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Slow Death: A Tale of a Syrian Immigrant to Greece

What happened was that the boat hit a floating tree branch as it was spinning and was punctured. We were all fighting against the river water to survive
Slow Death: A Tale of a Syrian Immigrant to Greece

Hassan is a Syrian citizen, thirty years old, and married with three children. Like everybody else, he tried to reach European heaven through Greece. Here is his story, exactly as he narrated it:


At six o'clock in the early morning, we gathered in one of Istanbul's Turkish squares. We were nine people coming from different places in Syria. One notion was bringing us together: to escape from the deathly hell raging in Syria, and our desire to reach Europe to find some safety, for our children and us.


We were all worried about our lack of knowledge about the road to Greece, our first station, while waiting. [We knew nothing] except for what that stranger (a smuggler) who promised to take us there told us. He talked about some difficulties that might face us and were impossible to get past. But inside ourselves we knew the main obsession for the smuggler, named Abo Diab, was to get the money, it [the trip] cost 2,500 Euros per person.


We never had any previous relationship with that man, so we were worried to death after we handed ourselves over to him. Fifteen minutes of waiting passed like an eon, and a small truck arrived with our savior Abo Diab, sitting next to the driver. He jumped out to say, in a few quick words that were not up for discussion, “Eight of you go up to the back and one in the front with us.”


We pushed an old man to sit beside the driver, and went to the back with Abo Diab, waiting for him to open the door of the closed box—because the truck was some kind of an iron box that never shows what's within, it was solid and looked like a refrigerator. I was shocked when he opened the back door. There were no seats, only an iron floor with iron hooks hanging from the ceiling. I muttered a few verses of the Quran, because it reminded me of the refrigerator for sacrificial animals, and that's what it was actually, before it became a way to transport human sacrifices.


All of us stepped up. There was no time to retreat from our decision. The money entered into the custody of Abo Diab, and my dreams were guarded by the eyes of my children, who were waiting for my success to reach the Promised Land and be reunited with them later.


The car shook and took off with its cargo of human meat. We divided ourselves by who wanted to sit on the floor and who wanted to sit with the meat gallows. I was one of those arrogant [people] who refused to sit at the beginning, as I consider myself an athletic man. But after four hours of hanging and shaking I found myself bowed to the ground.


Through eight hours of continuous travelling, the car did not stop, because Abo Diab feared raising the Turkish police’s suspicions. We ate the sandwiches we brought with us and stopped ourselves from urinating until we reached the end.


Abo Diab opened the door of the victims’ refrigerator and gestured to us to get out. We rushed out scrambling. One of us whispered to Abo Diab of his desire to meet his urgent need, so he indicated to the woods beside the place we stopped. We vanished between the trees in a blink of an eye. We came back to our only hope, Abo Diab, and gathered around him after the truck left. He said to us that the walking stage would start now—a few hours and we'd be at the riverside and we should not stop to pass the Turkish woods before it was dark. We lengthened our steps as we marched; I was carrying a bag weighing about thirty kilograms on my back, and had no time to catch my breath. After three hours of marching, when it started to get dark, we reached the river that separates Turkey and Greece. There was no riverbank in this area, it was a steep slope where the Turkish government kept breaking the riverside to prevent easy crossing.


Abo Diab gave his orders, “You are going to cross this river in this boat.” It was a rubber boat, light in weight and thickness. The boat’s size terrified me, but [there was no] return or retreat. He asked us who knew how to paddle, and two young men volunteered for the mission. He continued, saying, “A man will be waiting for you at the other side and lead the way.”


Nine people got on board his toy boat and started crossing the river. The distance between two sides didn’t exceed 30 meters, but it was too deep to walk through. In the middle, the boat started to spin around in circles, and we discovered that theses rowing young men were amateurs. What I remember of these moments was that after a few spins I heard a blast. I found myself suddenly in the water and I didn't know how I reached the other side; in our country we call it the precious spirit. What happened was that the boat hit a floating tree branch as it was spinning and was punctured. We were all fighting against the river water to survive.


I don't know how we were all able to reach the Greek side, but when we gathered again we were still nine. The water had flooded our clothes and bags, but the cruel surprise was that there was no one waiting for us. Abo Diab vanished, the night fell, and the snow was a few centimeters [high] on the Greek side. Abo Diab warned us about making any sounds, lighting a fire, or turning on any lights. Our situation was terrifying, the chill penetrated our bones, our clothes were completely wet, and [we were] hungry and desperate.


We waited for approximately two hours but our desired hope (the smuggler on the Greek side) did not come. By a collective decision we made up our minds that marching would relieve the probability of freezing to death. Our destination was a light that appeared in the distance. It was obvious that we had that instinctive tendency to stay alive; we looked at each other in a look without humanity, it meant that there was no way to lean on each other, whoever fell tired would be left [behind] because we were just around the corner from freezing to death.


We started to march, divided into groups according to who knew each other before the trip; I knew no one. [After] a few hours of walking through snow—we had a rest in a deserted cottage where we left two old men dead, they could not resist, and that cottage was their grave—we reached a swamp. I found it difficult to get my shoes out of the mud, so I decided to take them off and walk. While fixing my bag on my back I heard a popping sound coming from my thumb, only to realize later that it was broken. I didn’t feel pain at that moment because it was frozen. We passed the swamp, I had to put my shoes on again and there was no time to wait for me, so I told them, “Continue and I will follow you later, I need a long time to put on my shoes, because my hands and the shoes are frozen, and my finger has broken.”


What remained of the group continued to march. In half an hour I was able to put my shoes on after a long painful struggle the sharp edges of the frozen shoes. [Then] their whispers vanished, I was exhausted and started to feel sleepy—that sense of desiring sleep terrified me. That fear gave some strength so I got rid of what was left in my bag except for a few packets of cigarettes, although I didn't have anything to light them with, [as] the water did its job with the lighter.


Far away I saw a light and thought it was a car light, I expected that it was a road and [it] became my destination. I said to myself that if I'm dead they will find my body at least. I reached the road and felt some hope. I waited a long time for a car to pass, and while I was standing the chill became cruel. I looked closely, [my eyes] penetrating the darkness and saw an imaginary light, looking like it was coming out of a house, and it became my goal. I was not interested if it was a police [check-]point or whatever, I just was looking for life. As I walked, every short blink made me flinch in horror, as the image of my children accompanied me as if it was guarding me so I didn’t fall asleep. I think I walked for hours and with every step I was repeating how far these lights are! But the light was attracting me and making me move automatically although I had no sense in my feet.


I reached the source of light, and it was a house with a glass room in it. It was dawn and in the room there was a man, an old woman, and a young man. I knocked at the door and the young man came out, I begged him to let me in for some warmth, but he unequivocally refused. I asked him to call the hospital, and he refused, and said that he would call the police. I agreed immediately and collapsed on the ground. A few minutes later a man came out of the house next door, handling two huge dogs and guarding me until the police came.


Five Land Rovers arrived with many police officers. One of them approached and started to ask many questions, I understood that he was asking me about the rest of the group. I pointed out to him that I didn't know anything about them and that I felt cold and wanted to step into the car. He refused and told me that there was another car coming to take me to a camp. All cars were gone except one, and I begged the driver to let me in while the promised car came. He refused and told me that it was against the laws, but he had pity on me and allowed me to come near the front light of the car. I crawled to the light indeed and it was the most beautiful sense of warm that I have ever experienced and will experience in my life. I was trying to swallow that light, and some of that numbness that was sneaking into my limbs started to leave my body gradually.


The car came and took me to the camp. They put me in a big dormitory full of dozens of blankets. I was alone and seeing this amount of blankets made me feel unbounded joy. After they shut the door, I ran to the mountains of blankets and took many of them, and then I threw myself on one of the mattresses on the floor and fell into a deep sleep.


I woke up a few hours later on feeling a little warm, and my clothes less wet. Another four Syrians came in after that, and did the same as I had. The next day they gathered us in a car and said they would move us to Athens. I felt so happy for those moments because Athens was our target at the start. But along the way, I noticed dozens of Greek marines—they were as they had been described to us [when we were] warned of meeting them—they were tall and masked. The car stopped after two hours, and, to my surprise, we were in a marine's camp. As soon as we stepped out of the car they threw us on the ground and started beating us without distinction between a man and a woman. They asked us to stand up after a round of beating, walked with us for a long distance, pointed to a specific direction and said, “That is the direction of the Turkish border.”


The Turkish police were able to find us after several long hours lost inside the woods, and took us back to Turkey. In fact, I was so happy to still be alive, although I did not eat for more than three days.       




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