By Mahir Korulu – Athens
“We were in a beat-up dingy as we crossed the Evros River at night. When I suddenly realized after 20 minutes that we were on our way to hitting some brush between two small islets, I said, “Are we going to die like the mother and her three children who drowned seven days ago?’”
Kürşad Alçı, a 41-year-old math teacher, left Turkey for Greece by crossing the Evros River together with his wife and colleague, 39-year-old physics teacher Sabahat and their daughters Melahat (9) and Saadet (7) at 01:00 a.m. on July 27, 2018. After their boat capsized, they endured an ordeal for three nights, helpless and without food, waiting to be rescued on a small islet on the river that demarcates the Turkish-Greek border.
Their risky endeavor took place only one week after a tragic incident in which Hatice Akçabay and her three young children drowned when their boat capsized in the Evros.
When Kürşad Alçı and his companions set sail in a boat on the same route, the desperate plea of Murat Akçabay, who in a video message called for help in locating his missing wife and children after the boat accident, was vivid in their minds. “We felt the very recent tragedy deep in our hearts, on our boat,” Kürşad Alçı said.
“l watched the video of Murat Akçabay, saw his tears for his wife and children. There was absolutely no guarantee that we would not experience a similar tragedy, an accident. I even considered giving up well before the journey,” he said, recalling the moments leading up to his fateful river-crossing. “But,” he said, elaborating on why he kept going, “I thought about my daughters’ future. Freedom was something that we desperately needed, like bread and water.”
The Alçı couple was dismissed by government decrees without due process during a state of emergency imposed in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Kürşad Alçı was the owner of the Doğru Cevap (Right Answer) Private Education Center, an institution that offered additional courses to students preparing for college entrance exams. The facility was among the more than 1,000 educational institutions that had been shut down by the government.
He does not deny his affiliation with the Gülen movement, which was accused by the government of orchestrating the 2016 coup. “I went to the police station after I learned that the police raided my apartment, assuming that the rule of law still existed in the country. I was detained and spent 10 days in custody, including two days in solitary confinement,” Kürşad Alçı said.
“They tried to extract a false statement and testimony from me. They pushed me to give names, call my friends terrorists and sign forged papers and documents,” he said.
“I was interrogated under psychological pressure, threat and intimidation. Police officers threatened me with these words: You and your wife will get 30 years in prison without parole,” he stated, reliving the horror of the police interrogation. Still, he noted, he was lucky to be released on on judicial probation.
The post-coup crackdown plunged the family into poverty almost overnight, leaving them in extreme economic hardship. “I worked as a taxi driver to put bread on the table, carrying things and such. I tutored for some time,” he said, recalling the ordeal he had faced.
Since June 2018, many lawsuits and cases were opened against him, with prosecutors demanding a 15-year prison sentence. He surmised that the chance of a fair trial was nonexistent. At that point, Kürşad Alçı said, he contacted a human smuggler in July.
Since their passports had been revoked by the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the only route to Europe was illegal and dangerous, through the Evros River, which forms the boundary between Turkey and Greece.
Well aware of the odds facing them, his wife Sabahat Alçı contends that it was a difficult decision to make an illegal journey across the Evros to Europe.
“I was stuck between two thoughts,” she said. “I was quite anxious when I imagined my children on a boat. On the other hand, my husband and I were going to be jailed and our children had nowhere else to go. We could not have taken that risk,” she added, recalling her dilemma.
“Despite the fear,” she noted, “I felt peace and hope. I believed we would cross the border without incident. I only realized how horrific the river was when I encountered it.”
Kurşad Alçı and his family got on a boat to start a new life in Europe. “We consider ourselves patriots, we cried at each step of our journey. We kept some Turkish lira as a memento. We had never done anything illegal before that journey,” he said.
Their fate converged with that of another family when they met a Turkish couple, 27-year-old Neriman* and her 29-year-old husband Engin, two mathematics teachers who worked at private schools affiliated with the Gülen movement. Their schools were also shut down after the coup attempt, rendering them unemployed.
While helping her family move furniture, Neriman was detained by police and jailed after a week of detention in the northwestern province of Bolu on the charge of membership in a “terrorist organization.”
A detention warrant was issued for Engin, who went into hiding. Due to the warrant, he was unable to visit his wife while she was in jail. The couple, who had been married for three years, were unable to see each other for 16 months. “I called her when she was in jail, introducing myself as her brother so I could hear her voice,” Engin said.
Neriman was sentenced to seven years, nine months and 22 days in prison. Considering time served in prison, the court ruled for her release and suspended the rest of her sentence. “When I got out of prison, the sky was bigger than I previously thought. I couldn’t feel that I was free. Just indefinable feelings,” she says.
Though she was free, a possible three-and-a-half-year prison sentence loomed large for her as she awaited a supreme court decision to her appeal. The couple, who was soon expecting a baby, decided that they had no chance of living in the country as free people. After weeks of deliberation, they decided to leave Turkey through whatever means possible. “We were afraid and anxious, but we were ready. We carried out our decision to get on a boat,” Neriman says.
Fighting for survival on a small islet
The two families paid 10,000 euros to a smuggler to get them across the border in a boat. They were on the boat heading north to south on the Evros River for approximately 20 minutes when their boat hit brushwood and capsized. They all fell into the water. Sabahat Alçı says she caught her daughter’s eyes and thought for a moment that they were going to die. Luckily they were near a small islet.
Kurşad Alçı, once feeling his feet on the ground, gave his younger daughter to the smuggler and pulled his elder daughter to the islet. Sabahat Alçı could only cling to a piece of land after experiencing some horrific moments.
“We were all shocked, we thought we were going to die,” Kürşad Alçı said and added: “We were all wet and shivering. The water rose several feet. We spent that night without closing our eyes. We tried to get our children to sleep and prevent them from screaming or crying to alert Turkish soldiers. Hiding there, we tried to inform our friends, but our phones were wet and not operating. My mobile phone was also running out of battery. I sent our location to a friend.”
The level of the water in the Evros River was far beyond what Engin had expected. “I was scared to see the level of the water. It was dark, and we were afraid of being caught. We were not swimmers. The boat was not safe or functioning,” he said.
“I was holding my husband’s hand when our boat capsized and we sank into the water,” Neriman adds.
“I never let her hand go, not in the boat nor in the river,” Engin interrupts. “Her family warned me not to let go of her hand no matter what happened just before we left Turkey. And I never did.”
The smuggler left the families “to find a boat” but never returned. They had no potable water with them, and they let the children eat their last food: snacks, hazelnuts, walnuts and crackers.
All alone on the islet and in fear of being caught by Turkish soldiers, they walked to the edge of the islet and looked to the Greek side. “It was the second day that we heard some Greek soldiers speaking from a distance. I opened my phone and yeah, it worked for a couple of minutes. I spoke to my brother and he told me that our situation was being covered by the media and that help was on the way. But after hours and hours, no one came,” Kürşad Alçı says.
They were trying to find a way to save themselves their when they realized a Turkish fisherman with a motorboat was on the river. “We, four adults including a pregnant woman, and two girls asked him for help. He wanted 10,000 euros to take us in his boat. When we said it was impossible, his answer was quite simple: Then let the Turkish soldiers take you. We agreed to pay 5,000 euros to reach the Greek side.”
They realized it was not the Greek side but another islet on the Evros River only after they had walked a few minutes on the islet. They shouted for help. It was on the third day that three Greek policemen came to the border to say they would bring help.
Sabahat Alçı said, “We pinned our hope on everyone we encountered, but nobody came back.”
Greek soldiers watched them with binoculars. A 55-year-old soldier, who Kürşad Alçı thinks was the commander, told them that due to border problems with Turkey, they couldn’t help the families. When he recommended asking for help from Turkish officials, Kürşad Alçı showed him his daughters and shouted: “We are dying. This woman is five months pregnant. We have been on the Evros for three days without food or water.”
Moved by the plight of the families, a soldier said he was also a father, in a show of empathy. “He returned,” Kürşad Alçı said, “and brought us some bottles of water. He also tried to throw us some food, but he looked disappointed when it fell into the water. We again insisted that we were dying day by day.” He then promised to bring help by the next day.
“We spent another night on the Evros. It rained a lot and we had nothing for cover. We sat down side by side and cried a lot,” Kürşad Alçı said, recalling those moments of despair.
He had collected some brush to build a fire to dry their clothes. He said he took some water from the river and boiled it over the fire. After filtering it through a headscarf, they drank it.
Kürşad Alçı explains how their four days of hardship ended on the 30th of July:
“On the fourth day, we desperately called out to the Turkish side. We were dying and no one was going to be able to find us. My kids were dying in my arms and I could do nothing. My wife hadn’t gotten any sleep for four days. We started shouting again in the morning. It was around 11 a.m. that the Greek soldiers came back. They gave us some food, canned chicken, and emphasized that it was not pork as they knew that we did not eat it due to our religion. They sent us all the food and water in a washtub.”
He said one of the soldiers tied a rope between them and a tree on land. He asked the soldiers if they would cross over it. They answered in the negative. ‘We don’t know, we have to leave.’ After a while, however, realizing the confusion of the families, one of the soldiers made a hand gesture signaling that they cross. “I held the rope and crossed to check whether the rope was strong enough. I took my elder daughter on my lap and I warned her not to let go of my neck whatever happened. I transported everyone one by one. I came and went many times, also to get our bags,” Kürşad Alçı explained.
When they set foot on Greek soil, it was a moment of tremendous joy, a huge sense of relief, a celebration and a tribute to God for the final salvation it delivered. “We thanked God that I, my wife and my daughters were alive and were all together. We were hopeless and helpless. It was a miracle to be safe again.”
Then they walked toward the soldiers’ checkpoint. Greek soldiers welcomed them and served water, toast and some chocolates together with some clean clothes as they had lost some of their bags in the river. They told them not to worry.
Sabahat Alçı said she saw her husband Kürşad burst into tears for the first time. “I understood during those days what desperation meant,” she adds.
For 7-year-old Melahat Alçı, their journey was not an entertaining one but she was not frightened, either. For 9-year-old Saadet Alçı, on the other hand, it was frightening to leave her little sister back on the island. Their father said she requested he carry her sister before herself and cried with the fear of them abandoning her. Saadet Alçı said she liked the Greek soldiers and would like to show appreciation for their help by saying “Thank you” in English.
The Alçı family is now in Sweden. Melahat and Saadet have started school. Kürşad Alçı says freedom is great. Despite missing his country, freedom trumps everything given that he is with his family, healthy and safe. He is not even bothered by economic hardship.
But one thing has captured his memory and never leaves him. The image of the Turkish fisherman asking for 10,000 euros to help them still haunts him. This is not, he notes, about the amount of money. “He intended to leave a pregnant woman and two girls dead out there. His heartless, brutal indifference simply devastated me. I can never forget his face. I hope we meet someday so I can spit in his face.”
Neriman preferred dying to capture by the Turkish police. The idea of going back to prison with her baby was unacceptable and more difficult than death on the Evros River.
After the young couple managed to leave the river behind, Neriman said her joy was beyond description when they set foot on land on the Greek side. “To avoid arrest and to be free was indefinable. If we tell our story to our unborn child when he grows up, he will most probably be listening to our story as fiction. It will be very hard for him to believe what we experienced.”
(*) Engin and Neriman are pseudonyms upon their request in order to conceal the identity of the young couple who left Greece for a Western European country.