14 April 2021
By Runbir Serkepkani
The border cuts right through our ancestral land in Zagros. It has given us division, landmines, wars, among other atrocities. It has made us Iraqis on one side and Iranians on the other. Even the minerals, the other than human populations of trees, rivers and lakes have been divided that way. There are rivers whose source they claim to be Iranian and whose waters downstream to be Iraqi. So absurd and totalist is that border.
We all grew up to become transgressors of that border without having a choice to do otherwise. My uncle spent his youth smuggling goods across that border. He spent one year in an Iraqi prison waiting for execution as a result. If it were not for the turmoil which was created by the Kuwait War, he would not have been able to escape. Shortly after coming home, he tried to leave for Europe. He was imprisoned in Greece and Turkey and deported from Greece to Turkey and from Turkey back to Iraqi Kurdistan several times.
When he reached Switzerland at last, he had to wait several years in vain for his asylum. He went to Calais and spent some time there before he was allowed into England, where he got a Temporary Residence Permit, which was not renewed. Meanwhile, he became a father. One of his children was born in an airport before entering the UK. Before he turned 40 years old, he got tired of it all, applied for voluntary return and now lives back in the village.
My uncle is not a unique case. My friend Huner was the most handsome boy in our neighbourhood. We all envied how popular he was among the girls of the neighbourhood. He did not talk much. By the time he was 15 years old he had left Kurdistan and started working between the Greek and Turkish border as a human smuggler. After a few years, he was arrested and spent eight years in prison. All that happened to him before he turned 25.
By coincidence, I met Cebar—an old wedding photographer from Raniya—in Istanbul. A Kurdish woman who lived in a Scandinavian country had married him, made him buy her a lot of gold and then dumped him. Heartbroken and plundered of all his wedding photography savings, he left for Istanbul. He came to Bosnia Cafe in Aksaray with another childhood friend of mine.
Alcohol had tinted their skin red and they smelled of cigarettes. They talked about their adventures in five-star hotels in the southern coastal cities of Turkey. They had all become human smugglers. Without going off to get some privacy, they were talking about nefers—passengers—in numbers and dollars, as if they were not dealing with real people but with animals who would be taken to the slaughterhouse to become the kebabs. I didn't really want to finish my beer at Cafe Bosnia with the childhood friend and the wedding photographer and I left the crew, without any desire to meet them again.
I did not know that I would later end up monitoring trials in Greece for people who are accused of human smuggling. Students, victims of workplace accidents, impoverished migrants and other people who drove boats carrying migrants regardless of whether they did it for money or not, were standing there waiting to be handed heavy sentences. Hoping for the good will of the judge, the performance of the lawyer, or the good humour of the public prosecutor so that their mitigating circumstances would be taken into consideration: young age, good behaviour, poverty, and some other things. Acquittals are as rare as water on the moon or sharks in the Aegean.
She was sitting in the back of the courtroom, waiting for the trial of her husband. He did it for her. They did not have the money to pay for both of them to cross the Aegean, but if he drove the boat and brought it back then they would both be able to board a dinghy towards Greece for free. He did not succeed. It had been four years without him. She had already reached Germany and received asylum there. She was waiting for her husband’s plea to be heard by the judge.
When he was sentenced to 21 more years in prison the guards let them cry in each other's arms for a little while. Then they took him away. She remained with her tears falling like pearls down her cheeks. That day the judge was not in a good mood. Everyone got heavy sentences and big fines.
Her husband will turn 50 by the time he walks out of prison. So many precious years, so many precious lives, ground down by the Greek legal system while the Greek government itself carries out state-sponsored human smuggling. Around 10,000 migrants have been illegally and systematically pushed back into Turkish waters in the last year on life rafts and by other means. The same coast guard who illegally smuggles vulnerable migrants back into Turkey, are the celebrated heroes by the Greek government and the European Union for arresting “human smugglers.”
Wherever there is a border there is a wound from which Mother Earth bleeds along with all her children, and from that cut is where the Truth bleeds. We will have to remember all those precious lives, all those precious dreams who were drowned in the sea or detained between the walls of prisons and concentration camps. Those who are responsible for this suffering will be held accountable by us, who do not forget. We will not stand ignorant of the suffering caused by border colonialism to Mother Earth and all her children. That day will come when Zagros and the Aegean Sea are a part of the same undivided Earth without transgressors, guards and smugglers.