”
Obviously these great escapes, these “migratory movements” across borders are an imposition on societies. But you can be sure of it, the last ones on whom you should blame these upheavals are certainly those young ones in the car trunk and others like them. Why don’t you let go of their collar and grab the collars of the imperialists, of the weapons merchants and of the small or big “respectable” States that have “morphed into coyotes”!
Beyond that point, this “borders” narrative will not stand up to “political analysis”.
Read and think about it a bit.
Or better yet, let your empathy come into play, if you can still experience it…