Civic activist Behnam Mousivand has been summoned, arrested and imprisoned multiple times over the last decade. He arrived in Turkey a few months ago after experiencing a terrifying journey there with human traffickers. His journey took more than a month and he was handed from one human trafficker to another. It was all, as he explained, for the sake of his mother.
“The imprisonment itself did not matter, but I wish my mom was a strong woman – like some of the other political activists’ moms – [so that she could] cope with my situation. Or, I wish my sisters weren’t so attached to [me] and were more independent. I did not flee from Iran to escape prison; I did it to save my mom. The only important thing is that my mom is calm now and my sisters are not worried anymore.”
Our fairly long conversation started and ended with the repetition of the same phrase: “To save my mom.”
When I tweeted that I was heading to Turkey to meet and chat with asylum seekers, a friend called me and told me about Behnam. Behnam lives in Eskisehir and “might have an interesting story to tell,” my friend said. I contacted Behnam and he agreed to tell his story for the first time.
This is a story of human traffickers and their "clients", but it is also the story of human rights activists and their role in helping people flee Iran. The fact that the work of activists sometimes overlaps with the work of human traffickers is clear evidence of the hostile and brutal climate refugees and asylum seekers endure today.
From 2009 to 2018, Behnam’s life was full of arrests and imprisonments. On February 1, 2018, he was arrested for the last time and was released on bail in mid-March. His family is not political and it struggles with finances. Together with Behnam’s friends, his family voiced concerns and told Behnam that they couldn’t see him behind bars anymore; he had to leave the country. During his final arrest, his mother had a heart attack at the prosecutor’s office and was hospitalized. Additionally, when the agents raided their home during this time, his mother fainted. Behnam’s sisters told him: “You are the one responsible if anything happens to Mom.”
“It wasn’t the Islamic Republic of Iran who made me leave, it was my family,” Behnam said.
I drove for two and a half hours, from Ankara to Eskisehir, to meet with Behnam. I had already met with other immigrants and he was the last meeting on my schedule before going back to Ankara. He welcomed me warmly in his small apartment, which reminded me of Iran. I was exhausted from driving and he provided me with food and hot drinks. I sat and listened to hours of the painful story of his encounter with human traffickers. When telling his story, he showed me a scarf that he had carried with him the whole way.
From Khoy, Across Mountains, and by Horseback to Turkey
“In the course of a night, I decided to flee the country. A friend of mine who was already abroad told me that the borders were going to shut down for refugees. Even my friends in prison advised me to leave. I did not know what to do, until, all of a sudden, my interrogator called and my mother panicked. I thought that if she has another heart attack, I won’t be able to forgive myself. I called my friend and told him to look for a human trafficker for me.”
The friend told Behnam to get to Khoy in West Azerbaijan province within the next 48 hours. He gave him a contact in Van who was a fellow human rights activist and who he had asked to help get Behnam to Ankara. It was May 2018 when Behnam arrived at Khoy by bus. He spent a few hours waiting in the terminal for the trafficker. All he had was a small backpack and light clothes that wouldn’t shield him from the cold nights in the mountains. The trafficker called him and told him to get a taxi and meet him in a small border village. Another traveler, Babraz, who was a pan-Iranist, joined Behnam at the bus terminal. When they arrived at the village, a short Kurdish boy came for them and took them to a local’s house. They spent the night there and were not able to use the restroom since it was located outside the building and it was too dangerous to go out.
Another traveler, a 17-year-old boy from Abadan, also joined them that night. The next day at dawn, the three, together with a trafficker, began their journey on a path that Behnam could not have even imagined. The path was covered in snow in parts, and the trafficker had a piece of wood that they would use when passing on roads and byways in order to cover their tracks. They reached the mountain skirt on the border and had to wait for the next traffickers, who were tasked with passing them over the border. It was as cold as it could get and all three were stressed and terrified. They had all heard the stories of travelers who were left behind to die in the middle of a journey.
The wait lasted for an hour, until two traffickers with three horses showed up. An Iranian boy was also with them and told Behnam that he was on his way back to Iran illegally. “The traffickers were riding horses and asked us to run after them. They even had one horse with no one on it. Babraz had a serious pain in his chest and I convinced them to let him ride the last horse. They agreed, but the boy and I were still on foot. We reached a river that we had to pass where I hurt my ankle; it was already injured from the time in prison, but I had to carry on. When the guys saw me limping they felt sorry for me, so they let me ride a horse. It felt like they were sadistic though; they could easily have let all three of us ride at all times, but at every given time one or two of us was on foot. At some point I realized that Babraz was missing and I knew he was having severe chest pain. I yelled at them to wait and look for Babraz, but they ignored me. After a while they agreed to stop and wait [to see] if he could keep up. After 15 minutes, we saw him limping [toward us] and reunited with him.”
Behnam's injured and swollen ankle, which made his journey even more difficult
After a few hours they reached a road. Behnam had been released from solitary confinement only a month ago, and had been on a hunger strike for most of that time. Thus, he was physically very weak and had no energy left to keep up. “I felt my heart beating in my head when running behind the horses,” he said.
Finally, a commercial truck picked them up at dusk and hid them amongst the cargo. The truck took them to another border village, but inside Turkey this time. Behnam called his family and assured them he had passed the border. “We stayed at that place [a house furnished with only a half-burned carpet] for the night and were frozen to death. We were not allowed to use the bathroom, but I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to relieve myself. We went out and found a toilet full of stray dogs. The next night they relocated us to another house with a fireplace, but no wood to burn. They were using clothes for burning and, although it was a little warmer than the last place, the cloth burned fast and provided not much heat. That night passed by and the next noon someone picked us up in a sedan.”
Traffickers put Behnam up in basic accommodation, in often freezing conditions and without access to the bathroom
The driver took them on dirt roads with less police presence and delivered them to a van driver near the city of Van. The last driver delivered them to Van, where Behnam met his activist contact in the city.
But this was neither the end of the story, nor the journey, for Behnam. He stayed at his contact’s home for almost a month, sharing all the expenses. However, one day when Behnam was away from the house, his contact called him and told him he was no longer welcome there and gave him an address of another person who would help him. Behnam met this new trafficker at a café. The trafficker asked for 50 Turkish lira (US$9.30) per night and told Behnam that he could take him to Ankara for 5,000 lira ($930). Later, Behnam found out that the activist contact owed money to this trafficker and that Behnam was a form of payment.
He stayed at the trafficker’s place for a few nights until, with the help of a friend abroad, he was put in touch with another trafficker whom neither of them knew nor trusted. This new trafficker took Behnam to a building that was under construction, and that had no electricity or heat. He saw many travelers there who looked like they had been on their journey for weeks. “They packed 20 of us in the back of a van to go to Ankara but, after a while, I felt like we were going back. I shared my location with my friend, who called me crying and confirming my doubts. We both thought that they were turning us back to hand us over to the border patrols. There was nothing I could do in the back of that van.”
Trying to Forget
Behnam couldn’t remember many of the details and struggled at times to recall exact numbers or dates, although only a few months had passed. “You know . . . I wanted to forget all of it intentionally. I did not even talk with anyone about the details since then. I can’t even imagine what will happen if my mom hears about my story. I just briefly mentioned a couple words of my story on social media and was labeled as a traitor.”
It took him a few minutes to remember the rest of the story, but he continued. “I was wrong. Although we were going back, there was no malicious plan waiting for us. They took us to another village and the next night headed for Van. After a few hours of driving, the human trafficker dropped us off in a bus terminal to wait for their next guides to take us to the final destinations. Every now and then someone came and called out a traveler’s name and sent them on a bus. I was the last one. A trafficker came and gave me a piece of paper with a fake ID and with someone else’s photo on the document. I got on the bus to Ankara, scared at every police stop. But it seemed like the officers knew about the issue and were okay with it. But I had a heart attack at every stop anyway.”
Fake identification and documents purchased from a human trafficker
Behnam finally reached Ankara and went to another friend’s – a political activist – place in the city. Looking back, he believes both hosts in Van and Ankara took advantage of him financially, but he forgives them since they had their own financial difficulties.
Currently, Behnam resides in Eskisehir, near Ankara, and like other asylum seekers, cannot leave the city without a permit from the police. He does not even have a valid Turkish ID, and his first interview is set for 2019. The second interview was postponed to 2021. He will have to spend the next seven years of his life in this city. Anticipating this long period of time has made him consider the idea of continuing his journey with human traffickers. “People like me are only headline news. As long as we are active in Iran, everyone wants a piece of them and offers them interviews. But as soon as you leave, especially if you don’t work with their cults, you are finished. I even think about going back. If society gets more radical and more people protest, I’ll go back and won’t care about the consequences. Some days like today, I feel like the loneliest man on Earth.”
It was already late at night and I had to go back to Ankara. Without stopping the recorder, we headed for the garage. On the way to my car, Behnam complained about the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ asylum-seeking process and mentioned applicants who have been on the waiting list for years. He talked about the discrimination against immigrants in Turkey, and friends in Iran who turned against him since he left. We stopped in front of my car, I hugged him, and we said our goodbyes. In my rearview mirror I followed him slowly going back to his apartment. His painful story stayed with me as I drove back to Ankara in the complete darkness of night.
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