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Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Iraq to Sweden with smugglers

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

In October 1994, Ahmad Ibrahim and his wife Muntah Kalaf, their four children and Ahmad's brother, Abas, fled Basra in southern Iraq. Their goal was Montreal. They still have not made it to Canada but last December they ended up in Haernoesand, a small town in Sweden. It took them 26 months of despair and a lot of money to get so far.

Interview by Odd Iglebaek

I heard Ahmad's story in Haernoesand, 400 km north of Stockholm. The roads here are dangerously icy and cold winds and sleet slash the air, but the hospitality of the desert with huge bearhugs and the unmistakable smell of Middle East cooking greets me at the Ibrahims' door.

"It is a long story," says Ahmad Ibrahim settling into his narrative. "I used to be a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. We moved to Kuwait where I worked as a harbour captain. We had a good life. I made good money and I quit politics."

But trouble pursued the Ibrahim family when the Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Ahmad felt it would be safer to be back in Iraq and less conspicuous among his own people. His father and brother escorted them back to Basra but further problems lurked just around the corner.

"After 29 days the police came to our door," Ahmad recalled. "They wanted to bring me in for questioning. It would only last two-three hours, they said. I didn't really have any choice so I went with them."

The police were specifically interested in Ahmad's sister because her husband had been a longtime member of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party. "I had nothing to tell them because I did not know where she was," Ahmad said. "In the end they let me go."

"We became more and more afraid especially because of the children and decided we had to get away," Muntah Kalaf said. In October 1994 they were ready to make a dash for Sweden where Ahmad's niece lived. But that meant making a perilous journey arranged by a professional Iraqi-Danish smuggler which would cost the family of four adults and three children a total of $18,500.

The smuggler "gave us the impression of being a nice man," Ahmad Ibrahim recalls and he arranged a complicated escape route starting with a car trip to the Jordanian capital of Amman, a flight to Moscow and then a train and ferry trip across Russia and the Baltic to sanctuary in Sweden. Ahmad handed over half the agreed fee in Baghdad and his brother and eldest son left one week before the rest of the family. Each had a valid Iraqi passport but not the exit permit needed to leave Iraq.

The first obstacle was the Jordanian border. "We came to the frontier at two o'clock in the morning," Ahmad said. "The driver took our passports and left the taxi. He didn't come back until seven in the morning when a friendly officer came on duty. We did not dare to go to the toilet or to do anything; we just waited inside the car. We were so nervous."

In Amman they each paid $50 for a visa to Moscow and a week later flew to the Russian capital. Another wait of one month before their Iraqi-Danish smuggler bungled them onto an evening train and instructed them to get off at the last Russian station before the frontier and wait to be met. The rendezvous went well. They were loaded into a 1983 red Opel Record and a Russian minibus and driven through a series of villages and forests before a new guide dressed in army uniform escorted the escapees to a railway line.

"This was probably the Latvian border because the Russians left us there," Ahmad said picking up the thread of the escape. "On the other side an old couple met us. They took us to a house, locked us in and gave us two chickens to eat. We were kept there until midnight, then we were taken to a bus," for an overnight ride to the Latvian capital of Riga.

For more than a month they shared a two-bedroom flat with 14 other people and the smugglers ordered the refugees to pay the second half of their 'fare.' Two days before Christmas the entire group stealthily left their hideout. Parents had been provided with sleeping pills and special instructions and the smallest children were all asleep. The fugitives were allowed to take only light hand luggage and they were driven under armed police escort by bus to the city harbour.

"We saw two boats, a fishing boat by the quay and a larger vessel further out," Ahmad said. "We said to ourselves the fishing boat was only there to take us out to the large ship. But we were wrong, we were told this was the boat." Flourishing handguns, their guards gave them little choice. Police officers watched the refugees being shoved into the boat. "It was 15 metres long. We were 150 people stowed into the hold," Ahmed, a former seaman himself, recounted. "The only navigation instrument was a hand-held compass. The boat had no battery, so the engine was started by using the battery from one of the buses. To go to sea in a vessel in such a condition was completely unsafe."

In December the days are very short with the sun setting at three p.m. Temperatures regularly plunge to below zero degrees Celsius. The only seaman other than Ibrahim was a Russian-speaking man hired by the smugglers who began swigging cognac as soon as the rickety vessel set sail. "High waves came as soon as we got out of port, and the wind increased during the morning. We were very seasick and afraid," continued Ibrahim.

Panicked at one point they set fire to a pile of clothes to try to attract the attention of a passing ship, but without success. In growing desperation Ahmad persuaded the helmsman to follow the lights of another ship, but that, too, ended in failure.

Steering toward the beam of a lighthouse, the boat eventually ran onto a beach. When a Russian-speaker was sent ashore to buy food he returned with a group of police and soldiers who informed the refugees they had landed in the neighbouring state of Estonia. They were piled into two buses and driven back to Latvia.

Their plight began to become more desperate. They were interned in a dilapidated army barracks where there were no beds, few toilets and little water. Food consisted of expired canned meat. There were no doctors and only zinc ointment to treat all their problems including skin rashes the children had developed. "It was not," said Ahmad with understatement," a friendly atmosphere. We were nervous and afraid, wondering what would happen to us."

They did not have to wait long. On February 1 armed men surrounded their barracks, lined the men against a wall and searched everyone and everything. Cigarettes, money, watches and other valuables simply disappeared. A police officer told the group they had to leave Latvia within three days. But where too? That, said the policeman, was up to the smugglers.

If their journey had already been harsh and full of danger, the exiles plight now descended into surreal nightmare. The smugglers demanded extra money to pay for their 'release' from police custody and to charter a new boat for their escape. At one point they were taken to a refrigeration ship called Unda, but by this time their so-called protectors, the Russian mafia, had disappeared, a group of policemen turned up demanding non existent papers.

Everyone was taken to a military camp and the men separated from the women and children. "The officers started to drink," Ahmad said. "They beat us and left us naked in the cold. It was terrible. I do not want to talk about it." The official shakedowns continued. The police insisted the smugglers had not paid for the latest boat and demanded $30 from each refugee. Somehow, they scraped together $780.

The following day all of the single men were taken away. Some were forced at gunpoint to enter neighbouring Belarus. They were fed but then forced back across the frontier into Latvia.

The families were put aboard what later became known as "the train of despair." For two weeks they were shuttled between Russia and Latvia. The harassment was constant. There was litte food or sanitation. Amidst a growing international uproar UNHCR demanded that this inhumane 'ping pong' charade be halted immediately. Eventually, they were transferred to the town of Olaine outside Riga. But they had left one type of prison for another. More than 100 people shared one room measuring 12 x 18 metres. There was one toilet and only cold water.

"We gave these people basic humanitarian assistance through Caritas," explained Hans Thoolen, UNHCR Regional Representative for the Baltic and Nordic countries. "And we constantly complained to the Latvian authorities about this detention 'game.' Asylum-seekers are not criminals and should not be kept in prison."

As UNHCR's Information Officer, I visited Olaine in June, 1995, but we and Caritas continued to have difficulties in visiting the detainees. They were desperate and nervous even though they had been given a little extra space to live. "We felt more and more that we were alone, that nobody could help us,' Muntah Kalaf said. "We wanted to draw attention to our case and we decided to start a hunger strike."

Police broke up the protest in September, beating men, women and children. Twenty-four protestors including Ahmad Ibrahim, his wife, eldest son and brother were transferred to other prisons. "They put me with criminals, but the worst thing was that I was so worried about my small children back in Olaine," Muntah Kalaf said. "I cried almost all the time" but after nearly two weeks she returned to her children. The others were also released after several weeks.

By January 1996, living conditions had greatly improved with Sweden donating surplus furniture from refugee reception centres. UNHCR personnel gained slightly easier access to the detainees and Nordic journalists and officials visited Olaine. Still, overcrowding continued. The asylum-seekers remained imprisoned without being brought to court because under Latvian law they were 'illegal immigrants.'

UNHCR cooperated with Ahmad Ibrahim by financing a lawyer to challenge the legality of the Latvian detention and by concentrating Latvian media attention on the case with a UNHCR-arranged seminar. The challenge made smooth progress until Ibrahim suddenly dropped his case. Now safe in Sweden he explains that the reason was mostly pressure from the immigration police.

In August 1996 UNHCR and Latvia conducted status determination interviews of the Olaine asylum-seekers. Most of the Iraqis were clearly bona fide refugee cases and Nordic countries agreed to accept them for resettlement under their quotas if Latvia moved quickly to establish a fair asylum and immigration procedure. When new draft refugee legislation was submitted to the Latvian Cabinet of Ministers in December 1996, the Nordic countries made good on their agreement and began transferring the Olaine detainees.

The story ended happily just before New Year. Asked if he would do it again, Ibrahim says 'yes' without hesitation. "When you are afraid of being killed you think you do not really have any other choice," he said. "So, yes, we would do it all again if we had to."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)

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