Nujeen, p.9Nujeen Mustafa
When Albert died of typhoid aged just forty-two, Victoria wrote that she had a ‘heavy broken heart’. She never really recovered. I’d never thought that queens could have broken hearts too.
Another interesting fact. Victoria’s first name was actually Alexandrina and she was named after the grandson of Catherine the Great, Tsar Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and was one of my Romanovs.
Oh we needed a mighty queen or a Romanov to deal with all the problems in Syria. You might not know, but many years ago we did have a powerful queen in Syria: she is on our 500-pound banknotes. Her name was Zenobia and she was a descendant of Cleopatra. She was born in the third century AD in Palmyra and like Victoria she became queen very young, in her twenties, and had her own empire, the Palmyrene. She was so audacious she took on the might of Rome, the world’s greatest empire, and conquered Egypt and much of what is today Turkey. A woman doing that. Daesh hate her!
We’d spent a year in Gaziantep, but the chances of going back to Syria seemed to be getting more and more remote. Daesh were spreading like a plague. I refuse to call them Islamic State as who said they are a state? Can I just become Nujeen State? Of course not!
Just after we left Manbij in August 2014, they besieged Mount Sinjar where thousands of Yazidis had fled after Daesh massacred hundreds of their people in surrounding villages including children, telling them to convert or lose their heads, and seized hundreds of women to rape and enslave. Seeing those desperate people trapped on the mountain with no food or water finally made the world do something. The US and British helped Iraqi forces airlift the Yazidis off the mountain, and the following month the US and a few Arab countries like Jordan, UAE and Bahrain began airstrikes in Syria. A bit late, Mr Obama.
After the Sinjar massacre, Daesh headed towards Kobane and everyone thought they would do the same there, so the whole city was evacuated, including our sister Jamila and lots of our family. Only Kurdish fighters from the YPG stayed behind. We were watching it on YouTube, everyone queuing up at the border fence with desperate faces like in war movies and their belongings in bags and bundles. We were also on the phone to people there who said it felt like Doomsday. Ayee said she’d dreamt Daesh had taken over the city. Kobane was a Kurdish city and always had been, so it was an awful feeling to have Daesh trying to capture it. I really didn’t want something else bad added to our calendar, along with the Halabja massacre. We Kurds are truly the orphans of the world. As I often do in desperate situations, to calm myself I turned to the Koran and my favourite chapter or surah, Yasin, which we call the heart of the Koran and I always find comforting.
Relatives started to arrive from Kobane, including Aunt Shamsa and Uncle Bozan, and soon our apartment in Gaziantep was packed – thirty-six people came to our house. We didn’t have anywhere near enough cushions and blankets, so that first night we stayed up talking and it felt homey.
It took almost five months, until January 2015, before Daesh was pushed out of Kobane by the YPG and the US coalition air raids and people could go home. The city had been almost all destroyed in the fighting, but we don’t care if only crumbs are left as long as they are not under Daesh control.
A month later, in February 2015, came the worst thing of all – seeing Daesh burn alive a Jordanian pilot they had shot down. They locked the poor man in a cage and set fire to him and videoed the whole thing. And in May they captured our ancient city of Palmyra and beheaded an eighty-two-year-old archaeologist everyone called Mr Palmyra because he knew more about the ruins than anyone. They hung his body upside down with his head on the ground next to it, still wearing his spectacles. Then they started blowing up 2,000-year-old temples and tombs and taking sledgehammers to ancient statues.
As for Assad, he had held elections and got himself re-elected for a third seven-year term. The regime kept bombing. There isn’t a good side in this story.
Meanwhile we Syrians caught in the middle kept getting killed. Every family had a tragedy and any time the phone rang you worried. On 25 June 2015 we got a terrible phone call. Aunt Shamsa and Uncle Bozan had also moved to Turkey when Kobane was attacked but had gone back for the funeral of one of their in-laws, the father of the man married to their daughter, my cousin Dilba. He had been killed when he stepped on a landmine left behind by Daesh when they were pushed out of Kobane. My mother had begged them not to go, but Aunt Shamsa insisted, saying this would be her last visit to Syria before leaving for Europe.
But in the early hours of the morning before the funeral, men from Daesh who had shaved off their beards and dressed like our YPG People’s Protection Units came into the village of Barkh Botan on the southern edge of Kobane and went from house to house slaughtering people. In every family they left one person alive so they could tell what they had seen. Then they set off three car bombs on the edge of Kobane and cruised around in white cars or on foot killing people as they tried to flee. Snipers on rooftops killed people trying to retrieve bodies from the street.
My uncle and aunt heard the explosions and shooting and fled in their car. They called their son Mohammed and said, ‘Daesh are here and we don’t know where to go.’ Then they called him again, saying with relief they had made it to a YPG checkpoint. That was the last thing Mohammed heard from them. In fact the people at the checkpoint were Daesh and shot my uncle and aunt in the head. Dead, just like that, for nothing. That was the worst day of my life.
Around 300 ordinary people were killed in just that one night. Not surprisingly people just kept leaving Syria. By that August, 4 million Syrians had like us left the country and another 8 million had to abandon their homes, that’s like 40 per cent of the whole nation. Most had gone to neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan or Turkey like us, but these places were filling up and people could see this was going to go on for a long time, so around 350,000 had gone on to Europe. A tide of people was on the move and from what we could see on TV and heard on the news, it seemed like the EU couldn’t cope. So many people were going that just in the month before we left, the EU had 32,000 asylum applications.
Bland and Mustafa told us if we were going to go, it had to be soon.
The easiest way would be by plane, flying into an EU country then requesting asylum on landing. But you can’t get on an international flight without a passport or visa and we had neither.
That left two main ways to go. There was the central Mediterranean route via Libya across the sea to Italy, but that was hazardous. We were envious when Libya got rid of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, but now it was chaos with militias all fighting each other and the country divided between two or maybe three groups. We heard that foreigners were being picked up by police and thrown into detention centres, where they were beaten and got diseases like scabies. If they did get out and find a smuggler they were often crammed into rickety boats which got shipwrecked. In just one shipwreck in April 2015 around 800 people drowned. The safer option was the Balkan route from Turkey to Greece which was in the EU and because of the Schengen Agreement (we’d found out about that) there were no border controls and you could go from one country to the next without showing a passport.
The easiest land crossing used to be between Turkey and Greece. There is a 128-mile border between the two which runs along a river you could float across, except for 7.5 miles where the border moves away from the river. However, the Greeks have their own problems with their economic crisis and the last thing they wanted was more migrants. So in 2012 they fenced off the short land section with 12-foot barbed wire backed up by thermal cameras and border guards. That meant the only land route left was via Bulgaria, and that was how Bland had gone.
It is just under 100 miles from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border, but the problem was that the last bit was over high forested mountains. People got lost there or froze to death in the winter. Now it was summer, but there was no way of climbing in my wheelchair. Also as the numbers went up the Bulgarian border guards were beating people and setting dogs on them, and sending them back. Bland had paid
It’s actually illegal to lock up asylum seekers. The UN Convention on Refugees allows a person fleeing conflict to enter a country without paperwork – only once he or she has been refused asylum can they be locked up. But lots of EU countries had been doing it for years – Malta, Italy and Greece – and nobody did anything.
Conditions in the Bulgarian jail were terrible, but Bland’s biggest fear was that he would be fingerprinted. All migrants know about the Dublin regulation, which says a person should request refugee status in the first EU country they arrive in. Once you’ve touched the inkpad with your fingers and pressed them on paper, you are trapped in that country as it means you have registered a claim there, even unwittingly, and must stay there until authorities of that country either approve the asylum request or send you home. We’d heard of plenty of people stuck in a country they didn’t want to be in and which didn’t want them either, waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to slowly turn.
Bland knew he must avoid this, so he paid a bribe not to be fingerprinted and was released. He took a bus to Sofia and stayed three nights with a friend. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU and wasn’t at all like the wealthy Europe he had imagined. He didn’t go out as he didn’t want to end up in a Bulgarian camp, where he’d heard that conditions were appalling, with refugees packed into crowded rooms not fit for humans and given little food and only cold water for washing. If you didn’t get picked up by police, there was also the risk of being beaten up by thugs from far-right parties who were demanding immigrants out.
Bland’s friend put him in touch with a Bulgarian mafioso who charged 1,300 more euros (euros are the main currency of smugglers, though some accept dollars) to take him to a place near the border with Serbia where he was kept in a small room for three days. Then he was woken at 2 a.m. and loaded into the back of a closed food truck with thirty other refugees where they couldn’t see and could hardly breathe.
Just as they thought they were going to suffocate, the truck driver stopped and offloaded them in some woods and told them it was a two-hour walk to cross the border. A man in a mask met them to guide them and it was actually fifteen hours through cold rain. Finally inside Serbia, they were handed over to Serbians who drove them to Belgrade. From there Bland was put on a train with three other Syrians headed to a village called Horgoš near the border with Hungary. They were just starting to relax when Serbian police boarded the train and said they would send them back to Bulgaria. Bland and his fellow travellers were desperate to avoid that, so they paid 50 euros each and the police let them go.
When they got to Horgoš, they went to the park as instructed but there was no sign of the smuggler who was supposed to meet them. They waited all night in the park until at 7 a.m. he finally answered his phone. He told them to stay there and a car would come to take them, but it did not arrive till the next day. That car took them to near the border, where police had been paid to let them through, then they paid another 1,500 euros to go to Vienna in a mini-bus. By that time Bland was so suspicious he kept following the journey on Google maps to make sure he wasn’t heading back to Bulgaria. From Vienna he took a train to Germany and finally claimed asylum.
The plan was he would get residency in Germany and then send for us through a process called family reunification, which means if one family member gets asylum he or she can send for the rest. But there were so many refugees arriving he was still waiting. Meanwhile we could see on TV that waves of people were going, and we heard from many of our friends that the journey had got easier.
Nasrine was really stubborn and kept saying we should just go before Europe closed its doors, and in the end the family agreed. I never thought it would happen but when it did I was delighted. The question was how. Bland’s journey had cost more than 6,000 euros and took over a month with lots of hiking. Me, Nasrine and the wheelchair couldn’t do that. Anyway, the Bulgarian route was no longer possible. As the crisis worsened and more refugees surged into Europe, the Bulgarian government wanted the EU to come up with a long-term solution. EU ministers kept having summits and meetings. But all they did really was talk and say how bad it was. The Bulgarians got fed up and decided to copy Greece and build their own fence to keep refugees out.
So now the only way was by sea, across the Aegean to one of the Greek islands like Lesbos, Samos, Kos or Chios. Bland said he had met many people who had done it. On the map it did not look far.
In Search of a People Smuggler
İzmir, 22 August–1 September 2015
When I saw where we were sitting on the plane, I started shaking my head violently. Row 14, right in the middle. I had seen so many documentaries about plane crashes and I knew the back was the most secure place. That’s why it is where they keep the black box which records all the flight information. The middle was the worst.
‘We can’t sit in the middle!’ I whispered urgently to Nasrine as the steward lifted me into the seat and fastened me in. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she replied. ‘We can’t move.’
The engines revved beneath us and the stewardess came round with a basket of boiled sweets. The plane moved along Gaziantep’s runway and I gripped the arms of the seat. I knew from the documentaries that most crashes take place on take-off or landing. As we took off I closed my eyes and uttered a short prayer. The wheels lifted and it felt like I imagined a rollercoaster in an amusement park would feel. Though I wanted to die in space I didn’t want to die beneath the Karman line at the edge of the atmosphere.
When I opened my eyes I saw Nasrine had closed hers. I didn’t know till later that she was scared too, and she didn’t even have the plane-crash information! Turns out even for someone doing a physics degree and knowing about forces like lift and drag, it doesn’t seem very natural to have this huge weight barrelling through the sky.
Once we had taken off without crashing and settled in the sky, I looked outside. Everything was so small down below, people were like ants. Up among all the fluffy white clouds, I felt excited to be on a plane for the first time. The flight to İzmir was just two hours, then it was time to land which was the other really risky part. I tried not to remember all those documentaries. We didn’t crash, but my ears were exploding and for ages afterwards I couldn’t hear.
Afterwards I felt terribly exhausted and told Nasrine I had jetlag. She said it was impossible as we hadn’t crossed any time-zones. We got a taxi and Nasrine kept phoning people. Some of our relatives were already in İzmir, including our elder sister Nahda who had travelled there the previous year with her husband Mustafa and his parents. Sorry, there are a lot of Mustafas in our family!
The taxi took us to a place called Basmane Square, opposite a mosque and a police station. There were Syrians everywhere and merchants with piles of orange life jackets and black inner tubes. Mustafa met us by the newspaper kiosk and took us up one of the surrounding streets, where small huddles of people were sitting on the pavement or at tables, smoking and drinking tea, playing checkers or just waiting. All of them had backpacks by their side, some inside black dustbin bags to protect them from water.
We stopped at a shabby hotel where Mustafa said our sister and relatives were staying in the basement. Some young men lifted me down the concrete steps. The place was a mess – it was packed with people and mattresses and empty biscuit packets. Waiting for us there was Nahda along with their four young daughters from nine-year-old Slav down to baby Helaz, who we had never met, and some of Mustafa’s relatives who would travel with us. Mustafa would stay in İzmir because his parents were old and couldn’t make the journey, so his nephew Mohammed would look after Nahda (we have a lot of Mohammeds too!).
They had already been there two nights. Someone brought us sandwiches as we were terribly hungry, and while
More phone calls were made and eventually they took us to the house of an acquaintance, Uncle Ismael. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon, but I was so tired I just slept on the couch without saying a word to anyone.
When I woke up there were all these people we didn’t know. I’m in big trouble now, I thought, because there will be all this investigation about why I am the way I am, how I was born early and all that. That’s the part I hate when I meet people for the first time. I didn’t say anything. I could have given a lecture about all the things I know. I could have told them how, because I couldn’t develop properly physically, I replaced it with intellectual development and learnt new information every day. But that would have been awkward. Instead I just stared at the floor, so they probably thought I was autistic.
Then they started asking my sister why had we left with someone like me and how could we possibly make the long journey in a wheelchair. ‘We had no choice,’ said Nasrine.
The boat over to Greece was being organized by Uncle Ahmed, who had driven us from Manbij and would also be going with his wife Auntie Shereen. Our three cousins Mohammed, Dilba and Helda, whose parents had been killed in Kobane, were coming and Mohammed’s wife Farmana, and some other cousins and their children. In total we would be nineteen adults and eleven children – I guess at sixteen I could still be a child.
We’d thought we would only be in İzmir a short time, but the trip was obviously going to take us longer to arrange than we had imagined. I was glad when we moved again to a hotel even though it would use some of our precious cash. It was the Hotel Daria, which means sea in Kurdish, and Nasrine and I were in room 206, which is the number of bones in the human body.
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