—  Exile  —

Palestine: Fleeing home to save her life(3)

- 22 April 2022

A threatened journalist, Omeyma Masoud, a professional journalist since 1999, was forced to leave her native Palestine. The Hamas movement forced her to become its spokesman, which she could not accept. She has dedicated her entire life to the profession and the fight for women's rights. At this moment, by these commitments, she understands that she has just signed her own death. This is the third part of his story: from Turkey to Greece.

Crédit : Chris Morrow

Seventeen people undertake this perilous journey, led by a smuggler who will not hesitate to kill.

It will be necessary to avoid military patrols, to be united to cross the marshy valleys. Night fell heavily as the signal to move was given. Al-Khal chose the most beautiful girl to sit in the front seat of the car and told us sharply to go down one by one, then jump quickly inside the car waiting in front of the building. Six people, including me, were cramped up in the back seat. The driver raced down the streets to get out of Istanbul and continued for four hours until we reached Edirne in north-western Turkey.

As the car stopped, we found another group waiting to join us. We became 17 people united by one goal and one fate, which depended on a word from our smuggler, ‘the ripper’: We should only listen and obey.

– We will walk for four continuous hours and only when I tell you, you can stop, but if I give the whistle signal you must run as fast as possible to pass the Turkish gendarmerie point or a military site.

– What? We run? But I can’t run.

He looked me in the eye and said angrily:

– What are you wearing? White colours shine in the darkness. You will give us away. Change your clothes immediately.

– I don’t have any other clothes.

– Deal with it yourself. 

Omar gave me a black shirt, which was a bit tight, but I managed to squeeze myself into it.

Omar is a young Palestinian man who also came from Al Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Unfortunately, his mother is Syrian and some of his uncles became opponents of the Syrian regime. With words full of petrified tears, Omar told me: ‘I lost my mother during the hunger siege that was imposed on Al Yarmouk in 2014. I survived hunger and ISIS madness but, in April 2018, when the Syrian regime forces began a military campaign against Al Yarmouk refugee camp…’

His tears betrayed him. He began again.

‘I lost my father and three sisters when civilian homes there were attacked with barrel bombs, allegedly targeting the opponents of the regime. I do not know if it was my fortune or misfortune to be away from the house when it happened. I lost everything. I only have myself. I want to find a place where I can learn about life, hoping to forget the smell of death.’

Leaving the main streets behind, we walked one after another. We went down to the fields towards the villages and farms, through narrow deserted paths.

I looked behind and saw the fading lights of the city. A strange sensation of fear and dread overwhelmed me. I shivered and turned my head immediately.

In different circumstances, that night would have been one of the most magical nights. In the middle of September, the sky was clear, the moon was full, and the breeze was cool. The vast expanses of farms and trees seemed like a painting with the dim lights and shadows, places where the painters’ brushes cannot reach. The scattered villages here and there told the stories of their inhabitants through the simple or luxurious houses.

That same night abandoned all its beauty and put on a coarse dress woven with threads of hardship, fear, danger, and the unknown lurking behind every corner.

After midnight, Jalal grabbed my hand and together with the group we walked in compliance with the orders of the smuggler, who leapt into the pitch darkness, holding a small phone in his hand that lit up for a moment, then the light disappeared. In his other hand he held a huge knife to cut through the thorny intertwined branches, making a narrow path that we passed along one by one.

My glasses, which I had previously lost, would not have helped me in this suffocating darkness; with great difficulty I could use my free hand to reach out to find my way. It seemed as if small sharp spears plunged into my flesh and erupted volcanoes of pain, melting my endurance. The thorns wrapped me in their arms from all sides, ripping my summery clothes and digging their fangs into my arms, legs, and face. I felt the hot, sticky blood running down my face and my body.

I was terrified and frozen in time that flowed endlessly, announcing the end of false security and the beginning of unbearable suffering.

I didn’t have a moment to touch my face, whoever was walking in front of me was quickly swallowed up by the darkness, and whoever was walking behind me was pushing me and I fell to the ground while he stumbled trying to lift me up. It was forbidden to make any sound, regardless. I swallowed my groans of pain that became a lump stuck in my soul until this moment.

The dawn was beginning to loom over the horizon, dispelling the darkness, when we passed a gate that separated the present of thorns and the distant past, embodied in the ruins of a temple structure with Roman pillars, some standing, the others broken. We moved in a blink of an eye through history to a holy myth that enveloped my turbulent, vague senses between intense admiration for the surreal scene and the aches that spread through every cell in my body. Beauty can’t help but be admired and appreciated.

‘Shut up or I’ll cut your throat before your tongue’

We arrived in a slippery mud field when laughter filled the air. It was such a comic scene; almost everyone slipped and whoever tried to help the other up would fall again. Smeared with mud, we froze when we heard the curses and lewd insults of the ripper.

Alaa, the young Egyptian man reacted angrily and said, ‘behave yourself. We have ladies with us. How dare you insult us’.

The smuggler responded in a surprising and shocking act. He took out a penknife and so quickly opened it and put it on Alaa’s neck, saying slowly but firmly:

– Shut up or I’ll cut your throat before your tongue.

A scream almost escaped me but seeing the terror and fear in everyone’s eyes silenced me.

When the smuggler took charge, we handed him our destiny, our days, our nights, and our hours. We handed him our water, our food, our breaths. We handed him our life and he had the power to end it or revive it.

Alaa, a shy, skinny young gentleman with a great sense of humour, was 21 years old. He came from a well-off middle-class family. Both his parents were university professors. He was studying engineering.

‘I was hit by a car, a fancy Mercedes. I was hospitalised for three months. Thank God the accident did not kill me, but it left me with no sensation at all in my right arm, hand, and fingers. I can’t button my clothes, write, or draw a plan anymore. My real nightmare began when my family refused to drop the case against the car driver who was the daughter of a powerful politician. My parents were suspended from work. I was arrested many times and [he laughs] they found an unlicensed gun in my room. It was a case of us dropping the case against her (the driver) in return for the authorities dropping the case against me.’

He laughed again and said: ‘It is corruption in its purest version, and here I am.’

A plain field stretched across the horizon, I thought that I would cross it with ease. I stepped into the field and sank with water up to my waist. I tried to walk but pulling my feet out of the mud was mission impossible. We helped each other through that rice field.

To go round a military site, we had to run a good distance. My heart begged me to let it jump out of my chest and left me suffering severe back pain. I could hardly catch my breath, fighting not to fall down with fatigue.

Crossing the Evros

We arrived at an area with dense trees where we could sit down on one condition: absolute silence. In turns, the men inflated a rubber boat then carried it on their shoulders – we followed them for almost 10 minutes to find ourselves in front of a river. It was the notorious Evros river that made up the border between Turkey and Greece.

They lowered the boat into the river, then the women went down first, and men followed one after the other. It was a steep, slippery bank. I almost fell into the water with an inch to spare, otherwise my story would have ended there in that spot. I knew then that there was more to happen. I dreaded this river, but fate insisted on sending me back to it.