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Kerning Cultures

Aizen – Part 3: King of Serbia

Through smugglers, barbed wire fences and forests, Aizen arrives in Europe. But the sense of relief he feels at making it this far is short-lived: the physical and mental toll of travelling so far from home begins to weigh heavy.

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.


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AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And the question is… where we were last time?

AL SHAIBANI: Where we were last time… so, I think, you were… 

DANA BALLOUT: Last time on Kerning Cultures, we left Aizen, an Afghan teenager, in Turkey attempting to cross into Bulgaria. 

He was beaten, stripped naked and ransacked of all his belongings.

A warning before we continue: this episode contains references to violence and self harm. If you’re around kids or if you’re not into that kind of thing, consider skipping this one. 

My other note to you is that this is part three of a four part series. If you haven’t heard the first and second episode, I would go back and listen to those because it’ll help you to understand this episode a lot better. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They said it’s like eight, nine hours walking, you’ll be in Bulgaria. 

13 days walk. 13 days. I don’t know how l like survive. People who had food, a lot of food, they finish everything. We were all dying. 

DANA BALLOUT: With such little sustenance and no turning back, Aizen relied on this one drink that a lot of us have heard of.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): That’s why I love Red Bull. You know, you get tired, drink one, bam! Energy. I don’t know how. You feel like, go: I can walk more. After 2-3-4 hours, again: Bam! Refresh. Best thing ever!

DANA BALLOUT: In case you missed that, it’s none other than Red Bull. 

Before we go back into Aizen’s story, we’re going back in time – about 100 years ago. And we want to tell you about a guy named Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah. You won’t find much online about him; maybe a few photographs but his story is mostly left behind by the digital age. 

Ali Shah was Afghan, born in 1894. And as a young man in the 1910s, he left Afghanistan and travelled to Scotland, where he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

And back then, travel for an Afghan like Ali Shah was easier. It was admired and sometimes even welcomed. Imagine that.

Ali Shah married a Scottish woman, and became an author – writing more than 70 books. Books on Islam, politics, culture and his travels.

He was also a skilled diplomat who became the personal advisor and confidante of several leaders. Leaders like Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Ibn Saud the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Zog of Albania, and the Aga Khan. The roster is quite impressive.

He gained a reputation as a king-maker, moving in royal circles, criss-crossing Europe and the Middle East and Afghanistan. 100 years ago, this kind of long distance travel was slow but pretty straightforward. He would go overland from Afghanistan to Mumbai and then catch a ship to Europe.

Surprisingly, and maybe unsurprisingly, 100 years ago, borders were more permeable and pliable. It was a time before we designed systems and hierarchies controlling who can travel and who can’t.

In thinking about the legacy of Ali Shah, an Afghan who had the opportunity to travel, get an education and even find love and gain influence, you can’t help but think of modern day Afghans – stripped of that chance to be someone renowned like Ali Shah.

Today, for Afghans trying to get to Europe, the story is completely different. 

Fortress Europe – as it’s often referred to – is building new fences, pouring more and more money into border patrols and militarising its edges. And what a shame that is.

Ali Shah died in 1969 – he was hit by a reversing Coca Cola truck. Decades later, there would be Aizen, a teenager with a different kind of legacy – fuelled of course, by Red Bull. 

This is ‘Aizen – The Most Unlucky Person in the World’.

Part III: King of Serbia.

Producer Al Shaibani takes it from here.

AL SHAIBANI: It was May 2019 and the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. After that first attempt to cross into Europe, Aizen tried again a couple of days later. 

With a group of about 25 refugees, he walked through forests along the Turkish-Bulgarian border to reach a point that wasn’t monitored. 

There, they scaled two very high, barbed-wire fences, using a ladder their smuggler provided, and got into Bulgaria.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): A really huge forest, you cannot see, like at night, you cannot see like 10 centimetres in your front. It’s so dark. You have to hold each other back to not lose the way. 

AL SHAIBANI: And there’s a smuggler with you? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. He’s in the front. He says to you from the beginning, “If you stay behind, I’m not gonna come back.”

AL SHAIBANI: After 13 days, the group was out of food completely and relied on streams in the forest for water. Then they were picked up by another smuggler who took them to a house where they were told to hide and wait. 

They stayed there for 2 days: no food, no going out, just waiting. Anxious about being caught by the Bulgarian border police. Finally, the smuggler brought them some sandwiches.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We didn’t eat for two days because they don’t want the police to catch us. The time that he brought us food, we took the food, he went, the police came. Like how? So we know that he called the police like there’s no other way. How the police know that we are here. Nobody go out, nothing.

So we were inside the city, we were all scared that they were going to send us back to Turkey. They took us to a police station, they took fingerprints and stuff. And he was like, “Okay, where are you from?” I was like, “Afghanistan.” He was like, “No.” Like, what do you mean, “No”?

AL SHAIBANI: Here we go again. Questions and confusion about the way Aizen looks followed him everywhere he went.  

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He took me to a room, he was like, “No, he looks Russian.” He speaks Russian with me. I was like, “Huh, what you saying? What are you talking about?” Then the guy say, “Okay, wait, call the translator.” So the translator was telling me that, “he’s saying that he don’t look like Afghans, where are you from, don’t make trouble for me as well”. I was like, “What do you mean don’t make trouble? I’m from Afghanistan.” They took our fingerprints and stuff. And they took me to this open camp in Sofia. The camp called ‘Voenna Rampa’. 

A really weird camp.

AL SHAIBANI: Voenna Rampa is on the northern edge of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It’s a refugee centre, mostly for minors. 

It was a grimy camp. The food was particularly bad – bread and boiled potatoes. And food was a particular challenge at this time because it was Ramadan and Aizen and some of the Muslim refugees he was with were fasting.

It was also a particular challenge because just like every place they’d been in before, they weren’t exactly welcomed.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I went to this mosque that we go every night for…  so it was a mosque far away from the camp that you go for iftar. Muslim people do the iftar, they come back.

We did the iftar, we came back. We were waiting in the bus stop, like we were ten guys or eight guys, nine. A group of five people came with knives, with chains and stuff. I don’t know what they were saying, so I was like, “What do you want?” I was trying to speak English, like, “What do you want?”

AL SHAIBANI: One of these guys tapped Aizen on the shoulder and pointed behind him. His friends were all sprinting away.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he attacked with the knife. Like the knives went into my clothes. And it doesn’t touch my body. I was so lucky, like, I don’t know how this happened. So I punched this guy and run. 

AL SHAIBANI: How old were they? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They were old. Like 19, 21, something like this. Like older than us. So I run this side in they were all following me.

AL SHAIBANI: It’s hard to confirm these details but Aizen told me that this group started attacking him. One guy had a long chain which he whipped in Aizen’s direction: it wrapped around his neck and pulled him down to the ground. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They started kicking me with their feet. Stand again. Punch one. Run, run, run, run, run. They followed me. Oh, I don’t know how I ran. I was so quick, like I didn’t even look my back. If they’re coming or not. Just phewwww. So when I looked back, I can’t see anyone. Oh, good. And then I saw a girl standing there and I speak with her English. Fortunately she was speaking English. I was like these guys attacked me, can you call the police. They were like, “Even if I called the police, the police would not help you. The police are standing there and saw what happened to you. But they don’t care.”

AL SHAIBANI: This bystander took Aizen to a shop nearby, bought him some water to wash the blood off his neck and told him to wait inside. Once the bus that would take Aizen back to the camp arrived, she told him to get on board quickly.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So we arrived to the camp, I told the police. The police say, “I don’t care. Why you left the camp? Don’t go outside.” I’m like, “I’m fasting. I’m going to eat there. What do you want me to eat in this camp?” They were like, “I don’t care.” 

And I’m so angry, like, so, so angry. Don’t even talk to me. 

AL SHAIBANI: The next morning, Aizen filed a formal complaint to the local police. The translator who helped him write this said he was attacked because he looked Russian, and advised him to stay inside the camp. 

Despite how he described that racist attack – as if it was a scene from an anime fight – Aizen was deeply affected by it. Assaulted with knives and chains, in a country where he was alone and didn’t know anyone.

And whenever things became tough, he would go back to his first love: football. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So I didn’t go out of the camp because I was kinda scared for two days. So after two days, my Kurdish friend came and said, “Oh, don’t stay here a lot. You’ll find mental health problem and stuff. Let’s go play football.” I was like, “Okay.” We go outside. Two guys, knife in the hand, they’re looking at me and doing like this…

AL SHAIBANI: Here Aizen gestured the middle finger. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): What the hell is wrong with you? I haven’t done anything. 

Then I decided, I was like, no, I don’t wanna stay in Bulgaria. There’s no way I’m staying in Bulgaria. Like the Kurdish guy was playing in a football team in Bulgaria. He said, “You play good stuff, we can go, we can do the trial. And I’m sure they would accept you.”

AL SHAIBANI: You mean the training in Bulgaria? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. I was happy. Like okay if I can play – when I see this, I was like “No way I’m staying in Bulgaria. There is no chance.”

AL SHAIBANI: It’s like a game of snakes and ladders. Aizen had gotten so far, only to be met by racism and xenophobia that would take him back onto the smuggler’s path.

But this was a reality for many refugees in Europe. Ever since the peak arrival of migrants from the Middle East in 2015, violence and attacks on refugees have increased sharply. He said the worst racism he experienced was in Bulgaria. 

And so, he decided to continue on towards France. He stashed a few cookies into his pocket from Voenna Rampa camp and with five others, headed to Serbia. 

Being smuggled in Europe was no different to being smuggled in Iran: they hiked for hours, slept in the forest, then got crammed into a van. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was first day of Eid or second day of Eid, I can’t remember. We arrived in the capital of Serbia called Belgrade, a place called Afghan Park because there is a lot of Afghans.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We spent the night kind of walking around and stuft until morning. Eight o’clock we go to this office, which is for refugees. They register your name and they send you to the camps. I went to the office, they say, “Where you from?” They’re like, again same question. “Are you sure you’re Afghan?” I’m like, “What do you mean? I’m sure I’m Afghan. Of course I am.”

There was a camp near, in Belgrade, but they killed someone in the camp. So they closed the camp and they don’t send anyone to this camp.

AL SHAIBANI: Instead, they were planning to send Aizen to a camp called Sjenica which is about 4 hours drive southwest of Belgrade. But the office decided to wait until a few more refugees arrived so they could transport all of them together. So Aizen stayed in this registration office for five days.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I started doing translation for them cause their translator was on holiday. So all the office become my friend, all of the office. Like they just become friend with me because I was doing this job for them.

AL SHAIBANI: A few days later, the Kurdish guys from Bulgaria, the ones he was playing football with, also arrived in Serbia. From Afghan Park, they went to the same refugee registration office where they were surprised to see Aizen working and doing translation for the Serbian authorities.

Now that there were more migrants, they got taken to this town called Sjenica in the southwest of Serbia. Aizen showed me on the map…

AL SHAIBANI: Sjenica…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s a really small place, but people are Muslim there. 

AL SHAIBANI: So it’s a small town.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, it’s like a town. So we play football in here. It was nice. Not nice but good. Because I was injured and stuff, so… 

AL SHAIBANI: After the break: travelling this far starts to take its toll on Aizen. And the world starts to shut down.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen didn’t stay in that camp for very long. After a few days, he went up to the north of Serbia to a town called Subotica on the border with Hungary. 

Subotica is a major hub for refugees. The surrounding Radanovac forest is less than a kilometre from the Hungarian border. And it looks like the aftermath of a music festival. Camping tents propped between trees and trash sprayed across the muddy ground. Crushed energy drink cans, water bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags.

As of now, there are more than 3000 refugees in and around Subotica, hoping to cross into Hungary. After that, travelling through the rest of the EU becomes easier. It’s known as the Balkan Route and that’s where Aizen was. By that point, he had travelled through five countries already and more than 7000 kms.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): There is no chance you will cross by yourself. No chance. Even if you do, every place is belong to a smuggler. If they catch you and you’re not from their group, first: they will beat you a lot. If they’re 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.

AL SHAIBANI: Choked between these ruthless smugglers and violent border police, refugees paid large sums of money to cross.

In this case, either by clinging on to the underside of a moving train or by sneaking into the back of a freight truck without the driver noticing and waiting it out until the truck has crossed the border.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The trains are coming, different trains, you go try. To Austria, to Hungary, to Germany. Different trains. We spent 10 days, nothing came, and my legs got worse and worse. The smuggler said, “Okay, yeah, go to camp because your legs are getting worse and worse.” Buy ticket, go back to the camp. 

Seven days, every day they give me this serum? Syrup? What do you call it? The water thing.

AL SHAIBANI: Oh the ivy drip?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, every day morning. Every day for seven days for my legs. Yeah, it was so bad.

My feets were all destroyed, my hands, feet. That’s how we come to Europe.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen’s feet were infected. From Afghanistan, he had travelled more than 10,000kms – half it walking. Trekking through all sorts of terrain, sleeping in damp places, hiking without proper shoes. He showed me pictures of his feet: they were absolutely ravaged with cuts, bug bites, sores, bruises, infected blisters. 

Back at the Sjenica camp, the doctors gave him a strong course of antibiotics. Alone and with a very high fever, Aizen stayed in that camp and waited for the infection to pass.

AL SHAIBANI: Eventually, he went back to Subotica and tried to cross again. But when he was paying the smuggler, a middle man took the money and disappeared. There’s always a middle man to go through. And even the smuggler can get screwed by them. 

The smuggler was absolutely furious.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s not my fault. You told me give money. I give money. But if he didn’t pay you, it’s not my fault. He was like, “I don’t know what to do with you guys. You guys are not paying money.” So he was like torturing us for a long time.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen was held in a burnt out building near the train tracks of Subotica. The smuggler kept refugees there temporarily while he arranged for them to cross. But because he couldn’t pay his fee, the smuggler kept him hostage for months. 

He was there so long that he started doing DIY projects in that building: bringing an extension cord and fixing the lights. He had no idea how long he was going to be made to stay there.

And just like in Turkey, Aizen found himself working for a smuggler and gaining their trust. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, there was nothing for me to do because they were not letting me to go anywhere, not letting me try, not letting me go camp. If the smuggler need something, he called me “Red man come down.” I go it down, buy him cigarette, bring food for other everyone’s. And that was my job. 

AL SHAIBANI: Did you get paid?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No, he just bought me clothes. Sometimes he bought me energy drinks. Early morning, I wake up, he called me, he called me ‘Redman’. He said, “Redman, come here.” I go to him. He said, “Let’s go to the shop.” Went to the shop. He bought me clothes.

He said, “Do you wanna eat something?” I’m like, “No. Fine.” He bought me everything and he brought me back. He bought me shoes. I was like, “Okay, thank you.” So he bought me everything. He was so nice to me. He was like my older brother because I didn’t have anyone. He give everything.

AL SHAIBANI: Was he nice?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, he was nice to me. Not to others.

AL SHAIBANI: The smuggler called Aizen ‘Redman’ because of his reddish hair. It’s a little odd to hear the smuggler described so fondly – like an older brother. I can’t help but notice how vulnerable Aizen was. He was a teenager, by himself, without any support or money.

Aizen stayed like this for half a year. Eventually, the smuggler realised he wasn’t going to get his money, and let Aizen go, to try to find his way to Hungary. He said he’d even show him how to do it, but he didn’t promise it would be easy.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he let me try. I try. They catch me. I come back. Started trying every night. Try, try, try. Come back, try come back. He show me the way one night he go like this, like this. Every night, go there to another place to try in the lorries and trucks. 

AL SHAIBANI: Every time he tried to cross into Hungary, the police would catch him. 

The Hungarian border is closely guarded. It’s the entrance to the EU and Hungary’s current right-wing government has made it their priority to stop migrants from crossing the border. 

Border police have been accused of systematic abuse against people on the move. In 2022 alone, they’ve pushed back more than 200,000 refugees coming from Serbia – mostly Afghans and Syrians. 

Meanwhile, Hungary has allowed in more than 620,000 refugees from Ukraine.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen kept trying. Summer passed and autumn too. Winter came again. 

He spent almost all of 2019 being held by smugglers and failing to cross the borders.

It got really cold – the kind of cold that seeps into your bones. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It happens in a time that the winter came, weather gets so cold, the train don’t come a lot and stuff. He said, “Ok Red Man, time for you to go to camp. Go to camp, I will let you go.” I asked him many times before. He said, “No! You’ll escape!”

AL SHAIBANI: Tired and defeated, Aizen decided to stop trying to cross into Hungary and instead, go back to the refugee camp to rest for a while. This was February 2020.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Then what happened is… Covid start. Quarantine: you cannot go outside the camp. Stay in the camp, nothing change. Sleep, wake up, eat, that was our routine. When Ramadan come, cook, do Ramadan, play cards, there’s nothing to do. And also worry that what will happen to me.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen stayed in Serbia for more than a year. Remember the group of refugees in Turkey that he was guiding through Istanbul? The ones that got stopped by police?

That group got deported back to Afghanistan, then tried again – the same route. Through the mountains of Iran, to Turkey and then Bulgaria and then Serbia. This time, they made it all the way to France. That whole time, Aizen stayed stuck in Serbia. 

He was there so long that other refugees crowned him ‘King of Serbia’. They said this is his land and he’s not going anywhere. 

I told you what happened to Aizen’s feet. It was hard for him to walk, but also to do what he loves most: play football. The physical toll of walking so far from home, in harsh terrain, often beaten by smugglers or border police – all of that adds up.

But there’s the invisible toll too.

A strong warning that this next segment includes mentions of suicide and self harm. Skip forward eight minutes if you’d like to avoid it. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Um, my mental health was, how can I say, f***ed up from long time ago. Not the journey or stuff. The pressure of the family, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure in your mind. What I’m gonna do, what will happen, what gonna happen, will I work? Like you have to have a way to help them. If you don’t, you’re under pressure.

Why you’re not working, why you’re sleeping, you’re just born to eat and sleep. That’s it. You’re lazy. You’re like this, you’re like that, ah okay. 

I did even try suicide in Afghanistan once. Not once, two, three times. And I was so young, like, now I can remember I was like nine, 10 years old when I had the knife and I was like, “Let me see how it feels. Should I do it? Should I not?” And I remember I was so young, I put the knife in here and I was like push it.

It’s just some things that come to your mind. Because you get tired. You know, like I was asking many times, like, a lot that why I born? I didn’t ask you to bring me to this life. Like if I can’t, I can’t. But nobody cares. It’s still the same thing. 

You think people believe in mental health in Afghanistan? What are you gonna tell them? They’ll be like, “Nah, that’s bullshit.” That’s what they’re gonna say. And even if you tell them, there’s another reason for them to shout at you, so you don’t want this.

AL SHAIBANI: The immense pressure from his family in Afghanistan on top of the injustice of going to adult prison for a crime he didn’t commit, it all contributed to Aizen’s fragile mental health. He showed me his forearms where he would self-harm.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The scars but you cannot see it, which is good. 

AL SHAIBANI: Where? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): In here. Yeah you cannot see it. Because I had it here for a long time, but you cannot see it. 

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen’s already fragile mental health only became worse when he got on the road and the realities of being smuggled started to sink in. Especially when most of the time, he was just waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Being held in terrible conditions.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Day by day it get worse. You, you don’t have anything to do. You just need to stay in a room. Like a prisoner. You cannot go out because of the police. Pressure of a smuggler: when you gonna pay, when you gonna do this, when you gonna do that? 

You feel like a trash in this world. Like you feel, you feel unlucky. You don’t enjoy eating, you don’t enjoy talking with people. It’s just the only thing that you think about is that: why you are in this world. Why is this happening to me? There are like 8 billion peoples, why me? 

For me, football was the only thing that I could enjoy and forget everything. But sometimes when I was like in a bad mood, even football was like boring and I didn’t wanna do it. 

AL SHAIBANI: The hopelessness really started to calcify. Add to it the claustrophobia of lockdown, this feeling of being unlucky started to take root. Aizen became convinced that he was the source of the bad luck.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM):  I am the most unluckiest person in the world.

I don’t think there’s any medicine for it. 

But it’s actually like something that sometimes my mind just totally get… How can I say… get, get empty? Feel totally empty and I feel like I cannot breathe. And I was like this [short breaths]. Like don’t have anything else to do. And I’d start crying. And I just wanna do something to… So I don’t want anyone to be with me in that situation. That’s why I was like, I just want to be alone. Put the blanket on my head.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen shared with me how he tried to take his own life in Afghanistan and in Turkey too. And then again, in Serbia.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was planning to jump from the building. 

The main reason that stopped me from doing suicide till now is because it’s haram. Otherwise I would be already dead.

AL SHAIBANI: Although Aizen laughs it off now, I’ve heard him when he was in one of those fugue states, when his mind was empty, as he calls it.

The most recent time Aizen tried to self-harm, he sent a voice note on WhatsApp to a friend. A couple of days later, he told me about it and played me that voice note. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever heard. 

You can just hear Aizen sobbing and faintly whispering over and over: “I just want a normal life.” 

He doesn’t remember sending it or even playing it to me.

AL SHAIBANI: You played it for me.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Did I? I don’t remember.

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. You told me about it, and you played me the voice note.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): When I hear the voice note, I was like, “Is that actually me?” You know, I ask question myself cause I don’t really kind of cry for a lot of things. Like even if I want to cry, I can’t. Like if people die, that does not make me sad or to make cry for them because it’s life all gonna die one day. But when I hear the voice I was like, “Is that me crying?” Which is weird. Which made me really sad after. I was like, “What’s going on with me?”

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen has seen so much of the ugly parts of our world: violence and death and injustice and pedophilia and injury. 

The physical and mental extremes he’s been through have left a trail of debris that I can’t even begin to comprehend.

But these days, he’s doing better.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, now I’m fine. Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah for everything. I’m fine, which is good. I don’t get like the way I used to, but I still feel some blah blah. Which is, it’s fine. It’s life.

AL SHAIBANI: And it’s normal to feel sad or angry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Not hurting… Haram! 

I don’t hurt myself now, which is good because I know how it feels when you cannot play football for a long time [laughs]. 

Wallah, I get emotional for a minute. 

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah, me too. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was close to crying, but I stopped. No crying.

AL SHAIBANI: No. You can cry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Honestly, brother, I don’t like crying.

AL SHAIBANI: More than a year after Aizen arrived in Serbia, in June of 2020, Covid restrictions lifted slightly. When that happened, he took the first opportunity to go back to Subotica – near the Hungarian border – hoping to cross. There, the same smuggler was still working. 

Aizen explained how they’d scout trucks waiting at the border for their specific time to cross into Hungary.

The drivers were drunk or asleep or both, waiting for their slot. The smuggler would look for the trucks that they can open easily. Even if they made some noise, the drivers are often too drunk/out of it to notice.

He’d open the back of a truck, check if he can hide refugees inside and then close it and lock it again, super glueing the cables to hide the evidence of any cut marks. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He was like, “Red man, just tonight, go please, for me.” I was like, “I’m tired, I need to sleep.” I was so tired and sleepy. He was like, “Please, for me.”

He opened his bag, gave me Red Bull. “Drink this. It’ll be fine.”

AL SHAIBANI: So after a few tries, they found a truck with a sleeping driver that they opened.  

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We opened: full of tires, all tires, like huge tires. He was like “Redman, this is the best chance.” Ok, we put all the guys in and I was going to close the door. He was like, “Why the hell are you closing the door? Go inside.” I was like, “I’m tired.”  He slapped me. He said “Go inside!” 

So he locked the door, he used his energy. The driver woke up. He was with a girl. So the driver, with a girl, they start having sex, which was so weird. 

I was so tired. 

It was five, six o’clock in the morning. So I put my jacket on my top and I said, I’m going to sleep. I slept.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was nine o’clock or 10 o’clock. My friend say, “Hey! Wake up!” I was like, “Wake up, we crossed!” I’m like, “Are you mad?” He said, “Yeah we cross!”

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We go, go, go, go. One country, another country.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen had gotten away with it. After a few hours, the police stopped the truck and pulled everyone onto the side of the road. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We don’t know where we are. They said, they ask us, “Do you know where you are?” I was like, “No.” He say, “You’re in Czech Republic.” I was like okay. 

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen, the King of Serbia, finally crossed into the EU and was in the Czech Republic. He had made it into ‘Fortress Europe’. From here, the EU’s more relaxed border policies meant they could pass from one country to another much more easily: no ladders over barbed wire fences. No border police hunting them with sniffer dogs. He didn’t even need a smuggler.

Aizen could finally get to France.

Remember, he had planned for his journey to take 3 months. Two years later and he was only in Czech Republic.

We did try to interview the smuggler in Serbia for this series but he was incredibly difficult to pin down. He no longer deals in human trafficking: he’s actually living in Switzerland and gets in touch with Aizen from time to time through temporary Facebook accounts to remind him that he’s still owed €2000.

Next time on Kerning Cultures… There’s love and sorcery in the air.

ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: Anyway, I send him some sweets because, yeah, it’s nice. Nobody knew for how long he will be arrested. So, yes, for the first contact, I just wanted to show him I mean it seriously, I really want to help him.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and me, Dana Ballout.

Fact checking was by Eman El Sherif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. 

Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

A special thank you to Tahir Shah, the grandson of Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, for sharing details about his grandfather with us and thank you to Anton Stoyanov for his production support. 

Thank you for listening. See you next week and take care. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay. What are you gonna do now?

AL SHAIBANI: Uh, dinner? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay.

AL SHAIBANI: Are you hungry? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, but not a lot.

[Outro sting]

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And the question is… where we were last time?

AL SHAIBANI: Where we were last time… so, I think, you were… 

DANA BALLOUT: Last time on Kerning Cultures, we left Aizen, an Afghan teenager, in Turkey attempting to cross into Bulgaria. 

He was beaten, stripped naked and ransacked of all his belongings.

A warning before we continue: this episode contains references to violence and self harm. If you’re around kids or if you’re not into that kind of thing, consider skipping this one. 

My other note to you is that this is part three of a four part series. If you haven’t heard the first and second episode, I would go back and listen to those because it’ll help you to understand this episode a lot better. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They said it’s like eight, nine hours walking, you’ll be in Bulgaria. 

13 days walk. 13 days. I don’t know how l like survive. People who had food, a lot of food, they finish everything. We were all dying. 

DANA BALLOUT: With such little sustenance and no turning back, Aizen relied on this one drink that a lot of us have heard of.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): That’s why I love Red Bull. You know, you get tired, drink one, bam! Energy. I don’t know how. You feel like, go: I can walk more. After 2-3-4 hours, again: Bam! Refresh. Best thing ever!

DANA BALLOUT: In case you missed that, it’s none other than Red Bull. 

Before we go back into Aizen’s story, we’re going back in time – about 100 years ago. And we want to tell you about a guy named Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah. You won’t find much online about him; maybe a few photographs but his story is mostly left behind by the digital age. 

Ali Shah was Afghan, born in 1894. And as a young man in the 1910s, he left Afghanistan and travelled to Scotland, where he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

And back then, travel for an Afghan like Ali Shah was easier. It was admired and sometimes even welcomed. Imagine that.

Ali Shah married a Scottish woman, and became an author – writing more than 70 books. Books on Islam, politics, culture and his travels.

He was also a skilled diplomat who became the personal advisor and confidante of several leaders. Leaders like Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Ibn Saud the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Zog of Albania, and the Aga Khan. The roster is quite impressive.

He gained a reputation as a king-maker, moving in royal circles, criss-crossing Europe and the Middle East and Afghanistan. 100 years ago, this kind of long distance travel was slow but pretty straightforward. He would go overland from Afghanistan to Mumbai and then catch a ship to Europe.

Surprisingly, and maybe unsurprisingly, 100 years ago, borders were more permeable and pliable. It was a time before we designed systems and hierarchies controlling who can travel and who can’t.

In thinking about the legacy of Ali Shah, an Afghan who had the opportunity to travel, get an education and even find love and gain influence, you can’t help but think of modern day Afghans – stripped of that chance to be someone renowned like Ali Shah.

Today, for Afghans trying to get to Europe, the story is completely different. 

Fortress Europe – as it’s often referred to – is building new fences, pouring more and more money into border patrols and militarising its edges. And what a shame that is.

Ali Shah died in 1969 – he was hit by a reversing Coca Cola truck. Decades later, there would be Aizen, a teenager with a different kind of legacy – fuelled of course, by Red Bull. 

This is ‘Aizen – The Most Unlucky Person in the World’.

Part III: King of Serbia.

Producer Al Shaibani takes it from here.

AL SHAIBANI: It was May 2019 and the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. After that first attempt to cross into Europe, Aizen tried again a couple of days later. 

With a group of about 25 refugees, he walked through forests along the Turkish-Bulgarian border to reach a point that wasn’t monitored. 

There, they scaled two very high, barbed-wire fences, using a ladder their smuggler provided, and got into Bulgaria.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): A really huge forest, you cannot see, like at night, you cannot see like 10 centimetres in your front. It’s so dark. You have to hold each other back to not lose the way. 

AL SHAIBANI: And there’s a smuggler with you? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. He’s in the front. He says to you from the beginning, “If you stay behind, I’m not gonna come back.”

AL SHAIBANI: After 13 days, the group was out of food completely and relied on streams in the forest for water. Then they were picked up by another smuggler who took them to a house where they were told to hide and wait. 

They stayed there for 2 days: no food, no going out, just waiting. Anxious about being caught by the Bulgarian border police. Finally, the smuggler brought them some sandwiches.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We didn’t eat for two days because they don’t want the police to catch us. The time that he brought us food, we took the food, he went, the police came. Like how? So we know that he called the police like there’s no other way. How the police know that we are here. Nobody go out, nothing.

So we were inside the city, we were all scared that they were going to send us back to Turkey. They took us to a police station, they took fingerprints and stuff. And he was like, “Okay, where are you from?” I was like, “Afghanistan.” He was like, “No.” Like, what do you mean, “No”?

AL SHAIBANI: Here we go again. Questions and confusion about the way Aizen looks followed him everywhere he went.  

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He took me to a room, he was like, “No, he looks Russian.” He speaks Russian with me. I was like, “Huh, what you saying? What are you talking about?” Then the guy say, “Okay, wait, call the translator.” So the translator was telling me that, “he’s saying that he don’t look like Afghans, where are you from, don’t make trouble for me as well”. I was like, “What do you mean don’t make trouble? I’m from Afghanistan.” They took our fingerprints and stuff. And they took me to this open camp in Sofia. The camp called ‘Voenna Rampa’. 

A really weird camp.

AL SHAIBANI: Voenna Rampa is on the northern edge of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It’s a refugee centre, mostly for minors. 

It was a grimy camp. The food was particularly bad – bread and boiled potatoes. And food was a particular challenge at this time because it was Ramadan and Aizen and some of the Muslim refugees he was with were fasting.

It was also a particular challenge because just like every place they’d been in before, they weren’t exactly welcomed.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I went to this mosque that we go every night for…  so it was a mosque far away from the camp that you go for iftar. Muslim people do the iftar, they come back.

We did the iftar, we came back. We were waiting in the bus stop, like we were ten guys or eight guys, nine. A group of five people came with knives, with chains and stuff. I don’t know what they were saying, so I was like, “What do you want?” I was trying to speak English, like, “What do you want?”

AL SHAIBANI: One of these guys tapped Aizen on the shoulder and pointed behind him. His friends were all sprinting away.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he attacked with the knife. Like the knives went into my clothes. And it doesn’t touch my body. I was so lucky, like, I don’t know how this happened. So I punched this guy and run. 

AL SHAIBANI: How old were they? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They were old. Like 19, 21, something like this. Like older than us. So I run this side in they were all following me.

AL SHAIBANI: It’s hard to confirm these details but Aizen told me that this group started attacking him. One guy had a long chain which he whipped in Aizen’s direction: it wrapped around his neck and pulled him down to the ground. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They started kicking me with their feet. Stand again. Punch one. Run, run, run, run, run. They followed me. Oh, I don’t know how I ran. I was so quick, like I didn’t even look my back. If they’re coming or not. Just phewwww. So when I looked back, I can’t see anyone. Oh, good. And then I saw a girl standing there and I speak with her English. Fortunately she was speaking English. I was like these guys attacked me, can you call the police. They were like, “Even if I called the police, the police would not help you. The police are standing there and saw what happened to you. But they don’t care.”

AL SHAIBANI: This bystander took Aizen to a shop nearby, bought him some water to wash the blood off his neck and told him to wait inside. Once the bus that would take Aizen back to the camp arrived, she told him to get on board quickly.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So we arrived to the camp, I told the police. The police say, “I don’t care. Why you left the camp? Don’t go outside.” I’m like, “I’m fasting. I’m going to eat there. What do you want me to eat in this camp?” They were like, “I don’t care.” 

And I’m so angry, like, so, so angry. Don’t even talk to me. 

AL SHAIBANI: The next morning, Aizen filed a formal complaint to the local police. The translator who helped him write this said he was attacked because he looked Russian, and advised him to stay inside the camp. 

Despite how he described that racist attack – as if it was a scene from an anime fight – Aizen was deeply affected by it. Assaulted with knives and chains, in a country where he was alone and didn’t know anyone.

And whenever things became tough, he would go back to his first love: football. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So I didn’t go out of the camp because I was kinda scared for two days. So after two days, my Kurdish friend came and said, “Oh, don’t stay here a lot. You’ll find mental health problem and stuff. Let’s go play football.” I was like, “Okay.” We go outside. Two guys, knife in the hand, they’re looking at me and doing like this…

AL SHAIBANI: Here Aizen gestured the middle finger. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): What the hell is wrong with you? I haven’t done anything. 

Then I decided, I was like, no, I don’t wanna stay in Bulgaria. There’s no way I’m staying in Bulgaria. Like the Kurdish guy was playing in a football team in Bulgaria. He said, “You play good stuff, we can go, we can do the trial. And I’m sure they would accept you.”

AL SHAIBANI: You mean the training in Bulgaria? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. I was happy. Like okay if I can play – when I see this, I was like “No way I’m staying in Bulgaria. There is no chance.”

AL SHAIBANI: It’s like a game of snakes and ladders. Aizen had gotten so far, only to be met by racism and xenophobia that would take him back onto the smuggler’s path.

But this was a reality for many refugees in Europe. Ever since the peak arrival of migrants from the Middle East in 2015, violence and attacks on refugees have increased sharply. He said the worst racism he experienced was in Bulgaria. 

And so, he decided to continue on towards France. He stashed a few cookies into his pocket from Voenna Rampa camp and with five others, headed to Serbia. 

Being smuggled in Europe was no different to being smuggled in Iran: they hiked for hours, slept in the forest, then got crammed into a van. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was first day of Eid or second day of Eid, I can’t remember. We arrived in the capital of Serbia called Belgrade, a place called Afghan Park because there is a lot of Afghans.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We spent the night kind of walking around and stuft until morning. Eight o’clock we go to this office, which is for refugees. They register your name and they send you to the camps. I went to the office, they say, “Where you from?” They’re like, again same question. “Are you sure you’re Afghan?” I’m like, “What do you mean? I’m sure I’m Afghan. Of course I am.”

There was a camp near, in Belgrade, but they killed someone in the camp. So they closed the camp and they don’t send anyone to this camp.

AL SHAIBANI: Instead, they were planning to send Aizen to a camp called Sjenica which is about 4 hours drive southwest of Belgrade. But the office decided to wait until a few more refugees arrived so they could transport all of them together. So Aizen stayed in this registration office for five days.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I started doing translation for them cause their translator was on holiday. So all the office become my friend, all of the office. Like they just become friend with me because I was doing this job for them.

AL SHAIBANI: A few days later, the Kurdish guys from Bulgaria, the ones he was playing football with, also arrived in Serbia. From Afghan Park, they went to the same refugee registration office where they were surprised to see Aizen working and doing translation for the Serbian authorities.

Now that there were more migrants, they got taken to this town called Sjenica in the southwest of Serbia. Aizen showed me on the map…

AL SHAIBANI: Sjenica…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s a really small place, but people are Muslim there. 

AL SHAIBANI: So it’s a small town.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, it’s like a town. So we play football in here. It was nice. Not nice but good. Because I was injured and stuff, so… 

AL SHAIBANI: After the break: travelling this far starts to take its toll on Aizen. And the world starts to shut down.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen didn’t stay in that camp for very long. After a few days, he went up to the north of Serbia to a town called Subotica on the border with Hungary. 

Subotica is a major hub for refugees. The surrounding Radanovac forest is less than a kilometre from the Hungarian border. And it looks like the aftermath of a music festival. Camping tents propped between trees and trash sprayed across the muddy ground. Crushed energy drink cans, water bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags.

As of now, there are more than 3000 refugees in and around Subotica, hoping to cross into Hungary. After that, travelling through the rest of the EU becomes easier. It’s known as the Balkan Route and that’s where Aizen was. By that point, he had travelled through five countries already and more than 7000 kms.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): There is no chance you will cross by yourself. No chance. Even if you do, every place is belong to a smuggler. If they catch you and you’re not from their group, first: they will beat you a lot. If they’re 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.

AL SHAIBANI: Choked between these ruthless smugglers and violent border police, refugees paid large sums of money to cross.

In this case, either by clinging on to the underside of a moving train or by sneaking into the back of a freight truck without the driver noticing and waiting it out until the truck has crossed the border.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The trains are coming, different trains, you go try. To Austria, to Hungary, to Germany. Different trains. We spent 10 days, nothing came, and my legs got worse and worse. The smuggler said, “Okay, yeah, go to camp because your legs are getting worse and worse.” Buy ticket, go back to the camp. 

Seven days, every day they give me this serum? Syrup? What do you call it? The water thing.

AL SHAIBANI: Oh the ivy drip?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, every day morning. Every day for seven days for my legs. Yeah, it was so bad.

My feets were all destroyed, my hands, feet. That’s how we come to Europe.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen’s feet were infected. From Afghanistan, he had travelled more than 10,000kms – half it walking. Trekking through all sorts of terrain, sleeping in damp places, hiking without proper shoes. He showed me pictures of his feet: they were absolutely ravaged with cuts, bug bites, sores, bruises, infected blisters. 

Back at the Sjenica camp, the doctors gave him a strong course of antibiotics. Alone and with a very high fever, Aizen stayed in that camp and waited for the infection to pass.

AL SHAIBANI: Eventually, he went back to Subotica and tried to cross again. But when he was paying the smuggler, a middle man took the money and disappeared. There’s always a middle man to go through. And even the smuggler can get screwed by them. 

The smuggler was absolutely furious.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s not my fault. You told me give money. I give money. But if he didn’t pay you, it’s not my fault. He was like, “I don’t know what to do with you guys. You guys are not paying money.” So he was like torturing us for a long time.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen was held in a burnt out building near the train tracks of Subotica. The smuggler kept refugees there temporarily while he arranged for them to cross. But because he couldn’t pay his fee, the smuggler kept him hostage for months. 

He was there so long that he started doing DIY projects in that building: bringing an extension cord and fixing the lights. He had no idea how long he was going to be made to stay there.

And just like in Turkey, Aizen found himself working for a smuggler and gaining their trust. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, there was nothing for me to do because they were not letting me to go anywhere, not letting me try, not letting me go camp. If the smuggler need something, he called me “Red man come down.” I go it down, buy him cigarette, bring food for other everyone’s. And that was my job. 

AL SHAIBANI: Did you get paid?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No, he just bought me clothes. Sometimes he bought me energy drinks. Early morning, I wake up, he called me, he called me ‘Redman’. He said, “Redman, come here.” I go to him. He said, “Let’s go to the shop.” Went to the shop. He bought me clothes.

He said, “Do you wanna eat something?” I’m like, “No. Fine.” He bought me everything and he brought me back. He bought me shoes. I was like, “Okay, thank you.” So he bought me everything. He was so nice to me. He was like my older brother because I didn’t have anyone. He give everything.

AL SHAIBANI: Was he nice?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, he was nice to me. Not to others.

AL SHAIBANI: The smuggler called Aizen ‘Redman’ because of his reddish hair. It’s a little odd to hear the smuggler described so fondly – like an older brother. I can’t help but notice how vulnerable Aizen was. He was a teenager, by himself, without any support or money.

Aizen stayed like this for half a year. Eventually, the smuggler realised he wasn’t going to get his money, and let Aizen go, to try to find his way to Hungary. He said he’d even show him how to do it, but he didn’t promise it would be easy.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he let me try. I try. They catch me. I come back. Started trying every night. Try, try, try. Come back, try come back. He show me the way one night he go like this, like this. Every night, go there to another place to try in the lorries and trucks. 

AL SHAIBANI: Every time he tried to cross into Hungary, the police would catch him. 

The Hungarian border is closely guarded. It’s the entrance to the EU and Hungary’s current right-wing government has made it their priority to stop migrants from crossing the border. 

Border police have been accused of systematic abuse against people on the move. In 2022 alone, they’ve pushed back more than 200,000 refugees coming from Serbia – mostly Afghans and Syrians. 

Meanwhile, Hungary has allowed in more than 620,000 refugees from Ukraine.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen kept trying. Summer passed and autumn too. Winter came again. 

He spent almost all of 2019 being held by smugglers and failing to cross the borders.

It got really cold – the kind of cold that seeps into your bones. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It happens in a time that the winter came, weather gets so cold, the train don’t come a lot and stuff. He said, “Ok Red Man, time for you to go to camp. Go to camp, I will let you go.” I asked him many times before. He said, “No! You’ll escape!”

AL SHAIBANI: Tired and defeated, Aizen decided to stop trying to cross into Hungary and instead, go back to the refugee camp to rest for a while. This was February 2020.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Then what happened is… Covid start. Quarantine: you cannot go outside the camp. Stay in the camp, nothing change. Sleep, wake up, eat, that was our routine. When Ramadan come, cook, do Ramadan, play cards, there’s nothing to do. And also worry that what will happen to me.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen stayed in Serbia for more than a year. Remember the group of refugees in Turkey that he was guiding through Istanbul? The ones that got stopped by police?

That group got deported back to Afghanistan, then tried again – the same route. Through the mountains of Iran, to Turkey and then Bulgaria and then Serbia. This time, they made it all the way to France. That whole time, Aizen stayed stuck in Serbia. 

He was there so long that other refugees crowned him ‘King of Serbia’. They said this is his land and he’s not going anywhere. 

I told you what happened to Aizen’s feet. It was hard for him to walk, but also to do what he loves most: play football. The physical toll of walking so far from home, in harsh terrain, often beaten by smugglers or border police – all of that adds up.

But there’s the invisible toll too.

A strong warning that this next segment includes mentions of suicide and self harm. Skip forward eight minutes if you’d like to avoid it. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Um, my mental health was, how can I say, f***ed up from long time ago. Not the journey or stuff. The pressure of the family, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure in your mind. What I’m gonna do, what will happen, what gonna happen, will I work? Like you have to have a way to help them. If you don’t, you’re under pressure.

Why you’re not working, why you’re sleeping, you’re just born to eat and sleep. That’s it. You’re lazy. You’re like this, you’re like that, ah okay. 

I did even try suicide in Afghanistan once. Not once, two, three times. And I was so young, like, now I can remember I was like nine, 10 years old when I had the knife and I was like, “Let me see how it feels. Should I do it? Should I not?” And I remember I was so young, I put the knife in here and I was like push it.

It’s just some things that come to your mind. Because you get tired. You know, like I was asking many times, like, a lot that why I born? I didn’t ask you to bring me to this life. Like if I can’t, I can’t. But nobody cares. It’s still the same thing. 

You think people believe in mental health in Afghanistan? What are you gonna tell them? They’ll be like, “Nah, that’s bullshit.” That’s what they’re gonna say. And even if you tell them, there’s another reason for them to shout at you, so you don’t want this.

AL SHAIBANI: The immense pressure from his family in Afghanistan on top of the injustice of going to adult prison for a crime he didn’t commit, it all contributed to Aizen’s fragile mental health. He showed me his forearms where he would self-harm.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The scars but you cannot see it, which is good. 

AL SHAIBANI: Where? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): In here. Yeah you cannot see it. Because I had it here for a long time, but you cannot see it. 

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen’s already fragile mental health only became worse when he got on the road and the realities of being smuggled started to sink in. Especially when most of the time, he was just waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Being held in terrible conditions.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Day by day it get worse. You, you don’t have anything to do. You just need to stay in a room. Like a prisoner. You cannot go out because of the police. Pressure of a smuggler: when you gonna pay, when you gonna do this, when you gonna do that? 

You feel like a trash in this world. Like you feel, you feel unlucky. You don’t enjoy eating, you don’t enjoy talking with people. It’s just the only thing that you think about is that: why you are in this world. Why is this happening to me? There are like 8 billion peoples, why me? 

For me, football was the only thing that I could enjoy and forget everything. But sometimes when I was like in a bad mood, even football was like boring and I didn’t wanna do it. 

AL SHAIBANI: The hopelessness really started to calcify. Add to it the claustrophobia of lockdown, this feeling of being unlucky started to take root. Aizen became convinced that he was the source of the bad luck.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM):  I am the most unluckiest person in the world.

I don’t think there’s any medicine for it. 

But it’s actually like something that sometimes my mind just totally get… How can I say… get, get empty? Feel totally empty and I feel like I cannot breathe. And I was like this [short breaths]. Like don’t have anything else to do. And I’d start crying. And I just wanna do something to… So I don’t want anyone to be with me in that situation. That’s why I was like, I just want to be alone. Put the blanket on my head.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen shared with me how he tried to take his own life in Afghanistan and in Turkey too. And then again, in Serbia.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was planning to jump from the building. 

The main reason that stopped me from doing suicide till now is because it’s haram. Otherwise I would be already dead.

AL SHAIBANI: Although Aizen laughs it off now, I’ve heard him when he was in one of those fugue states, when his mind was empty, as he calls it.

The most recent time Aizen tried to self-harm, he sent a voice note on WhatsApp to a friend. A couple of days later, he told me about it and played me that voice note. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever heard. 

You can just hear Aizen sobbing and faintly whispering over and over: “I just want a normal life.” 

He doesn’t remember sending it or even playing it to me.

AL SHAIBANI: You played it for me.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Did I? I don’t remember.

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. You told me about it, and you played me the voice note.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): When I hear the voice note, I was like, “Is that actually me?” You know, I ask question myself cause I don’t really kind of cry for a lot of things. Like even if I want to cry, I can’t. Like if people die, that does not make me sad or to make cry for them because it’s life all gonna die one day. But when I hear the voice I was like, “Is that me crying?” Which is weird. Which made me really sad after. I was like, “What’s going on with me?”

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen has seen so much of the ugly parts of our world: violence and death and injustice and pedophilia and injury. 

The physical and mental extremes he’s been through have left a trail of debris that I can’t even begin to comprehend.

But these days, he’s doing better.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, now I’m fine. Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah for everything. I’m fine, which is good. I don’t get like the way I used to, but I still feel some blah blah. Which is, it’s fine. It’s life.

AL SHAIBANI: And it’s normal to feel sad or angry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Not hurting… Haram! 

I don’t hurt myself now, which is good because I know how it feels when you cannot play football for a long time [laughs]. 

Wallah, I get emotional for a minute. 

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah, me too. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was close to crying, but I stopped. No crying.

AL SHAIBANI: No. You can cry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Honestly, brother, I don’t like crying.

AL SHAIBANI: More than a year after Aizen arrived in Serbia, in June of 2020, Covid restrictions lifted slightly. When that happened, he took the first opportunity to go back to Subotica – near the Hungarian border – hoping to cross. There, the same smuggler was still working. 

Aizen explained how they’d scout trucks waiting at the border for their specific time to cross into Hungary.

The drivers were drunk or asleep or both, waiting for their slot. The smuggler would look for the trucks that they can open easily. Even if they made some noise, the drivers are often too drunk/out of it to notice.

He’d open the back of a truck, check if he can hide refugees inside and then close it and lock it again, super glueing the cables to hide the evidence of any cut marks. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He was like, “Red man, just tonight, go please, for me.” I was like, “I’m tired, I need to sleep.” I was so tired and sleepy. He was like, “Please, for me.”

He opened his bag, gave me Red Bull. “Drink this. It’ll be fine.”

AL SHAIBANI: So after a few tries, they found a truck with a sleeping driver that they opened.  

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We opened: full of tires, all tires, like huge tires. He was like “Redman, this is the best chance.” Ok, we put all the guys in and I was going to close the door. He was like, “Why the hell are you closing the door? Go inside.” I was like, “I’m tired.”  He slapped me. He said “Go inside!” 

So he locked the door, he used his energy. The driver woke up. He was with a girl. So the driver, with a girl, they start having sex, which was so weird. 

I was so tired. 

It was five, six o’clock in the morning. So I put my jacket on my top and I said, I’m going to sleep. I slept.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was nine o’clock or 10 o’clock. My friend say, “Hey! Wake up!” I was like, “Wake up, we crossed!” I’m like, “Are you mad?” He said, “Yeah we cross!”

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We go, go, go, go. One country, another country.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen had gotten away with it. After a few hours, the police stopped the truck and pulled everyone onto the side of the road. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We don’t know where we are. They said, they ask us, “Do you know where you are?” I was like, “No.” He say, “You’re in Czech Republic.” I was like okay. 

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen, the King of Serbia, finally crossed into the EU and was in the Czech Republic. He had made it into ‘Fortress Europe’. From here, the EU’s more relaxed border policies meant they could pass from one country to another much more easily: no ladders over barbed wire fences. No border police hunting them with sniffer dogs. He didn’t even need a smuggler.

Aizen could finally get to France.

Remember, he had planned for his journey to take 3 months. Two years later and he was only in Czech Republic.

We did try to interview the smuggler in Serbia for this series but he was incredibly difficult to pin down. He no longer deals in human trafficking: he’s actually living in Switzerland and gets in touch with Aizen from time to time through temporary Facebook accounts to remind him that he’s still owed €2000.

Next time on Kerning Cultures… There’s love and sorcery in the air.

ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: Anyway, I send him some sweets because, yeah, it’s nice. Nobody knew for how long he will be arrested. So, yes, for the first contact, I just wanted to show him I mean it seriously, I really want to help him.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and me, Dana Ballout.

Fact checking was by Eman El Sherif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. 

Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

A special thank you to Tahir Shah, the grandson of Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, for sharing details about his grandfather with us and thank you to Anton Stoyanov for his production support. 

Thank you for listening. See you next week and take care. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay. What are you gonna do now?

AL SHAIBANI: Uh, dinner? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay.

AL SHAIBANI: Are you hungry? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, but not a lot.

[Outro sting]