Saturday 24 March 2018

It's never wise to test a gunman - but this thug made a living from misery

As desperation drives thousands into the arms of smugglers on the Turkish coast, the snows of the Balkans await those lucky to survive the perils of the Aegean Sea

On dry land: Iraqi refugees hug following their arrival on an inflatable raft on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis
On dry land: Iraqi refugees hug following their arrival on an inflatable raft on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Fergal Keane

There was lightning to the west where the Greek shoreline lay. It picked out the form of a fisherman setting his nets at Ayvalik, Turkey. Beyond him the red lights of the runway on Lesbos blinked across six miles of sea. At two in the morning the fisherman was the only living soul to be seen. The police were around somewhere. We'd run into them half-an-hour before. "Be careful," the sergeant said, "these guys are dangerous." Stories of smugglers threatening journalists with their guns were legion. We thanked the cops and kept walking.

Between the rolls of thunder our footsteps could be heard splashing through the potholes on the track to the beach. The smugglers pick this place because it is perfectly quiet, an out-of-season holiday village where the villa owners do not arrive until late in the spring. There is nobody around to observe the loading of human cargo and nobody to hear the cries of drowning people. The first refugee deaths of the year happened here, just off the shore, when two dinghies went down in rough seas. More than 30 people were lost, the bodies washed up on the beach next to the holiday homes. Our flashlights picked a pathway down to the sand catching discarded clothing in their beams. Exile after exile had passed this way.

Our driver arrived. What was the safest thing to do? Try to hide the vehicle and ourselves beneath the big ditch that ran alongside the road, or park up in plain view? We chose the latter. There was less chance of being mistaken for undercover cops or members of another gang. One of us would keep watch while the other four dozed. The hours passed slowly. With the first faint streaks of light I sat up and said: "To hell with this. They are not coming." The others shifted in their half sleep. Nobody moved. Then the headlights appeared, threading around the coast road, approaching rapidly. About 100m off they spotted us and stopped.

Then on they came. A car first, driven by a young man with three teenage girls as passengers. "I am going fishing," he said, "please move your car out of the way." There was no threat. He pulled in ahead and got out clutching a fishing rod. The girls followed. All four sat with their legs dangling over a rock ledge. I noticed that when he put the line into the water there was no hook. He was here to look out for the coastguard. We moved back and in the same moment a coach approached. It pulled onto the beach and began disgorging people. They were mostly women and children. The sun came up in brilliant gold silhouetting the people against the bare trees of the foreshore. Everybody carried a lifejacket.

They moved towards the water's edge, mothers gently nudging along their sleepy children. They made no noise. The mothers had bought woollen winter hats for the children. They were bright-coloured - yellow, orange, red - with bobbles that flopped around as the children stumbled on the soft sand.

There was an old man among the group, aged about 70. He said he'd come from Basra in Iraq and was only going to Europe because his children had already left. There was nothing left for him at home. He was tired. All his life he had lived by the shores of the Persian Gulf. He had raised his children there and welcomed his grandchildren into the Arab world of his forefathers. Now he was heading to a Europe of which he knew nothing.

A younger man intervened. "No more talking. Go away now." I couldn't tell if he was working for the smugglers or if he was a refugee. Back on the road we spotted the same police patrol we had encountered earlier. They were parked on a bridge with a view of the beach.

They could not have missed the refugees. But they did not move. I was reliably told later that they belonged to a neighbouring command. The bridge was the border and they could not cross. Make of that what you will. After a few minutes the police pulled out. What happened next happened so quickly it caught us all off guard. Four vans came racing up the lane. A man shouted out the window in Turkish. He was swearing and his meaning was clear. We should go. "He's the boss," our translator Murat said.

We drove for about quarter of a mile and pulled in from the road. The smuggler boss left while the other vans stayed. They were carrying more refugees.

After a few minutes we got out and walked towards them. All of a sudden the boss reappeared, racing down the lane towards us. He was an ugly customer with a squat face that beamed malice; a tattoo of a flaming bird decorated his left arm with which he pointed towards his stomach. "I have a gun on my belly (tucked into his waistband) and I will f**** shoot you if you do not leave."

It is never wise to test the sincerity of a gunman's intent. But I didn't want to be thwarted by some thug who made his living exploiting the misery of desperate people.

So I said goodbye to the smuggler. I then asked our driver to drive through the little estate of beach houses to a point where we might be able to film unobserved. It took about 10 minutes. Eventually we found a rocky breakwater and crouched, close to the beach but out of the smuggler's view. We watched as the refugees were loaded onto the dinghies.

The sun was high now and the dawn chill retreated. The first dinghy left shore. Then it stopped. The engine had broken down. A second passed it by and headed towards Lesbos.

One of the smugglers got on board the troubled boat. He started the engine. As it pulled away from shore he jumped out and swam back to the beach. The refugees were on their own. The dinghy came parallel with our position. Then the engine stopped again. The people could not see us so they waved towards the smugglers. Now we began to be afraid. "Ring the coastguard," I shouted to Murat.

On board the dinghy a refugee was frantically trying to restart the engine. Just as Murat was about to dial the outboard started up again. The dinghy moved away across the morning waves. On that day everybody survived. The children with the bright bobble hats are somewhere in the snows of the Balkans by now.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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