11.45 PM, January 4, 2016 another boat sinks on its way to the Greek island Lesvos. After 12 hours in a freezing cold January sea, Ahmad staggers to land on the shore of Altinova, Turkey. As soon as his wounded feet reach dry land, he collapses. A local medical staff wraps him in a blanket.
This is the first help that he or any of the 52 people on the boat that would take them to Mytilini on Lesvos receive. Despite panicked screams for help and desperate phone calls to all authorities and contacts they know of.
They even met a boat out there in their peril, drifting towards death.
But no one came. Not on Greek water and not on Turkish water. The boat they met turned and left them.
Next to Ahmad on the shore, which in the summertime is crowded with affluent tourists, the other passengers washed ashore as the sun rises in they sky. Children, babies, mothers and fathers, ever petrified with fear. A little girl, who Ahmad held until she could not fight any longer, is lying there in her pink jacket.
The only survivors from the boat on January 4 are 12 men who travelled alone or with a friend or relative.
When Ahmad is taken in the ambulance he believes he is saved, in safety.
But he is wrong. This frightful story is far from over for him or the other survivors. It is still ongoing, somewhere in Turkey.
It is the first Monday of January and Ahmad is finally taking the way across the sea to Greece, to the EU. He is an open critic of the regime and has worked with art in Syria and Jordan. He has no other choice than to flee to Europe. He does not know where yet. He has bought a ticket for a day trip on a boat from a smuggler that seems to be good on Basmane Square in Izmir. This is where all the “traveling agencies” are. He is soon shown to a taxi and a convoy of cars drives them for hours. They are let off in a grove of olive trees somewhere. And immediately everything changes.
– We were met by a gang of smugglers, it was the mafia. They screamed, cursed and threatened us all, says Ahmad.
He says that the smugglers are armed with firearms and iron tools and knives as large as swords.
– They threatened and beat us all, not even the children got away. We didn’t want to, but they forced us into a boat even though it was dark, cold and the sea was rough.
The 52 people plus a driver got into the boat and drove out in the dark unknown sea. Everyone was afraid and after just ten minutes everyone onboard demanded the driver to turn around. He did as he was told.
– But when we came back to the place we left from the boss of the smugglers was still there. He became furious and started to hit the driver with his knife. He put a weapon against his head. Everyone in the boat screamed at him to stop, but then he threatened to do the same to anyone who screamed. He sent us back out again.
“If you come back I will kill you!”. The smuggler boss remained on the beach and in the boat Ahmad and the others began to understand their fate. They had no other option than to go straight out into the rough sea and the increasing rain. It was only a few degrees above freezing. In the little rubber boat which is really only meant for a few people, the children sit at the bottom. The passengers begin to become acquainted, introduce themselves and find out what skills they have.
– To dispel fear, says Ahmad.
And “just in case”. But they are all intent on reaching the other side, to the blinking red lights at the airport of Lesvos. They see no other choice. But when the rain and the frightening waves cause more and more panic onboard they decide to call the coast guard and hope to be saved that way. A ticket is about 1 000 Euro per person.
Even if it means becoming caught in Turkey. They do not dare return to the beach again.
The Turkish coast guard answers that they can be calm. They will come.
But when 30 minutes have passed since they called the coast guard no one has come to their rescue. The engine begins to malfunction. It breaks down and starts working again. Back and forth.
The boat crosses the border and they are on Greek water. They call the coast guard for help. They send an SOS in their Whatsapp group that they use to communicate during the journey. They write to other forums on Facebook and call family and friends for help.
Suddenly they see a ship closer to Greece and head towards it. The engine shuts down but they drift in the right direction. They even see the Greek shore, their goal. They are scared, but still see the light and hope in the blinking lamps along the coastline of Lesvos.
– We came all the way to the ship. Finally we are saved, we thought. We banged on the hull of the boat and together lifted the children in the air so that they would see them. Just take the children! we called. But no one came.
They call for help and see the captain come out. He shines a torch on them, smokes a cigarette. When he is done he throws the butt on Ahmad and the others in the boat and goes into the cabin and starts the ship’s engine.
They continue to call for help with the coast guard but they have stopped responding.
It is 11.45 PM. They know this for certain because one of the survivors’ watches has stopped at that time. 11.45 PM is also the time of the last emergency call from the boat. It is Ayman, a young Syrian who calls his brother and asks him to take care of his children now that he is dying at sea.
– The sea started to boil beneath us. The swell of the ship’s engine filled the boat with water. It was indescribable, I will never forget it. Those who sat at the boats bottom drowned first, and that was the children.
Eventually the boat breaks in two and everyone falls off. Or down. Ahmad has a six-year-old girl on his arm. Her mother despairs, the girl’s two brothers have already drowned at sea, they are gone. “Please, help my daughter!” are the mother’s last panic-stricken words before she too disappears.
– “Mister, hold me up!” the girl called and held onto my neck. I lifted her as high as I could. But the waves were high. She kept asking when the coast guard would come and save us. I told her “We live together or we die together, I will not leave you”, says Ahmad.
He and the girl are alone on the drift of the waves. The wind blows towards Turkey. For a while Ahmad finds some drifting wood to hold on to. But a wave takes it. The waves hit the girl, her face.
– I saw that she was starting to drown, but I couldn’t do anything even though I had promised her. Does that make me her killer? She died in my arms … I put her with the life jacket on her back, and said “Rest in peace. It will be good now, there is nothing left in life for you. Your brothers died, your mother died. Rest in peace”.
Ahmad is almost paralyzed from shock, cold and exhaustion. But he is swimming for his life. Night is turning into day. Suddenly he is closing in on twelve people from the boat. They are alive and one of them reach out with a hand. They have held on to the wreck of the boat. Dead people hang from it. Together they drift towards the Turkish coast. They reach a cliff. It is slippery and sharp and the waves make the attempts to get up violent. One woman hits her head and dies.
– It was so cold. We tried to become warm with stones and by holding each other. People started to come out by the beach and we called and waved, but no one saw us. That was when I decided to swim the last distance.
After nearly twelve hours of struggle for his and his travel companions’ lives, Ahmad swims the last 2 kilometers to land. He staggers up on the shore and is transported by ambulance to the hospital. He thinks he is safe.
But he is not. And neither are the others from the boat.
The other eleven men from the boat are picked up from the cliff by a smaller coast guard boat. They are wet, cold and in shock. But instead of being taken to land, to a hospital, they have to go with the boat and pick up dead bodies from the sea. For over an hour they go and pick up bodies instead of receiving medical attention.
Ahmad is at the hospital for a couple of hours. He rambles and feels guilt because he could not rescue the six-year-old girl. He and the eleven surviving men are taken to Altinova Jandarma, a military police station. They are held captive and are interrogated. None of them know why they are not released.
– I asked them every day, when will we get out? Why are you doing this? But there was no answer. During the first three days some organisation came with clothes and crackers, but after that no one was let in to see us. When someone was there the police pretended that everything was alright, but when they left they changed completely, says Ahmad.
Turkish and some international press have reported that one or two boats were wrecked on the night between January 4 and 5. But when the news is out any outside attention disappears. None of the survivors on the military police station get help to reach their relatives. How they are treated is closest described as torture.
– We were forced to look at the dead people from the boat. Not pictures, but the actual bodies. They took us in one by one and wanted us to identify them. I was beside myself and couldn’t understand why or how they could do this to us.
Ahmad panics and starts to shake inside the Jandarma. But the treatment continues.
–We were forced to work for food. We shoveled coal from the backyard. If we didn’t do what they said they gave us no food and hit us with sticks.
Some of the survivors decide to go on a food strike, but none of the police take them seriously. “Suit yourselves”.
After 15 days in captivity, without knowing why they were arrested or how long they were to stay, the twelve survivors from a boat of 52 were released. At the time 29 bodies have been found. The youngest wore a water-filled diaper. The picture of the girl that Ahmed tried to save, in her pink jacket and blue jeans, has circulated online. On the picture her black hair on the beach resembles a macabre gloria. A six-year-old girl on her way to the EU with her mother and two brothers to be able to live. The only way there left them at the mercy of an illegal and dangerous business run by a smuggler mafia associated with the Turkish authorities.
They never reached the EU tonight. The EU, which has given Turkey three billion to deal with the situation such as the one with the utterly insecure flight route over the Aegean Sea. The route that families and young men take every night, every day of the year. 30–40 boats still leave desolate beaches in Turkey every day. Many arrive and a new long journey towards asylum and residence permit is begun. But far too many never reach the shores and the shiny emergency blankets, soap bubbles and the warming tea of the voluntary workers. During 2016 there are already 158 deaths on the Mediterranean. 158 when this is written. 158 that we know of. Because who keeps track of the boats that are forced to go illegally protected by darkness and difficult weather? Who writes a passenger list on an illegal journey controlled by the mafia in the worst kept secret in the country? No, no one.
Why didn’t the Turkish coast guard show up as they promised?
Their office is in the harbor of Dikili. It was around this little Turkish coastal town that the dead and the survivors came on the morning of January 5. The coastguards cannot say what happened. But they were out that night, helping another boat. They show us their film footage.
Either they were tired of SOS calls from boats with engine trouble. Or there was an economic agreement with the team of smugglers on land not to pick them up. Or Ahmad’s boat was confused with the other one, the boat that had similar difficulties that same night. The coast guard was there and saved people. But no one knows how many boats leave the Turkish coast. “And God knows how many bodies are out there” says one of the officials at the Dikili coastguard after Ahmed’s boat has sunk. No one knows.
Ahmad and the eleven other men were released, and put on a bus to Izmir. Together with two of the other men he has travelled to another location and wants to find a new way to reach safety in the EU. It is from here that he tells his part of the story. At this time, he and his new friends from the boat are just as scared of the smugglers as they are of the military police, the jandarma.
– Why does the world let us who try to reach safety die? Why does no one see what is happening and open the way for us who need to live in Europe. This way just becomes an illegal business where people forge papers and manage to get in, while children are left to drown.
Like Ahmad and the other 52 people on the boat at 11.45 PM, January 4, 2016. On a cold, rainy and stormy sea, with no attempts to help from the responsible authorities. Left to their own devices. All while the EU promises billions to Turkey.
This story is translated from swedish webbpublication KIT and is written by Annah Björk. Thanks for the translation LH Bergstrom.