‘A game’ is what smugglers and migrants call attempting to cross illegally from one country to another. As Aizen leaves his childhood behind in Afghanistan, his only way to get to Europe is to play the game, travelling through this dangerous network of human traffickers.
This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and Dana Ballout, with editorial support from Heba El-Sherif. Fact checking was by Eman Elsherif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. Artwork by Ahmad Salhab. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.
DANA BALLOUT: This is Dana Ballout and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures.
Before we start, a quick note that this episode contains references to violence. Also this is Episode 2 in this series. If you haven’t heard episode 1, I would go back and listen to that one first.
[Archive] – PUBG video game
DANA BALLOUT: There’s this video game – called PUBG. It’s been around a few years now, but very quickly, it’s become one of the most popular video games in the entire world.
I’ve personally never played before but YouTube is full of PUBG gamers streaming themselves playing – it’s a multiplayer shooter game like others you might’ve heard of: Call of Duty or Fortnite. People just killing each other.
In this game, players are parachuted onto an island where they have to find weapons to kill one another before they get killed themselves.
The size of the safe area in the game decreases over time. That way, remaining players get squeezed into a tighter and tighter area, and the violence creeps closer and closer every minute. It’s all about stealth, skill and survival.
[SFX: PUBG SFX morph into Afghan violence newsreel]
In our previous episode of this 4-part series, we met Aizen – which isn’t his real name, we’re using a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Aizen was playing PUBG religiously.
By 2019, like the video game, the size of the safe area in Afghanistan, where he was living, was also decreasing over time. More and more districts were falling under the control of the Taliban.
Aizen grew up in Afghanistan and in addition to playing his favourite video game PUBG, he’d also spend long hours playing it, but not as many hours as he played football. Normal 16 year old stuff.
But all of that was taken away from him when he was accused of stealing a car – a crime he says he never did.
In a rushed and inaccurate age assessment by the police, the authorities claimed he was 18 even though he was 16 and he was sent to one of the most notorious adult prisons in the world.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Escaping from here is impossible. Impossible at all. From the main door from the first door, til the prisoners is one hour in the car. Totally impossible to escape. It’s huge.
AL SHAIBANI: What did you see happen there?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): A lot of things. Fighting, people trying to suicide. People complained, “Oh, this guy tried to rape me.”
DANA BALLOUT: After months in that place, he was released. But when he got out, his family blamed him for tainting their honour, for losing his job, for not bringing any money home.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And also because I had crime, they took fingerprints. You cannot work anywhere after this. Sometimes, you just lose your control, you cannot handle any more.
DANA BALLOUT: So, Aizen decided to leave Afghanistan.
And quickly, ‘a game’ no longer meant a football match or a PUBG session – but rather, an entirely different kind of gamble with very real stakes.
AL SHAIBANI: So describe to me what is ‘the game’?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So when you try to go, they call it game. Game is mean to try to cross. That’s what we call a game. ‘Oh I’m going on a game,’ it means he’s going to try tonight… or today.
DANA BALLOUT: To try to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and head to Europe.
This is ‘Aizen – the most unlucky person in the world’.
Part II: The Game.
Producer Al Shaibani takes the story from here…
AL SHAIBANI: Aizen started his journey in the middle of winter; in February of 2019. His dad dropped him off at the main bus station in Kabul where he took a bus to Nimroz, about 900 kms south of Kabul on the border of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You go, go, go. First the road was closed because of snow. They fixed the road, the car find problem. The way of 12 hours, we did it in 24 hours.
The wind is so cold. First is the snow, the wind with it is like, oooof.
We find a place to stay, it was a hotel. If you don’t buy food, they don’t give you place to stay. And the food is not eatable. Like you cannot eat it.
AL SHAIBANI: For many people, this is the only way out of Afghanistan.
The Afghan passport ranks lowest in the world.
As of right now, there are six countries that allow Afghans to enter without a visa: all six are island countries in the Caribbean or in the Pacific Ocean, halfway around the world.
On top of that, there are only a handful of countries that give a visa to Afghans upon entry – places like Cambodia and Mozambique.
But there are no direct flights from Kabul to any of these countries. So you have to transit through somewhere else and apply for a visa. Chances are, that application will be denied.
But for Aizen, that’s irrelevant anyway. He’s never had a passport. So, the only viable option is through smuggler networks and illegal crossings into the neighbouring countries.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Before leaving Afghanistan, I calculate all of the things. Ten days in here, ten days in here. So my plan was in three months, I will be in France.
AL SHAIBANI: Three months to cross by foot from Afghanistan to France…
The bus dropped Aizen off in Nimroz along the border. He was told he’d get picked up by a smuggler to be taken into Iran. He’d been given a phone number to call but other than that, zero information.
AL SHAIBANI: What did you take with you?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): One spare clothes, one spare shoes, I had my coat. It was a good jumper and yeah. I take some bread, I take some khorma … dates, water, biscuits.
AL SHAIBANI: Phone?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. But the phone battery was so good. It works more than, it works for a week because you don’t use it.
AL SHAIBANI: Ok. Did you have any documents with you?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I had my taskira.
AL SHAIBANI: What is it?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): ID. Afghani ID.
AL SHAIBANI: By that point, he was with a big group, more than fifty people, near the border waiting to be picked up.
A smuggler came, called out Aizen’s name in a list of others and took them to a guest house where they were told to stay and wait.
They weren’t sure what for: better weather or for the border patrol to move. But in any case, they slept for a night in that small, shabby halfway house. And in the morning, they were given a simple breakfast.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was just bread, but it was so good. Yeah, bread with tea. But the bread was so good. It tastes so good. I remember the taste till now.
It was the last good breakfast that I eat.
AL SHAIBANI: In your life?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): For three years. For three years.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Early morning, wake up, it was nine o’clock. The person come who are mussafirs of this person?
AL SHAIBANI: Mussafirs, meaning travellers.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I hear the name. I’m like hey, we are we.
They sit us in a place. We sit there four hours. They made the car. You know the car that I told you before, the Datsun, we call it Datsun.
AL SHAIBANI: Oh, like a pickup. Yeah.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know how many people in here? Just have a guess.
AL SHAIBANI: Ten?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): 42!
AL SHAIBANI: 42 people.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Wallahi brother. 42
AL SHAIBANI: In the back of that car?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): All inside. Four in this side. Four this, four in this, or three like this? We do like this…
AL SHAIBANI: Aizen showed me a picture of a pickup truck – and explained how the smuggler would pack 42 people in this one car.
There’s the driver, and in the passenger seat next to him: three kids were crammed on the floor where the passenger’s legs would be. And on the seat itself, two people sharing it. Then in the back; the three seats with four people squeezed together. On their lap: another four. Then in the open back of the truck, everyone was shoved on top of each other.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know, and they go so fast. So fast! Like in the, if you sit in the edge of the car and the car jump is so painful, nobody wanna sit.
They told me, sit. But they don’t gimme space. Wallah, you know, we call it pipe. He [bam] hit me in my back. It was a pain. In this place, I say, pain is start.
The driver say to you before like: when the car slow down, you need to shut up. If I saw you talking, they will beat you.
We start travel. We travel for 24 hours, something like this, more than this. We arrived to a place that they call it, it was the border between Balochistan of Pakistan and Balochistan of Afghanistan.
AL SHAIBANI: There’s a province called ‘Balochistan’ in Pakistan and another one in Iran but it’s a general area that spans the three countries, including Afghanistan. It’s a mountainous region where borders are blurry, and porous.
It’s very remote. So remote that Pakistan conducted nuclear tests there in the 90s.
Aizen was unsure if they crossed into Pakistan or stayed on the Afghan side the entire time. But they were headed towards Iran. The group would get corralled into small tents, smugglers would beat them often or force them to buy food at specific points.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We start early morning again, we arrive the mountains. Refugees, thousand of Afghans, but it’s all mountain.
Everybody’s waiting for their, we call it Rabulat – the person who know the way to walk with you to Iran. So finally the person find us. He come, call, “Mussafirs of this person!” I say, “Yeah, I am.” Come!
AL SHAIBANI: How many people were there in total?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Thousands.
AL SHAIBANI: Old? Young? Families?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Every kind child, young, every.
AL SHAIBANI: Women, men?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Every, everything. So he find the people; we were totally 32, 35 people with the womens as well.
Say we are walking tonight. It’s nine hour or eight hour walking. So prepare yourself. So we arrive here. It’s so cold. It’s winter. The wind and stuff. We had like small plastic bags that you can go inside the plastic bag. You close and you sit, but you know when you spend more time and the plastic gets sweaty, you feel more cold. I spent three nights in this mountain.
AL SHAIBANI: In a tent?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No tent! No house! In the mountain! You just sleep in this plastic bag. Walk all day, run from the police. Police was coming. You see the police coming, run, hide yourself.
In one place, they say the police is there. Run! Brother, run, run, run, run. It’s a mountain, you know you cannot see anything. It’s dark. I am kicking you. You are kicking me. He’s kicking another person. Then he say, “Police! Sit!” They were making fun. There was no police. And then they laugh. Ha ha ha.
AL SHAIBANI: These ‘Rabulat’ guys – the walking guides – were messing with them.
This was ‘the game’. One where rules are exploitative or nonexistent. One that plays on power and abuse.
A game where players quickly become disposable as soon as there’s a problem. Something Aizen found out along the way…
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We walk for 20, 30 minutes, three people come in front of us and they ask, they say, “Oh, come here.”
And the smuggler say, “Run.” He push one of them and we start running. And they run behind us. I run a bit and I twisted my ankle. I fall down.
Run! With the like twisted ankle. I was literally crying like it was so bad. I dislocated my ankle in this place.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We arrive to a place that they say four person in one scooter and the scooter driver, he was so fat, so, so fat. He say, “Okay, I will take three.” And you know what? The thing in some places when it’s like hill and you cannot go up, then you need to push the scooter.
AL SHAIBANI: Whenever there was a hill, they had to push the scooter until it started and then run behind it and sit. But remember, Aizen’s ankle was twisted.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They say, “We are gonna leave you!” [Farsi].
I say, “What? What can I do? Like you cannot even drive. We need to push you to go.”
We go for like two hours like this. We came down, we stayed there for an hour and my ankle was hurting so bad. And my friends talk to, they go to the smuggler and say to smuggler that this guy, he dislocated his ankle and he say, “Oh. Why he didn’t say before cause the car left now. Otherwise we’ll put him in the car to go now, there’s no chance he have to walk.”
We walk for a bit, and we were the last people. And the smuggler always says “Come quick.” Otherwise they’d leave me. If you cannot walk, it’s not our problem.
We walk for a bit, then they give me like a stick. Like a huge stick, wood. Say walk with this. So I start walking with this slowly, slowly. I was dying like it was so bad.
AL SHAIBANI: From midnight to 10am, Aizen had to walk on a twisted ankle. Some of the other refugees had paracetamol – they dissolved it in water and then soaked bandages in that water which they wrapped around Aizen’s ankle.
You can imagine that didn’t help much.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): My leg was numb all the way. I thought I lost my leg. We arrive one, two o’clock at night to this point, to this house, like a small room, something.
I thought I lost because I was sitting in the street for an hour or 30 minutes. It was numb. Totally numb.
I do like… what do you call it? I do like, you know, if I do like this, you feel pain?
AL SHAIBANI: Oh, like a pinch.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Yeah. I do this. I don’t feel. I thought I lost my leg. I’m done.
AL SHAIBANI: This is the main route for Afghan refugees headed to Europe: they cross into Iran and are joined by migrants from other Asian countries as they make their way to Turkey’s eastern border.
Aizen told me how getting trafficked through Iran followed a system.
[Montage of Aizen saying “walking for 8 hours” “drive” etc]
They were put in cars and driven between towns and cities. In these cars and trucks and vans that are sardined to the brim with people. Driving 4 hours, 6 hours. 9 hours.
Aizen would name towns and cities they passed through: places like Bandarabbas and Shiraz. But for the majority of it, he’s unsure of where they were. The only markers were bumps in the road and whether the car is moving or not.
Once they reached the outskirts of a town, they couldn’t drive through with that many people otherwise they’d catch the attention of the local police. And so, they’d be dropped off outside and had to hike around the town to avoid the authorities. Always on the fringes, skirting around the edges of society.
Walking 3 hours. 5 hours. 6 hours. Sometimes 8.
I think it’s important here to point out the size of Iran. It’s four and half times the size of Germany. Meaning if you superimpose the map of Iran onto Europe, the northwest corner would be in the UK, and the southeast corner would be in Greece. It’s huge.
What was surprising to me was how big this system was. Not the people on the move (the refugees and migrants) but the people who were part of this network of smugglers.
Aizen would describe in detail how they were pawned from one person to the next: drivers, walking guides, guest house owners. Each time, a different person.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Every smuggler have contacts. They’re not like one person, they’re like a group. They’re like a huge community of these people who do this thing, and they know each other for a long time.
So for example: I’m a smuggler, you are a smuggler. I have people to send from Iran to Turkey. You cannot do it because you don’t have the options or the opportunities or the facilities to do. You like, “Oh, I know someone.” Like, they get paid person. It’s like a huge group, it’s not one or two persons.
I feel like between all the smugglers, 95% of them know each other in every country that they are.
AL SHAIBANI: But not everyone in this network can be considered a smuggler. A lot of them are locals that are just getting a group of people from point A to point B. After that – they’ve earned their cut, and what happens to this group is none of their business.
And so that system – walking in the wilderness, crammed into cars, sleeping in the mountains or in dingy guest houses – continued for weeks.
For one leg of the journey, Aizen was shoved in the trunk of a car: hunched in the back because he was a small kid who could fit in that suffocating space.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s a really, it’s a really weird feeling. You are scared. Same time. It’s funny, same time. It’s like, what the hell I’m doing in here?
So it was a Pakistani guy who joined me. Worst time I ever had in my life.
AL SHAIBANI: With him in the trunk? With the guy?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He was farting so much. [Laughs]
He did once. And I say to him, “See, this is not the place. There is no air coming, please.” And he say,” Okay.” He did the second time I slap him so hard BAM in the face.
And the driver hear, he come and say, “What? Say what happened?” I say, “He is farting in here. What do you want me to do?” And the driver said to him, “What are you doing?”
And he say, “No, I will now do after this. It’s not like this.” I was like, “Bro, please take care.” And he said to the guy, “It’s a long way… we’ll drive all night please.”
AL SHAIBANI: A month after leaving Afghanistan, Aizen reached the northwestern town of Khoy in the Kurdish region of Iran. By then, it was the 21st of March, 2019 – the first day of spring and the Persian New Year, called Nowruz.
[Archive fade out]
People in Iran and Kurdistan celebrate it by lighting big bonfires and fireworks. The entire town was festive.
But the refugees couldn’t join in; they were hiding from the authorities. The smuggler arranged for a local family to hide Aizen and the other migrants inside their house for a few days.
Aizen told me how this family warned everyone not to freak out from the loud fireworks. Aizen laughed and said he’s from Afghanistan, he’s used to the sound of explosions.
Throughout this journey, the food provided to the migrants was basic – and there wasn’t a lot of it. At these guesthouses or roadside stops, they could buy some food – if they had the money. But if they were travelling with no money, like Aizen, the smugglers would give them some bread and yoghurt. Maybe tea if they were lucky. Every day: bread, yoghurt, bread, yoghurt, bread. For weeks.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We stay in this house for six days because the way was so cool and the snow was too much and you cannot go cross the border. We stay here for six, seven days, and we complained because they don’t have good food. Then the actual smuggler came and say, “Okay, I’m gonna change the family. What is the complaint?” We say this is the complaint: they don’t give us good food. Like we’re gonna die if we eat yoghurt and bread, yoghurt and bread. And the bread is like, it’s so skinny breads. Like, I dunno, which kind of bread was that.
You just get tired of everything. I start hating yoghurt. You just hate everything. Everything.
They change our home, the car came and drive for 30 minutes. It was so good – after a long time, we drive in the city. You can see everything. You can see the people, the markets. Like, Kurdish people are so beautiful. They are so beautiful.
Like, for a minute I was like, I’m gonna stay in here. Like you are young and stuff, you know? You see the beautiful girl, the boys play football and everything. I’m gonna stay in here.
AL SHAIBANI: It was a fleeting idea. The economic situation in Iran isn’t very good and besides, Aizen said there’s a lot of racism there towards Afghans.
And so he stuck to the plan and carried on towards Turkey.
After the break: the group finally gets moving again – headed for Istanbul…
The border between Iran and Turkey is extremely mountainous and extremely popular for trafficking. It’s one of the main routes for refugees – and drugs – to move from Asia to Europe.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I don’t wanna remember it. The weather was so cold. You remove your hand from your pocket. Done. You’re freezing.
We arrived to a place and the smuggler said, “I’m not showing you the way after this. And you just walk straight. You see the line in the border, you walk straight, that’s it. But after this, you say you have to go by yourself. Because I cannot cross the border. I don’t want the police to see me. If they catch you, it’s fine. They drop you back to Iran or they send you to Afghanistan. But if they catch me, I’m done.”
So it was a hill up so like your eyes cannot even see. I was quick like go up, up, up, up, go up, bit of a break, then go up, up, up, up. You cannot see anything. It’s snowing. It’s in the fog and everything. Like you cannot see even a meter front of you. I follow some guys and see what they are doing and I lost them. I can’t see anything.
I lost the footsteps and everything.
So I find a group of 20 people and they say, “Come with me.” We start walking. We had a break and we start walking. We have a break. After a point I see the checkpoint of the police. I was like, the police is there. They say, “No, the police is not.” I was like, “Okay, let’s do something.” Just walk across this. We don’t have any other way.
We walk 10 minutes from this station and we hear the police fire: boom, boom, boom.
So you have to run; everybody was running so fast. Bam! To cross.
AL SHAIBANI: A lot of people don’t make it through but still, each year, thousands of refugees cross; as well as heroin, meth, diesel and tobacco.
For Aizen, they started their trek at 8pm and crossed into Turkey by 9am the following day.
Out of the 100 or so people that Aizen was with, maybe 15 crossed. Before they set off, a lot of the women and children turned back because the snow was too much and the route was too dangerous. Visibility was zero, wolves roamed the mountain and temperatures were freezing.
AL SHAIBANI: And what happened to the others?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I saw dead bodies in the mountain. Dead bodies. One guy dead, and we took him to the side.
One person say, “Take him to his family stuff.” I don’t know his family. Where do you want me to take him? It’s not in my hand. We see dead body from before that you can just see the skeleton and stuff.
That’s it. And you say, “Yeah, that’s it.”
AL SHAIBANI: This is quite common. I’ve spoken to several refugees who have shown me videos on their phones of the dead bodies they saw along the way. They’re usually frozen to death, the expressions on their face suspended.
I asked Aizen if he was shocked to see a dead body:
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, but also not, cause we know that’s the way that’s gonna happen.
I mean, we were like, friends are saying, “Oh, if you could call their parents and stuff, they would be waiting for their children and they don’t know that he’s dead or she’s dead.” But you couldn’t do anything. Even one of our friends search his pockets and stuff.
If I can find an ID or something, but there was nothing. I don’t think if they died, the smugglers would remain anything. They’ll take everything.
AL SHAIBANI: Did you think that there was a chance that you would die in the mountain?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. When we were trying to go, it was so cold and the snow was like a lot. And you could see the wolves, you know the snow wolves, making sounds and stuff. You could see them. And for a minute we thought that they were gonna come and eat us because there was a lot surrounding around us.
AL SHAIBANI: Was it something that you’re scared of?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Not really. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of things in Afghanistan, so like people were scared of, “Oh, I was gonna die.” I have like huge experience with this as well. Today or tomorrow, one day. So who cares even if I die?
Like we used to do, you know when the explosions and stuff happen, you go and help take the bodies, put them in the ambulance and stuff. You collect a piece of meats from the street.
So that was when I saw the body line. Okay, fine. Another.
That’s something you expect from the way that will happen. There’s a high chance I’m gonna die. It’s a high chance I’m gonna get injured. High chance the police will catch me or somebody will rob me. That’s the thing that will happen.
AL SHAIBANI: So what did you not expect?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Crossing in the first try.
[Music / Pause]
AL SHAIBANI: Aizen crossed from Iran into Turkey on his first game – which was an extraordinary stroke of luck. For most refugees, it takes at least 2 or 3 tries.
The smugglers took him and the other people in his group to another family’s home where they hid in the basement.
They stayed there for almost a month, because one of the migrants hadn’t paid the smuggler so they were being held there until the money arrived.
They’d spend all day waiting – trying to pass the time – playing football in the snow or taking turns to play video games on a phone.
[ARCHIVE – VIDEO GAME CLIPS]
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Stay in the room all day nothing. You cannot go out, just stay. I was mentally tired, like oof.
I learned a bit of Turkish with these people. Like I learn [Turkish], I learn. So I make friends with the son of this family who is like 12 or 14, 15 years old, something. So every time they play football they call me, “Hey, hey.” And you play football in the ground and the ball is so dirty. It’s snowing, it’s muddy. Mud?
Because he found a football. I show him a few tricks. He become my friends like, you know, in football when somebody nutmegs you, so it’s like real. People say, “Oh, you get nutmegged, I nutmeg him three times with three different skills. He say, “You have to show me this.” I show him this skills and then he become my friend.
AL SHAIBANI: Aizen was able to play football at least and show off his nutmegging skills – that’s when you pass the ball between your opponent’s legs. It was a way for him to pass time and to alleviate his declining mental health.
By then, it was weeks of eating just yoghurt and bread. Weeks in the same set of clothes. Weeks without a shower. But – it did give Aizen’s twisted ankle time to recover…
From their safe house on the Turkish border with Iran, the refugees had to cross another snowy mountain pass by foot. This time, the snow was up to their waist.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was old man who cannot go. He was Pakistani. And the person showing us the way, he say, “Somebody help.” Nobody help.
Like you know, you feel sorry for some people. He’s old. And I’m like, nobody’s helping. Like everybody’s leaving alone. I took him in my back. He’s much heavier than me. And I say to him, “Just hold yourself.” I took him, walk in the snow. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Three hours. And so for a few minutes another guy helped me.
He say, “He’s too heavy. I cannot handle.”
His Pakistanis don’t help him. And I was so angry and I fight with his Pakistanis and the smuggler told me, “If they’re not going to help him, why are you helping? Just leave him, let him die. I don’t give a shit. Just leave him. It’s none of my business. You cannot walk why you come here. You’re old.”
I’m like, no.
AL SHAIBANI: There’s this Pashto proverb that Aizen taught me and it goes: nikiko dar dariya bandaz – which translates to ‘do good and throw it into the sea’. There’s the Arabic version too: افعل الخير وارميه في البحر. It means to do good without expecting a return, without telling everyone.
Carrying this old Pakistani guy on his back, the snow was up to Aizen’s chest. But he carried him for three hours. The man prayed for Aizen the entire time.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): [Dua in Farsi] I’m like “Oh thank you.” Just walk.
The smuggler told me when he arrive to the car, he will say to the driver that make you sit in the first seat, not in the back. We arrived there and I was waiting to sit there because I was so cold. They put this old man in the first seat. I was still in the back and I was so angry. I was like, “Okay, my shoes were wet, my clothes were wet.”
We arrive to a place. It was. We call it “gowkhanah”. A place for cows and these things…
AL SHAIBANI: Gowkhanah? Oh like a barn.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yes…
AL SHAIBANI: From that barn – where they stayed for a couple of nights – the journey was more straightforward. The group was given fake IDs by the smugglers and with those, they travelled towards Istanbul in regular buses.
Aizen says Turkish people were generally very kind. Roadside restaurant owners gave them some free food, and bus passengers helped hide them at roadside checkpoints.
A couple of days later, Aizen arrived in Istanbul. On the outskirts of the city, the smuggler had a safehouse where he kept the refugees.
For context, Turkey has taken in more refugees than any other country in the world: more than four million. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans.
But it’s also one of the main smuggling routes into Europe. We’ve all seen the countless headlines and news stories about refugees arriving by the boatload onto Greek beaches.
That route, despite how incredibly dangerous it is, is also expensive. Smugglers charge around 5,000 euros per person.
By that point, Aizen had nothing with him: no money, no spare clothes (he was told to get rid of them in Iran), no phone. He had an old Nokia when he left Kabul but that got stolen along the way.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So the smuggler said it’s up to you, if you want to decide, do you wanna go? If you have the money you’re gonna pay or do you wanna leave the house and go start working, up to you.
It was difficult to find work, you know? Sometimes you work, they don’t pay money, sometimes these things. Difficult.
The only work that you can earn money is çakmak. You know what is çakmak? You collect the bins and stuff, trash from the street. And that’s the only work you can pay.
AL SHAIBANI: And so he was stuck in Istanbul. His only option was to start working for the smuggler, to earn his keep.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I start working for them. That’s the only way that I can stay. Nobody’s giving me food for free.
AL SHAIBANI: Working for the smuggler?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah.
AL SHAIBANI: Doing what?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): When the new refugees come, you go take them from the station. Bring them here. When the refugees are going somewhere, you help them go show it. Like, cause I know Istanbul. Two, three months you stay, you know everything like… you go out and you check.
AL SHAIBANI: So that was his only way to stay.
However, Aizen’s looks were a wildcard. His strawberry blonde hair and fair complexion was a hurdle with the smugglers throughout the journey in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The guy came to me and said, “Wait, where are you from?” And I was like, “Afghanistan.” And he was with other smugglers. He was, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Tell me the truth. Where else?” Like, I’m Afghan. See, I’m speaking. He said, “No, no, no, no, no, no. You’re coming to catch us.” I was like, “What the, why would I catch you guys? I’m trying got go.”
He say, “What’s your proof?” I had my ID. I showed him my ID like see, and he was like, he was shocked. He was like, “You’re the first Afghan I see like this. I’m working in here for long time but you are the first Afghan that I’m seeing in this space. I was like, “That’s how I am.”
AL SHAIBANI: But in Istanbul, this was something the smugglers took advantage of. Aizen didn’t look like other Afghans, so he didn’t stand out.
One time, Aizen was guiding a group of migrants through Istanbul who had come through the same route he did – from Afghanistan, across all of Iran, through the snowy mountains and into Turkey. The local police stopped them and asked everyone for their IDs. When they couldn’t produce any, they were detained and deported all the way back to Afghanistan.
Not Aizen. He just said he’s American and the police officer apologised and let him go. He was quickly learning how to play the game…
Aizen stayed in Istanbul for almost three months. He was alone: without money, without a phone. The anxiety of getting caught and deported back to Afghanistan was his only companion.
Then the smuggler told him it was time to go. Unable to pay for a boat to Greece, Aizen’s only option was to cross by foot into Bulgaria.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And he was like, “You have to go in this game. Like, they didn’t pay me enough money for you to send you in a game to Greece and hopefully the police will not catch you.
Like I told you, they all have like a network. Every smuggler talk, “Okay. I have a good game. I have a good person who can show the way. So okay, send your person to my house. We’ll send the taxi.” You go. That’s how they plan.
The first game that I tried, the police catch us in the border.
If you meet Bulgarian police, they beat you as much as they can. They don’t care who you are, how old are you. They beat you as much as they can. They beat you as much as they can. They broke one of the guys legs, like they burn all of the stuff that you have.
That’s where they burn my taskira. They burn taskira, they take off all of your clothes. They send you naked. So the Turkish police, the other side they saw is that we don’t have any clothes. We are naked. They give us the clothes.
AL SHAIBANI: They took all of your clothes?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, all. All of it. All. They burn. They burn all the documents that you have, anything that you have. Fhe food, everything. It’s an experience in life. But yeah…
AL SHAIBANI: I’m wondering what did that feel like? What were you thinking?
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Um, embarrassing but you cannot do anything. Like that’s what they do like all the time. First, the whole thing is like you’re sad because they catch you and stuff. Second, you feel pain cause they beat you. Third, you just thinking, “Oh, what will happen again? Can I try again? Can I not? What the Turkish police will do? They will deport me? They will leave me? It’s like mix of emotions and feelings.
AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Bulgarian police are so bad…. So bad. I think we should continue another day.
DANA BALLOUT: Aizen had left Afghanistan with the equivalent of $20 in his pocket and had travelled more than 6000 kms to Istanbul.
Next time on Kerning Cultures, this game, and its arbitrary rules, continue.
And Aizen gets crowned king.
[We didn’t eat for two days because we didn’t want the police to catch us.]
[Every time when we go in, open, we see something, food stuff, we took the food and go eat.]
[There is no chance you will cross by yourself; even if you do, every place is belong to a smuggler. If they catch you, first they will beat you a lot. If they are nice, they will leave you. If they’re bad, they will call your family and blackmail to ask for money. If they’re bad bad, they will just kill you.]
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and myself, Dana Ballout.
Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and Eman Elsherif, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf.
Our team includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.
Thanks for listening. See you next week and take good care.