By Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
- Wasim Abu Nahi, 36, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently underwent an almost indescribable personal tragedy.
- It came to pass on July 21, as Turkish traffickers dropped him off on the cliffs in front of the Greek island Samos, accompanied by his thirty-year-old wife Lamise, his four-year-old son Oday and his tiny daughter Layan, who was nine months old.
Since the Greek coast guard refused to provide assistance, and since his wife was injured and both his children were exhausted and dehydrated, Wasim left them behind to search for water, food and any help he could get. He was soon arrested and imprisoned by the local police, who refused to even listen to his pleas. As he sat helplessly in his cell, a forest fire broke out on the island, eventually claiming the lives of Lamise, Oday and Layan. The police’s reaction to this unspeakable tragedy was to arrest Wasim’s two Syrian companions who had sailed with him to Greece and charge them with causing the fire, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the charges.
After keeping Wasim imprisoned for five more weeks, they eventually let him go. With the help of friends and local activists, he immediately travelled to Athens, where he met with his nephew from Sweden. Together, they then returned to Samos and, after a few gut-wrenching hours, found the remains of Wasim’s family. Utterly broken, Wasim travelled back to Athens, where he is now stranded. Since he hasn’t been awarded refugee status, he cannot even file for an asylum. He is living with one of his Syrian acquaintances in the anarchist quarter called Excarhia, which was where I met him. What follows is his story. A story about Europe. A story about the human race.
“My family and I, we used to live in Dubai, but in the spring I lost my job. I come from Latakia by the Mediterranean sea. In 1948, my parents fled from Haifa to Syria to escape the Jewish terror. A large part of my family remains there still. So my first impulse after losing my job was to return to Syria, I wanted to help – I could no longer just stand by and watch the destruction of the land and the suffering of my relatives. But my wife convinced me my first duty was to the future of our children. Layan, my little girl, was only a few months old. Returning to Syria was simply not an option. We decided we would head to Turkey and try to worm our way into the European Union. Our ultimate goal was to reach Sweden, because I have some relatives there.”
Wasim Abu Nehi was telling his story in a quiet, monotone voice, and his gaze was focused on some undefinable, unfathomable point in the distance.
In Turkey, some friends got him in touch with the local human traffickers. Because of its proximity to several Greek islands, the Turkish coastline is one of the key points of entry for the ragged, starving immigrants from all over the world who had set out for the promised land called European Union. Yet the vast majority of these refugees from war and unimaginable poverty are quick to learn that, for them, the EU is no promised land, but merely a xenophobic, racist and bureaucrat-dominated new circle of hell.
Wasim, too, was quick to admit he’d allowed his expectations to run high.
“I wanted to go to Sweden, where my nephew could help me find some work. Everything had already been arranged, you know. My wife and children would have probably been awarded refugee status, since they had Syrian citizenship. It would have been a bit harder for me, since I only have Palestinian papers, but I know I would have gotten by somehow.” With an audible lump in his throat, Wasim was telling me this in a murky street in Athens, where the ever-present smell of marijuana mixed with the smell of grilled meat. As he was telling me how his entire life was burnt to cinders in a single day, he kept weeping and shuddering and hugging himself for what pitiful semblance of comfort he could get. He told me that some psychiatrist gave him a prescription for tranquilizers, but these only made him feel worse. He reached into his pocket and produced a grimy grey cellphone.
“This was my daugher,” he clicked through the pictures: “This was my son. This was my wife. My family…” Tears were flowing down his cheeks. He looked up into the darkening sky. In a small quiet voice, he started to pray. Then he pressed the button that brought up one final image.
“This is what we found after the fire.” The picture, like a heavy blow to the ribs, showed me a heap of charred bones and some family jewelry.
“I came to Europe and immediately lost everything. I had come here to live, not to die. My wife and children didn’t pass away. They were killed. They were murdered by the Greek police. By Europe.”
Clenched fists. Firmly shut eyes. This was Wasim Abu Nahi, screaming his silent, impotent pain inside an abyss; in total darkness.
“On the boat, one trafficker and two male refugees from Syria, Jihad and Mohaned, were also present. We sailed from the Turkish town of Cukhuhazi at half past seven in the morning. It took us around four hours to get to Samos. We met no one on our journey. The trafficker unloaded us beneath a huge cliff and told us we were in Greece. In Europe. He told us to climb to the top of the cliff. We shouldn’t have any problem with that, he smiled. Up there, we were supposed to find a trail with someone waiting for us, a person who would arrange our further passage to Athens. There were six of us, and we only had a liter and a half of water between us. We were also running very short on food. We believed the trafficker that everything was in order. So we reached dry land and started to climb. It was awfully, awfully hot. Both my children were exhausted. My wife felt very ill. But after five hours of torture, we somehow made it to the top. Up there, we found nothing, only thorns and rocks. There was no trail, no path, no nothing. We were very high up, and all we could see was the ocean. But I still felt quite optimistic. It felt like we were so wonderfully close to our salvation!”
But salvation, for this fate-whipped band of migrants, was very far away.
The Turkish trafficker had chosen to dump Wasim’s family on one of the most remote parts of the otherwise beautiful island of Samos. Once Wasim grasped what had been done to him, he fell into a rage. Night was descending upon the travellers, and the family had already run out of food and water. Jihad, the 44-year-old fellow refugee from Syria, somehow managed to get the Turkish coast guard on his cellphone. They informed him that they were powerless to act, since the band of migrants was officially on Greek territory. They sent him an SMS with the number of their Greek counterparts, which Jihad immediately dialled. A woman answered and promptly told him they would all get arrested for illegally entering the country. After being informed about the exhausted and dehydrated children, the woman promised she would immediately send help. It was agreed that, once the coast guard ship was near, the migrants would send it light signals to indicate their location.
After two hours of miserable huddling on the rocks, the band of travellers indeed glimpsed a ship headed in their general direction. They immediately started a small fire. Wasim told me that the ship eventually stopped close to the coastline and flooded them with heavy, powerful light beams. “We thought we were saved. But the ship simply turned and sailed away. We didn’t know what to do! We waited, and after twenty minutes the ship returned. But this time, we were unable to start a fire. Our only lighter had gone bust, you see. So we tried to signal it with our cellphones, but the ship turned around and disappeared again. Jihad called the number we’d been given, and the same woman answered and told him they hadn’t even sent the ship out yet, so it couldn’t possibly have been one of theirs. We all felt that was horribly weird, but what could we do save to keep begging to be rescued? And then the cellphone’s battery ran out. We decided to wait until morning. We lay down on the ground, hungry and thirsty as we were. Around five in the morning, we set off in a pretty much random direction. Mohaned, the younger of the two Syrians, went off ahead while Jihad kept pace with us. My wife could barely walk. I was carrying both children and most of our luggage. At a certain point, my wife fell down on the ground and couldn’t get up. She told me to press on and get help, while she would stay there and keep watch over the children… Those are the last memories I have of them.”
Once more, the man telling the story was overcome with tears. His eyes were puffy, his face deeply traumatized. His body was prone to sudden spasms, as if he were being tortured with electro-shocks from afar. Suddenly, he took my hand, looking even more lost and confused than before. “My daughter was nine months old,” he said: “On October 19, my son would have turned four.”
On that fateful night, Jihad, too, had been too exhausted to keep walking. He gave Wasim a sacred promise he would remain with his wife and children and keep watch. Faced with an extremely difficult decision, Wasim chose to go on and seek help.
“So I forged ahead. It had to be done, there was no getting around it. I kept walking for a while, then, on the other side of the island, I descended down toward the sea again. My aim was to reach the first available village or beach and alert the people to our plight. The only way I could get to the beach on the other side of the bay was by swimming. There were many sharp rocks in the water. I swam up to one of them, and then a small fishing boat came floating by. I called out for help, but the man in the boat looked away, he was probably afraid of me. People on dry land could not hear my cries. I had drunk a lot of seawater, and I felt very sick. Then I saw the first helicopter, swooping down to collect some water from the sea. After that, many more helicopters came to put out what I later learned was a huge forest fire, and planes as well. Smoke was rising up into the air in the distance. I got so scared I almost lost control of my sanity. I started to scream and jump up and down on that rock jutting from the sea… I would have done anything to draw attention to myself. And then I glimpsed a house.” Wasim threw himself into the water and started swimming for his life. When he reached the shore, he was still screaming at the top of his voice. A Greek man stepped out of the house and informed him about the forest fire. He gave him water and some clothes, then he called the police. It was in the early morning of July 23.
The policemen arrived very quickly.
“They immediately arrested and handcuffed me. They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. They took me to the local police station and threw me in a cell. Only later they called for an interpreter. Crying uncontrollably, I told him my family was dying. I begged for his help. He went away, and after some more time passed, a policeman came to collect me. He took me by boat to the vicinity of the place where I parted from my wife and children. That particular patch was still unconsumed by the fire, but the fire was raging all around. I asked the policeman to take me up there to dry land. But he refused. I was hand-cuffed, there was nothing I could do. He immediately turned the boat and took us back toward the harbour. Why did we even set off in the first place?!, I kept wondering hysterically. But this time, the policeman took me to another police station.”
As they arrived there, Wasim saw his family’s luggage lying on the ground. For a blessed instant, he was convinced that his loved ones were safe. It was all he cared about, but in the station’s prison he pnly found Jihad and Mohaned. Jihad informed him that his wife had been unable to walk, so he had chosen to proceed by himself.
“Jihad was arrested 44 hours after I left my wife and children. He and Mohaned were charged with starting the forest fire. Without so much as a shred of evidence! Today, they are still imprisoned on Samos, waiting for the trail which is some five or six months away. They threw me in jail again as well. During the first nine days, they only took my handcuffs away when I needed to urinate. One evening, one of the policemen dragged me to his office and forced me to watch pornographic movies to break my will as a devout Muslim.”
When, after a good long while, they started interrogating him in earnest, Wasim told his story in its entirety to the prosecutor. “I cried all the time. I was absolutely desperate. Even then I somehow knew the worst had already happened. None of the policemen went to search for my family. Finally, a representative of the United Nations came to visit my cell and promised to take care of everything. Four more days passed, maybe five. The policemen assured me they had searched the area and found nothing. I spent fourteen more days in that prison. And then – without so much as a word – they transfered me to a local detention centre for the immigrants.
From there, Wasim was able to call his nephew in Sweden, who immediately made the trip to Greece. But since he was an immigrant himself, he should have obtained a special permit from the authorities, and immediately upon his return to Sweden his passport was confiscated. In the detention centre, Wasim was also helped by a lawyer named Marianna and a Syrian activist named Aziz who invited him to come live with him for a while in Athens. Almost a month after that horrible, fateful night, Marianne officially filed three missing persons claims for Lamise, Oday and Layan. Only then the policemen on Samos set themselves in motion. Yet they still claimed there was nothing to be found. Wasim himself was forbidden from moving around the island. The detention centre was really just a prison with a politically correct name. The crime committed by the poor souls locked within its walls was to have been born in the wrong part of the world. In the promised land called EU, such a crime often merits the death penalty.
After his long wait in prison, Wasim’s lawyer and activist friends helped him to finally obtain a set of papers which entitled him to a six-month stay in Greece. In official bureaucratspeak: since he came from Syria, a country consumed by war, his deportation had been ‘delayed for six months’. After he got the papers, he went to Athens and then quickly returned to Samos. Accompanied by his nephew and by Aziz, he started searching the area where he had last seen his loved ones. It didn’t take long before he found their remains. “Their bones and jewelry…” he said and showed me the nauseating picture on his cellphone again. “This is all that was left of them. They murdered them by refusing to help them. They had more than enough time. They knew all they needed to know. We could have easily been saved by the coast guard. We found the bones a mere two hundred meters away from where that policemen took me with his boat. We are now having a DNA analysis made. Once the results are in, I am going to file a suit against those who are responsible. Against the murderers of my wife and children. Apart from legally leaving Greece, this is now the only goal I have left. I am a dead man. I don’t have any reason to go on living. They took everything from me, and there was nothing I could do. I still feel like I am drowning.”
For the last time during our meeting, Wasim Abu Nehi dissolved in a spasm of uncontrollable sobs. Then he repeated: “My wife and children did not pass away. They were murdered by Europe.”
* Check www.bostjanvidemsek.com and his new book “Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall”