Downtown

Istklal Caddesi, Istanbul - Guillermo Fdez /flickr

7th post. Istanbul: connection between two continents, Asia and Europe. Where refugees like Mussa Khan are obliged to pass, especially now that the routes of the muhajirins have shifted towards North. Here, their destiny crosses with the contradictions hovering between economic development and denied rights

Swept by a light morning wind, the Bosporus overwhelms my drowsiness just like a finger snap. The bus runs silently over a single-arched titanic viaduct, metal connection between Asia and Europe, while the sun on the horizon makes an effort to complete its oval, signaling a brand new day.

Istanbul. Constantinople. Byzantium. The most polyglot city in the world reveals itself up until its toponymy. Founded in the 7th Century BC, it was named after King Byzas by his colonists from Megara. In 330, Emperor Constantine renamed it Costantinou Polis , his “Nova Roma”. Twelve centuries later, the Sublime Porte put its present seal on history: Istanbul, from the Greek “istinpolis ”. Simply, “downtown”.

My only objective here is to gather information and leave. Mussa passed on this bridge only a few hours ago, headed North, headed towards the Evros River, the last door of Europe. If he gets in contact as soon as he enters Greece, as he has promised, I could even meet him tomorrow. Finally. Continue reading

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Dead end

6th post. The Silk Road of the Third Millennium carries human flesh. Its terminal on Turkish soil is Izmir: here, muhajirins arrive. Muhajirins , like Mussa Khan, who try the Aegean route to end up, too often, at the bottom of the sea. To look for him, I need to enter Basmane, Europe’s door of the last

The shapeless silhouette silently creeps in the blind spot of my visual field, mistress of darkness. All around is Basmane, neighborhood of the damned, Europe’s door of the last.

After perceiving his presence, and before I can even turn around, the man manifests himself with a blatant, almost grotesque, greeting. The hand is already stretched out: “My friend! Were you looking for me?”

Izmir, ancient Smirne, for 2.500 years terminus of the dusty road network better known as the Silk Road. The most thriving bargaining place in the Mediterranean, from here the merchandise from China, India or Arabia finally took to the sea, bound for European ports.

History knows no irony. In the past few years, it has been right here in Basmane, in its historic center, that the migrants, the most precious merchandise of the third millennium, have interrupted their journey by land to face the waves of the Aegean.

Low on the horizon, the Greek islands are visible to the naked eye. After months or years of traveling, the undreamt-of European bank is the persuasive singing of deadly sirens: in this stretch of sea, the waters have swallowed thousands of muhajirins . Or harragas , as some call them here, the “men who burn the frontiers”.

From Basmane, traffic networks are woven that stretch up to the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Senegal. The Silk Road of the Third Millennium carries human flesh. Continue reading

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The Jirga of Gaziantep

5th post. The distance, journey and precariousness are notenough to deprive the Afghan refugees of their roots. The “Jirga” meets also in Gaziantep. The assembly of elders sits to face the painful topic of exile, but also day-to-day problems of those who hover between a bitter present and an uncertain future

The elder Abdal Halek is leafing through a booklet gone yellow. Sitting in a semicircle on the carpet, the assembly of the family heads observes silently. “My whole life since I have been in Turkey”. Forms, requests, certificates, clippings, notes. The gnarled fingers dip through the papers, stopping on a UNHCR headed paper: “It is from last week”. He hands it to me. “I have been invited to appeal for the third time. It means I have not been awarded refugee status, yet. After seven years”.

The old man continues, “But I no longer have the strength to wait. For years, I have waited and hoped. Then I tried. I sent my children to Greece with the traffickers twice. They were arrested, beaten and sent back here. I tried to go back to Teheran, but Iran is no longer the country we lived in for so long. I tried with the UNHCR, but they do not answer the phone in Ankara, anymore. And it has been months”. Then he turns his gaze to the ground. “From now on, I will simply do nothing”. Continue reading

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A meeting with the devil

Mosque in Van - P.Martino

4th post. The kaçakçılar , human traffickers, have neither business cards nor sales offices. They mingle with the people in the alleys, in the cafés, in the square in front of the mosque. Shifty, invisible, always on the migrants’ route, they could be the only way to find Mussa Khan’s tracks again

Naqeeb gets me out of bed at 6.30 in the morning. “Get up, kardash ! We have to go sign before the line forms. Hurry!” Sign? Line? Too complicated: I follow him mechanically, my thoughts still numb with sleep.

The city is noisily waking up: in the streets, one after the other, the stores’ shutters roll up, minibuses hunk their horns at roundabouts, pedal rickshaws rove offloading goods in the already crammed alleys. Naqeeb keeps stopping to greet people in the Pashtun manner: a big hug followed by a mutual tap on the right shoulders.

On the dolmus , the crowded minibus, Naqeeb finally tells me why we had to get so up so early. “All asylum seekers have to sign a register. Men sign on Tuesdays and Thursdays, women on Wednesdays”. At the police station I understand the reason for such a hurry: many people are still waiting for their turn and the line quickly gets longer and longer before my eyes. “No one can leave Van, punishment for those who do not sign is severe”, Naqeeb says. “To avoid anyone escaping, the police requisitions passports when asylum seekers arrive in Van. We get them back only on the day we leave, decided by the UN refugee agency”. Continue reading

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The Turkish trap

Turkish residence permit for foreigners - P.Martino

3rd post. Still in Van and of Mussa Khan, no news.   The journey amongst the Afghan muhajirins continues: trapped in the Turkish city, in the limbo of temporary asylum waiting to continue their journey, even illegally, through Greece and Italy

The Milky Way is the silvery roof of the sleepless upland: at dead of night the alleys of Van keep swarming with discrete trades, while up above, in the pale and distant sky, the light of the stars keeps pulsing coldly.

I give up on the idea of the expedition to Yuksekova: it is complicated and has little chance of success, so I decide to focus on continuing my researches in the city. I spend my whole Sunday in the streets, and together with Shahin we chase suggestions, images, any hint that can lead me on Mussa’s tracks.

We go back to the neighborhoods surrounding the castle, wander in the suburbs and loiter in theotogar , the bus station just outside the city. It is just a failed attempt, though: muhajirins do not leave traces of their presence. The day winds up in front of the computer: no e-mail, no message on Facebook. Mussa has cut off contact with the world. Continue reading

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The valley of migrations

Sunset in Van - P.Martino

2nd post. At night, in Yüksekova, the army has permission to shoot at sight. If you go up there, be very, very careful”. The journey in search of Mussa Khan continues. An Afghan refugee on the path to a dream called “Europe”. A dream that is all too often paid with one’s own life

Shahin dips the bread in the mixture of honey, cheese and chopped hazelnuts while, with the other hand, he invites me to do the same. “This is the week-end’s breakfast, when we have time to sit and enjoy the flavors of Kurdistan!”. Around us, noisy families crowd the tables that invade the road site, while frenzied children carry tea, as though speed were the measure of their professionalism.

I tell Shahin about my intention to extend my research on Mussa Khan up to Yuksekova. At the table next to ours, someone seems interested. “It is useless to go up in those mountains. You won’t find anything there”. Perfect English, sunglasses, in his 30s, the stranger continues: “Few people know that soil like I do. There are only pastors and terrorists”. His behavior is off-putting, but the opportunity is tempting. Without thinking, I ask him, point-blank: “How do you know so much about it?” Continue reading

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On the trails of Mussa Khan

Van, near the border with Iran - johncumbers /flickr

1st post. Months, years, constantly moving. Rejected, invisible, on the margins. This is the destiny of the Afghan muhajirins , on a tenacious search for the dream called “Europe”. With the episodes of the “Mussa Khan” blog, we are going to tell their odyssey through Turkey, Greece and Italy, until the Ostiense Station in Rome

“This is Kurdistan, not Turkey!”  His eyes stormy, Taha is very convincing.  After three weeks of border crossings and a thousand different languages, I stumble on the easiest of words: “Thank you.”  “No problem!” he reassures me with a smile. Then he takes me by the arm and walks me to the city center through a labyrinth of alleys crowded with the tables and stools of tea shops.

Shahin, who for three to four days will be my interpreter, is waiting for us.  A recent graduate, wearing a striped shirt and black leather shoes, he doesn’t inspire much confidence with his tremulous voice.  His employ  is the result of tenacious research on the part of Taha, whom I had met just one hour earlier on the bus. After introductions, a cup of tea, and a shoeshine, we got to work. Mussa Khan will soon be in the area and, before he arrives, I want to have a full understanding of the situation Afghan refugees face when they arrive in Van, Turkey, the arrival point for those coming by way of Iran. Continue reading

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