Freedom via Greece and Turkey
Them & Us
IN THRALL to Greece, and living near Turkey's Aegean coast, this year we visit Kos and Lesbos. From our home in Bursa, we can reach several Greek & Turkish islands by car and ferryboat. We are two adults and two children and dab hands at finding out-of-the-way, self-catering pensions, friendly people, wonderful food and drink, we take foreign holidays without breaking the bank. I'm a British teacher of English and Solmaz, my partner, is a veterinary. One of the kids is studying to become a vet, while the other's in middle school. I write stories and verses as a hobby, mainly posting them on my blog. This year, much of my writing has been preoccupied with ISIS and the refugee situation. By the way, Turkey has been full of Syrians for some time now – they have brought us falafel! We visit Kos and Lesbos this year expecting to see more of our Arab friends.
In fact, there have always been networks of Arabs in Turkey - alongside the Kurds, Armenians, Georgians and others. Nowadays, many of our ethnic Arab friends are more-or-less assimilated and may not use Arabic in their everyday lives. Though they don't have anything like the number of Kurds, much of their culture persists. Urfa, the home of Arabesque music, looks as much like an Arab city as a Turkish one. And in Mardin we met Süryanis, a small group of Christians whose bible - written in Arabic script - resembles the Koran. During Ottoman times, there were also Turks who lived in Arab lands, some of whom have returned to the mother country. One of our close friends, for instance, is an Iraqi Turk whose family still live in Kerkük. In this part of the world your identity will have ties beyond nationality: there is ethnicity, language, religion and feudal allegiance. In my view, it's the breakdown of feudal networks that pushes people out of their jobs & homes.Every summer, families of Arabs from the nearest parts of the Middle East would come to Bursa on grand shopping and sightseeing expeditions. They rented apartments on Altıparmak and could be seen and heard on the streets and in the covered market. Nowadays, Syrians come to Turkey in their millions to escape the civil war. But a small proportion of them have no intention of staying here, they merely pass through this country en route for Europe..
Kos is the island British newsrag The Daily Mail slags off for being spoilt by Syrian and other refugees. Although this June, when we arrive at Kos Town harbour there are no refugees in sight. Nor do we see queues as we drive past the waterfront Police Station. Either local officials have got them all out of the way, or the numbers have temporarily gone down. Anyway, late June is the height of the debt crisis and the Greeks have other matters on their minds. Our landlord tells us the island's economic problems are made worse by the European Union's dismantling of their old subsistence economy: they have no crops or animals to fall back on. Also, many villagers having emigrated to the USA or Australia, their homes are left derelict and the fields empty. Kos has been denuded by one exodus only to be swamped by another. So where are those scenes from the Daily Mail photographs?
On the afternoon of Day One, we manage a visit to the beach at Lambi for our first swim of the hols. News of that morning's shootings of British tourists in Tunisia has broken and I can feel the tension as the tourists sit on their loungers, drinking beers and frappés, staring across the sea towards Turkey. Solmaz says I am being paranoid. The trees behind the beach are littered with punctured inflatables and discarded life jackets. Incredibly, none of the little boats that hit the beach carry either refugees or jihadis. Up to then, there have been no fatalities on the beaches of the South Aegean dramatic enough to make the headlines - like the death of Alan Kurdi will do in September.
The weather, as June turns to July, is unsettled - which might have deterred crossing attempts for a while. Certainly, our time on the beaches of Kos is not as idyllic as the day trip we took here a few years ago. Though we have glorious sunshine for the duration, no matter which side of the island we drive to, there are strong breezes and high waves that make swimming a little too much effort. After ten days, we come home to Turkey feeling we haven't had our fill of the sea. So, for the end of August we book an extra week - this time on Lesbos, an island much closer to us. Meanwhile, the weather throughout the region simmers up to the sultry sultry high summer calm: temperatures in the mid 30s and only light winds. We leave Bursa again on August 22nd, fingers crossed the hot dry spell will last till the end of the month.
Before I go on to describe the scenes on Lesbos, here's a bit of back-story. My first sight of people smuggling from Turkey to the Greek islands was the summer of 2011. We were holidaying at Turgut Reis on the Bodrum peninsular – a stone's throw from Kos. About seven-thirty one morning I had gone down to the town's quayside looking for fish to buy. There's a slab of marble at the pier head, where the small fishing boat owners sell those parts of their catch they don't want for themselves. On the near side of the pier is a fenced off area where the Coast Guard boat ties up. Well, I'd had no luck with the fishermen, another guy having bid for the only lot on offer - a half-cannibalised tray of mixed bream and mullet – and I was about to head back to the place we were staying at. That was when the Coast Guard boat came in with a yacht on tow.
The arrival of the cutter created a small stir among the folk wandering about at that time in the morning. It was not by any means an ungodly hour, for Turgut Reis isn't rowdy like its neighbour Bodrum Town, where you get overnight revellers mixing with the early-to-work crowd. Here there were just a few tourist joggers, street gleaners and oddball characters like me. We moved forward to the fence and watched as the yacht was brought alongside. A couple of Coast Guard tars were on deck and at first I thought we were witnessing the recovery of a rich man's plaything that had gone adrift.
Once the boat was tied up, a hatch opened and people started to squeeze through. It was a yacht of around thirty feet, big enough for four berths - six at a pinch; but out through its hatch climbed such a procession of assorted men, women and children it was hard to fathom how they had all managed to get in. The men were mainly young - some not all that - while the women were covered. Of the half dozen children, two or three were little more than babes in arms. The people were either black or dark-skinned, African or Arab, apart from a couple of young Turks who must have been the crew. The latter had been cuffed and were led ashore by sailors of the Coast Guard. The whole group – not less than forty – filed across the quay to a grey-blue Jandarma bus. From there, military police with their side arms out took charge of them.
It was a real life example of what's called a 'doleful sight'. Clutching their possessions in small ruck sacks, plastic carriers or light bin-bags, the folk looked about them with a gloomy air. Their welcome to Turkey must have felt the very opposite from that of the tourists you see trooping off luxury yachts for a weekend in the fleshpots of Halicarnassus. And this was a costly business for most of those involved. The people, who had already travelled thousands of kilometres, would have paid handsomely for the cramped and dangerous crossing to Kos. Plus, if due procedure were followed, the yacht owner would have been fined heavily; while the fall guys in the crew would have gone to gaol. This was the rather amateurish precursor to the recent wave of people smuggling to Europe via Turkey and Greece.
The People Smugglers
Nowadays many illegal crossings to the Greek islands are done in slick operations that maximise the numbers of people smuggled while minimising the costs and risks to the smugglers. A dozen Greek islands lie within sight of the Turkish mainland. The gangs assemble inflatable dinghies from secluded beaches on the Anatolian side. The travellers are then left to steer the outboard motorised craft across to the beaches of Lesbos, Chios, Kos or Leros. In broad daylight, weather permitting, the launches are timed to avoid patrolling Turkish coastguard boats and take as little as twenty or thirty minutes to complete. The sight of the people arriving – often to chants of “Allah-u-Ekber!” - is startling to holidaymakers, who stare in shock and wonder, or film the events on their mobile phones. But if they think what they are witnessing with their own eyes to be significant in the course of human affairs, they are wrong. These individual events have become so common, they are special only to the individual passengers.
Not all people smuggling operations are organised to the standards of the Turkish public transport system, which is market-driven and usually quite efficient - if nail-biting. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will warn you of üçkağıtçılar (sharks – literally, 'three card tricksters') and geri zekâlılar (idiots). The former will take your money and disappear, while the latter cut so many corners and take so many risks their success rate is dismal. Added to these are the migrants who take things into their own hands, some with disastrous results. Failures hit the headlines, with dozens drowning at a time; while four or five hundred cross each day to Kos or Lesbos stirring up nothing more than joy for them and their anxious relatives.
On August 22nd, then, we board the ferry boat from Ayvalık, in North West Turkey, to Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. The car ferry is slow, taking around two hours. Chaos awaits us at the port as the Greek immigration and customs struggle to cope with around a thousand holidaymakers disembarking from three boats that arrive around the same time. But before we dock, we have our first sight of chaos on a bigger, human scale: the tents of the people camped out on the longshore next to the ferry terminal. These folk - migrants, refugees, <Boat> People whatever we choose to call them - have entered Greece illegally. The queue for legal entry – via Passport Control - curls round a huge pile of discarded life-jackets and inflatable dinghies. Most of the tourists – Turks with the Special Green passports (only issued to trusted civil servants) - have to wait over an hour in 35˚C while their right to entry is checked. Many of them are day trippers with only four hours left to explore Mytilini before the long trip back to Ayvalık.
The first sight of Greece the tourists have is of hundreds of non-tourists, resting in the shade of doorways, or patronising the coffee shops and eateries of Mytilini Port. It has taken us so long to clear Passport Control and Customs, we decide to have a snack in a favourite quayside cafe before resuming the journey to Petra (60 kilometres away) on the far side of the island. Leaving the car at the terminal and walking round the harbour, we see shipping offices full of people clamouring to buy boat tickets for Athens. The harbour front seems rather less swank than on our last visit two years ago, as though it had given over to a clientèle with lower expectations of service and less spending power. But it isn't until we got on the road that we see the true scale of the problem for the local authorities.
Dozens of groups of people are streaming back and forth along the coast road to Lidl, the supermarket we always visit to stock up at the start of our holidays - it's a couple of kilometres south of Mytilini Town. There is a camp on some waste ground right next to the store. That makes sense, as Lidl is a budget store. There is another, much bigger, camp near the village of Moria - a few kilometres inland. From here on, all the way to Petra, we see groups of mainly young men, also young women, children and some whole family groups, walking in the 35˚C afternoon heat. Our consciences are pricked many times to stop, but we are driving in the opposite direction; and anyway, what can we do? It seems polite just not to show too much interest.
Plus, they look so cheerful, even those who have already walked 30 or 40 kilometres. On the mountain pass between Kalloni and Petra, about 250 metres above the sea, there's a roadside drinking fountain. As we pass it, a large group of walkers have stopped for a rest and are posing for photographs. At this point, we burst out laughing. What is the big difference, then, between them and us?
Well, the car is pretty much loaded down with our stuff: cases, folding chairs & sunshade, kilims and picnic gear; and many of these folk are hauling twenty or thirty kilo rucksacks. One guy with his rucksack on a little trolley pulls it along with ropes . Yet there are plenty of others who have next to nothing. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops and clutching a mobile phone they are walking across a foreign country into their futures. And smiling. They are so unburdened, it is like they are out for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Over the next week we witness many scenes that query our understanding of the situation. On the beach at Kagia, across from the Turkish resort of Assos (11 kilometres away, as the crow flies), we see two boats come ashore, each carrying forty adults plus a few children. It is late in the afternoon and the Turkish coastguard cutter, which had been anchored on the far side of the straits since the morning, has turned and headed back towards Ayvalık. The arrival of the first inflatable is rather sudden, as it comes from behind the small tree-covered promontory that lies between Kagia beach and the fishing port of Skala Sikaminia. Why have they not headed directly into the safety of a port? They could tie up alongside the quay and disembark without getting wet. The second boat comes directly in from the sea, again avoiding the port. Perhaps because they have been told not to go into any harbours. But again, why?
The occupants of the two boats are in a proportion by now familiar to us: three-quarters are young men, four or five young women, and the numbers made up by a family group or two. Going by their faces, they are mostly Arabs, with a few Afghans and South East Asians. One man with wife & children cries out – in good Turkish - for water, which we give. And then for towels, which we do not. Panicking, he has thrown his children out of the boat onto the beach and they are wet. They will soon dry in the heat. Solmaz is distressed to hear the Turkish voices. But the kids look excited and not at all disoriented by their situation or their father's lack of cool. Everyone else is smiling and unwrapping their phones from the improvised waterproof covers. The young men are slapping each other on the back, pleased to have made it.
A moped pulled up as soon as the boats hit the beach, followed by a quad bike and a pick-up. Local men take the inflatables in hand, removing their outboard motors and spare fuel tanks. They also salvage the stiff deck panels before slashing the boats to render them unseaworthy. While the new arrivals are trooping off along the road towards Skala Sikaminia, the locals load the motors and panels onto the pick-up. When Solmaz asks one of these men what will happen to them, she gets no answer. As we are finished with the beach, we begin to carry our things to the car. Just then, a gate into a field behind the beach is unlocked. The panels are stacked in there, and the motors driven off.
Finally leaving the beach, we pass the local team again. They have lined up and are having their photo taken with high-fives. I notice the guys from the pick up are wearing black waterproof jackets with dayglo yellow patches, making them look like members of an official search and rescue outfit. Cornish wreckers more like, characters out of Poldark.
We decide to drive into Skala Sikaminia for ice creams before heading back to Petra. The last of the new arrivals are walking that way too. But in the port there are far more than the eighty or so folk we saw coming ashore, which means more boats must have come into the beaches on the west side. There is a drinking fountain in the picturesque little port and a couple of volunteers, who are telling the arrivals what they must do. We speak to one of these, a woman with good English. I don't ask where she is from, but her accent is not Greek. She tells us they are directing the people to walk up to Sikaminia village, about 5 kilometres and 300 metres above the port by a steep winding road. From there buses will take them to Mytilini Town. I remember the junction she is referring to. We passed it two days before on a trip to Skala Tsonia. A bend in the road swings under a grove of tall trees, where a huge pile of discarded life jackets, clothing and other personal items were dumped. I am puzzled. If there are buses to take people, why are so many walking the 50 kilometres? Many of the walkers have Euros to spend. Some have bought ice creams.
We drive back on the coast road towards Eftalou, along the eight or nine kilometres of pebble beaches we passed on our way in. This area had already been littered with huge quantities of slashed boats and discarded life jackets. Going on, we see a Toyota pick-up parked on a small promontory overhanging the beach. The wind is stronger now and waves are picking up. Two guys are leaning over the bonnet, one of them staring out to sea through binoculars. They look somewhat dejected. It is hard not to assume that the other team have beaten them to the afternoon's spoils: four or five brand new Yamaha/Mercury outboard motors, each worth about a thousand euros.
Bouncing along in the car (the road here is unmetalled) we get into a rap about the oversupply of outboards on Lesbos versus the spike in demand across the straits in Turkey. I wonder if any of these motors will find their way back, via Greek and Turkish fishing boats hooking up at night, but I am told to keep my imagination under control. More of this type of speculation is soon to follow.
On the last couple of kilometres, the road turns inland and climbs behind a promontory to run out of sight of the island's unofficial nudist beach. I joke about what the migrants would see if their boats landed here. From previous visits, we know the place is popular with gay and lesbian folk. Of course, most of the migrants come from strict Muslim societies, so anyone cheeky with a camera could snap a sight or two here. Anyhow, my imagination is slapped down again.
The weather has turned. What was a lovely calm day, the sea a hazy blue, is rapidly becoming a grey squall. By the time we get to the hot springs at Eftalou, the waves have risen to over half a metre. We stop and look in at the old Turkish-style hamam. The place is closed – it's about seven pm - but we only want to peek inside. The caretaker is surprisingly rude and unfriendly. Greeks are usually so welcoming to all, paying customers and the just-curious. As we leave Eftalou, the heads of a few brave bathers are bobbing up and down like corks. Any inflatable overloaded with forty-plus people would be in serious trouble trying to cross.
A Few of the People
The next day, we speak to a young Syrian guy who tells us he's headed for Sweden, where he will resume his studies. He is light-hearted and lightly equipped considering how far he has to go by land: a small rucksack and his mobile phone are all he has. He and his friends have come via a short stopover in Istanbul, paying the Turks 1,100 euros each. They were brought 300 kilometres in a windowless van, so they had no idea where they were until they set foot on the shingle. Presumably it was somewhere near the Sivrice lighthouse, which is only 9 kilometres across the straits from the nudist beach of Eftalou – the narrowest crossing. Forty of them had bundled into the inflatable dinghy, the motor started, they were pointed in the best direction, then left to steer the boat themselves.
If that seems like a poor service, given the risks and the amount they paid, they are not complaining. He is one of four or five hundred who have made it onto European soil this afternoon, believing the hardest part of their journey is over. It's not part of our story, but ahead of him lies a route that dodges in and out of the European Union (of which countries such as Serbia and Norway are not members) in order to cross the borders without the Schengen Visa non-Europeans need. This means more illegal entries, more illicit payments, more dangers. The trip from Turkey to Greece, then, may turn out to have been the easiest part.
Alan Kurdi, his mother and brother, died because in the wrong hands they got into the wrong boat. People smugglers may be organised criminals, but they are also in business - and failure is bad for the trade. Word travels fast in the age of the mobile phone. The first thing people do when they reach the shore is to unwrap their phones and call or message their family and friends. And as I said above, anyone who has lived in Turkey for a while should have a pretty good idea of who to trust. After fleeing Syria, the Kurdis had lived here for most of little Alan's life. I'm sorry to say it, but his father should have known better than to put his family on that boat. But desperate times will always throw up desperate people. On the one hand, those like the poor Kurdis who have nowhere left to turn; and on the other, those who will say or do anything to make a fast buck.
On the road either side of Mandramanos we see two groups of women walking to Mytilini. The first lot are covered and have children walking with them. Solmaz is angry at seeing their scarf-covered heads and conservative clothes. What do they want from Europe? To her, such dress means only one thing: religion. Isn't Turkey good enough for them? Solmaz is part of the generation who fought for the right to wear trousers at work, and who argued against women civil servants covering their heads. Turkey has become more conservative in recent years, but women can still enjoy the freedoms opened up by Ataturk's revolution, and there are still many progressive forces at work in Turkey. But if these covered women want their children to grow up in a conservative Muslim environment, why have they left Turkey?
Next off we see a group of women dressed just like young Westerners on holiday, sunning their bare heads, arms and legs. They can't be tourists because the road here is far from any beaches or sights. They can only be people walking into a new life. They look happy, carefree, just like people on their hols.
I can't help wondering what kind of society has the cream of its youth walk away like that. And what kind of society wouldn't welcome them in?
no penny for the guy
hollow men may they make it as toast
fail the acid test but guess the rest
find god on a road to nowhere fast
suddenly their future is our past
all dressed up they are bullet proof blessed
least of people turned into the most
driven they learn murder are promised
virgins for every heathen silenced
fame on earth in heaven a palace
sup from manna's enchanted chalice
kill the unprotected unwitnessed
god's chosen morphed into accomplished
human beings finally & yet
pilots of drones seek & take them out
joystick geeks top the inadequate
all of twenty years ago I thought
find out how a fellow traveller's course
led him to the Spanish war Mum's coz
young & working class Sean Redmond was
quick to join the international force
raised to help the Republic he fought
fascism which was then taking root
everywhere in Europe like its curse
Liverpool stood there at the forefront
Vee's cousin was never to return
one of twenty-four brave lads we lost
dying on those foreign fields retreat
yes but not surrender Spain collapsed
slowly the world understood the cost
Franco lived on Hitler was caught out
why not socialism when Islam
Christianity & other spam
clutter up my inbox creeds are sham
mumbo jumbo ain't worth fighting for
she-devils orcs gods or elves may war
up & down the universe for sure
home on earth let's face it humankind
must admit the precious things to mind
wildlife children seas & woods not blind
faith in keeping wealthy people safe
greedy harvesters who never gave
caliphates for horses hold them babe
human rights are not divine there's no
better way to divvy up the dough
than fair shares for all & Sundays off
whether shooting people on a beach
having them drown as they try to reach
one or dressing in mufti to preach
hatred misguided men some young girls
even mothers & children in arms
flock to join this backward looking cause
Spain was controversial in its day
many an old soldier had to say
don't take sides in civil disarray
granted some that went were on the edge
homeless jobless even under-aged
women joined whoever felt obliged
Mum's cousin was a qualified man
union member scion of his clan
Liverpool Irish no desperate Dan
Palestine isn't Spain don't accuse
European guilt or US views
worst of all's to blame this war on Jews
when oil & gold exchanges fuel hate
secret protocols sub state to state
govern people's lives while human fate
how we live depends on who we are
killers out to rob some folk next door
or neighbours ready to care & share
time Muslims & Christians socialised
godless creedless not headless devised
how to struggle side by side advised
children not to bear the stranger grudge
kill a human from an abstract urge
die for nothing more than it is huge