Getting to the Other Side: a Kurdish Migrant Story

15 January, 2022
Two detained Iraqi Kurds squat in a secured area of the Igoumenit­sa port, short­ly after being dis­cov­ered try­ing to smug­gle them­selves onto trucks cross­ing from Greece to Italy (pho­tos cour­tesy Iason Athanasiadis).
From armed struggle on the mountains of the Iran-Iraq border to sneaking onto trucks in a port on the European periphery, a Kurdish guerrilla’s efforts to change his fate collide with Fortress Europe.

 

Iason Athanasiadis

Τhe rain has­n’t stopped for two weeks: snow coats the high­er peaks of the Pin­dos moun­tain range; huge quan­ti­ties of water sleet from the sky to flood the fields. Just above the port of Igoumenit­sa, smoke ris­es from a soaked, thick­ly-wood­ed hill. At its foot lies a water­logged ceme­tery, and a rib­bon of high­way — backed up with trucks wait­ing to enter the port — is all that sep­a­rates the port’s high walls from the forest’s denizens. 

As the set­ting sun drags its light from the city into the sea, gaunt fig­ures emerge from the under­growth to eye­ball the port. They are here, on Greece’s north­west­ern­most edge, to play the Game, a high-stakes effort at smug­gling them­selves onto boats head­ing to Italy. Suc­cess means arrival at the Ital­ian ports of Bari and Brin­disi, from where it is a home stretch through unin­ter­rupt­ed Schen­gen ter­ri­to­ry to a north­ern Euro­pean coun­try. Fail­ure entails dis­cov­ery and a few days of deten­tion or — worse — griev­ous bod­i­ly dam­age should the joyrid­ers lose their grip on the truck­’s axle, or be crushed by dri­ving vibrations. 

Bahoz is stand­ing at the edge of the tree­line, scan­ning the port below for tree-cov­er and weak points in the chain link fence topped with loops of barbed wire. Three weeks ago, he left anoth­er moun­tain range, on the Iran­ian-Iraqi bor­der, on which he lived and fought the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran for three years as a guer­ril­la for Koma­la, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Kur­dish party.

Bahoz was guar­an­teed hard­ship at birth. Descend­ed from a vil­lage out­side the Kur­dish-major­i­ty city of Mari­van, in one of Iran’s most under­de­vel­oped and con­flict-rid­den regions, his scant options in life boiled down to sub­mit­ting to local mores and get­ting a hum­ble farm­ing job, or becom­ing a smug­gler of elec­tri­cal prod­ucts and alco­hol across the snowy pass­es of the inhos­pitable bor­der with Iraq. But his father (“one of the two most influ­en­tial peo­ple in my life”) intro­duced him to Foad Mostafa Soltani, a Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary and the founder of Koma­la, whose teach­ings devel­oped his polit­i­cal con­science and even­tu­al­ly prompt­ed him to join the guer­ril­las in the mountains. 

“Up on the moun­tain I’ve been bom­bard­ed, fought, and faced the Islam­ic Repub­lic’s bul­lets, so I’m used to hard­ship and sur­viv­ing on lit­tle,” he said. “But at some point I real­ized that there was a greater game being played above our heads, and that we were just the pawns, and we wouldn’t get any­where how­ev­er much we struggled.”

Dis­may prompt­ed him to con­sid­er leav­ing the guer­ril­las and join­ing the broth­er­hood of migrants cross­ing bor­ders in search of a bet­ter life. Pen­ni­less, and com­ing from a col­lapsed econ­o­my under mas­sive sanc­tions pres­sure, Bahoz made it across Turkey, over the Evros riv­er into Greece, and to this rough fron­tier port carved out of the moun­tains where human, drugs and arms smug­gling net­works inter­sect with trade and tourism. A Kur­dish smug­gling ring cur­rent­ly con­trols the van­tage point over the port. It earned its dom­i­nance (and asso­ci­at­ed rev­enues) through a bloody 2018 bat­tle against Afghan and Syr­i­ans that yield­ed two dead. Now, Kur­dish migrants con­sid­er Igoumenit­sa a friend­ly port, while oth­er nation­al­i­ties direct them­selves to Patra, Greece’s oth­er west­ern port. 

Under the trees’ thick cov­er, about twen­ty migrants gath­er around smoky fires, brew­ing tea and bid­ing their time till dusk. Those with some mon­ey for­ti­fy them­selves with sand­wich­es and piz­zas, which local busi­ness­es know to deliv­er to the ceme­tery at the foot of the hill. Those with­out cash lim­it them­selves to eat­ing once every two days, or gnaw­ing away at potatoes.

Kha­lo is the boss, a rotund-but-agile Kur­dish man in his fifties, with a vast self-regard and a ten­den­cy to snap eas­i­ly. He orders his migrant charges around, and bul­lies or beats them when they get out of order. He has rep­re­sent­ed the smug­gling net­work on the hill for sev­en years, and claims his work get­ting migrants onto boats feeds four chil­dren in Arbil. The Greek secu­ri­ty ser­vices know him, and depend on him to keep the hill in order. 

A truck dri­ver opens up his truck to be inspect­ed by Greek police for migrants seek­ing to smug­gle them­selves across in the boats mak­ing the Greece to Italy crossing.


The Game

Once dark­ness set­tles, Bahoz heads down through the trees to the trucks backed up on the high­way. Kha­lo and his part­ners are already run­ning around, open­ing truck doors and stuff­ing in their migrant clients. Spot­ters for the smug­gling net­work are spread through­out town, prob­ing the port security’s weak points. One of them is an Afghan hud­dled in a clus­ter of trees abut­ting the rig-lit­tered carpark. He informs a puff­ing Kha­lo how many port work­ers are out patrolling and where. 

There are also Turk­ish, Roman­ian and Greek truck dri­vers in the carpark, clus­tered in ine­bri­at­ed, some­times aggres­sive groups. They refer to the migrants as “Tal­ibans” and rel­ish con­fronting them and ban­ish­ing them from their trucks. The migrants, fear­ful of being beat­en or stoned, avoid the dri­vers and bide their time, wait­ing for the police inspec­tion to finish. 

Bahoz wants to avoid the inspec­tion area, which involves an almost insur­mount­able series of obsta­cles. The police open truck after truck, search­ing each with dogs, flash­lights and even an X‑ray truck whose rays pen­e­trate through walls and con­tents to betray the best-hid­den migrants. Bahoz knows to bide his time till the inspect­ed trucks are dri­ven onto the ship, then vault the barbed wire-topped chain­link fence, and rush a truck prepar­ing to board the boat with­out being noticed.

Mid­night finds Bahoz crawl­ing through a secret tun­nel run­ning with sea­wa­ter. By 1 a.m. he has hauled him­self up onto the tow­er of a dark con­struc­tion site abut­ting the light-flood­ed port. Police cars and a cou­ple of snif­fer-dogs are patrolling the port side. Chances of clear­ing the fence and mak­ing it onto the boat unde­tect­ed are slim. But the risk of dis­cov­ery is also not pro­hib­i­tive, beyond a few hours or days spent in deten­tion. The worst the police usu­al­ly does is to round up a group, dri­ve them 30km or so into the Greek coun­try­side, and release them there in what the migrants describe as “being deport­ed.” Some­times their mobile phones aren’t returned, set­ting up a tir­ing, map­less hike back to their hill in Igoumenit­sa. But almost always this is not enough to dis­cour­age them from tak­ing anoth­er crack at the Game.

By mid­night, the police have caught half a dozen migrants, among them Bahoz, hid­ing inside a dry-clean­ing van. By this point, his face is so famil­iar that he is sim­ply led to a fenced enclo­sure and left unhand­cuffed to await the police van that will take him to the station.

“Even if I’m caught, I’ll con­tin­ue try­ing to get to the oth­er side,” he says, his adren­a­line dri­ving him to man­i­cal­ly pace the enclo­sure, “by sea or by land, again and again and again and again.”

Bahoz is released a few hours lat­er and reas­cends the hill, back to his sleep­ing bag, some clothes, and the group of com­rades who didn’t make it to the oth­er side tonight.

“We’re not defeat­ed peo­ple who should be pitied, but fight­ers,” Bahoz lat­er told me in a series of voice mes­sages. “We strug­gle in the way of achiev­ing a bet­ter life; this doesn’t make us pitiable creatures.”

Nev­er­the­less, things are dete­ri­o­rat­ing. After rack­ing up sev­er­al failed attempts, Bahoz falls and twists his ankle. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, anoth­er group on the Hill fights with his group, and he los­es most of his mon­ey. His com­rades car­ry him to an exposed kiosque by the port, where he seeks to recu­per­ate his strength.

As Christ­mas nears, the trucks lessen, even as his foot doesn’t improve. Up on the hill, the migrants shiv­er around their fires, wait­ing for the traf­fic to pick up again. It increas­ing­ly looks like Bahoz will have to seek shel­ter, so he retreats to the cement mega­lopo­lis of Athens in search of a roof, and a vagrant con­di­tion beset by new threats. He will bide his time … “before I can play the Game again.”

Epilogue

A few weeks after Christ­mas, I meet up with Bahoz in Kypseli, where he is stay­ing in the dilap­i­dat­ed house of a Kur­dish friend of a friend, who passed through the city on his way west a few months ago. Bahoz’s foot had healed, but his face is gaunt and he walks the streets gin­ger­ly, shiv­er­ing in his open slip­pers and wor­ried that the police might stop him. A lover of his­to­ry, he feels priv­i­leged to be in Athens, but has­n’t even glimpsed the Acrop­o­lis from a dis­tance. Although some of his com­rades man­aged to reach Italy, Igoumenit­sa, and the prospect of mak­ing it through on a truck, seem distant.

 

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TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.