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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?

I have.

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…

Nabi Kım­ran

Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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