07 listopada 2021

Istanbul. A smuggler assures me: „It’s 100% guaranteed.” An OKO.press reporter on the refugee trail

„You’ve got a car on the Polish side? I’ll pay you 1,000 euros for each passenger,” says one of them. Another snorts with laughter: “I’ll give you 1,500.” This is a tale of a reporter who traveled on the refugee trail himself: starting in the Middle East, through Minsk, to the Poland-Belarus border...

Publikujemy angielską wersję tekstu, który ukazał się w OKO.press:

Tekst przetłumaczyła pro bono nasza czytelniczka, mieszkająca w USA, która chce pozostać anonimowa. „Nie oczekuję niczego w zamian – traktuję to jako możliwość pomocy osobom na granicy” – napisała. Nasz tłumaczka dodała od siebie wyjaśnienia w kwadratowych nawiasach, jak pisze, dla większego zrozumienia angielskiego czy amerykańskiego czytelnika. Czasem to parę słów, a czasem całe zdanie wyjaśniające.

Bardzo doceniamy włożony wysiłek i dziękujemy w imieniu czytelników. Wkrótce kolejne "angielskie" odcinki niezwykłego reportażu Szymona Opryszka, przetłumaczone przez panią Agnieszkę.

As I’m walking through the Aksaray neighborhood, the tangled innards of the European part of Istanbul, I am guided by my nose. The smell of Chinese fabrics wafts through the air amid the shouts of peddlers, blending with the aromas of fried Vietnamese fare and the odor of sheepskins from Uzbekistan. Nothing is put on the back burner here, whether it’s cargo services, airplane tickets, or money transfers: everything happens on a fast track – our reporter, Szymon Opryszek, writes from Istanbul.

This is the first in a series of reports by OKO.press. Szymon Opryszek set out on a lone journey along the trail taken by thousands of refugees arriving at the Poland-Belarus border. In Istanbul, where many of them begin their journey along the Belarusian trail to Poland and then – if they’re lucky – to Europe, he talks with smugglers, asking about the cost and popular routes. The smugglers, fed a story about a beautiful Jamila, take the bait... The second episode takes place in Minsk. Those that come after will be ever more dramatic.

Dozens of half-naked mannequins are guarding a hidden world which is unnoticeable at first sight. In Aksaray, a regional hub for human trafficking, a land of migrants, forgers, and smugglers of anything that can be smuggled, the real meaning is always found between the lines. A flickering fluorescent light next to the entrance of the Real Life hotel, towering over the marketplace, seems to be the only unambiguous object within view.

Here, you can buy almost anything you need: cargo pants, hiking boots, freeze-dried meals, a Greek driving license, a Syrian passport, a one-way trip to Germany. Cash only.

Ahmed and Jamila’s eyes

I’m looking for Ahmed on a narrow street that smells of boiled chickpeas, but none of the neighbors have ever heard of him. I make a call, send a message, and wait. He arrives. Ahmed, who it turns out is not Ahmed, seats himself, hunching behind a desk. Behind his back, a map of Turkey holds onto a wall from which old paint is peeling. This office hardly fits two chairs: the backrest of one of them sticks out the door.

“Love, then?” Ahmed asks. He looks about 40, he’s got a goatee, his arms are covered in faded tattoos, and his nails are chewed up.

I nod and I show him Jamila, whose picture on my smartphone screen smiles at Ahmed. I tell him how we met in a refugee camp in Lebanon: she arrived there during the war in Syria, while I worked there as a volunteer. In a couple of days, we’re supposed to meet in Istanbul, and from there we’re going to Minsk where we will separate again: she will set out into the forest, while I’ll be waiting on the Polish side.

We are looking for someone who’s going to organize Jamila’s passage through the forest. Someone who will ease our fears. I’m worried about her. She’s scared of the dark forest, a difficult journey, and the border patrol.

“Beautiful eyes,” Ahmed glances at Jamila’s picture again.

I wasn’t expecting a romantic among the smugglers. I agree, they’re beautiful.

“I know what I’m talking about. It’s my job. I look people in the eyes and I know if they’ll be able to overcome their fear.”

“And?” I gesture for him to continue.

“I see eyes ready for the journey. Somber, but determined,” he says, but in broken English.

What were the eyes of those who, with Ahmed’s help, boarded boats in Bodrum or Izmir and set out on the Mediterranean Sea toward Greece? Blindly staring into the motionless darkness? Terrified? Prayerful? This is how I imagine them, but this is not what I came here to talk about.

“One could have been afraid of the boats. But now? Belarus?” Ahmed snorts and then snaps his fingers. “It’s only a 10-mile walk through a forest. You must have faith in the wisdom of this woman. Do this for her.”

What I don’t tell Ahmed is that Jamila’s eyes belong to a Syrian woman whose picture I’ve found on the 20th page of a Google search. I set it as my phone’s wallpaper, and I made up our entire love story to support this investigation.

I found Ahmed’s phone number on one of the private Facebook groups, where those interested in the Belarusian trail exchange information. I wrote to more than a dozen middlemen: most of them used Turkish phone numbers, there were also some from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Greece. Ahmed responded because I referred to his client, who boasted on Facebook that he had arrived in Germany in August. I gained his trust.

Ahmed snaps his fingers: “The river is not a sea”

At the end of September, as we were communicating through a messaging app, Ahmed offered that he could obtain a Belarusian visa for Jamila for 2,500 dollars. I thanked him for the offer, and explained that we were going to apply for it “officially”. Because of the interest in trips to Belarus, many travel agencies offer tour packages (visa, transportation, hotel, sightseeing) for 1,500 to 2,500 dollars.

Toward the end of August, large numbers of internet agencies started to pop up, with made-up addresses in big cities in the Middle East. Some of them wink at the customers, like the Jordanian dealer named “One Way”. When I suggested, while exchanging messages with this agency, that I am looking for transport across the border, I got a crisp reply: all we do is strictly legal; you get a visa, a hotel, and an opportunity to see a statue of Lenin. Dozens of such intermediaries can be found online. Still, the majority of them sell one-way tickets.

Ahmed explained that smugglers offer prices that are similar to those set by the travel agencies, but they’re faster and more effective in obtaining the visas. Above all, they also provide transport to the border with Poland, and then, for an additional charge, to Germany. How much? 2,500 to 3,000 dollars for transport from Minsk to Germany. This is what I came to Istanbul for. Ahmed tried to convince me that my trip was unnecessary, that I could pay from anywhere in the world, but I insisted on coming. And on finding out what happens behind the scenes in the smugglers’ business.

For now, all I’m buying is time. I’m telling Ahmed that Jamila keeps having nightmares at night, that she hears bombs exploding. Ahmed sighs. Unexpectedly, he offers the sole confession of our whole conversation: that he also lost everything in the war. After that, he led me to a dingy room, where now, paddling with his fingers along the Western Bug River [a river along the Poland-Belarus border], he shows me a pin marking the meeting place where a driver will be waiting for Jamila on the Polish side.

During our conversation on love and war, I find it hard to see a soulless smuggler in him. But I do see a salesman who’s hawking faulty merchandise.

I admit to him that I have a lot of doubts. Will Jamila be able to manage it? “The river is not a sea.” Is she going to be cold? “It’s just a few hours of strolling through a forest, she’ll be fine.” What if she’s stopped by the border guards? “They let everyone in, the media are just trying to frighten people so that they give this route up.”

Has he heard of refugees camping near the border? “Propaganda.” What if she gets lost?

Ahmed shows me more pins on the map. We’re traversing the area south of the Białowieża Forest. He speaks about the route with a grand enthusiasm, as if Jamila and I are about to go on our honeymoon.

“There are no people who haven’t succeeded. 100% guaranteed,” Ahmed assures me. “It’s a 3-hour excursion. Can you imagine? And then you’ll see those beautiful eyes.”

Mustafa: Would you like me to print you a Polish passport?

„A self-respecting smuggler does not allow himself any blunders. First, it’s about the reputation, because your circle of operation is among your acquaintances and their acquaintances, who recommend you to their acquaintances, and so on and on. And second, there is the payment. We only get the full sum after the trip from point A to point B is completed. Of course, there are frauds, but not among Syrians,” Mustafa explains.

He’s the second smuggler that I’ve met. He knows that I am a journalist, and he agrees to talk with me.

We’re sitting in a pool hall in one of the popular neighborhoods in Istanbul. The waiter has spread out a deck of cards on our table, lined with green cloth. The waves of cigarette smoke make it difficult to see a photograph of a passport printing machine. Supposedly, one can obtain such a machine on the black market for 45 thousand euros. Mustafa shows me a clip in which a laser beam is working at the speed of a young graffiti painter. Within a few seconds, a face is printed on the document, and when hair is added to the picture, Mustafa laughs out loud.

“Do you have a Polish passport? I could print you one in two or three days. Undetectable. Only last year it cost 1,800 dollars, and now the price is 3,000 dollars. There is a large demand from Syrians, which began three months ago where the whole business with Belarusian visas took off.

Mustafa looks like Burt Reynolds in “The Man Who Loved Women,” although he’s got longer hair. He yawns often. The booming popularity of the Belarusian trail blurred his nights and days. Today, he only woke up shortly before 2 p.m.; at dawn, he was still making calls, negotiating, receiving messages, waiting for news.

“Nobody wants to stay in Syria. We’ve got the most experience in migration, if I can call it that. This is why Syrian smugglers are the best. Our services are also used by Afghans, Yemenis, or Iraqi Kurds,” he argues.

Mustafa comes from Syria himself. For most of his adult life, he managed a store in the city of A’zaz. When the war came, bombs destroyed not only his business, but also his home. He joined the Free Syrian Army then, which fought against the military forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In 2012, he was shot by a sniper during the siege of Menagh Air Base. The bullet became lodged in his arm. He managed to escape to Turkey, where he was treated for several months; to this day, he has not regained a full range of movement in his right arm. He’s been living in Istanbul for seven years now. He did not set out to become a smuggler right away. He tried legal jobs: among others, he managed a cigarette store. However, his fellow countrymen started reaching out for his help in various situations. Over time, he built his network of contacts.

Nobody talks about Poland

„Imagine your cousin calls and says ‘I want to go through Belarus.’ What do you do?”

“I tell him that I’d go myself. But the truth is, my clients are mostly already decided, so we only attend to formalities. I don’t need to convince anyone. And if they do ask about it, I say that there has never been a trail as safe as this one.”

“Safe?” I ask incredulously.

“There’s never been a better route to Europe, whether on a boat or on a truck.”

„There are people who die at the border, whole families are starving!” I protest, and I show Mustafa pictures from social media, including those made by activists from the Polish Border Group. Simply seeing them makes me feel cold: I almost hear excruciating cries of children and migrants pleading for mercy. I can’t believe it when Mustafa shrugs his shoulders.

“How many people have died? A few. And how many have died on the sea?” he asks rhetorically. “Nobody talks about those who made it through. Based on my wallet, I can see that most succeed on the Belarusian trail.”

“What do you mean?”

“A large fraction of money is only sent to us when the shipment reaches its destination. The clients pay some amount in advance, but almost half of the entire price is put in an account at a money transfer company. There are a lot of such businesses in Aksaray, and even secret services use them. When the migrants reach Germany, we are given an access code that allows us to withdraw the money.

You ask whether anyone defrauds the migrants? The only way to get your money back is to come back here in person, which is impossible once you’re in Germany. Besides, no one wants to pick a fight with smugglers. We have all the evidence, for example in the form of forged passports.”

“Where do migrants want to go?”

“There are different seasons. In the spring, the trend was still to go to Great Britain or Canada. Now everyone wants to go to Germany or Scandinavia again.”

“What about Poland?”

“Nobody talks about Poland. Maybe the Afghans, who simply want to get away as far as possible from the war. But when they reach Istanbul and hear the rates, they decide to stay in Turkey.”

The rates for the trail through Belarus and Poland are fixed. Smugglers make sure that nobody lowers the price. The route from Minsk to Germany costs 2,500 dollars for those who endeavor to go through the Poland-Belarus border on their own. The option with a guide to lead them through the border may cost even a thousand dollars more.

“How much of the money is for you?”, I ask.

„It varies depending on the cost of the logistics. Drivers in Belarus get from us a hundred dollars because they don’t assume any risk: what they do is entirely legal, as if they were transporting tourists. The situation is worse in Poland. We have Poles, Russians, Georgians, and even Syrians with German passports, but we are short on cars,” Mustafa admits.

The smuggler. Am I good or bad?

I’m telling Mustafa about a smuggler who claimed to live in Saudi Arabia (although he was using a Greek phone number). I shared my Jamila story with him through a messenger app. When he found out that I was a Pole, he offered to pay me a thousand euros for every migrant delivered to the German border.

Mustafa bursts out laughing: “You’ve got a car? I’ll give you one and a half thousand. Right now.”

Then the smuggler admits that there are many more beneficiaries of the illegal business, and a large fraction of the money from each immigrant disappears on its way to the seller.

“It’s a network without a beginning or an end. There’s a rule to not reach farther than the closest contact. I respect it because I know that someone in power had to look the other way,” says Mustafa. Who? The smuggler lists secret services, national governments, and Russian mafia. “Everyone around here makes money. Look at the travel agencies or airlines. They also immediately adjusted the itineraries they offer to meet the demand.”

Our common friend, who’s translating the conversation, excuses himself to the restroom. We remain in silence for a while, and then I show Mustafa messages from other smugglers with whom I have negotiated rates for a trip from Turkey to Germany.

“For the journey, take a cold-weather sleeping bag, get three power banks and a flashlight, stock up on provisions. Take three days’ worth of food and two quarts of water. You’ll be able to refill the bottles with fresh water on the road. Your backpack should not weigh more than about 20 pounds. It’s only three miles, but it’s possible that you’ll have to run.” Mustafa gives the advice a thumbs up.

“I’m from Russia, I speak English. I’m offering a quick journey with the help of Belarusian services.” Mustafa scowls and hisses that it’s Russian mafia.

Finally, I show him a message from one of the migrants who crossed the border several times. “It’s dangerous. They beat us up. We ran out of water and we were short on food. It was cold. Don’t do it.” Mustafa lowers his eyes.

“Do you think you’re a good person?” I ask Mustafa at the end.

“I have my rules. There are some things that I don’t do. For example, I do not forge Turkish passports, because I don’t want to mess with the country that I call home. And I’ve never worked with boats. It’s too risky. I wouldn’t endanger the lives of so many people.”

“You haven’t answered the question.”

“Because you wouldn’t understand. Neither me nor my clients have anything to lose at this point. We’ve lost everything: homes, families, country, future. I’m not afraid for myself or for these people. We’re all fighting for survival. When I’m helping a Syrian mother whose child is starving and has no opportunities to get an education, am I the bad one or the good one?”

The airport and 40 nervous hiking boots

A day before the flight from Istanbul to Minsk, I’m exchanging messages with Ahmed. “Confirm the trip. Send the money. The flight is at 7:10 am. Don’t go to the wrong airport,” says a message from Ahmed.

I don’t know how to respond. Another message: “There are other people waiting for her spot.”

“Who’s going to go with her?” I inquire.

Ahmed stops replying. The next day at 6 a.m., near the D6 gate at the international airport in Istanbul, I don’t need to raise my eyes from the ground to see people with whom Jamila would share the hardships of travel.

I see a dozen or so flip-flops, sitting at ease between the chairs, that belong to handball players from SKA-Minsk going back through Istanbul after winning a sports cup against the Icelandic FH Hafnarfjörður. I see some tennis shoes, high-heels that are too high, a dozen sneakers worn by Asian tourists in weatherproof gear.

And the biggest number, over 40, of tall hiking boots. They nervously pace back and forth, waiting for a new life.

Udostępnij:

Szymon Opryszek

Szymon Opryszek - niezależny reporter, wspólnie z Marią Hawranek wydał książki "Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki" (2016) oraz "Wyhoduj sobie wolność" (2018). Specjalizuje się w Ameryce Łacińskiej. Obecnie pracuje nad książką na temat kryzysu wodnego. Autor reporterskiego cyklu "Moja zbrodnia to mój paszport" nominowanego do nagrody Grand Press i nagrodzonego Piórem Nadziei Amnesty International.

Komentarze

Komentarze będą wkrótce dostępne