A Turkish soldier stands at the Iran-Turkey Border. (Reuters)

By Aida Ghajar

January 21, 2019

In the city of Kirikale, people told me about a park popular with refugees. When I went there,  the park was almost empty, apart from six young boys playing and chasing after each other. My host and I asked them if we could chat to them, and when they agreed, they told us their stories of traveling illegally from Afghanistan to Iran and then on to Turkey.

They were all from Afghanistan, from Herat and Kabul. There had been in Turkey for the last two months. As soon as they saw I was interested in their stories, they tried to tell them to me all at the same time.

They all left Iran for Turkey together — three families with children and a grandmother. They had walked for five or six days, for about three hours a day. Finally they arrived in a village in Turkey, where their traffickers told them they had to stay until further notice.

“There was a two-year-old baby with us who was on the walk night to morning,” one of the boys told me. “There was also a six-year-old boy with a broken foot. He was in his father’s arms, but the father had a heavy bag that broke the boy’s foot when they tripped over.”

The oldest of the children was 12 years old and they were all waiting for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to decide on their family’s cases and assign them a new country. One of them said they want to go to Switzerland and another one talked about their love of Germany. Farzad, who was more excitable than the others, said he liked being here in Turkey because there is a Sunni majority: “I don’t like a place full of Shia people,” he told me.

When they left Afghanistan, these kids took a piece of that country’s religious civil war with them — and it is hard to know when and if they will ever let it go.

Mohammad, the 12 year old, talked about the human trafficker with whom they had traveled. “The bastard trafficker beat us up with a stick. The kid that ended up with a broken foot, he supposedly took him to a doctor who put a cast on his foot, but when we got to Turkey and a real doctor examined his foot, he said he needed an operation and the cast had made the situation worst. Now the poor kid has been in his bed for the last two months.”

Arman, 10, from Herat, interrupted Mohammad. “Baluch people helped us leave Iran for Turkey. All the children were crying at the border. Iranian police officers hit us in the head with the bottom of their guns. They even killed one person.”

I was completely shocked by this. “You saw someone getting killed in front of your eyes?” I asked.

They nodded their heads yes as if it was no big deal. “When the Iranian police caught us, our trafficker disappeared all of a sudden.”

I wanted to change the subject. “Do you have any fun stories of your trip?” I asked them. What they told me did not necessarily sound fun.

“Escaping from police on the Turkish border was fun,” said Mohammad. “We came across another family that had been left behind by the group they were in. They warned us to go back since there was a police trap ahead — they said the police would shoot us. Whenever we saw police lights, we took cover. Many of the men on their own ran back across the border to Iran when they saw the police that night, but the families were too scared to go back. We took cover near a big pit filled with water; I fell in and was wet from head to toe. It was really cold that night. The Turkish border was very difficult and cold.”

One of the other kids chimed in. “We walked from dust to dawn when we finally met some new traffickers who wanted to help us the rest of the way. We didn’t want to go with them, but we had no other option. We had an Afghan doctor with us who was the guide and translator for our group. But when his foot got injured, he left us with his wife and two other men.”

Mohammad then picked up the story again. “The trafficker was not with us at all, we never saw him [when we were walking]. The advantage was that if you were with a trafficker there were lower chances of getting caught. If we had not had women with us, we could have run away,” Mohammad said with a smile. “Women couldn’t run like us men.”

The Ailing Grandmother and the Arrest

One of the boys told me about their grandmother, who had traveled with them. “My grandma had a stroke there. When she heard gunshots, she got scared and fell while on the mountain. Her head hit a rock. At the same time, police were chasing us. I was running and I was very scared. When they caught us, they treated us well, but they were not very nice to Pakistanis. Grandma was unconscious, and the police officers helped us put her in a car and took her to a hospital. Everyone else was put in a van, and everyone was crying. Soldiers pointed their guns at us and threatened to shoot us if we didn’t stop crying. They took us to a small village in Turkey.” He told me his grandmother was now resting and recovering.

One could see the relief in their eyes when the children remembered their first days in Turkey when compared to the rest of the journey. They said the villagers were very nice and kind to them, welcoming them with chocolate, watermelon, and cheese. “We did not like their cheese or butter, but they were very nice to us. We had not eaten for the last five days, we did not even have any water left when we got to the village because we saw a Pakistani man dying of hunger and thirst on the side of the road and gave him all the water we had.”

According to the boys, after arresting them, the Turkish police took them to a “shelter” near the beach. By shelter, they probably meant a refugee camp. They were not allowed to leave the building to go to the beach or even play in the yard. “We were bored so badly, you can’t imagine. We secretly went out to the yard to play, but if we got caught out there, they would beat us up.”

Memories of the Iranian-Turkish Border

I told them I was Iranian, and this brought up another memory for the kids. “There was an Iranian human trafficker, one of your fellas, with us as well. He had a gun and was not a nice man. He would threaten us with the gun and even hit a man with the bottom of it. Poor guy had bruises all over his back. He loaded so many of us in a sedan that we could not even breathe. When passing through the mountainous roads of the Iran-Turkey border, once we were close to crashing down the hill — it was such a close call. The valleys of that region are so deep and dangerous that just looking at them makes you faint. It was really scary, the women were screaming the whole time.”

The horrendous situation on the Iran-Turkey border took Arman, another boy, back to his memories of leaving Afghanistan for Iran. He said the trafficker charged them $2,000 each for a trip from Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey. “The mountains were so dangerous that everyone was holding onto bits of clothing from the people in front and behind them. Everyone moved very slowly. If someone fell down, they could take everyone else down with them. Our hands and feet were bloody, full of scrapes. It was very dark, and I couldn’t see at all. I tripped over so many times. It was horrifying.”

Then he remembered a similar situation on the Turkish border. “In Turkey, my shoe fell off and the trafficker did not even let me put it back on. He was hitting us and saying :“Go, go, go.” I had to carry my shoe while walking on ice with only a sock on. My hands were frozen. My sister was so cold she told my mom her heart was frozen.”

His family went to Baluchistan straight from Afghanistan and stayed there one week. From Baluchistan to Tehran, their trip took two days and nights by car. They also stayed in Tehran for a week and then went to Urmia again by car, which took 10 hours. In Urmia, they stayed as guests at an Azeri man’s house for three days. “Then we began our journey for Turkey. We had to climb high mountains. We were all shaking and shivering from the cold and from fear. We could not see anything at all, but still we walked for four hours in the snow. The trafficker left us and we had to find our own way. After four hours another trafficker came for us and took us to a shelter. We stayed there for three nights and then he took us to a city and told us to go find the camp. It was Ankara. We found our way to the UNHCR office and waited in line for the whole night.”

Mohammad said the the most difficult part of the journey was in Turkey. “It was cold and snowy. Not that the route to Iran was easy — we walked for eight hours to get to Iran. Seeing each light in the distance, we thought that was our destination. But it was not, and we had to keep going. We had a Baluch trafficker who beat us up if we stopped to even take a breath. He beat one of the mothers in our group who had 10 kids. Her children attacked him to defend their mom, but he beat them too, hitting the children with his wooden stick. One guy asked him for some water, but he told him to shut up and beat him too. He would only say: ‘go, go, go.’ There were 100 of us on that trip.”

Arman spoke again: “So far, my family has spent $18,000. We sold two pieces of land in Afghanistan and put our four-bedroom house up as collateral to get cash. My father had a carwash and business was good. We moved from Herat to Kabul but there were too many suicide terrorist attacks. ISIS attacks schools and even assassinated a school girl in Kabul. We could not stay there, and we could not go back to Herat neither.”

Farzad seemed to grow bored of our conversation and told his friends it was time to go on PlayStation. We took a photo of them and they promised to contact me when they got to Europe. Arman also told me to find him on Facebook and ran after other kids, trying not to fall behind. After they left I couldn’t stop thinking about them, children with such horrifying memories, memories that will probably not ever leave them alone.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.