IZMIR, Turkey—“500 to Chios! 450!” shouts Abu Ahmed in the direction of a neighboring table, where a corpulent bald man is deep in hushed conversation with what appears to be a family of refugees negotiating their passage to Europe. The family has the telltale black bags under the table next to them. Abu Ahmed is referring to the price of a passage for one person (denominated in dollars) from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Chios. The average price is about $700 for a place on an inflatable boat. Abu Ahmed is a smuggler and the fat man, Abu Hassan, is another.
“He was supposed to be twins but got squished into one just before he was born,” jokes Abu Ahmed about his competition. There is a lot of money bound up in this business. Even the low-level smugglers are caught with about $6000 in their pockets, according to the local security forces responsible for catching smugglers. And these two are not low-level smugglers.
At an upscale kebab restaurant in what is now the largely Syrian neighborhood of Basmane, I’m having lunch with a smuggler, who specializes in bringing refugees from Turkey to Greece, holding court at a table of his friends and associates.
We feast on an elaborate lunch of kofta and kebabs and shwarma. The oily meat leaves pools on the pillowy Turkish bread. It’s clear Abu Ahmed comes here a lot. The waiter, who knows the men well and speaks some Arabic, stops by periodically. He and Abu Ahmed have a rough and friendly banter. The waiter toys with Abu Ahmed by calling him akho sharmouta—Arabic for “brother of a whore.” At one point Abu Ahmed playfully threatens another waiter with a foot-long knife. Moments later, a young boy who works at the restaurant comes over and gives Abu Ahmed a rather intimate shoulder massage. Throughout the afternoon, other men, most of them Syrian, stop at our table to seek Abu Ahmed’s advice on one subject or another.
Abu Ahmed is not what I would have expected. He is tall and handsome, with an almost military bearing and a full head of dark grey hair. Yet his way of expressing himself—deftly deflecting questions without ever saying no, conducting deals and favors over the phone for some, while ignoring others who call him repeatedly—has the practiced air of someone who is less guileless than his story would suggest. When he first arrived in Turkey, he and some relatives stayed in a hotel. Unable to afford it for long, he says, they moved into a small apartment. Slowly, by boat and by air and with money sent to him by relatives, he sent his family on to Europe.
He remains in Izmir alone. At first, he says, he worked as a blacksmith, “my original vocation,” and in construction. In his free time, he would go and sit in Basmane with friends, old and new, and talk about what was happening. That’s how he got into smuggling. “I would talk with people planning to travel to Europe and tell them which smugglers were trustworthy or not, which would put 55 people on boats made for 30,” he says, “I consider it charity work,” he says, smiling playfully.
“We’re smugglers with a conscience,” says another man, a Syrian who reportedly works directly with the Turkish mafias. Someone at the table leans over and whispers that while the first part of the sentence is certainly true, the “with a conscience” part is less so.
Abu Ahmed is originally Palestinian. He knows several of the men around the table from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where they lived until the onset of the Syrian civil war. In 2012, fierce fighting broke out in Yarmouk between the Free Syrian Army and the regime, both supported by Palestinian militias. Abu Ahmed lost his son, whom he calls “the martyr,” in the fighting in 2014. Abu Marwan, who sits next to Abu Ahmed, may also be part of his smuggling ring; ties of friendship and work are difficult to untangle, but he’s certainly present for many of the transactions. Abu Marwan barely made it out of the camp alive.
“He came out dead!” shouts another person at the table. Abu Marwan, with a narrow face and grey beard, played dead for more than four hours while he was carried through a fake funeral in his honor amid clashes between the regime and the resistance. He felt it was the safest way to leave—he didn’t want to risk being arrested. He says he felt ill and delirious while it was happening.
“That’s fear,” says Abu Ahmed. “It will do that to you.”
“My son was one of the pallbearers,” says Abu Marwan, “I was terrified.”
Abu Ahmed was arrested at a checkpoint when he was leaving the camp to get medical care. “There were 80 checkpoints in 60 meters,” he says. “They told me to call my son and tell him to give himself up to the regime. I called him and told him not to come—better they kill one person than two.” Later that day his son was killed in clashes in the camp. Abu Ahmed, still in jail, would not find out for another three days. For over a year, it had just been the two of them in the camp. He had sent the rest of his family away in 2013 to keep them safe from the fighting. They had fled to Egypt then boarded a boat to Italy; the crossing took them nine days. All of them now have residency in Sweden, where his wife’s brother has lived for years. Abu Ahmed’s brother and son-in-law were also killed in Syria. He keeps his son’s photograph as his profile picture on Whatsapp and frequently watches a video montage set to music showing photographs of his son at the various stages of life: a baby, a child, a student, a fighter.
Abu Ahmed seems to have encouraged a cult of personality, in which he casts himself as just a regular guy, a refugee, working in the service of other refugees. He will not say he’s a smuggler on tape, though the day before, he described himself as “a smuggling activist.” He shows me videos in which people he transported to Greece extoll him in song as they ride the ferry to Athens, and others that passengers sent of their boats arriving safely in Greece on calm sunny days. A young Syrian woman, who boarded one of his boats but swam back to shore when the engine failed, tells me that “we need people like him”; she means that in a hard business in which profit routinely trumps human lives and smugglers frequently send off overcrowded boats in treacherous weather conditions, those who take pains to look after their clients are necessary. She has a point. As long as moving people across treacherous waters is a lucrative business, smuggling will take place; the safer the crossing and the more scrupulous the smuggler the better.
But in this murky business, discerning scruples from good marketing can be difficult.
“For me they’re all the same,” says a young Turkish woman who lives in Izmir. She tells me about one smuggler, a young Turk who was originally a fisherman and now drives people himself by boat to Greece for the bargain price of $200 a head. This man, she says, is a separate case; but the rest are just the rest. What about Abu Ahmed’s claim that he runs less crowded boats in safer weather conditions? “They all say that,” she says.
The nearby beach where most of the boats departed for Greece this summer is called Cesme (pronounced cheshmeh), which means “water tap” in Turkish and “smelly toilet” in Arabic. The name is apt, whichever language you speak.