02 August 2008

Istanbul, on the way of African migrations

Navi della marina militare turca nel porto di CeçmeIZMIR - “So when are you leaving, today or tomorrow?” John is joking with Hammady in the square in front of the mosque. They start laughing. A few days ago, they risked their lives. That night John had shouted: "Nina! Nina!”. Nina - his wife - was the only woman on board. Now she’s safe. Everybody was rescued. But it could have been a massacre. Hammady and John are two of the 25 survivors of the umpteenth shipwreck in the Aegean sea. But this time the boat was not sank by the waves, neither by the Greek coastguard, but by the Turkish authorities. It happened on June 4th 2008, in an undefined point of the Turkish coast, a couple of hours drive from Izmir. Hammady, from Ivory Coast, is a young professional footballer. I met him in Izmir, in the Basmane neighbourhood, behind the great bazaar in the centre. Somalis and Sudaneses, Eritreans and Senegaleses, Nigerians and Ivorians sit in the bar along the narrow alleys. And also many Algerians and Moroccans. Everybody has already paid the kaçakçi (the smugglers) in Istanbul and came here to wait for the departure.

Vista della città di Izmir"We were 25 people. - Hammady tells me - We spent about an hour at sea, when we saw a great light coming over us. Then we heard a big noise - paf! - It was like the sound of an explosion. I think they shot our boat. Suddenly we understood they hit the zodiac. The boat started sinking. We fell in the water. Fortunately we all had a lifejacket". At the end, the Turkish Coastguard rescued them and arrested everybody. They were released after 24 hours and came back to Basmane, because in these cases they have the right to a free second attempt. And then to a third one. They can’t go back at home, since most of their families have indebted themselves to pay their journey. Hammady managed to reach Greece at his sixth attempt. He arrived a few days ago. I heard him by phone.

Vista di IstanbulFrank instead will leave Turkey in a few weeks. He comes from Burkina Faso. I met him in the district of Kunkapi, in Istanbul. Just like Hammadi, he came into Turkey burning the Syrian border. He arrived in Damascus with a tourist visa. Then he contacted a connection man of his same nationality who put him in contact with the Siryan guides in Halab. Every night, small groups of 20 to 30 migrants are lead on foot through the woods over the Turkish border, in the direction of Hatay (Antakya), the ancient Antioch. The march normally takes from six to seven hours. Frank was with a group of burkinabé, Egyptians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. They paid four Syrian guides 700 dollars. One of the guides walked at a certain distance from the group, giving instructions to the others via telephone. The border between Turkey and Syria is a roll of barbed wire one meter and a half high. The guides checked the orientation of the cameras and gave them the order to jump at the right moment. From Antakya, migrants just take the bus to Istanbul. But Frank's group was intercepted by the police and everybody was arrested. It was November 23rd, 2007. Frank spent six months in the detention camp of Hatay. "It was inside the police station – he said -. It was a double room, with kitchen and bathrooms, not bigger than five per ten metres. We were about 150 people. There were bunk beds, but people slept everywhere. On the ground, under the tables, into the showers”. During the winter it was very cold and there was no heating. “People who had two pairs of trousers wore both of them”. The food was scarce. And there was no health care.

Interno di una stanza del vecchio campo di detenzione di Samos, in GreciaNobody speaks about the conditions of migrants'  detention in Turkey. The only report was recently published by Hyd. Frank's witness confirms all the accusation. “The police beat us especially before and after interrogations. They brought us to a Court, in order to approve our deportation to Sirya. We knew that we had to say we didn’t enter from Halab, if we didn’t want to be deported. We lied to save ourselves. But policemen beat us for this. A man was so harshly beaten that he spent two months in his bed, before being able to walk”. A kind of torture practiced in Hatay, was spraying gas in the eyes, which causes an unbearable burning. There is also an isolation cell. It is not very small, but extremely dirty. “Kayum and Amal, two Bangladeshi, spent 48 hours inside it after having refused to speak with their Embassy”. The situation is even worse for women. “Policemen court them - tells Frank - taking advantage of their role of strength. They come at night and tell everyone to go in the rooms, then they take two or three women with them, upstairs. Some agents give them money. Some others threaten them saying that if they refuse to have sex they will not be released”.

Detenuti alla grata della Guesthouse di Kunkapi, a IstanbulUnder the pressure of constant threats and violences, somebody ended up losing the light of reason. Frank tells me of Tokuti, from Nigeria, who after some months in detention, started urinating on the other detainees, and spent all the day crying, questioning his God and throwing himself at the policemen's feet as soon as he saw any of them. Then there is Rafael. He is still living in Istanbul. I met him in the apartment which Frank shares with a dozen of burkinabé. He is also from Burkina. He is 32 years old, but looks like fifty. He is sitting on a mattress and shakes his head back and forth. He is afraid. He fears to be killed. The Turkish police has threatened and beaten him to such an extent, while in custody in Hatay, that now he thinks he's persecuted. Along the ankles there are still the scars of the handcuffs. And the bones of his legs are deformed by the hits of the nightstick. For the police it was a funny game. They used to put the gun to his head to fake executions, he says. Since he arrived in Istanbul, he has not left the house for three months, fearing to meet the police. He came from a small village. He can’t even speak French. It was his brother, living in Spain, who paid for his travel, one year ago.

Mappa della TurchiaWe call by phone one of the prisoners in Hatay. Frank has his number. We can’t reveal neither his name nor his nationality, for security reasons. We can only say that in Europe he would be immediately recognized as a political refugee. He is kept in detention since the end of 2007. He told us they sprayed gas in his eyes, after he refused to talk on the phone with his Embassy. He said now 103 migrants are held in the centre. A Sudanese, five Somalis, a Liberian, two Nigerians, 22 Burmese, 13 Bangladeshis, 10 Eritreans, 26 Afghans. The women are 15: nine from Afghanistan, one from Eritrea, and four from Somalia. And there are also five children: three Afghans, an Eritrean and a Somali. The youngest one is six months old, the older nine years old. Thirteen Bangladeshis were taken away. Maybe they have been returned to the border with Iran, because they did not have the money to pay the ticket for their repatriation. The refoulement is a common and dangerous practice in Turkey. On April 23, 2008 four men died, including an Iranian refugee, during their expulsion to the Iraqi border. According to our sources, other prisoners held in Hatay would have been repatriated in the past months towards Nigeria, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Egypt.

Facciata della Guesthouse di Kunkapi, a IstanbulI accompany Frank to Aksaray, where he sells Chinese watches for five euros, on the sidewalk. We spent the evening at Kunkapi, looking for information about the Somali refugee shot dead by the police in the detention camp of Kırklareli, near the Greek border. But nobody here seems to know him. The streets between Kunkapi and Aksaray are a handkerchief of Africa. Here Somalis, Sudanese, Nigerians, Senegalese, Eritreans live. The Afghans instead live in Zeytinburnu. The Kurdish and the Iraqis in Kurtuluş and Tarlabaşı. Every house is cramped with tens of migrants. All of them will soon leave Turkey towards Greece. And many will keep travelling towards the UK and Northen Europe, through Italy. Frank greets me, but before I go, he wants me to listen to one of the rap songs they composed in Hatay:

"If you want to kill me, kill me! Kill me!
I will never follow you to the Siryan border.
I've no mother, I've no father, I've only my god!
Before you used to tell me
"Turkey is a democracy",
now I know it's not true!
And now why do you want our women?
You're a crazy man! yes you're a crazy man! "