From Crossing the Sea, by Wolfgang Bauer. In 2014, Bauer, a German journalist for Die Zeit, traveled undercover with Syrian refugees on a boat headed from Egypt to Greece. His account of the journey was published last month by And Other Stories. Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus.
When you’re a refugee, the rhythms of life change. Day acts as night, and night day. Amar gets up and goes out to buy falafel for himself and the others. He has quickly proved to be the one to take matters in hand, speaking and negotiating for the group. There are now thirteen of us in total; in the living room we flock to the plastic bags full of food. Everyone starts to talk. Alaa and Hussan, who are brothers, talk about Damascus. Their family owned three carpet shops in the old town, but the war forced them to close. Hussan was going to be drafted into the military. He weighs 110 kilograms, despite having had liposuction. Excess skin hangs off his stomach in pleats. The brothers want to get to Italy and then continue on to Sweden, where their eldest brother arrived last year via the Mediterranean route. He is full of praise for Sweden.
Rabea and Asus, who are cousins, come from a family of wealthy merchants. Rabea is twenty-two and, at 140 kilograms, is even fatter than Hussan. He tells us that he passed thirteen checkpoints on his way out of Syria and paid $2,400 for an Egyptian visa in Jordan. “Do you want to see it?” he asks. His passport makes its way around the room. Everyone admires the quality. “It’s better than my real one,” Amar says. Rabea smiles proudly. When it comes to bribery, he’s the best in our group. He, too, wants to go to Sweden.
Asus, who worked as a bricklayer in Syria, is already engaged to a woman in Sweden. He sends her Viber messages every day from his smartphone. Asus is the group jester. He jokes about everything and everyone but can’t stand jokes about himself. He recalls his five failed attempts to get to Europe. This is his sixth try.
We get a call from Nuri, the agent. “Tonight,” says Nuri. “Get ready!” After hours of boredom, there’s a flurry of activity. We pack our things and make ourselves seaworthy — whatever that means. Aside from Asus, none of our group has ever been to sea. Rabea, who professes to be a very poor swimmer, puts on a life jacket, a waterproof wrist pouch with a Velcro fastening for his phone, a balaclava, and, over that, sunglasses. Amar slips on the signal-blue jacket he hopes will protect against wind and spray. The apartment is filled with the sound of tearing sticky tape as we wrap our essential documents in foil. Asus has sewn a cloth sausage into his underpants. He swaggers around the apartment with his legs spread and his hips thrust forward.
Then we sit, jittery with nerves, and wait for several hours. Midnight has long since passed when Nuri calls. The whole thing’s been called off.
Three more days pass like this. Nuri tells us that the smugglers are having difficulty bribing a coast-guard officer. The next day, he says that the waves are too high. The shifts between boredom and extreme tension are enough to wear down even the strongest among us. Alaa and Hussan catch colds, and I am plagued by a persistent cough. Elias keeps us all awake at night talking on his phone. The smugglers’ apartment feels increasingly claustrophobic. Both balconies look out onto a dank alley, but if you turn your head all the way to the left you can see the ocean. We watch wave after wave lap the shore.
Then, on the evening of the fourth day, our landlord storms in. “Up, up!” he yells. “To the boat!” A minibus is waiting.
The group hurries through the crowd of people who are strolling along the promenade. Our smugglers have picked a good place to hide us. We are right in the center of Alexandria, where tens of thousands of tourists throng. Refugees barely register in this chaotic mass of people.
The minibus looks far too small to take everyone. We stuff our bags between us, on our laps, and under our chins; only our heads poke out. We pray that the rucksacks aren’t visible from the outside. The Toyota enters a broad and slow stream of traffic. But soon we turn off into side streets and go faster. We almost overturn on corners and scrape several other vehicles. The driver is on drugs — likely a mixture of hashish, alcohol, and Tramadol. After an hour, we come to a stop in an unlit industrial district. This alley is where the smugglers round up their passengers. “Thirty-five adults and fifteen children,” Amar hears a man say as he walks past. Nothing happens for several hours. We are packed in so tightly that we cut off the circulation in one another’s legs. I can only move my head a few millimeters.
The sun will soon be rising over the city. The driver of our minibus comes over and sits at the steering wheel. He doesn’t talk to us or explain what is happening. “I’m not driving,” he yells to one of the smugglers through the open side window. He wants more money. “Fucker,” whispers Amar. The man standing by the window obsessively wipes his face. It’s the drugs. The men shout at each other, the driver bangs his fist on the door, then they agree on an extra ten Egyptian pounds and he drives off. Again he takes the corners at breakneck speed as he zigzags through the suburban neighborhood.
A few streets later we are overtaken by a green Kia that tries to stop us. Our driver curses and floors the accelerator. The two vehicles hurtle through the city side by side until the Kia cuts us off on a bend. Two men pull our driver out of the bus. A stranger jams himself behind the wheel; he, too, says nothing. He puts the car in gear and we’re off. “I think we’ve just been kidnapped,” Amar whispers. “God be with us.”
Our abductor stops in the courtyard of a residential complex that is filled with rubbish and puddles of dirty water. “You are free,” he tells us, but it’s a lie. We are to spend the day in an apartment here. He says that the boss of our group has betrayed his boss. He explains that the gangs divide the coast into several zones. Each gang allows the others to use its zones as long as payment is made. Our group’s smugglers didn’t stick to the rules on their previous trip.
Hours, days pass as we doze. Car horns blare. We hear barking dogs, the singsong of scrap-metal dealers dragging their wares through the streets. We stare at the white walls, at crazy-making shadows cast by the sun.
“When I get to Sweden I swear I’ll change,” says Hussan, who shares my blanket at night. “I’ll be a better person in Sweden. I’ll stop smoking. I’ll exercise. Sweden will give me a second chance.”
On the fourth day, around noon, a dealer that Rabea had appealed to calls to announce that a white minibus will be coming. Our abductors pick us up. They apologize, try to be friendly, tell us not to take it personally. They declare their love for Syrians; they say that they hate Egypt, and that we’re right to leave. “Egypt is rotting,” says one. After driving a few kilometers, he slides open the door and we find ourselves back on Alexandria’s promenade. The dealer greets us, smiling, with open arms, in a white suit and peaked cap. “Welcome back!” he says. He takes us to one of the buildings on the promenade, to an apartment on the fifteenth floor. We step out onto a balcony high above the sea. The smugglers, we learn later, paid our kidnappers a ransom of 35,000 Egyptian pounds.