FORTRESS EUROPE AND THE GAME

By Iason Athanasiadis. Iraqi Kurds are detained in a secured area of the Igoumenitsa port, having been caught trying to smuggle themselves on trucks crossing from Greece to Italy.

IASON ATHANASIADIS, ATHENS

A Kurdish guerilla, disillusioned with fighting the Iranian regime, tries to smuggle himself on to truck bound for the Schengen Area.

Τhe rain hasn’t stopped for two weeks. Snow coats the peaks of the Pindos Mountains; sheets of water from the sky flood the fields. Just above the port of Igoumenitsa, smoke rises from a soaked, thickly-wooded hill. At its foot lies a waterlogged cemetery. A ribbon of highway—backed up with trucks waiting to enter the port—is the only barrier between the woods and the port’s high walls.

As the setting sun drags light from the city to the sea, gaunt figures emerge from the undergrowth to eyeball the port. They are here, on Greece’s northwesternmost edge, to play the Game: a high-stakes effort to smuggle themselves on boats heading to Italy. Success means arrival at the Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi. From there, it’s uninterrupted Schengen territory to a northern European country. Failure means discovery and a few days of detention or—worse—grievous bodily damage should they lose their grip on the truck’s axle or be crushed by its vibrations.

Bahoz is standing at the edge of the treeline, scanning the port below for tree cover and weak points in the chain link fence topped with loops of barbed wire. Three weeks ago, he left another mountain range, on the Iran-Iraq border, where he fought the Islamic Republic of Iran for three years as a guerrilla for Komala, a revolutionary Kurdish party.

Bahoz was guaranteed hardship at birth. Born in a village outside the Kurdish-majority city of Marivan in one of Iran’s most underdeveloped and conflict-ridden regions, his options in life were submitting to local mores and farming or smuggling electrical products and alcohol across the snowy passes of the inhospitable border with Iraq. But his father (“one of the two most influential people in my life”) introduced him to Foad Mostafa Soltani, a Marxist revolutionary and the founder of Komala, whose teachings aroused his political consciousness and prompted him to join the guerrillas in the mountains.

“Up on the mountain I’ve been bombarded, fought, and faced the Islamic Republic’s bullets, so I’m used to hardship and surviving on little,” he said. “But at some point I realized that there was a greater game being played above our heads, and that we were just the pawns, and we wouldn’t get anywhere however much we struggled.”

Dismay prompted him to leave the guerrillas and join the brotherhood of migrants who cross borders in search of a better life. Iran’s economy has collapsed from massive sanctions pressure; Bahoz was penniless. He made it across Turkey, over the Evros river into Greece, and to this rough frontier port, carved out of the mountains, where smuggling networks—of humans, drugs, and arms—overlap trade and tourism.

A Kurdish smuggling ring now controls the vantage point over the port. It earned its dominance (and the associated revenues) through a bloody 2018 battle against Afghan and Syrians that yielded two dead. Kurdish migrants now consider Igoumenitsa a friendly port; migrants from other countries direct themselves to Patra, Greece’s other western port.

Under the trees’ thick cover, some twenty migrants gather around smoky fires, brewing tea and biding their time until dusk. Those with some money fortify themselves with sandwiches and pizzas, which local businesses know to deliver to the cemetery at the foot of the hill. The ones without cash eat once every two days or gnaw away at potatoes.

Khalo is the boss. A rotund but agile Kurdish man in his fifties with a vast self-regard and a tendency to snap, he orders his migrant charges around and bullies or beats them when they get out of order. He’s represented the smuggling network on the hill for seven years. He claims his work, getting migrants on the boats, feeds four children in Arbil. The Greek security services know him and depend on him to keep the hill in order.

By Iason Athanasiadis. A driver opens his truck for inspection by Greek police.

THE GAME

Once darkness settles, Bahoz heads down through the trees to the trucks backed up on the highway. Khalo and his partners are already running around, opening truck doors and stuffing in their migrant clients. Spotters for the smuggling network are spread throughout town. They probe the port security’s weak points. One of them is an Afghan huddled in a cluster of trees by the rig-littered carpark. He tells a puffing Khalo how many port workers are out patrolling, and where.

There are Turkish, Romanian and Greek truck drivers in the carpark, too, in inebriated and sometimes aggressive groups. They refer to the migrants as “Talibans” and relish confronting them and banishing them from their trucks. The migrants, fearful of being beaten or stoned, avoid the drivers, and bide their time, waiting for the police inspection to finish.

Bahoz wants to avoid the inspection area and its near-insurmountable series of obstacles. The police open truck after truck, searching them with dogs, flashlights and even an X‑ray device whose rays penetrate through the trucks’ walls and cargo to betray the best-hidden migrants. Bahoz knows to wait until the inspected trucks are driven onto the ship, vault the barbed wire fence, and rush a truck as it prepares to board the boat.

Midnight finds Bahoz crawling through a secret tunnel filled with seawater. By 1 a.m. he’s hauled himself up onto the tower of a dark construction site by the light-flooded port. Police cars and sniffer-dogs are patrolling the port. His chances of clearing the fence and making it onto the boat undetected are slim, but the risk of discovery isn’t prohibitive: It means a few hours or days spent in detention. The worst the police will do, usually, is round up the chancers, drive them thirty-odd kilometers into the Greek countryside, and release them. The migrants call this “being deported.” Sometimes, they don’t get their mobile phones back, which means a tiring, mapless hike back to their hill in Igoumenitsa. It’s almost never enough to discourage them from taking another crack at the Game.

By midnight, the police have found half a dozen migrants, among them Bahoz, in a dry cleaning van. By this point, Bahoz’s face is so familiar to them that they just lead him to a fenced enclosure to wait, without handcuffs, for the police van that will take him to the station.

“Even if I’m caught, I’ll continue trying to get to the other side,” he says, pacing the enclosure manically, “by sea or by land, again and again and again and again.”

He’s released a few hours later. He climbs back up the hill to his sleeping bag, his clothes, and the others who had failed to make it to the other side that night.

“We’re not defeated people who should be pitied, but fighters,” Bahoz later told me in a series of voice messages. “We struggle in the way of achieving a better life. This doesn’t make us pitiable creatures.”

Nevertheless, his situation was deteriorating. After racking up several more failed attempts, he fell and twisted his ankle. His group got into a fight with another group on the Hill, and he lost most of his money. His comrades carried him to an exposed kiosque by the port, where he tried to recover his strength.

As Christmas neared, there were fewer trucks. His foot didn’t improve. Up on the hill, the migrants shivered around their fires, waiting for traffic to pick up again. It looked increasingly as if Bahoz would need shelter. He retreated to the cement megalopolis of Athens in search of a roof. In this vagrant condition, he was beset by new threats. He planned to bide his time until “I can play the Game again.”

EPILOGUE

A few weeks after Christmas, I met Bahoz in Kypseli. He was staying in the dilapidated house of a Kurdish friend of another friend who had passed through the city on his way west a few months ago. His foot had healed, but his face was gaunt, and he walked the streets gingerly, shivering in his open-toed slippers, worried the police would stop him. He felt privileged to be in Athens because he loves history, he said, but he hadn’t so much as glimpsed the Acropolis, not even from a distance. Although some of his comrades had managed to reach Italy, Igoumenitsa—and making it through on a truck—seemed a distant prospect.

Iason Athanasiadis is a journalist who divides his time among Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. A version of this essay was published in the Markaz Review, to whom we’re grateful.

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