—  Stories  —

Palestine: Fleeing home to save her life (5)

- 20 May 2022

Omayma Masoud, a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience, was forced to leave her native Palestine after being threatened by Hamas. In the fifth part of her story – which she calls ‘free spirit in a cell’ – she tells of being imprisoned before being realeazed and turned back to Istanbul.

The bars of the prison cell door tightened their grip on my heart, squeezed strength out of it and imprisoned my soul in the depths of hell. My eyes rolled in their sockets from the horror of what I saw.

The cell had a high ceiling, concrete floors and walls, and iron bar doors that were tightly sealed with huge locks. At the top of one of the walls was a small window, sealed with a narrow iron net.

There were so-called toilets at the end of the prison cell. They were unbelievably filthy with no water, and definitely not suitable for human use.

No food, no water, no medicine, no cigarettes, no mattresses, no pillows, no sheets, no dignity, no mercy, no humanity. But plenty of violence, insults and humiliation.

I cried my eyes out. Between fainting or sleeping, I only opened my eyes whenever the door was opened, to see more people thrown in. Each time, I’d squeeze myself into the wall as much as I could. There was not a single centimetre without a body crammed into it.

Two young Afghans had managed to keep cigarettes and a lighter on them.

They lit a cigarette and shared it with everyone.  The cigarette moved from one person’s hand to another.

The smell of the smoke gave the Afghans away.

They were brutally beaten by the policemen; receiving many blows to the face and stomach and kicked all over their bodies as they lay on the ground, oozing hot and sticky blood that flowed on the dirty floor.

I can’t even find words to describe the feeling of witnessing what seemed like it would be a cold-blooded murder, powerless to do anything and bound by fear and terror of being the next victim in this bloody scene.

None of the prisoners slept that night.

It is very hard for me to say ‘prisoners’. We were in a prison but were definitely not prisoners. We were not criminals, for God’s sake. I’d rather say ‘unfortunate souls’ who were in prison even though they have not committed any crime other than seeking a life in order to survive.

Afghans walk from Afghanistan to Europe on foot in big groups, made up of 20 to 30 people.

Najib, a 26 year old, arrived in this prison with his younger brother, aged 14.

He left Afghanistan in 2015, via Iran, where he worked in construction, day on and day off earning only his bread. He told me this, continuing to talking non-stop while he was cleaning his wounds and bandaging his leg with his worn-out shirt:

  • “When I could not find work anymore in Iran, I had to leave with my brother. Walking, we headed towards the Eastern Turkish province of Erzurum, and from there we ended in the Koca Mustafa Pasha district of the Fatih municipality, in Istanbul. I worked doing any job I could find for more than 14 hours a day, just to earn rent for a tiny room and some food for me and my brother. He was only a child then. In this year, 2018, Turkey started arresting illegal Afghans and deporting then to Kabul. I cannot allow us to go back to Afghanistan again. We narrowly escaped death. I promised my mother, who stayed behind, to protect my brother and bring him to safety. I do not have money to get on a boat or get a deal with a smuggler to fly to Europe. All I have is my strength to walk day and night to get to safety. I was sent back to Turkey three times. Every time, I get more and more challenged and determined to reach my goal of a decent life and a good education for my brother. My brother is a computer genius, although he never attended any school. He can design websites and programme computer applications, as well as hack any website if he wants. Maybe one day, I’ll get married and have a family of my own.”

His little brother listened and nodded, confirming the story while tapping his brother’s shoulder with so much love, sadness and fear in his eyes.

In the early morning of the third day in prison, I broke down in hysterical crying, weeping and wailing out of severe pain in my back, neck and legs. I just wanted my medicine.

A policeman took me out of the cell. He allowed me to take only one pill of my medicine but refused to give me water, so I just swallowed it. Sitting on a rusty metal chair, in the sun, he asked me:

  • “Why did you come to Greece? Greece is a poor country. We cannot receive refugees.”
  • “I do not want to stay in Greece, I am only passing through on my way to any other country in Europe that would respect Palestinians and consider them human beings. Please send me to a refugee camp, so I can leave Greece.”
  • I cannot. It is not in my hands. This matter is in my superiors’ hands. I would talk to them though.”
  • “Then what shall I do? I can’t go back to my country.”

I still remember the look in his eyes when he looked at me and said:

  • “If you want to reach where you want to go, you must try once, twice, three times and even four times until you achieve your goal. But every time, we catch you, we will send you back to Turkey. It’s our duty.”

It was a sign from the universe, through that man’s words. I felt the message, though couldn’t interpret it.

Fate was drawing my steps and leading me towards a mysterious destiny, that seemed to me frightening, dark, dangerous, and unclear. I did not realise it at that time, that God was melting me in the fires of temptation to refine me to be ready for the destiny awaiting me.

At sunset, Delilah and her aunt (two Syrian women prisoners) were peeking out of the door through the iron bars, when they stepped back, saying: “Lots of policemen are coming.”

Silence fell heavily, no one moved; the unlocking of the door felt so ominous.

They called 39 people’s names and let them out in the dusty, empty yard at the front.

As the sun withdrew from the day, the sunset light wore halos of gradient colours between bright red and deep red that painted a strange scene in front of me, in which my feelings and thoughts were mixed, and reality and imagination also mixed. I had a vague intuition that a great evil would happen to me. I was so weak with nothing near me to rely on – I fell to the ground.  Others rushed towards me to help, but a signal from the hand of a senior police officer stopped them.

The officer told me to get up on my own and to get on the same prisoners’ vehicle that brought us here a few days ago.

I wondered if my mind was working in my favour, or the opposite. My thoughts of fear and my feelings of uncertainty put me in the eye of a hurricane, where I would float weightlessly as if I had been tossed into an infinite space. My mind only imagined possibilities that were all evil, although what happened was beyond my imagination.

For about two hours, the vehicle was moving non-stop except to load more people onboard. Finally, it stopped.

Although it was pitch dark, I recognised the river bank where I saw the so-called commandos for the first time. They were masked, massive, athletic men, armed with a variety of automatic weapons. They were holding thick batons and used them to divide people into small groups. They pushed one group at a time in a wooden boat with a motor that crossed the river and then threw them on the Turkish banks with no shoes, no jackets or coats and, most importantly, no mobile phones.

Within an hour, hundreds of people found themselves suspended between heaven and earth, waiting for mercy. They were now in even worse shape than when they started their trip.

We barely managed to find each other in the dark and our group gathered to discuss what to do next. To my shocking surprise, they all wanted to cross the river again towards Greece on that very same night. I refused strongly and insistently. I do not know what possessed them at that moment, when I was falling from the severity of fatigue, pain and cold.

  • “I am only going to go back to Istanbul.”
  • “How are you going to go? We’re all going in the other direction. Rest a little then you can continue with us. We will move after two hours. There are a lot of police and army patrols now. We must wait.”
  • “I am only going to go back to Istanbul.”

Many tried to persuade me to go with them but I kept repeating the same:  “I am only going to go back to Istanbul.”

The smuggler told us to move behind him to a certain point, where he dug under a tree and pulled out a sealed plastic bag with a mobile phone inside. He made a few phone calls then said:

  • “The ‘big man’ agreed to send you back to Istanbul, but we have to move from here quickly to a safer location where we’ll stay for two or three hours, then another smuggler called Mohammad will come to take you back to Istanbul.”

They actually left me alone in the middle of nowhere. I believed that not only had all my hair turned grey with terror but that my soul had become an old woman over a hundred years old in that period of time, which felt like an eternity. That was the scale of my calamity.

Fear grew inside me into a voracious monster that swallowed in one bite my calm, my stability, my logic, my thinking, my feelings, my safety and my existence itself. I was embracing myself in my arms while curled up on myself on the ground, in a spot not exceeding two inches, trying to calm my nerves and control myself. I was completely helpless.

My body was numb but so many crazy questions raced in my mind, seeking an answer to comfort me, but in vain. Then a wicked question addressed me: what would happen to you if no one came?  I heard my soul crying ‘how on earth did I get here?’


This thought really grounded me a little. Survival mode took over, leading me. I knew that there was nothing to be done but wait for the man’s arrival or for the morning to rise. But I needed to protect myself from the cold and from any stray animal, even if it was a dog.

My tired eyes scanned the spot around me. There were giant tall trees tangled with branches and the rough ground was full of thorny weeds, some dry branches, different sizes stones here and there and lots of empty plastic bottles, sacks and torn bags.

I chose a tree with a very wide trunk to sit under so as I would not feel the wind. I collected some small empty plastic bottles and put them around my body inside my clothes to create an insulating layer that would keep my body warm. I also gathered a pile of stones and twigs to be my defence weapons against any evil that would come, be it human or animal.

As if I was an animal sensing danger approaching, I could hear the slightest sound of a leaf falling to the ground or a cat moving briskly a few metres away. I could even hear my own heartbeat and heavy breathing.

I drowned in a long prayer, begging God for strength, protection, and deliverance. I smile now when I remember that I addressed God with naive words, whispering: “Please God, grant me a miracle, make time pass quickly or take away my sense of time.”

It seems that my prayers were answered; I did not realise how the time passed and I am now safe in my home, writing my story to you.

Until this moment, I cannot estimate how long I stayed in that situation.

  • “Omayma, Omayma.”

I rose up to hear my name being called, with overwhelming joy, and another kind of fear.

Really? Is it my name that I am hearing? It seems that God loves me, in spite of everything.

The faint voice calling my name got closer and closer, but still a kind of hesitant whisper.

  • “Yes, it is me Omayma. I’m here. I am still waiting for you.”

As soon as I finished my sentence, a man jumped up in front of me, extended his hand to me, and said: “Get up. We’ll move toward the edge of the river. It’s safer there.”

The stranger was tall, thin, with sunken eyes, prominent cheekbones, thick black hair, and was wearing black jeans, a black shirt, and a black backpack as well. Only the whites of his eyes indicated his presence in the dark.

I followed him excitedly for a short time. Then, we got to an area so thick in thorny grass that my head was no longer visible as we walked through it.

He asked me to sit down and wait until it was the right time to start going back to Istanbul, then asked me:

  • “Do you have money on you?”

I panicked at the thought that he might kill me for any money.

– “No, I have no money at all. Why are you asking?”

– “We will need money for a taxi to take us from Edirne to Istanbul.”

He gave me a bottle of water and left me, saying that he was nearby watching the roads.

This time waiting was not that scary in the beginning, but after I got very tired from sitting on my knees, I decided to ask him when we would be leaving.

I approached the edge of the riverbank, peeking to see where he was.

I found him. He was sitting in the rubber boat, sniffing something from an aluminium paper. Then he lit a lighter and passed the flame under the aluminium sheet.

He raised his head, looking around then returned to sniffing the paper. He was sniffing cocaine.

He sensed my presence within the grass, so he said:

  • “Is something wrong? Do you want anything?”

Trying with all my strength to cover the fear in my voice, I replied:

  • “When are we going to move? I am exhausted.”


  • “In 10 minutes, go back to sitting down.”

Oh dear God; is this a joke or another harsh test? Is this drug addict going to lead me to safety or to my end? What if he gets so high and tries to harass me or even rape me? Helplessly, I felt extremely angry but very fragile and scared at the same time. Oppression had taken over me.

When he showed up again, he looked me in the eye and asked me:

  • “Are you afraid?”

What a question? How dare you ask me such a question? I feel terrified but answer:

  • “No, not at all. I’m just tired and want to get back to Istanbul quickly, please.”
  • “Are you Syrian?”
  • “No, I’m Palestinian.”
  • “This is the first time that I deal with a real Palestinian. Are you a Muslim?”
  • “Yes.”
  • “To overcome your fear, recite the Quran verse Al Korsi over and over again, all the way. Do you know it?”
  • “Yes.”
  • “I am Iraqi, Kurdish, Christian but I know the Quran very well. I know Arabic but not fluent.”
  • “Shall we move?”
  • “Listen to the instructions. I was told by the ‘big man’ to take good care of you because of your health problems. I’ve brought you food, spray for mosquitos and a painkiller. Here it is.”

I took everything from him and checked the medication. It was ibuprofen. Thank God. I ate and had two pills of the painkiller. I sprayed my face, hands and every inch that was not covered on my body and set out walking.

He told me that we would walk from four to six hours, depending on the police patrols routines. I was supposed to follow him quietly and if I needed anything, I should tap his shoulder to stop and tell him with signs only that I wanted to catch my breath, drink water, or rest, if possible. And so it was.

The hardest part of the way was when we had to climb then walk a high, steep-edged stone path. It was covered with slippery mud and it ran between two deep, narrow streams there to irrigate the fields around them.

A few steps were more than enough for me to fall on my face. He grabbed my arm and walked as slowly as he could to make it possible for me to get past it.

That man could walk those roads with his eyes closed. He not only knew every inch of the area but also what was planted in the fields and how ripe a vegetable should be in that night. Not to mention the police or army patrols and their times and durations.

That stranger, whom I do not trust for my part, was coming from the middle of nowhere to take me into the unknown. That stranger taught me a great life lesson. I have learned not to judge people by one act, especially if it is bad behaviour. Humans are full of paradoxes and contradictions. Humans are much more than just their behaviour.


  • “It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians ever. On October 31, 2010, gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq organisation, affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq, stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during a Sunday afternoon mass. They blew themselves up, killing 58 people, including worshippers and priests. I was only 20 years old at the time. I went with my parents. I lost them. I bled half of my blood but survived. The city’s vibrant Christian community was rapidly disappearing, fleeing the country. I was one of those survivors of the massacre and one of the fugitives from the city. I crossed the borders to Turkey legally and comfortably in 2011. The night club life of Istanbul swallowed the last dollar and the last Turkish lira that were on me. I slept in the streets and ate with cats and dogs from the garbage. Al Khal, the Iraqi ‘big man’, found me and taught me everything that I know about people trafficking. Walking days and nights, leading various groups of refugees, is extremely stressful alongside the fear of getting caught. I would face 25 years in prison. Soon, I found the magical solution to endure all of that. I sniff it.”

Truth has many faces, including the beautiful and the noble, the ugly and the cruel, the pure innocent, and the evil criminal. That man showed me the truth of himself in every aspect. He no longer maintained any mask.

When the victim sympathises with her captor, bewilderment and fear mingle with pity and sympathy, and with repulsion. I understand what I heard but I couldn’t accept or reject it. I just listened quietly and without comment, until the words faded into the silence of the darkness.

I could see the faint lights of the main street in the horizon. We were approaching Edirne. The brighter and clearer the lights, the closer we got.

He changed his direction to the right. He hurried towards some bushes to the side. He waved for me to walk with my head down.

We sat down. He whispered to me that when he gave me a signal, I should run as fast as I could after him, and then climb the high rocky ledge of the highway. There, a taxi would be waiting for us, but not for more than a few minutes. I should open the door of the taxi and jump immediately onto the back seat or the driver would leave me behind if I didn’t hurry.

I threw myself onto the back seat of the taxi and fell asleep immediately.

I woke up to the voice of the Kurdish man, Mohammad, telling me that we had arrived in Istanbul and asking me the address of the hotel where I was staying.

I had completely forgotten the address. The name of the hotel and the name of the street were erased completely from my mind. All I told him was the name of the area, Aksaray.

The driver circled around and around the streets of Aksaray hoping that I would remember or recognise the street of the hotel, but it was in vain. Eventually, I asked them to drop me off in front of the main Metro station in Aksaray because from there I could walk to the hotel. It was two minutes away from the station.

The light of dawn began to creep into the sky, while some cars and passers-by gave life to the desolate neighbourhood, except for dogs and cats, and many closed doors of houses and shops. The clock of the hotel lobby showed five o’clock in the morning when I asked the receptionist for some food. He only offered me some tea and told me that breakfast would be served at seven o’clock, so I would wait two hours. I went up to my room, took a very hot long bath and jumped onto my bed. I felt warmth, comfort and great gratitude that I was still alive.

My drowsy eyelids tossed me in between awakening and dozing; a zone that was full of different feelings all at once and one where my subconscious was trying to interfere in everything to have the last word.

What had happened to me so far had not been simple or ordinary. Half of it would be enough to dissuade me from my resolve in another place, at another time and in another context, but tremendous strength, determination and resilience were born inside me and became my main concern, even if it would cost me my life. If I went back, I would have died. So it was life, or not.

The words of a Greek policeman uttered a prophecy that the goal would not be achieved until after four attempts. And so it was.