Step by Step: How to flee from war torn Syria
by Felix Knoke
On the evening of 22nd March 2015, Mohammed’s entire family came over for a last dinner. His uncle was there already, while his sisters and brothers-in-law had brought sweets with them to belatedly celebrate Syrian Mother’s Day. Mohammed felt like screaming, yet none of them could find out that tomorrow morning he would disappear and they would perhaps never see him again. Only his parents were privy to his plans: Tomorrow morning at 5 am he would climb aboard a truck at a secret meeting point, hide himself behind a few crates of tomatoes and drive to the Turkish border with a human trafficker. The drive is dangerous and long: 400 kilometres through a war zone with military posts every few kilometres, it would take at least half a day. Following this he would climb through a hole in the border fence and into Turkey, take a taxi to the Mediterranean coast and hand over a few thousand dollars to another trafficker, so that he would take him across the sea to Italy in a completely overfilled cargo ship. From here he would somehow make his way North, to Sweden ideally, and start a new life there, finally leaving this war, this madness behind. At least that was Mohammed’s plan. Yet he knew the stories of those who had tried it before him: Those betrayed by traffickers and murdered by soldiers, those who drowned in the Mediterranean, suffocated in the engine room or, completely drained, were beaten half to death by bandits in the woods.
Mohammed knew the risks. But to stay here, in his home village of Badda, would mean certain death. Mohammed wanted no part to play in the civil war and because of this he was already on the run, long before he left his country. A deserter, who was being hunted down by the Syrian army. So he listened to those who kept his hopes alive, to his friends, who were waiting for asylum in a reception camp somewhere in Europe. Those, who had lost friends along the way and somehow survived the most unbearable hardships, yet who at least had something that Mohammed only knew from memories of the past: a future.
I met Mohammed over the Internet. A Dutch journalist met Mohammed on the Greek island of Lesbos and chronicled his journey as a collection of WhatsApp messages on Facebook. For weeks I followed how Mohammed went through the Balkan, was put in prison or fought with his injury. This live report was as exciting as it was touching — but most of all it didn’t fulfil my naïve expectations of how fleeing actually works. Mohammed wasn’t a particle in “a chaotic influx of refugees”. Mohammed wasn’t on the run from but rather pursuing something. He was someone who took all his financial, mental and social resources to give himself to provide himself with a new perspective.
When Mohammed arrived at his destination in the Netherlands, I met him at the CAP reception camp in Budel. For three days I interviewed him about all details of his journey, we reconstructed his whole trip, created staged plans and kept account on all his spendings and contacts. I was surprised by his openness, that sometimes bordered on exposure. But that was on purpose, Mohammed told me.
“No one understands how hard it is to be a refugee. But if I can help spreading some understanding, maybe those who come after me will have it a bit easier.”
Escaping from Syrian
The future was something that Mohammed had seen disappear three years ago. He had finished his degree in English literature and Egyptian at the University of Damascus, when he moved to the East-Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor as part of his obligatory military service. Mohammed had no desire to be a soldier. Had his parents had enough money, they would perhaps have relieved him from his military service. Just 5,000 dollars, maybe then he would have been spared all of this. Nevertheless he was one of the lucky ones: Instead of learning how to handle weapons, he was allowed to teach his major’s daughters English.
A few months later the Arab Spring arrives in Syria. In just a few weeks, the demonstrations against the al-Assad regime have become an insurgence. The police are shooting at unarmed demonstrators. People are dying. Things are escalating fast. Mohammed and his unit also now have orders to shoot those opposing the regime. Yet they refuse to do so and decide as a group to desert. The soldiers and their major manage to flee in one of their military transporters during the night. Now there is only one course of action: to join the newly formed Free Syrian Army (FSA), who provide protection and a safe escape route to deserters such as them.
For weeks on end Mohammed and his group of 35 deserters are lead on a zigzag course across the war zone. From one village under rebel control to the next, running a life-threatening gauntlet under fire from government forces. For the first time in his life, Mohammed sees what war truly means. His comrades seem less contemplative and more euphoric. There’s a video of them, hanging from the windows of a pickup like football fans, pointing the Kalashnikovs of the FSA to the sky. Only Mohammed walks with his hanging head alongside them. You can sense the euphoria of his former comrades: they have survived the snipers’ bullets and fighter jets, crossed the Euphrates in a tiny boat, taken shelter from the tank shells and endured the bombardments in rebel regions. Just one more leg of this journey and they’ll finally be safe.
Bloody rubble & a hole in the head
A few days later and of the 35 deserters only 2 remain alive: Mohammed and a friend. A regional leader had given the group up to the government forces. Mohammed only survived by chance. His home village Badda was on the escape route, so he and the friend were sent ahead. The rest of the group wanted to make their way through the Qalamoun Mountains to Eastern Syria but there was an army helicopter waiting for them, shooting dead all of the deserters — it was a massacre.
Mohammed didn’t get much of what had happened. He was at his parents’ house when he heard the helicopter and the many shots being fired just a few kilometres away. An hour or so later came the first rumours and a lot later the video. It’s a horrific video but Mohammed wants people to see it. He could also be left lying there like his friends, with the foot of a triumphant soldier on his back in the bloody rubble, his chest blown open, a hole in the back of his head, his hands tied behind his back.
The fact that he could not stay in Syria, was something Mohammed knew in the moment he deserted. Yet now he had a measure of the risk he must be willing to endure upon his urgent escape to Europe.
Three years in hiding
Mohammed’s parents had other plans. They outright forbade their son from fleeing. To leave the village was far too dangerous and, apart from that, everything was going to be fine again soon, anyway. Mohammed obeyed. Three years he held out with his family, helped his father to load the vegetables onto the truck and gave English lessons to friends. No day passed without fear and, of course, nothing got better. More and more often, government soldiers barged into the village and arrested both real and alleged rebels and destroyed houses with bombs and fire. Once they even seized his brother: Where is Mohammed? On another day they stormed the house 4 four times, yet Mohammed escaped because a relative with contacts had warned the family. The war was now taking place in the heart of Badda, at some point his parents understood this too — and let him leave. At that moment, more than anything, Mohammed felt a sense of relief. The time of helpless fear was over. In its place emerged once more the feeling of control over his own existence.
All too often, the act of fleeing is falsely represented. Those who flee know exactly what they are doing. It’s an enormous undertaking, which requires intensive planning, competent decision-making and strict management of resources. For those, who decide to flee, there is no way back. The only thing that matters is the refugee’s mantra of “always moving forwards”. Those, who are too slow or get stuck lose time and with it money. Only with money can you pay the traffickers, who will help you overcome the large distances and obstacles along the way.
On the other hand you must avoid anything that could delay your progress: above all deceitful traffickers, closed-off routes, the police and skirmishes with bureaucracy. You can not get ill or be old, you should not have women or children with you. Those that are too slow must take greater risks, or rather take the riskier but also quicker and supposedly easy routes: an inflatable boat across the sea or a refrigerated transporter through the Channel tunnel. The higher risk is not necessarily a result of poor decision-making but rather within the “forever forwards” logic of flight it becomes the rational choice.
The costs of fleeing
Mohammed had thought long and hard about the ideal escape route. It’s a bit like planning a holiday, where the accommodation costs are low, the travel costs immense and the itinerary very tight. The simplest way out is always the most expensive. For a flight with fake documents from Greece to Northern Europe, Mohammed would have had to pay 7,000 to 8,000 Euro. The chances of getting caught however are extremely high. Those who can only afford one attempt at escape, tend to therefore choose the maritime route. The boat from Turkey to a Greek island costs 1,000 dollars standard rate. In order to not get stuck in Greece — there’s no future there either — you have to then make your way across land to central Europe: A long and complex route with many dead-ends.
Mohammed decided for something in between: travelling by car from Syria to Turkey and then by boat to Italy. All in all that should cost 6,500 Euros. Additional costs include between 200 and 900 Euros for each car journey with a trafficker, the possibility of several hundred Euros in bribes and the costs of living, some 10 Euros per day on the run.
No one in Mohammed’s family had this amount of money, but nevertheless they had annual incomes. Therefore his father sold a piece of his fig plantation in order to facilitate his son’s attempted escape. With this sum of money he would first of all pay the Syrian trafficker and then transfer the rest to Mohammed once he had crossed the border. His son should by no means become a walking wallet during the most dangerous part of his journey.
“Travel light” was also a tip Mohammed had received from other refugees, with whom he was in constant contact via WhatsApp and Facebook. With this in mind he filled a simple laptop bag with two pairs of trousers and two shirts, his real and fake documents, a razor and toothbrush, some loose change and the power cable for his smartphone. After every border crossing he would buy new clothes so as not to stick out as a refugee. His smartphone was the only thing of any real importance. With this he would keep in contact with his family, traffickers and other refugees, pinpoint his location and be able to change his plans spontaneously. In order to discourage thieves he chose an older model with a small screen: It had a good reputation among other refugees because it looked cheap but was robust and had a good antenna.
Mohammed got the contact to a trafficker from an acquaintance. He was to take him out of Badda to the Turkish border: A completely normal truck driver, who every now and again would also hide refugees in his trailer and take 500 Euros per person — payable in cash after each successful journey.
Mohammed the Refugee
On the night before his escape Mohammed excused himself from the party of celebrating relatives with the excuse of preparing an English lesson for the neighbour. Two days earlier the trafficker had told him to wait on the corner for a truck at five in the morning on 23rd March 2015: I’ll stop for a second and my mate will open the door for you. Jump in and go right to the back. Don’t be scared, there’s someone else coming with us. And above all: “Don’t be scared. Don’t move at all. Then nothing will happen to you.” Mohammed lay awake for almost the entire night. He was consumed with fear, hope and sorrow. Downstairs his siblings and relatives were celebrating but he mustn’t sense their solace. He had too much to lose. This was his only chance.
From Badda to A’zaz
The journey among the crates of tomatoes went almost completely according to plan. The person he was not to be scared of was an old school friend. That was the first piece of good news. Together it is easier to overcome the fear, when the truck slows down again for another military checkpoint, the driver haggles far too abruptly about the size of the bribe or a soldier lifts the tarpaulin. After 13 hours the truck stops for a final time. They have reached the Syrian border town of A’zaz.
And it was only here that he found out the two other passengers: out of a metal box hidden under the truck bed crawled two Syrians, hardly able to walk or even sit. They had no papers and couldn’t get faked ones, so they had to accept this hardship. But they didn’t complain. There were people doing way worse than Mohammed. But there were also people, who couldn’t do anything at all anymore.
From A’zaz to Mersin
From A’zaz it is only a short walk to the border and Mohammed wants to get to the Turkish coastal town of Mersin as quickly as possible. However crossing the border is harder than it seems. Since a car bomb sent 16 people to their death here a year ago the border is closed. The locals say that anyone approaching the border will be shot. It’s better to try North of Aleppo: In Bab al-Salam (The Gate of Peace) the Free Syrian Army cut a hole in the border fence for refugees every night.
The tip off is good and lots of other Syrians have been given it too. Mohammed sees how hundreds of them have hidden themselves in the long grass. He lies down with them and waits for the signal, for hours on end. Then suddenly the race is on. There’s pushing and shoving because things aren’t moving quickly enough. Babies are screaming, parents are calling despairingly for their children. Those who don’t manage it now, before the Turkish gendarmes come, have missed their chance. Mohammed is lucky: A strong man’s hand reaches out of the darkness towards him and pulls him into Turkey. He runs towards the woods behind the border — and sees taxis. Completely normal taxis. They don’t ask where to go. Everyone here is headed the same way: To Killis and then to Mersin on the Mediterranean. Then finally, off to Europe.
From Mersin to Lesbos
In Mersin Mohammed’s cousin is waiting for him. He too has recently fled from Syria but he has bad news. The traffickers are barely offering any boats to Italy. The situation for refugees in the Mediterranean is getting worse and worse. For over a month they wait together for a signal from the traffickers. It is a strange time and Mohammed’s morale sinks considerably. Yet on the other hand he feels for the first time in years what it means to be free again. At night the streetlights glow, the people smile here. No one is going to shoot him.
Every evening Mohammed sits at the beach with his cousin. They hear about the rising death toll in the Mediterranean but it doesn’t dissuade them. One evening there are pictures of a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa on TV: 700 refugees dead. He receives a message on his phone from his mother. “Have you not seen the pictures on TV? Do you not know how dangerous it is? Please don’t go!” But what can they do? Continue travelling over land and get stuck somewhere in Southern Europe? They know how refugees are treated in Macedonia, Hungary and Serbia. There’s no future for them there either. Better to entrust their passage to the sea.
“It feels like a gigantic risk. You are risking everything. You risk your money and you risk your life. But if you have no choice, if there is no way back, if you are stuck, you simply have to do it. It’s the only option. Even if it’s far too dangerous.”
At some point the trafficker does get it touch. He’s giving up. It’s too risky for him. He’s looking for a better route in the North. If you’re smart, he says, you’ll do the same and cross over to the Greek island of Lesbos in the North and go the rest of the way on foot.
On the same evening they take a bus to Izmir and find a new trafficker, who organises inflatable boats to Greece. Mohammed let’s his father know and he transfers several thousand Euros to Izmir. Mohammed drops of the 1,000 Euros for the trafficker at a kind of notary’s office. If the crossing is successful then the trafficker receives a code to redeem the cash. This method is popular but risky. Again and again the notaries make off with the refugees money; a friend of Mohammed’s even got his arm broken for one of these codes. Yet what is without risk on such a journey as this?
Crossing to Europe
The first attempt fails because the police discover the trafficker’s truck, although Mohammed and his cousin get their money back. Nevertheless they decide to use a different trafficker for their second attempt. He is an old Syrian, who lets his clients spend the night at his place and is yet to lose a tour. That speaks for him. They should be ready at sundown, it’s then they will be picked up. Mohammed quickly buys himself a good life jacket from town for 40 Euros and a balloon to protect his smartphone from the seawater. At the arranged time a completely overcrowded truck brings them to a beach two hours North of Izmir, where a dispute breaks out immediately. The trafficker had promised them two inflatable boats, yet the refugees can only see one: five or six metres long, a raggedy piece of rubber with an out-board motor. But it’s too late now anyway. 48 people climb aboard the boat and one of them grabs the rudder. It’s only 10 kilometres to Greece, they can see Europe already, but the boat is barely moving forwards. Then the young tillerman suddenly lets go of the rudder. He is shaking and pleads that he has never steered a boat before in his life. He has no idea where they are headed. He is just doing it because he didn’t have any money for the crossing and the trafficker made him an offer: Cross for free but take the risk of being arrested as a refugee smuggler. The passengers are up in arms but before the situation can escalate, a father, who has his children on board, grabs the rudder and navigates the last few kilometres to Lesbos. The boat descends into silence.
All arrive safely. They take selfies and sing, while two Greeks disassemble the boat and take away the motor. At this point there is no sign of the police. Mohammed can hardly believe his luck but he doesn’t laugh or sing. Instead he writes to his parents: “I’ve made it. I am in Europe.” He can only think about what is yet to come. His flight from Syria is over but his flight through Europe has only just begun.
From Lesbos to Athens
A female American activist leads the new arrivals from Syria to the police station. They are treated well, even if it’s all too clear that the island’s infrastructure is creaking at this surge of refugees. In the past around 150 people arrived on Lesbos every day, whereas now it is more like 1,000. Yet they receive their papers without objection, allowing them to stay in Greece for the next six months — even if none of them plan on doing so. A ferry will nevertheless take them to Athens tomorrow. The 50 Euros for a ticket they must pay themselves.
During the crossing Mohammed and his cousin decide upon a new route. They shall leave Greece via Thessaloniki as soon as possible, then travel through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany to Holland. There, Mohammed has heard, the situation for refugees is supposedly good.
From Athens to Gevgelija — First Try
The journey to Northern Europe begins with difficultly. Because they are not permitted to use public transport, Mohammed and his cousin, together with a small group of Syrians, walk for 12 hours along the main motorway to the Greek border village of Evzoni. Exhausted they seek help from a policeman, who wishes to aid them on the journey. It is however a trap. The policeman breaks his promise and has them all driven back to Thessaloniki. After barely any rest the group sets out the next day anew: 50 kilometres on foot.
This time they achieve a breakthrough. Together they hide their rucksacks with the superfluous clothing and the fake documents (they only needed them in Syria) in the undergrowth. They plan to buy new clothes in the town of Gevgelija, four hours away on foot — and should they be sent back to Greece again, their things will be waiting for them in the woods.
This caution pays off: The police discover the refugees’ camp under a bridge and they disperse as the police attack. In the chaos that ensues Mohammed loses his papers — what a beginner’s mistake! But he gets them back from a boy who had found them and now wants to sell them to Mohammed for 10 Euros. Mohammed pays straight away, but his relief is short lived. The police pick them up once more and send them back across the border.
From Athens to Gevgelija — Second Try
At the third attempt they cross the border in groups of two. Everything seems to be going well, yet Mohammed’s body can no longer keep up with the strain. During the day the sun beats down and at night his mind is full of thoughts. He is terribly exhausted, can barely sleep and then he sprains his ankle while taking a leak in the woods. His joint swells up. The idea of carrying on is impossible; the others from the group can only help so much. Mohammed makes a tough decision: He splits from the group and says goodbye to his cousin. Without him it shall be much easier. He must first regain his strength.
Yet nothing seems to help. Over and over again, the police pick him up and demand that he leave the village. But how? In the woods the mafia is waiting, a Syrian warns him, the only trafficker around is a murderer and a thief, the locals tell him and he’s not allowed to take the bus to the nearby town of Stromitsa, the police remind him. When the police pick him up for a fourth time, he simply collapses with despair in front of the police station. Only then does a small miracle occur. The initial anger shown by the police towards this unruly refugee transforms into compassion. They’re going to give him a chance. Take the bus today at four, they say. We won’t check. The police keep their word and in doing so allow a good dozen other Syrians to continue their journey.
From Gevgelija to Belgrade
The border to Serbia is tightly controlled, so Mohammed searches for the number of a trafficker via WhatsApp. It works like a taxi service. There’s a telephone operator, the drivers and somewhere, remaining hidden, the person who profits. In this case it’s 500 Euros for an eight-hour hike during the night through the forest on the Serbian border and a bus ride to Belgrade. It’s the same here: Refugees everywhere. All the hotels are overfilled, rental apartments are full. They’re sleeping in the parks and backyards and squeezing onto park benches. Mohammed wants to head to Hungary as soon as possible — then he’s almost made it. Once again he walks the last few metres to the border and as ever, he’s part of a small group. The refugee’s rule of thumb: As a group over the border and alone across country.
From Belgrade to the prison of Nyírbátor
Mohammed’s group can bribe the first police patrol (they’re everywhere). The second arrests them and takes them to Budapest. For Mohammed this isn’t that bad. It’s on his way to Vienna. But at the police station, crammed into a small cell with the policemen and their mean intentions, he starts to fear for his life. This is completely different to the cell in Gevgelija. The police give each of them the choice: Allow their fingerprints to be taken or get sent to prison. Perhaps you have to be a refugee to understand the dramatic nature of this situation: Anyone allowing their fingerprints to be taken in a certain country may later be deported to this country and you don’t want to be a refugee in Hungary, Serbia or Macedonia. That’s why many of the refugees, Mohammed included, opt for prison: 270 kilometres to the East in Nyírbátor on the Ukrainian border.
From Nyírbátor to Vienna
For Mohammed, this is the hardest time of his journey. For two weeks he’s damned to do nothing at all. There are no books, there’s no telephone, just now and then a few minutes on the Internet at a group computer. They’re treated like second-class citizens. He falls into a deep depression, from which he’s awoken by a loudspeaker announcement 13 days later. He’s being taken back to Serbia — and from here he tries for a second time to cross over into Hungary. Once again a police patrol wants a bribe and once again the group is arrested but Mohammed manages to run away through the woods and hurries to the Hungarian city of Szeged on foot. He then gets a trafficker to take him to Budapest for 150 Euros and from there to Vienna he pays another 250 Euros.
Hidden on the back seat, he drives across the border into Austria and notices an unknown feeling arising within himself. It is a sense of existential relief: “I no longer have to be afraid. I have made it.”
From Vienna to Amsterdam
From that point on everything seems to take care of itself. He spends a week in Vienna and then travels with a friend through Germany to Holland. On 26th June, almost three months after Mohammed had climbed into that tomato truck just outside his village of Badda in Syria, he steps out of a car in Amsterdam. His beard has grown and his naturally dark eyes are bloodshot, his feet are raw and his hands calloused. He has a small bag with him, the contents of which he empties onto a table: What’s left of his documents, a pair of socks, his scratched telephone and a disposable razor. For the future that’s all he needs.
“I did everything right. I was careful and I was patient. I am here and I am alive.”
Translation: Pete Littlewood, email@example.com