The Colonel drew me a little plan of his journey to Europe. If I wait too long, all my money will have gone, and I will still not be in Europe and how then will I look after my family?’
In Germany the family would be fed and housed. No Contact. ‘Beautiful, beautiful,’ said the Colonel as we turned into the old town to park the car. I chose a good day for the weather. So they left Hassan in the camp with his mother and walked northwards again towards Serbia. ‘We don’t even know what’s happened to the apartment. The guards on the gate – armed with clipboards, not guns – made it clear we were not allowed to enter. Their house didn’t look too bad from outside; there was a tiny garden and an olive tree. The Colonel was hoping the family could join his son in Sweden, but it looked as if the borders to Sweden had closed. Then the trip would be postponed another few days. I wanted to show the Colonel and his family that ; there is more to Europe than refugee centres and trains. They all had the same happy dazed look as the Colonel and the young men we had met in Bismarkplatz. They looked at each other, then he started to talk. Everyone was searched. According to the messages pinging in, the Colonel seemed to be on a refugee conveyor belt, inexorably moving north. It was pitch dark, but the checkpoint at the gates was brightly lit; two white guard cabins on either side of the double road, with barriers and men in security jackets and peaked caps.
The next day my husband and I drove the Colonel and Hassan to Heidelberg; Heidelberg is Ruritania, the city of Faust, of goggle-eyed gargoyles and duels fought by young men to whom life was still a brilliant adventure. ‘We worked for twenty years to buy that apartment.’ Yasmin told me. And when he left the army, Yasmin and the children left for Jordan. We roared off!’
‘It was like being in an action movie,’ said Yasmin; she too is laughing, now, with relief. His wife Yasmin had already told me how worried she was about the trip; her beautiful, moon-like face, shining from the folds of her white Hijab, had all the sorrow of a medieval saint as she spoke. ‘In that case I’d take a magic carpet. This, I thought then, was the Syrian revolution, in a cracked-cement villa basement on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital, Amman. I said, the most important thing now is to protect my family from the war and I am now in Europe and I am asking for protection. Until recently, Izmir’s main trades were figs, wine, cotton and camel wool from the hinterland, and the silks and spices of Bukhara and beyond. ‘But once we got to Greece I was very, very happy. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. I am very scared for them.’
My husband and I got into the car; took the Eurotunnel and started to drive towards Germany; we didn’t know where the Colonel and his family were being taken but hopefully we’d find out soon enough and could give them a proper welcome to Europe. I knew I couldn’t mention the dead once we got back to the flat where the Colonel was staying with his sister.
The Colonel and Yasmin were the first Syrian refugees I met. Perhaps his phone had gone flat. And when they leave, they told me, the German government will give them a flat. It was nobody’s home. I imagined the Colonel and his family settling into one of those little white houses where soldiers’ families used to live. An hour later, a car arrived, with Yasmin’s mum. Euripides’ play is about refugees, and our cast workshopped their own stories into the text. They were driven 20km to another camp where were given fleeces to wear, and hot soup. He coughed, and so did Yasmin. They were processed swiftly and put on a train to Serbia. ‘Water and Tea!’ It became a joke each time they coughed; a first chip in their ideal of the West. But he got a free trip. All they knew was that the Colonel had arrived with his family at the Patrick Henry Village, then gone straight out shopping. Faten and Hassan rushed up and hugged them. It had found new life during the migrant crisis as a centre for refugees. Praying, I explained. ‘I don’t know what happened to them. I did think we would die in the sea,’ he said. ‘We only just got here yesterday ourselves.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Syria,’ said the man carrying the baby. Hassan looked sad through the whole tale, while the others kept butting in excitedly. The old lady was lying back on her lower bunk, still too exhausted to move. The refugees were left as masters of their fate. Now Izmir’s number one export is people. ‘The Patrick Henry Village.’ Extraordinarily enough, with the whole of Germany to choose from, the authorities had sent the Colonel to just five miles away from where his sister-in-law lived. We walked up the cobbled streets of the Altstadt; ‘Beautiful. By the main door was a wrought iron rack on which several half-melted candles flickered. The journey spools into a tunnel of borders and buses, camps and trains; apples and policemen and bowls of soup, and always the kindness of aid workers; a Greek woman who gave them food as they rested in a grave yard in Mytiline: the bowls of soup and phone chargers they were given in the middle of the night. On TV the European leaders unveiled more border closures: a deal was being struck with Turkey to send back refugees who’d gotten to Greece. There was even a playground. Fatima showed me her little black rubber inflatable ring. She shrugged, ‘Now we have done it, it’s like being born again.’
Yasmin coughed again; so did the Colonel. Within two weeks of the Colonel’s arrival, after fevered discussion between Europe’s Chiefs of Police, Macedonia shut its borders with Greece. Three hours later my phone rang. With him was his wife Yasmin; their two daughters, Fatima and Sherine; Yasmin’s brother Hassan, and their 75-year-old mother, who has a ruptured disc. Like all modern cities, Heidelberg, Europe’s oldest university town, is ringed by a mixture of surburban villas, petrol stations and industrial sprawl. We could hardly see out of the back window, our car was so full of clothes our friends in London had donated to help the Colonel’s family in their new life. ‘I had to throw the boots you gave me over board.’
‘I didn’t think we would die,’ said her father, even though he had told me different. ‘Allhamdulillah,’ I heard him thank Allah. They turned away people who had too many stamps in their passports, because it showed they came from Iran or Pakistan, not Syria.’ Economic migrants, not refugees. The Colonel got his family through just in time. If the boat capsized, how long could the family survive, even if their life jackets did work? It was the Colonel. ‘It’s the only way I can make a future for my daughters, for my family.’
All I could do to help was hand over a month’s rent, so that the Colonel and his family could stay in Izmir until the weather improved. On the Greek–Macedonian border, they were given more food – and offered clothes and shoes. Fortress Europe had pulled up the drawbridge. ‘It had three bedrooms, a big sitting room, big kitchen. The aid workers made a couple of phone calls. For four adults and two children, it was decidedly cramped. But my daughter’s husband won’t even let her go out of the house.’
‘My sister’s a prisoner,’ said his daughter, Fatima. ‘I’d rather stay in the war in Syria. As we got closer to the foot of the Altstadt, the suburbs changed into nineteenth century facades, linked by the trundling of trams; watched over by the skeletal ruin of the schloss, spotlit on its crag. They just wanted us to buy the tickets,’ said the Colonel. She introduced us to her sister, Faten, tired-looking, in her late thirties, who spoke some English. The Colonel pushed them away, smiling. ‘It depends on the bureaucracy. She was reading English literature at Damascus University before the war. He nodded, put a euro into the slot, and took a candle himself. It was cold, and the wind from the steppes whipped furiously at the sea. Two large inflatable black rubber boats appeared in the bay. ‘Yasmin slapped her,’ said the Colonel, with visible pride. ‘It was a ten minute walk. We had to walk all the way back to Macedonia.’
There they waited in a camp for fourteen hours. before their train started to move north. Stone floor, dirty cream walls, not a picture, not a piece of furniture, nor a photograph in sight. After that, the WhatsApps kept pinging, day-by-day, as the Colonel moved through the Balkans. ‘But in Austria it got very serious. We both knew if the boat sank, in this weather, they’d all die of exposure anyway. Hassan, his brother-in-law, was with him: younger, fatter, with a carrier bag full of bleach and floor cleaner. Even then, I was struck by Yasmin’s dignity, her beauty and her calm – and by the Colonel’s sense of purpose and enthusiasm. She came towards me, tears flowing, arms wide.
The Patrick Henry Village lies in one of those dual-carriage-way borderlands where industrial estates ooze into countryside. At 2.30 a.m., the call came that the border was open. People were terrified. He was rushing his family into Europe as her drawbridges cranked up. As we drove, I looked up the Patrick Henry Village: it was a decommissioned American military base, just a few miles outside Heidelberg. I asked him about them when we were alone. The sides of the boat are only 50cm. We waited – ready to drive down through Europe to meet him and his family. The camp was surrounded by a high fence, with scrolls of razor wire along the top. There was no room in the boat. He looked at the daughters he had shepherded into a new life; it was as though he was looking through them, back, at the years of planning and saving. I asked, in my schoolgirl German, if they knew where Aldi was. Then the family will take a ferry to Athens – and a bus to the Macedonian border; an all-in trip costing £54 a head. Then, after Slovenia, there was silence. He was tired now, and was coughing again. Once the Colonel began telling me about the journey, they all chipped in, interrupting like birds. I said Germany. He asked why we had left, and we said the war.’
One man was taken away because the detective realised from his passport that he was Alawite, part of the same minority as President Assad. Faten and her brother ran forward into a morass of hugs. ‘The house was full of other passengers,’ said the Colonel, coughing again. ‘My family is in Heidelberg!’ Faten wrote. Milling around the gates were a dozen or so people, mostly young, mostly men, olive-skinned, wearing black leather jackets. But I had many friends in Jordan.’
It was 2 a.m. She hugged him again. ‘The engine kept stopping. ‘We got a taxi, and gave the number to the taxi driver.’ The driver was told to take them to a restaurant on the outskirts of Izmir, where they waited until someone came and took them to a house. He shouted in triumph, ‘I am in Mytilene! Yasmin worked as an administrator in the Ministry of Health. ‘I am very scared of the journey,’ she told me. We sat in the camp and ate and drank. He’d bought the life jackets from a guy he’d met in the street. A blonde woman in a dirndl slapped them down on the table. But the old lady was tired and in pain.
For centuries, Izmir – Greece’s ancient Smyrna, halfway down Turkey’s western coast – has been one of Asia’s main mouths to the West. ‘I want to go back to Jordan.’
Really? Hassan, one of Faten and Yasmin’s brothers, arrived in Saxony last year, via rubber dinghy. The Colonel and his family trudged northwards for half an hour; Hassan helping his elderly mother.
Photograph © Georgios Giannopoulos But we are not used to living like that.’
How long will they be here for? I had seen their bodies on the news that morning. It all started in a cafe near Izmir, ten days before, when the Colonel decided the weather finally felt right. After the Macedonian border, a train to Serbia – £30. They were also housed and fed by aid workers every step of the way. ‘The journey takes over a week, and that figure doesn’t include food or hotels,’ said the Colonel. In the flat, Fatima and Sherine modeled them for me, the Colonel tenderly doing up their straps. Go to Germany!’ And they let us through.’
About five hundred of their fellow travellers were sent back to Slovenia. they all got on the bus to the Croatian border. Why are you doing this to us? He lit it, stuck it in the rack, then raised his eyes and hands to heaven. ‘That’s the reason why I left the army,’ said the Colonel. I checked how long it would take me online: I could fly to Frankfurt for £41 in five-and-a-half hours, with one change. ‘There were hundreds of us. And it wouldn’t provide the life he wants his daughters to have. I don’t know where he is now. ‘They’ll be thirty-five of us to the boat. The people smugglers had given him a phone number to call the night he wanted to leave. The conveyor belt was broken. On Monday I got another message. She lived in a small town, Walldorf, near the French border. Somewhere, thirty kilometers across that brilliant, angry sea, lay Mytilene, the gateway to the Colonel’s dream of Europe. After breakfast, the Slovenian police walked the refugees over in groups. ‘There were sixty people on our boat: forty adults and twenty children.
After they landed, a minibus took them from the beach to a reception centre. I closed my eyes and thanked God for the Colonel’s deliverance. Yasmin’s mother had not seen her son Hassan for over four years. We heard it had been completely destroyed by the Regime, in revenge for my husband leaving the Army.’
It was July 2012 when the government forces started attacking the part of Damascus where they lived. I had to preserve the health and safety of my wife, her mother and brother. They arrived at the Austrian border at 7 a.m. ‘And so is he,’ his friend smiled. Kaput. For a heart-stopping minute, one boat’s engines failed, but a man got it going again, and the refugees chugged off out of sight. That morning, I had seen a report on the BBC World Service; the journalists had tracked human smugglers to a marshy inlet on the Turkish coast that they were using as an embarkation point. At that point, Yasmin started to cry. I’d last seen her in Izmir seven weeks ago. ‘But I miss my daughter in Jordan.’
The family have left behind in Amman their eldest daughter; they arranged a marriage for her with a Jordanian three years ago. We only bought it in 2011.’
Traditionally, Syrian women kept their wealth in gold jewellery – portable, realizable, always with you – and rented somewhere to live.
In daylight, the camp consisted of street after street of white barrack-room blocks, set amid green spaces and dotted with park benches. ‘We went to the doctor here at the camp. The Colonel shrugged. I kept getting messages on WhatsApp – which has transformed migration; instead of heading off into the unknown, refugees can now swap information, addresses, warnings or just chat, all in real time. ‘They asked me why we were coming to Europe; I said, because of the war. ‘Not for another few days. Sara, her eldest daughter, was at university, and Ossama, her teenage son, had gone to the shops. But I knew this was fake. They asked who the people with me were, I said my family. At noon my phone pinged again. The Colonel’s sister is in Sweden with her family. The Colonel had to go into hiding. Fat and fast between its wooded hill, and banks of bulging, sandstone houses, runs the river Neckar, on its way to the Rhine. The waves are four metres high. I’m here!’
Faten suddenly started. He laughed and mimed pushing the chair. Ten countries. Compared to the potential wrath of the winter Mediterranean it seemed pathetic, but at least it would float. ‘Tomorrow night, we travel.’
The next night, 14 February, St Valentine’s Day, at a drinks party in Notting Hill, my phone pinged: ‘The Colonel has shared his location with you.’ He was in the middle of the sea. My God!’’
‘The Turkish police followed us,’ Fatima laughed; she couldn’t stop smiling; so happy to be alive and in Europe. He was carrying a large plastic mop and a dustpan and brush, with price tags on. Back in January, the Serbian border had been under three feet of snow. Yasmin offered us biscuits and glasses of juice. It was 4 a.m. I said I’d seen a TV news story about fake life jackets being sold, but the Colonel swiftly said he’d tested them and that they worked. ‘The normal one. Sherine spent a lot of her time looking at pictures and footage of Syrian refugees crossing to Greece in orange life jackets and those black rubber boats. He followed his family a few weeks later. It stopped for half an hour. He stood up, held out his hand, and said ‘Welcome to Europe! Just some foam mattresses on the floor. I couldn’t stop worrying. ‘They made us fill in paperwork about our destination.’ It was clear that the closer he got to the European dream, the more bureaucratic the border authorities became. She smiled. The £750 a head, it turns out, didn’t even cover a trafficker to act as helmsman on the boat; the refugees were expected to pilot the boats themselves. ‘The smuggler gave him a five minute lesson.’
‘He wasn’t much good,’ said the Colonel. ‘What boat are you planning to take?’ I asked. To offer some consolation, I said their new house at least looked pretty. That left her family only £30 a month to live on. Both me and the authorities.’ Austria marked their entry into Old Europe, with its dual twentieth century traditions of capitalism and the Welfare State. ‘He asked us where we wanted to go, so we said Germany. I made drinks like that all the time.’ From the way he looked at my coffee, I could tell he was picturing the world he lost. Like all Syrian refugees in Jordan, he had been forbidden to work. The Syrians put on the orange life jackets they had brought with them. I’d get a message: he’s going on Saturday. ‘Why did you leave Jordan?’ I asked him. ‘They didn’t listen to advice. I considered this the gate to Central Europe. At least it was sunny. Yasmin’s husband had defected from the Syrian Army a year before. What if she could fly to Germany on a magic carpet instead of travelling in a potentially-fatal black rubber boat? ‘When we got to the edge of Turkish waters, the motor died. ‘The boat I can afford,’ he smiled. The journey ended up costing much less than he had thought: whatever the experiences of the refugees travelling a year ago, now a conveyor belt of humanitarian aid led migrants from camp to camp. Another man was taken away because he was from Iran. And there is nothing for us in Jordan or Turkey.’
For the last few months the Colonel had been working illegally in a supermarket and a soap factory – he showed me photos of him and his workmates on his phone. The sea temperature was 15 degrees in the Eastern Mediterranean in January. Greece started deporting migrants to Turkey. Thirteen years old, skinny and clever, she wants to be a doctor. I am in Mytilene!’ He had landed on Lesbos. It sounded as if refugees would soon be stopped from crossing from Greece into Macedonia. That’s over £6000 for the Colonel’s family of six. And he’d brought his family within five miles of the destination he’d hoped to reach. I was introduced to them by Oxfam’s office in Jordan’s capital, Amman, back in 2013. We just met the Syrians who work for him.’
The Colonel’s boat was to leave from a beach near Dikili, a little tourist town two hours north of Izmir, and they waited in a deserted cove until their boat finally chugged round the rocks. From Monday next, spring and warm atmosphere. He looked tired, thinner, but also very happy; serene. ‘I spent £60 on cleaning things. The Colonel, though, was radiant. ‘I am tired. ‘The French Revolution lasted twenty years. ‘The Croatian police and the Red Cross searched us all,’ he said. The waves were hurling themselves at Izmir’s tarmac Cordon Corniche. The camp officials told Yasmin not to worry and herded the family into a bus. ‘That was a big mistake,’ said the Colonel. There were three sets of metal bunk beds around a central wooden dining table, a lino floor, space for a kitchen, though the microwave had been removed, scratched walls. Then I had to fly back to London and return to work. The whirling worry coalesced round his silence. On the United States Search and Rescue Task Force website I read that 15 degrees means you have 1–2 hours before exhaustion and unconsciousness kick in – and only 1–6 hours for survival. I kept telling people in the boat to sit down and calm down. The passengers clambered into the boats, packed tight like ranks of exotic, orange beans in a pod, or pomegranate seeds; not a piece of luggage in sight for this trip to a new life. And he smiled, the relieved, happy smile of a man who knows he has accomplished a great thing. His plan had worked. The boy is now with his aunt in Sweden. ‘It was great,’ he said. They had to leave everything behind. We went into the Cathedral, sandstone and intimate, about a third of the size of Westminster Abbey. ‘£300 if I worked sixteen hours a day. The bathroom was large, with bath, lavatory, shower and basin, all spotlessly clean. The boat broke down. They moved with the ungainly wobble of those unused to the sea. Syrians are exploited because the Jordanian government won’t let us work legally. ‘They were rocketing us,’ Yasmin explained to me. He looked round the brown ground floor room, stacked with the bunk beds of his relations. Once for an hour. ‘It was filthy, when we arrived,’ said the Colonel – hence the cleaning products from Aldi. But I am very happy to be here. ‘We never saw the Big Boss,’ said the Colonel. It was a nice, pretty standard, western-style apartment – a few rooms, a large kitchen, a balcony – the kind of place you can see anywhere from Galway to Shanghai; a place you’d only miss when you don’t have it anymore. It was an adventure. It had its own bathroom, and would have been a good size for two soldiers. ‘I have not washed for week,’ he said. Then a bus to Croatia – £60. Our boat would be swamped.’
The Colonel was not crossing to Europe alone. We didn’t even get wet!’
‘I would never do that journey again,’ said Yasmin. We had a balcony, plants on the balcony. Outside, he tapped into his phone. ‘I’ve lost my mother,’ she wept. His family have slowly spent their savings, and I’ve marked their decline through their moves to ever cheaper lodgings, smaller rooms, more dangerous streets. It reminded me of the starry-eyed expressions people wore in their first term at Oxford, before reality and essay crises kick in: a sort of ‘Fuck me! ‘My children had to hide under the kitchen table.’
Yasmin was at home with the two little girls when the attack started. ‘Sorry,’ one of the men replied in perfect English. I checked statistics on the internet in my hotel: in January 2016, the worst sea-travel month of the year, the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the numbers leaving Izmir at over three thousand a day. For the Colonel, being sent back to Syria would be certain death – defectors are routinely executed. ‘I earned £230 a month,’ Hassan tapped into the phone. People were taken off separately into a large, modern building to be interrogated. ‘At the moment I can afford to take my family to Europe, but every day I stay here, it eats more of my money. We passed a group of young men, one carrying a baby in a papoose, and a girl. We were with Faten and her brother Hassan. I kept imagining my daughters dead in the sea. She showed me photographs of it on her phone. ‘I worked as a waiter in a five star hotel in Damascus for six years serving coffee and cappuccino. They were given three meals a day, including a hot lunch, which they could eat in their rooms. The Colonel kept me updated with a combination of WhatsApp, and Google Translate. ‘Not today,’ said the Colonel, shouting through the wind. ‘Unstable cool sea and air.’ He’d explain in a message. ‘I dream of getting to Europe,’ he told me. Inside, Yasmin ushered us into a room that was completely bare. He won’t let her work. It looked light, and full of neat building blocks in rows. It was hard to see exactly what went on. We drank juice, ate biscuits, crowded around the table. Within the EU, the Schengen zone was crumbling, the rusting iron curtain was being taken out of storage, moved to another border and redrawn. They walked across the border and into Macedonia; the police there, he said, were very kind. ‘You’ve grown a beard!’ said Faten. All with life jackets and black rubber rings and bags,’ the Colonel explained. Shouting ‘My God! I expect to travel next week, God Willing.’ I was so worried, but I knew that there was nothing I or anyone could do. No wind. Around these milled various young people, all with the same happy, stunned look I’d noticed yesterday. If I were the Colonel, I knew what I would do. They reached the Croatian border by mid-day. ‘And he’s from Iraq!’
Then we saw the Colonel, 200 yards away, on the corner. Then the officer told me that Germany had shut its borders; what will you do? ‘I thought I’d never see her again,’ she told me. The Colonel was with his unit in the Syrian Army. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. They put a spotlight on us and sped towards us!’
‘We pulled and pulled,’ The Colonel mimed pulling on an engine. Their house in Syria, she added, had been razed to the ground when the Colonel had joined the opposition, and the family had been forced to flee. Once he gets to Mytilene, he has to register as a refugee. ’ The old lady was stuck in the wrong country with no money and a ruptured disc, and could only speak Arabic. The boat was drifting left and right. Like most Syrians, the Colonel already had family who had made the crossing.Yasmin’s sister Faten had reached Germany a year ago, and had asylum. But pre-war Syria had seemed so safe that Syrians, like the British, had succumbed to the lure of home ownership; Yasmin had sold a lot of gold jewellery to buy that house. Behind him, the high-rise hotels, palm trees, minarets and cracked cement facades of a Turkish coastal town. We hugged, then William and I withdrew, and waited by the car. Last July, the Colonel even sent his 17-year-old son across the sea – the one who’d been working in a corner shop when I first met the family in 2013. The leader of every group was questioned. At eight years old, Sherine was too young to really understand her eldest sister’s fate, but she already knew, like her parents and Fatima, that it was something to avoid. ‘It was beautiful. ‘He won’t let her study. In Jordan she was forced to live at home, looking after her elderly mother, selling her jewellery to eat. When they reached Slovenia, they were questioned by a plainclothes man who spoke fluent Arabic. On the other side of the checkpoint, under the arc-lights, Yasmin was helping her mother hobble forward, flanked by Fatima and little Sherine. ‘The Red Cross promised to send her by car,’ said Yasmin. They soon left;. There they registered as refugees and got the papers they needed to leave Greece. ‘Where did you test them?’ I tried to ask, but the Colonel brushed me aside: he obviously didn’t want to discuss it anymore. It was cold now, and at the border itself they had to wait for two hours; then walk another forty minutes to the next camp where they were given warm clothes and food. But there was still no sign of Yasmin’s mother. Hassan and the Colonel were tourists, gazing at the saints, the stained glass windows, the grandees immortalized in Latin on the walls. They bought tickets for the ferry to Athens, which included the bus journey to the Macedonian border, and arrived at Athens the next morning. High mountains. Faten, it turned out, was single and had been an accountant in Syria. Yasmin looked up from her sister’s arms and smiled, tears pouring down her face. ‘She knows she’s going across the sea,’ the Colonel told me. ‘Unfortunately I had the responsibility for everything. Hassan looked at my white-frothed cup, tapped something into his phone, then handed it to me. A group of refugees were driven up in a white tourist coach, as though on a visit to the Blarney Stone. ‘All Good. The boat stopped several more times. ‘The German government give us a year to learn the language and I can find a job,’ he said. ‘We could see the lights of Mytilene for two hours on the journey.’ The Colonel fiddles with his phone: there’s a video of bright lights in the distance, the foreground filled with people in orange life jackets bouncing up and down. Some people are moved in days. ‘We didn’t take them as we wanted to walk quickly,’ he explained. It looked like the baby of a car’s inner tube, a shiny, dark version of those multi-coloured bathing rings kids have in swimming pools. The Colonel brushed his stubble. Maybe the police were just keen to see the refugees go to either a better life or the afterlife, but more probably money had changed hands. I can be a tourist now.’
We found a cafe in the cobbled Cathedral square, in the sun, and ordered coffee. ‘The water was flat. On the TV,’ We’ve both seen the black rubber inflatable boats on the news, bouncing through the waves, packed with families like his, faces turned to Europe, lit with hope and desperation; or drifting, capsized, half-punctured, empty, like disemboweled whales, the grey waters strewn with ominous dark or orange shapes. ‘I was paid and managed to feed my family.’
But it’s nothing like the life he and his family had before the war, in the apartment Yasmin and the Colonel had saved for twenty years to buy. ‘It’s the middle-class dream, to own your own home,’ she smiled sadly. The Serbs were shunting the refugees north as quickly as possible. The engine stopped four times. ‘We’ve got bronchitis,’ he said. One of the smugglers started the motor, tiller in hand as the boat spluttered forward, then expertly backflipped himself off the boat when they were twenty feet out from the beach. Beautiful and Green,’ said the Colonel. ‘I’ll push her all the way to Germany.’ He was still a pretty fit man, even though he’d been out of the Syrian Army for three years. The trip to Europe is for my two little girls,’ she said, pointing to Fatima and Sherine. Where did I want to go? I took a fresh, white candle from the glistening stack to the side, paid my euro, lit it and impaled it on the rack. No toys for the two little girls who twinkled into the room, giggling at us with huge dark eyes. The Colonel was tired as he told me this, and continued to cough. I met Yasmin and her sisters to ask them to join our cast. I couldn’t really work out what country he was in, and I don’t think he could either. ‘We didn’t have to show our papers. The fence was to stop anyone getting in, rather than inmates getting out. ‘Two aid workers asked her what the problem was. The boat went straight up onto the beach. We felt so happy; I had achieved the goal after three years.’ Then, after an hour, the bus to Germany arrived. They went in rickety wooden boats.’ It is easier to blame the dead than to admit he is about to make his wife and children take the same risks. Then, three days later, Yasmin’s sister Faten sent me a text: ‘The German police received them yesterday. ‘He’s Turkish. And then there were the dead. ‘And it came into life. ‘The war in Syria will last another generation,’ the Colonel said. He told us, ‘Water and Tea!’ I need medicine!’ The colonel laughed. Beside us, on the Corniche, walked ghosts: the ghosts of the Colonel’s former life in Damascus; his dreams of the Syrian revolution; and the forty Syrians who’d drowned last night somewhere in that cold, dark sea between Izmir and Mytilene. Germany has become their destination instead; and as near Faten as possible. We parked, and wandered round the nineteenth century Bismarkplatz, trying to find the Colonel. Just like Fatima, they all had black rubber rings. We talked through a mixture of Faten and their daughter Fatima’s broken English, hand movements and Google Translate, mobile phones being handed back and forth, tapping away at the screens. Or had he been arrested? But.. The train took seven hours and stopped short of the border. Although it cost over £4,800 for his family to reach Macedonia, from then on they did not have to pay for transport. Five metres long.’
The 30 km trip to Mytelene costs £750 a head – and that does not include the orange life jackets, which the Colonel bought separately for £175 each. But I’ve enjoyed the trip. My husband and I were looking for Syrian refugees to take part in a drama therapy project; we were putting on Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, Trojan Women, with an all-female cast of Syrian refugees. The Colonel and Hassan had never seen such a thing before; they laughed out loud. From Croatia to Germany, it’s another £120. The Colonel’s family was crammed into a large room on the ground floor of an old barrack room block. We didn’t realize till we moved in.’ The rent, she said, was about £170 a month; they got £100 a month from the UNHCR, and her fifteen year old son was working in a shop after school for another £100 a month. ‘The third time he would have been deported to Syria.’
For a young man of Hassan’s age, that means the army, a militia or prison for desertion. ‘We were all nervous and very scared.’
From the house, they were escorted to two large vans by the people smugglers. Stocky, dark-haired with broad shoulders and an air of determination, I could easily imagine him pushing an old lady in a wheelchair 2,000 miles through the Balkan winter. At one point the Turkish police turned up to talk to the smugglers. I’m a renegade Colonel!’ The officer laughed. ‘But the border was closed,’ said the Colonel.
After four years of war and exile, the Colonel was literally running out of money. They were given forms to fill in with their chosen destination. Beside me, the Colonel hunched his shoulders under his anorak. .’ Yasmin looked around the crowded room, the German skies out of the window, thirteen year old Fatima, so full of her future, little Sherine happily eating her biscuits, Faten and her two brothers gathered together again round the table. If they are caught, there is the danger of being sent to a refugee camp or worse; the authorities run a ‘three strikes and you’re out policy’ and on the third arrest, you risk being deported back to Syria. Three years. ‘I thought we would die,’ said Fatima. It was a day of blues, of gusting, paint-white foam and the pale yellow glitter of the winter sun. It’s full of drug dealers. ‘He got caught twice by the Jordanian police working illegally as a waiter,’ said the Colonel. ‘I was terrified on the Turkish beach,’ said Fatima. Twelve of them were children. This was a journey that the Colonel had to take. At this point, the Colonel’s narrative got a bit blurry. Praying to Allah. Screaming women and children. They didn’t allow any Afghans or Iranians to enter.’
They drove in a bus three hours through the Alps to Salzburg, a few miles from Germany. Some are here for months.’ But it was safe, warm and free. Syrians who do work illegally in Jordan earn about £200 a month, and rent alone is not much less than that. If people moved, then the boat could capsize.’
‘One women tried to jump into the sea!’ said Yasmin. ‘Who drove the boat?’
‘One of the Syrian passengers,’ Fatima giggled ruefully. ‘The Slovenian border guards stole my razors!’ he explained. Yasmin grimaced: ‘This house is in a terrible neighbourhood. Old like Damasacus.’
A man painted white, a living statue, held poses in the square. ‘But the Syrian army were attacking our own children,’ said Yasmin. ‘But I couldn’t see my wife’s mother or Hassan anywhere,’ said Yasmin. The lights, they explained, were shone from the beach by a Swedish humanitarian organization to guide migrants in. All the electric machines you can find. ‘I don’t know what happened to him. ‘I’ll get a wheelchair from the Red Cross,’ said the Colonel, when I asked how he’d manage with his mother-in-law. At 5.30 a.m.
The Colonel drew me a little plan of his journey to Europe. If I wait too long, all my money will have gone, and I will still not be in Europe and how then will I look after my family?’