It was cold, and the wind from the steppes whipped furiously at the sea. The waves were hurling themselves at Izmir’s tarmac Cordon Corniche. It was a day of blues, of gusting, paint-white foam and the pale yellow glitter of the winter sun.
Beside me, the Colonel hunched his shoulders under his anorak. Somewhere, thirty kilometers across that brilliant, angry sea, lay Mytilene, the gateway to the Colonel’s dream of Europe. Behind him, the high-rise hotels, palm trees, minarets and cracked cement facades of a Turkish coastal town.
‘Not today,’ said the Colonel, shouting through the wind. ‘Not for another few days. The waves are four metres high. The sides of the boat are only 50cm. Our boat would be swamped.’
The Colonel was not crossing to Europe alone. 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.
‘I’ll get a wheelchair from the Red Cross,’ said the Colonel, when I asked how he’d manage with his mother-in-law. He laughed and mimed pushing the chair. ‘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. 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.
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. Twelve of them were children. I had seen their bodies on the news that morning.
I knew I couldn’t mention the dead once we got back to the flat where the Colonel was staying with his sister. 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.
‘I am very scared of the journey,’ she told me. ‘I want to go back to Jordan.’
Really? What if she could fly to Germany on a magic carpet instead of travelling in a potentially-fatal black rubber boat?
She smiled. ‘In that case I’d take a magic carpet. The trip to Europe is for my two little girls,’ she said, pointing to Fatima and Sherine. ‘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.
‘That was a big mistake,’ said the Colonel. ‘He won’t let her study. He won’t let her work. She was reading English literature at Damascus University before the war. Yasmin worked as an administrator in the Ministry of Health. But my daughter’s husband won’t even let her go out of the house.’
‘My sister’s a prisoner,’ said his daughter, Fatima. Thirteen years old, skinny and clever, she wants to be a doctor.
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. 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.
‘She knows she’s going across the sea,’ the Colonel told me.
And then there were the dead.
I asked him about them when we were alone.
‘They didn’t listen to advice. 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.
‘What boat are you planning to take?’ I asked.
‘The boat I can afford,’ he smiled. ‘The normal one. 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. ‘They’ll be thirty-five of us to the boat. 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. In the flat, Fatima and Sherine modeled them for me, the Colonel tenderly doing up their straps. He’d bought the life jackets from a guy he’d met in the street.
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. ‘Where did you test them?’ I tried to ask, but the Colonel brushed me aside: he obviously didn’t want to discuss it anymore. We both knew if the boat sank, in this weather, they’d all die of exposure anyway.
Fatima showed me her little black rubber inflatable ring. 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. Compared to the potential wrath of the winter Mediterranean it seemed pathetic, but at least it would float.
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. 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 one point the Turkish police turned up to talk to the smugglers. They soon left;. 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. It was hard to see exactly what went on.
A group of refugees were driven up in a white tourist coach, as though on a visit to the Blarney Stone. Two large inflatable black rubber boats appeared in the bay. The Syrians put on the orange life jackets they had brought with them. Just like Fatima, they all had black rubber rings.
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. There was no room in the boat. They moved with the ungainly wobble of those unused to the sea. 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. The refugees were left as masters of their fate. 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.
For centuries, Izmir – Greece’s ancient Smyrna, halfway down Turkey’s western coast – has been one of Asia’s main mouths to the West. 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. Now Izmir’s number one export is people. 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.
The Colonel drew me a little plan of his journey to Europe. Once he gets to Mytilene, he has to register as a refugee. Then the family will take a ferry to Athens – and a bus to the Macedonian border; an all-in trip costing £54 a head. After the Macedonian border, a train to Serbia – £30. Then a bus to Croatia – £60. From Croatia to Germany, it’s another £120. That’s over £6000 for the Colonel’s family of six.
‘The journey takes over a week, and that figure doesn’t include food or hotels,’ 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.
The Colonel and Yasmin were the first Syrian refugees I met. I was introduced to them by Oxfam’s office in Jordan’s capital, Amman, back in 2013. 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. Euripides’ play is about refugees, and our cast workshopped their own stories into the text. I met Yasmin and her sisters to ask them to join our cast.
Even then, I was struck by Yasmin’s dignity, her beauty and her calm – and by the Colonel’s sense of purpose and enthusiasm. This, I thought then, was the Syrian revolution, in a cracked-cement villa basement on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital, Amman.
Their house didn’t look too bad from outside; there was a tiny garden and an olive tree. Inside, Yasmin ushered us into a room that was completely bare. Stone floor, dirty cream walls, not a picture, not a piece of furniture, nor a photograph in sight. Just some foam mattresses on the floor. No toys for the two little girls who twinkled into the room, giggling at us with huge dark eyes.
Yasmin offered us biscuits and glasses of juice. She introduced us to her sister, Faten, tired-looking, in her late thirties, who spoke some English. Faten, it turned out, was single and had been an accountant in Syria. In Jordan she was forced to live at home, looking after her elderly mother, selling her jewellery to eat.
Yasmin’s husband had defected from the Syrian Army a year before. 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. They had to leave everything behind.
‘We worked for twenty years to buy that apartment.’ Yasmin told me. ‘It had three bedrooms, a big sitting room, big kitchen. All the electric machines you can find. We had a balcony, plants on the balcony. 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. 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. She showed me photographs of it on her phone. 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’s the middle-class dream, to own your own home,’ she smiled sadly. ‘We don’t even know what’s happened to the apartment. 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. ‘They were rocketing us,’ Yasmin explained to me. ‘My children had to hide under the kitchen table.’
Yasmin was at home with the two little girls when the attack started. Sara, her eldest daughter, was at university, and Ossama, her teenage son, had gone to the shops. The Colonel was with his unit in the Syrian Army. ‘But the Syrian army were attacking our own children,’ said Yasmin.
‘That’s the reason why I left the army,’ said the Colonel. And when he left the army, Yasmin and the children left for Jordan. The Colonel had to go into hiding. He followed his family a few weeks later.
To offer some consolation, I said their new house at least looked pretty.
Yasmin grimaced: ‘This house is in a terrible neighbourhood. It’s full of drug dealers. 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. That left her family only £30 a month to live on.
After four years of war and exile, the Colonel was literally running out of money. Like all Syrian refugees in Jordan, he had been forbidden to work. Syrians who do work illegally in Jordan earn about £200 a month, and rent alone is not much less than that. 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. For the Colonel, being sent back to Syria would be certain death – defectors are routinely executed. 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.
‘At the moment I can afford to take my family to Europe, but every day I stay here, it eats more of my money. 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. ‘The German government give us a year to learn the language and I can find a job,’ he said. 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. She lived in a small town, Walldorf, near the French border. Hassan, one of Faten and Yasmin’s brothers, arrived in Saxony last year, via rubber dinghy. The Colonel’s sister is in Sweden with her family.
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 boy is now with his aunt in Sweden. The Colonel was hoping the family could join his son in Sweden, but it looked as if the borders to Sweden had closed. Germany has become their destination instead; and as near Faten as possible.
‘The war in Syria will last another generation,’ the Colonel said. ‘The French Revolution lasted twenty years. 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. ‘It was great,’ he said. ‘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. And it wouldn’t provide the life he wants his daughters to have.
‘I dream of getting to Europe,’ he told me. ‘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. Then I had to fly back to London and return to work. The Colonel kept me updated with a combination of WhatsApp, and Google Translate. I’d get a message: he’s going on Saturday. Then the trip would be postponed another few days. ‘Unstable cool sea and air.’ He’d explain in a message.
I couldn’t stop worrying. If the boat capsized, how long could the family survive, even if their life jackets did work? The sea temperature was 15 degrees in the Eastern Mediterranean in January. 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 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. ‘All Good. From Monday next, spring and warm atmosphere. I expect to travel next week, God Willing.’ I was so worried, but I knew that there was nothing I or anyone could do. This was a journey that the Colonel had to take.
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. Within the EU, the Schengen zone was crumbling, the rusting iron curtain was being taken out of storage, moved to another border and redrawn. It sounded as if refugees would soon be stopped from crossing from Greece into Macedonia. If I were the Colonel, I knew what I would do. On Monday I got another message. ‘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. He was rushing his family into Europe as her drawbridges cranked up.
Three hours later my phone rang. It was the Colonel. He shouted in triumph, ‘I am in Mytilene! I am in Mytilene!’ He had landed on Lesbos.
After that, the WhatsApps kept pinging, day-by-day, as the Colonel moved through the Balkans. We waited – ready to drive down through Europe to meet him and his family. According to the messages pinging in, the Colonel seemed to be on a refugee conveyor belt, inexorably moving north. Then, after Slovenia, there was silence. Perhaps his phone had gone flat. Or had he been arrested? The whirling worry coalesced round his silence.
Then, three days later, Yasmin’s sister Faten sent me a text: ‘The German police received them yesterday. No Contact. 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. 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.
At noon my phone pinged again. ‘My family is in Heidelberg!’ Faten wrote. ‘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.
As we drove, I looked up the Patrick Henry Village: it was a decommissioned American military base, just a few miles outside Heidelberg. It had found new life during the migrant crisis as a centre for refugees. It looked light, and full of neat building blocks in rows. I imagined the Colonel and his family settling into one of those little white houses where soldiers’ families used to live.
Like all modern cities, Heidelberg, Europe’s oldest university town, is ringed by a mixture of surburban villas, petrol stations and industrial sprawl. 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.
We parked, and wandered round the nineteenth century Bismarkplatz, trying to find the Colonel. We were with Faten and her brother Hassan. All they knew was that the Colonel had arrived with his family at the Patrick Henry Village, then gone straight out shopping.
We passed a group of young men, one carrying a baby in a papoose, and a girl. I asked, in my schoolgirl German, if they knew where Aldi was.
‘Sorry,’ one of the men replied in perfect English. ‘We only just got here yesterday ourselves.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Syria,’ said the man carrying the baby. ‘And so is he,’ his friend smiled. ‘And he’s from Iraq!’
Then we saw the Colonel, 200 yards away, on the corner. He looked tired, thinner, but also very happy; serene. He was carrying a large plastic mop and a dustpan and brush, with price tags on. Hassan, his brother-in-law, was with him: younger, fatter, with a carrier bag full of bleach and floor cleaner. Faten and Hassan rushed up and hugged them. The Colonel pushed them away, smiling. ‘I have not washed for week,’ he said. She hugged him again. And he smiled, the relieved, happy smile of a man who knows he has accomplished a great thing.
‘I am tired. But I am very happy to be here. I did think we would die in the sea,’ he said.
‘You’ve grown a beard!’ said Faten.
The Colonel brushed his stubble. ‘The Slovenian border guards stole my razors!’ he explained.
The Patrick Henry Village lies in one of those dual-carriage-way borderlands where industrial estates ooze into countryside. 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 camp was surrounded by a high fence, with scrolls of razor wire along the top. The fence was to stop anyone getting in, rather than inmates getting out. The guards on the gate – armed with clipboards, not guns – made it clear we were not allowed to enter.
Milling around the gates were a dozen or so people, mostly young, mostly men, olive-skinned, wearing black leather jackets. They all had the same happy dazed look as the Colonel and the young men we had met in Bismarkplatz. 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! I’m here!’
Faten suddenly started. On the other side of the checkpoint, under the arc-lights, Yasmin was helping her mother hobble forward, flanked by Fatima and little Sherine.
Faten and her brother ran forward into a morass of hugs. Yasmin looked up from her sister’s arms and smiled, tears pouring down her face. I’d last seen her in Izmir seven weeks ago. She came towards me, tears flowing, arms wide. We hugged, then William and I withdrew, and waited by the car. Yasmin’s mother had not seen her son Hassan for over four years.
In daylight, the camp consisted of street after street of white barrack-room blocks, set amid green spaces and dotted with park benches. There was even a playground. Around these milled various young people, all with the same happy, stunned look I’d noticed yesterday.
The Colonel’s family was crammed into a large room on the ground floor of an old barrack room block. It had its own bathroom, and would have been a good size for two soldiers. For four adults and two children, it was decidedly cramped. 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. It was nobody’s home.
The bathroom was large, with bath, lavatory, shower and basin, all spotlessly clean. ‘It was filthy, when we arrived,’ said the Colonel – hence the cleaning products from Aldi. ‘I spent £60 on cleaning things. But we are not used to living like that.’
How long will they be here for? The Colonel shrugged. He coughed, and so did Yasmin. They looked at each other, then he started to talk.
‘It depends on the bureaucracy. Some people are moved in days. Some are here for months.’ But it was safe, warm and free. They were given three meals a day, including a hot lunch, which they could eat in their rooms. And when they leave, they told me, the German government will give them a flat.
We drank juice, ate biscuits, crowded around the table. The old lady was lying back on her lower bunk, still too exhausted to move. Once the Colonel began telling me about the journey, they all chipped in, interrupting like birds. 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.
It all started in a cafe near Izmir, ten days before, when the Colonel decided the weather finally felt right. The people smugglers had given him a phone number to call the night he wanted to leave. ‘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.
‘The house was full of other passengers,’ said the Colonel, coughing again. ‘We were all nervous and very scared.’
From the house, they were escorted to two large vans by the people smugglers. ‘We never saw the Big Boss,’ said the Colonel. ‘He’s Turkish. 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.
‘There were sixty people on our boat: forty adults and twenty children. All with life jackets and black rubber rings and bags,’ the Colonel explained.
‘Who drove the boat?’
‘One of the Syrian passengers,’ Fatima giggled ruefully. ‘The smuggler gave him a five minute lesson.’
‘He wasn’t much good,’ said the Colonel. ‘The engine kept stopping. But he got a free trip. I don’t know where he is now. The boat broke down. Kaput. The engine stopped four times. The boat was drifting left and right. It stopped for half an hour. People were terrified. Screaming women and children. Praying to Allah. Shouting ‘My God! My God!’’
‘The Turkish police followed us,’ Fatima laughed; she couldn’t stop smiling; so happy to be alive and in Europe. ‘When we got to the edge of Turkish waters, the motor died. They put a spotlight on us and sped towards us!’
‘We pulled and pulled,’ The Colonel mimed pulling on an engine. ‘And it came into life. We roared off!’
‘It was like being in an action movie,’ said Yasmin; she too is laughing, now, with relief.
The boat stopped several more times. Once for an hour. ‘I thought we would die,’ said Fatima. ‘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. ‘The water was flat. No wind. I chose a good day for the weather. I kept telling people in the boat to sit down and calm down. If people moved, then the boat could capsize.’
‘One women tried to jump into the sea!’ said Yasmin.
‘Yasmin slapped her,’ said the Colonel, with visible pride.
‘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. The lights, they explained, were shone from the beach by a Swedish humanitarian organization to guide migrants in.
‘I was terrified on the Turkish beach,’ said Fatima. ‘But once we got to Greece I was very, very happy. The boat went straight up onto the beach. We didn’t even get wet!’
‘I would never do that journey again,’ said Yasmin. ‘I’d rather stay in the war in Syria. I kept imagining my daughters dead in the sea. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. But . . .’ 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. She shrugged, ‘Now we have done it, it’s like being born again.’
Yasmin coughed again; so did the Colonel. ‘We’ve got bronchitis,’ he said. ‘We went to the doctor here at the camp. He told us, ‘Water and Tea!’ I need medicine!’ The colonel laughed.
‘Water and Tea!’ It became a joke each time they coughed; a first chip in their ideal of the West.
After they landed, a minibus took them from the beach to a reception centre. There they registered as refugees and got the papers they needed to leave Greece. They bought tickets for the ferry to Athens, which included the bus journey to the Macedonian border, and arrived at Athens the next morning.
The Colonel was tired as he told me this, and continued to cough. 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.
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. Although it cost over £4,800 for his family to reach Macedonia, from then on they did not have to pay for transport. They were also housed and fed by aid workers every step of the way.
On the Greek–Macedonian border, they were given more food – and offered clothes and shoes. ‘We didn’t take them as we wanted to walk quickly,’ he explained. They walked across the border and into Macedonia; the police there, he said, were very kind. They were processed swiftly and put on a train to Serbia.
The train took seven hours and stopped short of the border. The Colonel and his family trudged northwards for half an hour; Hassan helping his elderly mother. ‘But the border was closed,’ said the Colonel. ‘There were hundreds of us. We had to walk all the way back to Macedonia.’
There they waited in a camp for fourteen hours. At least it was sunny. Back in January, the Serbian border had been under three feet of snow. At 2.30 a.m., the call came that the border was open. But the old lady was tired and in pain. ‘The Red Cross promised to send her by car,’ said Yasmin. So they left Hassan in the camp with his mother and walked northwards again towards Serbia. 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 I couldn’t see my wife’s mother or Hassan anywhere,’ said Yasmin. The camp officials told Yasmin not to worry and herded the family into a bus. They were driven 20km to another camp where were given fleeces to wear, and hot soup. But there was still no sign of Yasmin’s mother. It was 4 a.m.
At that point, Yasmin started to cry. ‘I thought I’d never see her again,’ she told me. ‘Two aid workers asked her what the problem was. ‘I’ve lost my mother,’ she wept. ’ The old lady was stuck in the wrong country with no money and a ruptured disc, and could only speak Arabic. The aid workers made a couple of phone calls. An hour later, a car arrived, with Yasmin’s mum.
At 5.30 a.m. they all got on the bus to the Croatian border. The Serbs were shunting the refugees north as quickly as possible. ‘We didn’t have to show our papers. They just wanted us to buy the tickets,’ said the Colonel. They reached the Croatian border by mid-day.
At this point, the Colonel’s narrative got a bit blurry. I couldn’t really work out what country he was in, and I don’t think he could either. He was tired now, and was coughing again. He looked round the brown ground floor room, stacked with the bunk beds of his relations. 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.
‘The Croatian police and the Red Cross searched us all,’ he said. ‘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.
When they reached Slovenia, they were questioned by a plainclothes man who spoke fluent Arabic. ‘He asked us where we wanted to go, so we 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. ‘I don’t know what happened to him. Another man was taken away because he was from Iran. 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.
Hassan looked sad through the whole tale, while the others kept butting in excitedly. ‘Why did you leave Jordan?’ I asked him.
‘He got caught twice by the Jordanian police working illegally as a waiter,’ said the Colonel. ‘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.
‘I earned £230 a month,’ Hassan tapped into the phone. ‘£300 if I worked sixteen hours a day. Syrians are exploited because the Jordanian government won’t let us work legally. But I had many friends in Jordan.’
It was 2 a.m. before their train started to move north. They arrived at the Austrian border at 7 a.m. After breakfast, the Slovenian police walked the refugees over in groups. ‘It was a ten minute walk. Beautiful and Green,’ said the Colonel. ‘But in Austria it got very serious. I considered this the gate to Central Europe. Both me and the authorities.’ Austria marked their entry into Old Europe, with its dual twentieth century traditions of capitalism and the Welfare State.
People were taken off separately into a large, modern building to be interrogated. Everyone was searched. They were given forms to fill in with their chosen destination. The leader of every group was questioned. ‘They asked me why we were coming to Europe; I said, because of the war. They asked who the people with me were, I said my family. Where did I want to go? I said Germany. Then the officer told me that Germany had shut its borders; what will you do? But I knew this was fake. 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. Why are you doing this to us? I’m a renegade Colonel!’ The officer laughed. He stood up, held out his hand, and said ‘Welcome to Europe! Go to Germany!’ And they let us through.’
About five hundred of their fellow travellers were sent back to Slovenia. ‘I don’t know what happened to them. 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. ‘It was beautiful. High mountains. We sat in the camp and ate and drank. We felt so happy; I had achieved the goal after three years.’ Then, after an hour, the bus to Germany arrived.
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. I wanted to show the Colonel and his family that ; there is more to Europe than refugee centres and trains. Fat and fast between its wooded hill, and banks of bulging, sandstone houses, runs the river Neckar, on its way to the Rhine.
‘Beautiful, beautiful,’ said the Colonel as we turned into the old town to park the car. We walked up the cobbled streets of the Altstadt; ‘Beautiful. Old like Damasacus.’
A man painted white, a living statue, held poses in the square. The Colonel and Hassan had never seen such a thing before; they laughed out loud. We went into the Cathedral, sandstone and intimate, about a third of the size of Westminster Abbey. Hassan and the Colonel were tourists, gazing at the saints, the stained glass windows, the grandees immortalized in Latin on the walls. By the main door was a wrought iron rack on which several half-melted candles flickered. I took a fresh, white candle from the glistening stack to the side, paid my euro, lit it and impaled it on the rack. I closed my eyes and thanked God for the Colonel’s deliverance.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked. Praying, I explained. He nodded, put a euro into the slot, and took a candle himself. He lit it, stuck it in the rack, then raised his eyes and hands to heaven. ‘Allhamdulillah,’ I heard him thank Allah.
Outside, he tapped into his phone. ‘Unfortunately I had the responsibility for everything. I had to preserve the health and safety of my wife, her mother and brother. But I’ve enjoyed the trip. It was an adventure. I can be a tourist now.’
We found a cafe in the cobbled Cathedral square, in the sun, and ordered coffee. A blonde woman in a dirndl slapped them down on the table. Hassan looked at my white-frothed cup, tapped something into his phone, then handed it to me. ‘I worked as a waiter in a five star hotel in Damascus for six years serving coffee and cappuccino. 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.
The Colonel, though, was radiant. His plan had worked. Three years. Ten countries. And he’d brought his family within five miles of the destination he’d hoped to reach.
Within two weeks of the Colonel’s arrival, after fevered discussion between Europe’s Chiefs of Police, Macedonia shut its borders with Greece. Greece started deporting migrants to Turkey. The conveyor belt was broken. Fortress Europe had pulled up the drawbridge. The Colonel got his family through just in time.
Photograph © Georgios Giannopoulos