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Iraq: Family Seeking Asylum Tells Tragic Tale

October 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqis fleeing in search of asylum in Europe often do so illegally, paying smugglers to transport them to the European Union. Their journeys are expensive and dangerous. Sa'id Ketchu lost his wife, 29-year-old Iman Eliyas Juma'a, on one such attempt in August. Sa'id and his 12-year-old daughter Janan recounted the experience to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Simira Ali Mandi on October 10.

Radio Free Iraq (RFI): What were the reasons behind your decision to leave Iraq?

Sa'id Ketchu: I was forced to leave Iraq for security reasons. I received a threat. I was an investigating officer at the of Ninawah [Governorate] Police Directorate -- Tilkayf police section. I received threats more than once.

One day I was working on some documents, and was on my way to the judge, when some men with beards and wearing dishdashas [traditional Arab garb] -- it was clear they were terrorists because of their beards and dishdashas -- accosted me.

They said they have a case pending with me, they said I had sent for them. I told them that I didn't know them. They showed me a subpoena that I confirmed was in my handwriting and with my signature. [I said:] "There are legal reasons. If there was no legal reason, I wouldn't have sent for you." They said, "No, if you don't get rid of our case we will kill you." They were blatant terrorists, and they frightened me. It meant that I was facing being killed. I was forced to "take care" of their case.

I [later] received another threat -- I once saw one of our officers being killed by them in front of his home in Mosul. He had passed by me, greeted me, and went home; an hour later he was killed. I am Yazidi [a non-Muslim religious minority], and the Yazidis in this neighborhood are under constant threat, to a terrifying extent. I was forced to seek refuge in Europe. I was forced to leave Iraq by any possible means.

RFI: You have a family; you decided to leave with your family, which consists of your wife and three children.

Ketchu: I obtained passports. I had to sell my land and my household belongings -- anything to save my family. My daughter needs an operation, she already had one operation two years ago. She had kidney stones, but the condition has recurred. I tried talking to a number of doctors; one day they tell me she's all right, the next says that there's a problem.

The security situation prevents me from taking her to Baghdad, and we cannot afford to go to Jordan. So I told myself that the best thing for me is to save my family and myself. We could see a doctor in one of the European countries, and we could all find some rest there. The situation in Iraq is getting worse daily.

RFI: How long did you stay in Turkey with your family? Sa'id, you decided to leave Iraq, and you left with your family which consists of a wife and three children. You took them to Turkey. How long were you there?

Ketchu: The first time, I was there for 47 days waiting to find a way -- a proper and safe way. During these 47 days I was daily conned by different people. I spent between 60 and 70 notes ["waraka," a reference to $100 bills, so $6,000 or $7,000]. My visa expired and the police detained us at the hotel. I tried to pay the fine, but they refused. They took us and sent us back to Iraq.

But there was no way [to stay], so I had to try again. I was forced into a deal with a smuggler to get out. He took us back to Istanbul at a cost of 40 notes. So it cost me a further $4,000. I stayed in Turkey for about a month, during which I tried twice to move on. Once, I was arrested on the way to Greece, and the second time they arrested me after I had reached Greece and sent me back.

The third time I was approached by someone whose name was Sami Gardi, and I agreed with him that he would take us to Greece in exchange for 2 notebooks ["daftar" means $10,000, so $20,000], legally, aboard a tourist ship. It was to be legal, with nothing to fear, because you know I have children, my daughter is sick, and if the Turks were to catch me again they would hurt me, because my name and our photos were in their computers.

The [smugglers] took us from the hotel in an ambulance-size vehicle. We were about 20 people. They told us it would take three hours, but it took eight hours. We reached the Greek border -- an island on the border -- where we were to be picked up by a yacht. I told them that I would not board a yacht -- only a tourist ship. The five-story ship [they promised] turned out to be a boat for five people.

RFI: Were your movements with the smugglers done at night? Were the smugglers Turks or were they from different nationalities?

Ketchu: The smuggler we first dealt with was Sami Gardi. I didn't meet him personally, but dealt with him by phone. Sami Gardi is presently in Turkey, but we can't find him. The principals are in Greece and my brother is now in Greece trying to get their photos and addresses, so that I can present my complaint through Interpol.

RFI: Are the smugglers Iraqis or Turks?

Ketchu: They are...Sami Gardi is an Iraqi from Irbil but he lives in Istanbul at an unknown address. You know their methods: each one has 20 identities.

RFI: And the others? Are they also Iraqis, or are they Turks?

Ketchu: The one who was my guarantor is known in Greece; we can find them and catch them. They are Iraqis: one is Yazidi, and the other is Sorani [speaker of Sorani Kurdish dialect]. The Yazidi is my guarantor, but he was afraid to show me the actual smuggler. Thus I have been forced to submit a complaint so that the judge can take action against the criminals.

So, at 10:30 p.m. we boarded the boat that would not hold more than five people, but we were 20. They herded us aboard like sheep. After less than 15 minutes, we felt our feet getting wet; we thought that it was just our wet clothes; we called to them in Turkish, "Water, water." He [the smuggler] stripped down to his shorts and slid overboard. God only knows how we survived; I still don't know; it was God's will.

RFI: Was the smuggler a Turk?

Ketchu: Yes, of course, he was a Turk. He didn't speak Arabic.

RFI: Did he escape?

When we hesitated about boarding the boat, we were afraid they might kill us and leave us among the trees. After the boat sank, I don't know what happened to any of the others. We were in the water for half an hour; I don't know how the children made it. It was a horrible miracle. I couldn't hear anybody or see anybody. It was after three days that the police called me in to see the bodies.

When the boat sank, we were spotted by a German tourist boat whose captain was a Turk. He called for help and we were picked up by various boats. The children were holding on to each other, and the sick girl was holding her younger brother. When the boats arrived, she lost her grip on the child, and a Sorani dived in to save him.

RFI: How many people drowned in the incident, was it just your wife?

Ketchu: My wife and another Kurdish man from either Al-Sulaymaniyah or Irbil. After three or four days, the ones who saved us brought us some clothes, as the children were down to their shorts.

RFI: How long were you detained?

Ketchu: We were held in prison for seven or eight days. It was my brother who came -- for the funeral and everything -- to talk to the Turkish authorities. Though the Turks treated us well, they refused a Red Cross plea for us to remain. The press was not allowed to interview us, and we couldn't see the UN.

RFI: Will you and your family try once again to leave Iraq?

Ketchu: There is no alternative. I have already begun to look for ways, for my family's sake, as their situation is now worse than before.

RFI: You have already paid a heavy price. Will you once again trust the smugglers?

Ketchu: No. I cannot go by the same route. I cannot stand to see any water -- even a puddle in the street. The children are suffering from mental problems and they need medical treatment. When they arrive safely, God willing, it would still take a team of competent doctors to cure them.

RFI: Would you encourage Iraqis to leave, in view of your difficult experience?

Ketchu: I cannot advise them either way, but the situation in Iraq is getting worse daily. Everybody who has heard my story is astonished by our experience.

RFI: Do you feel that the Iraqi situation is so bad that you would risk the lives of your family again?

Ketchu: I would gamble, but I would not try the same frightening route again. I would try to reach the UN.

RFI: You are adamant about leaving Iraq?

Ketchu: I am; there is no alternative at all. I have become absent-minded and psychologically drained. We need to see psychiatrists, but where would we go? We cannot go anywhere other than Irbil or Al-Sulaymaniyah.

RFI: If an international organization were able to provide treatment for your daughter, would you stay in Iraq? Or are you insisting on leaving?

Ketchu: I am not planning on leaving Iraq like some others who are seeking their well-being. I plan to leave Iraq because there is nothing left for us here. Even if they appointed me to a ministerial post in the Iraqi government, I would still not be able to live here.

Sa'id's eldest daughter Janan, also told RFI about their harrowing experience.

RFI: You were in the boat, as well as your late mother, your sister, your brother, and your father, is that right?

Janan Ketchu: Yes.

RFI: You were sitting next to your mother?

Janan: My brother, sister, and I were in one place with my mother.

RFI: Do you remember what time it was?

Janan: It was 10:45 p.m.

RFI: The smuggler took you to the boat, were you still in Turkey then? You hadn't reached Greece yet?

Janan: The smuggler put us in the boat, and we moved out slowly. Little by little, water began to seep into the boat, until it sank.

RFI: Was the smuggler with you in the boat?

Janan: Yes, he was with us.

RFI: What happened to him?

Janan: He took off his clothes and swam away to Turkey.

RFI: Was it a big boat?

Janan: No, it was for about five people.

RFI: Five people. How many were you?

Janan: Twenty people.

RFI: Did the boat have an engine?

Janan: It had a motor. We told him to return, but he didn't, and the motor sank.

RFI: At that moment, what did you feel? What did you do? Whom did you hold on to? Whom did you want to save? How did you save yourself?

Janan: Little by little the boat began to sink. I grabbed my brother, and a woman grabbed my sister. We continued to scream until they came to save us.

RFI: Did you have any life-saving vests or anything? Were you wearing something?

Janan: No, he didn't give us anything.

RFI: So you were in your clothes; but how did you save yourself from drowning? Did you try to swim?

Janan: No, I don't know how to swim.

RFI: So how did you stay afloat?

Janan: My father was holding me, and I was holding onto my brother.

RFI: You didn't see your mother after that?

Janan: No.

RFI: Did you stay were you were? How did you reach the shore? The boat was 600 meters offshore, so how did you manage?

Janan: Our saviors were Germans in one boat, and Turks in another.

RFI: So a boat with German tourists spotted you, and they came to you along with a Turkish government boat?

They searched for my mother, but couldn't find here for three days. On the fourth day, while we were in prison, they found her body.

RFI: How did they treat you in prison? How long were you detained?

Janan: About a week. They treated us well, and the tourists brought us clothes and things.

RFI: What is your condition now? Do you still visualize the sea and the darkness?

Janan: (No response).

RFI: Janan, Janan, tell me about your brother and sister. Your brother, Zardasht, and your sister, Avista.

Janan: My brother is four years old, and my sister is six. I am 12 years old.

RFI: Were you going to school?

Janan: I was in the sixth year of primary school.

How are you living now? Who is looking after you? What is your situation -- you and your siblings -- without your mother?

Janan: We are living with my [maternal] uncle. They love us.

RFI: Do you want to go to Europe again? After what you have experienced?

Europe? Yes, but not by sea.

RFI: Why do you want to go to Europe?

I have a kidney ailment. My father was threatened. I need to have an operation.

RFI: Why do you want to leave Dahuk? Because of the treatment?

Janan: There is no treatment here.

RFI: Tell me about your brother. How is he now without his mother? Does he cry at night, or have bad dreams? Tell me about Zardasht and Avista, do they ask where their mother is?

Janan: No, they don't ask. They don't ask about anything.

RFI: Do you have a particular wish?

Janan: To go to my aunt in Germany.

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