By Aida Ghajar
December 1, 2018
I already knew of his story before we met. Masoud (a pseudonym) had endured a long and dangerous journey to get to Turkey. I knew him as a student activist, but had no idea that he had left Iran. I met him in Van and he took me to the small city where he lived in Turkey. He agreed to tell me his story only if I didn’t reveal his identity. He told me that thoughts of his family back in Iran, and the stress and nightmares, wouldn’t leave him alone.
I drove for two and a half hours to Masoud’s home, and then we headed for a nearby café to have our conversation. He has been living in Turkey for the last four years, but still doesn’t feel safe. Some of his friends in Iran still think he is in the country, and every now and then invite him to their meetings and gatherings. No one knows that Masoud undertook a dangerous, 10-day journey to get to Turkey.
Ten years ago, one of the most infamous judges of the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced him to prison. Masoud knew that if he stayed and went to prison, he would lose both his marriage and his child. He therefore decided to flee the country via Turkish borders – a life change that he had no plan or any real idea about.
“My childhood took place during the Iran-Iraq war and the revolution, which impacted every Iranian household. I grew up in a religious family who told us religious stories as bedtime stories. This really set my destination. My life’s script was written then. Maybe if there was no revolution, we could have had an ordinary life. But that wasn’t the case.”
His family members were political activists, so Masoud was constantly under surveillance. He was arrested and interrogated by various security and intelligence agencies so many times over the years that he decided to leave the “real world” and instead make his presence known through social media. But his interrogators did not leave him alone; they popped up in the comment sections of his online life as well, and began intimidating and harassing him. Even when he decided to leave politics and only be involved with cultural projects or charity work, the agents accused him of “conspiracy against the regime.” In response, Masoud further isolated himself, turning away from activist communities and former friends. When he got married, he did it to make sure he would never touch politics again. He and his wife soon had a baby. But the authorities still did not leave him alone.
“I did not tell my wife that my email had been hacked. I did not want to put her in a stressful position, but I was worried. One day they knocked on our door when my wife was not at home; it was only my son and I. They took me away in front of his eyes. This made him sick and he couldn’t eat for a few days after my arrest. He had nightmares of monsters for many years after that day.”
The interrogations began again. They confiscated the Hollywood movies he had, deeming them to be “pornographic,” and frequently asked him to confess to participating in the 2009 Green Movement protests. Although he denied all the accusations, the interrogators refused to believe him. He ended up being given a 10-year prison sentence, something that he had never expected and that made him think seriously about leaving the country.
His wife also supported the idea of leaving the country. Masoud began selling their furniture, while still going to work every day and pretending everything was normal. With his passport in his hand, he went to apply for an extension, but the agent told him he was “banned from leaving the country” and seized his documents.
When he went to renew his passport, an agent told him was “banned from leaving the country” and seized his documents.
Masoud had no other option but to leave the country illegally and with the help of a human trafficker. But he did not have any contacts and had no idea about how the process worked.
“I was thinking to myself, reviewing my options. I couldn’t trust anyone . . . my phone was wiretapped and I couldn’t discuss this with anyone. All of a sudden, I saw an old friend and he [said that he] could help me find a human trafficker via his Kurdish employee. It took him two months. The plan was to get to Turkey with the help of human traffickers along different parts of the path.”
Masoud mentioned his son frequently when telling his story. His son now goes to school in Turkey and sings the song, “Turkey, My Homeland.” He asks his parents if they can stay in Turkey forever.
It was difficult for Masoud to tell his the story, and even his smiles revealed his pain. But he told it anyway. “In the very beginning, when I just got here, I could not tell my story without crying. Even sometimes I would cry without telling it. But now I can smile and tell you.” But whenever he mentioned his son, he couldn’t help himself, and I could see tears in his eyes as he remembered those nights that he was left on his own and the only thing that kept him going was his love for his son.
The first trafficker picked Masoud up at a square in Karaj. He got into the backseat of a car with five other passengers and two or three more in the trunk, all of whom were Afghan citizens. They started travelling at around 9pm and reached Urmia at 6 am. The road was full of police road blocks, where people were required to stop and have their cars searched, so the traffickers had to take dirt roads for most of the journey. Sometimes the trafficker would drop off the Afghan passengers and ask them to join them after a police stop, using a pedestrian pathway. He told Masoud that if the police asked him what he was doing there, he should say he was looking to buy an apple garden and that’s why he was in the area. There were other cars in the procession; people would go ahead to inform the driver if there was a stop ahead and others would come from behind to pick up passengers who had been dropped off.
“After dodging a police chase, we got to Urmia. One of the traffickers, Armin, told me not to leave the car. He sat behind me and said that he only took Afghans, not Iranians. ‘Are you a political activist?’ he asked me. I replied, ‘No, I’m a businessman who went bankrupt. I can’t pay off my debts.’ He asked for US$10,000 more, despite the fact that we had agreed on US$5,000, which had already been paid in full. I called my contact, who advised me not to trust him. I went to a nearby café and saw some people smoking hookah and discussing relocating travelers. I asked for their rate and they said US$2,000. Once again, however, my contact advised me not to trust them. I had no other option but to trust my contact and wait.”
Masoud took his backpack and spent a whole day walking through a city full of undercover security agents.
I asked him what his thoughts were as he walked through Urmia.
“I was thinking about the fact that I couldn’t call anyone. I couldn’t even talk to my son. I was recording a story for him every day to send him. I had a video of him telling me, ‘Daddy! I’m waiting for you!’ which I watched a hundred times that day.”
In the afternoon he booked a hotel room to spend the night. The next morning, his contact called him and picked him up to take him to the trafficker. They asked for more money – another US$1,000 – and the trafficker told him: “I [will send] you over with the Afghans. Don’t say you’re Iranian. Rub some dirt on your face, and lose the glasses as well.”
Masoud bought a burner phone to be in contact with the trafficker. It was a terrifying situation, but he had no other option; he needed to carry on. The trafficker took him to his home and after a day sent him on his way with the many Afghans.
They were promised a 20-minute walk, and nothing difficult or dangerous. The first trafficker dropped them off behind a sunflower farm, where they waited for two hours. Another trafficker came for them with a pickup truck and loaded everyone on top of each other, causing Masoud’s glasses to break.
“The truck was going up a steep heel and the driver was shouting, ‘Be careful and hold on to something so you don’t fall off!’ We reached a river that we had to pass, but the truck got stuck in the mud. The driver gave us shovels and told us to dig to get out, which we did. After 15 minutes we hit the road again and he dropped us off on the other side of the river. Another guy came out of nowhere and told us, ‘You are all ISIS members who want to kill Kurds.’ There were people in our group who had not eaten for days. Since I thought we were not going to be on the journey for too long, I gave them whatever food I had.”
But the journey hit an unexpected stop. The trafficker told them that border patrol agents were out there and that they couldn’t go any further. They had to spend the cold night in the rocky mountains. They lay down next to each other to keep warm. In the morning they were joined by some travelers who were on their way back. These were members of the previous group who had been caught up in the border patrol ambush. The road was now closed.
The next day, the trafficker told his clients he had “talked” with the agents and they had agreed to hold back for a short time when the migrants were getting ready to jump over the wall. The trafficker had most likely bribed the agents so they would delay their chase by a few minutes. He also warned that everyone was responsible for themselves if they got caught. They had to wait for nightfall before making any moves. There was no food or clean water. Everyone was exhausted, but the most difficult part was yet to come: climbing a steep mountain up to the border wall. On the way up, Masoud lost control and fell down. “You can’t keep up like this. Go back down to the shepherd, I’ll come for you in the morning,” the trafficker told him.
Masoud headed for the mountain skirt in complete darkness. “It was slippery, and I could hear my heartbeat. I had no option: I had to either find my way back down or wait for a bullet from the border patrols. My mouth was dry and I could barely breathe. When I got down the mountain, I tried to call the shepherd, but there was no sign of him.”
Masoud found a corner where he could lie down. It was midnight when he passed out. He dreamed of his mother, who was saying, “Wake up, Masoud, wake up! You need to find the way.” He woke up and tried to find his way in the moonlight. His feet were in pain, but he was constantly thinking about survival. “I was watching my son’s video over and over again and keep reminding myself that I have to survive.”
Then all of a sudden someone called him. It was the trafficker who had sent him down. The trafficker took him to the shepherd’s tent and fed him bread and cheese. Masoud’s ankle was injured and his body was sore, but there was another long walk in front of him and he trekked for four hours on a broken foot. They finally arrived at the trafficker’s home and spent the night there. The next day, the trafficker put Masoud in the trunk of a sedan, and after a two-hour drive, arrived back at the city of Salmas. The trafficker was complaining that sending Masoud on the journey again would cost him more money, and they would be better off if they left him in the mountains. Right in front of Masoud’s eyes, the trafficker rejected the phone calls from the Afghan travelers who were now lost in the mountains. When Masoud asked what would happen to these travelers, the trafficker’s response was: “They are either gonna get caught by the border patrols or die.”
Masoud stayed in the trafficker’s home for few more days before he once again began the journey with some Afghan travelers. “I thought this time would be easier, but it wasn’t. They could have driven us over, so I don’t know why we walked, for the most part, in the middle of the mountains for 13 hours straight. There were women and children with us. Even a pregnant woman who was able to ride a donkey for an extra US$100. There were two groups of us with two traffickers. There was a baby crying in the other group, but no one was attending to her. Another kid was crying and asking for his mother, but the father told him to shut up. I talked to the father and told him that it was better not to talk to his kid that way. I tried to walk with the boy and his sister and to entertain them during the journey.”
At some point along the journey, the traffickers robbed Masoud of his belongings, but by this time they already passed the border and were on Turkish soil. After walking in Turkey for a while, the Turkish police ambushed them and threatened to shoot them if they tried to escape. Everyone froze in order not to get shot. Masoud hid his Iranian ID under a stone so they wouldn’t find out about his nationality. Surprisingly, the police officer asked only a few questions and sent the travelers back on their way. Another trafficker eventually came and took them to the city of Van. They were taken to a place called the “Shelter,” where they were forced to buy SIM cards from the building owners.
After 10 excruciating days, Masoud was now in Van. He called the trafficker in Urmia and asked him when he would be sent to Ankara. The trafficker asked for more money, since Masoud had been sent on the trip twice. Masoud’s family wired the money and the trafficker made fake identity papers for Masoud to use for his journey to Ankara. That night, Masoud was able to call his wife for the first time after embarking on the trip. He was very close to hugging his son once again.
He took a sip of his tea and said, “This is my story.”
I asked him if he feels comfortable now in Turkey. “When I leave Turkey, it will be even better. My wife is still scared. My stress is for her. A couple days ago we heard about a young Sunni man who was murdered in Van. Another time, they stabbed a human rights activist. Turkey’s intelligence agencies have called many of the refugees and informed them that the Islamic Republic is on the hunt for them. In Ankara, a political activist’s wife was hit by a car while she was pregnant. We’re not safe here, but certainly safer than in Iran. I, at least, go to bed at night next to my wife and son, and not in a prison cell. The biggest cost of this immigration for me is the fact that I can’t see my mother again. But I’m not regretful. If I went back and had to decide again, I would still choose the same path and flee from Iran.”