Gaziantep, Turkey (Reuters) - Images of a father struggling to hold his baby above the waves and of drowned Syrians washed ashore have not deterred Racha Sattout from gambling her life to seek sanctuary in Germany after fleeing a Syria ripped apart by war.
For her and thousands of others waiting to cram onto rubber boats on Turkey’s shores to cross to the Greek islands, the choice is simple: die in Syria or risk death at sea in the hope of reaching safety and a new life in Europe.
But after she saw the heart-wrenching pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish toddler who drowned this month, she decided to take that risk alone. She left her daughter Riham, 8, and son, Raed, 10, with her husband in Aleppo, and travelled to Turkey. Her hope is to win refugee status in Germany and thereby the right to bring her family to her new home.
But Racha’s experience on her journey to date has been bitter, and is typical of the hardships and exploitation suffered by the thousands following the same treacherous route.
A week after arriving in Turkey, using money her sister sent her from Spain for the trip, she was still stranded in a hotel in the coastal city of Izmir at the mercy of people smugglers greedy for money.
“Every night the smuggler says this will be the night of the journey, but he keeps stalling and increasing his prices while my money is dwindling away,” she says. Now she has moved in with a Syrian family in Izmir and is looking for another smuggler.
The unstoppable flow of people risking tiny rickety boats and the chicanery of smugglers to cross the Mediterranean shows no sign of abating, and is personalising the collective tragedy of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
They are fleeing a conflict that began as a popular uprising in 2011, but quickly turned into a war that has killed over 250,000 people, creating more than 4 million refugees and displacing some 7.6 million more within the country.
Reminders of the risks come daily. Thirty-four refugees, 15 of them children, drowned when their boat sank off a Greek island on Sunday. Thousands have died in what is fast becoming Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The refugees’ stories speak of a devastated homeland, tremendous dangers to escape and rewards available to those who smuggle them – including fellow Syrians who have taken on the job of trying to make a treacherous passage safer.
Racha says that when a shell landed yards from her son six months ago, she and here husband decided it was time to flee Aleppo, a trading city fought over by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, mainstream rebels and jihadi forces, including Islamic State.
“We sleep in bombardment and we wake up in bombardment,” she said. “The situation in Syria is only getting worse; there is no sign that our ordeal will end, and the sea to Europe is the only hope left for us.”
Asked if she had seen the news reports of people drowning and whether that put her off, her answer was immediate.
“I’m scared of dying but...we’re dying in Aleppo a hundred times a day – what’s the difference? At least if I make it I might be able to do something to save the family.”
“When I look at how much my children are suffering, my heart aches. They are terrified all the time, they can’t sleep at night, they can’t go outside to play, they are locked up at home.”
She sobbed as she described hugging her children goodbye, their first separation, and their last words to her: “Maybe our life will change but, please Mum, don’t take long to send for us.” If she gets to Germany, that could take up to a year.
Sultan Kitaz, 22, was just about to start university when the war started, and his now devastated part of Aleppo was taken over by rebels from the Free Syrian Army, and subjected to heavy bombing. “There is nothing in Aleppo, I am a dead man there,” he says, explaining his decision to join the exodus to Europe.
“The world is shocked by the pictures of the dead Syrian toddler but what I have seen in Aleppo is much more cruel. I saw whole families obliterated. I saw whole neighbourhoods destroyed (and) many of my friends were killed. We have no other way out, we have no other solution.”
His friend, Ahmad Hanif, 23, waiting to board the boat to Greece, also missed out on his ambition to study business and accountancy because of the war.
He worked for Turkey-based NGOs on development projects in Aleppo until Turkey tightened the rules on Syrian entry, but his decision to flee was prompted by the encroachment of jihadi groups such as IS and Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“The situation is getting very dangerous,” he says. “Not only do we fear being killed in the regime bombardments but now we fear being killed by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for IS). Daesh targets NGOs because they consider us spies for the West.”
Hanif has lost hope in a Syria whose future he went into the streets to fight for in 2011, or in a Middle East by which he feels bitterly betrayed – even if Europe never measured up to the rhetoric of its support for the rebellion against Assad.
“The Arab countries are to blame for our plight. Europe has given Syrians asylum, facilitated the entry of refugees and gave them rights, but the Arabs have shut their doors in our face.”
Alongside this group of refugees from Aleppo is another one who says that after his experience at the hands of ruthless people smugglers he decided he had to become one himself.
Abu Abdo, 29, was a law student before the war. Now he works in Izmir on the coast of western Turkey, and has been working as a smuggler for three months, after a harrowing experience attempting to flee with Turkish smugglers. He gave an interview to Reuters by phone, not wanting to meet in person.
“I came to Turkey to board a boat to Europe,” says Abu Abdo. “I went through this with a Turkish smuggler. When I went to take the boat with 20 other Syrians I saw how the Turks were overloading the rubber boat, which normally takes 20, by putting 45 of us on board a small boat with a small engine.
“We told them this small boat wouldn’t be able to carry us, that it would take us to hell but not Greece,” he said. “The Turkish smugglers were shouting and wanted to force us to board the boat, (then) we had a fight and left.”
“They didn’t give a damn whether we die or survive. They only cared about the money. In the end we made a deal with the Turkish smugglers that we pay them a cut and do it ourselves.”
He took over the operation, using Google to learn the best and quickest routes between Turkey and Greece, charging a little more than half the going rate and putting the money into better boats, with extra fuel, life-jackets and new engines.
“We pay them $5,000 a boat and we run two boats daily,” says Abu Abdo. “I receive $850 a head but they mostly come through agents who take $1,200-1,300. No one has died with us.”
Abu Abdo has sent his mother, three siblings, and an uncle and cousins through the same route, and he too is bitter about the Arab response to the disastrous refugee crisis.
Another, commercial smuggler, Marlene, told would-be customers she charged $1,200 from Izmir to the Greek island of Chios in a rubber boat carrying 45. The charge for the trip on to Germany was 5,000 euros per head. The sales pitch came full of reassuring words.
“Don’t you worry about safety, this is our business, our reputation is good. Every other day a boat leaves with migrants and we haven’t had any problem. Once you are in international waters everything will be Ok. Get medicine if you get sea sick.”
She went into detail about the virtues of heading for different Greek islands, whether Chios, Samos or Kos, and how to navigate the land route up into Hungary.
“Wherever you are in Greece or in any place in Europe you can send me a whatsApp message of whatever you need and I will help, don’t worry I have good smugglers everywhere.”The smuggler’s clients don’t pay up-front. They put a deposit in insurance offices. These illegal deposit bureaux give the travellers a code. If they reach their destination they call the bureau and the code unlocks the deposit for the smuggler. The money is in the name of the traveller; if he makes it he pays.
After they spoke to Reuters, the group of Sattout, Kitaz and Hanif boarded a bus from Gaziantep in southern Turkey to the coastal resort of Marmaris near Izmir, following instructions from their Syrian smuggler.
The three took 16 hours by bus to get from Gaziantep to Izmir; they arrived at a hotel and called their smuggler who told them they would leave when another group of Syrians arrive.
“We will travel at night to avoid fishing boats, police patrols or cruise boats,” Racha said. “A rubber boat costs $1,200 (a head), a jet boat costs $1,500, a bigger one $2,000.”
For the desperate, that could be the differential between life and death.
editing by Janet McBride