Bitter Syrian enemies share Greek ferry voyage into the unknown

  • AFP, Aegean Sea, Greece
  • Updated: Aug 21, 2015 19:14 IST
Greek government-chartered Eleftherios Venizelos ferry arrives at the Piraeus port in Athens. A Greek government-chartered ferry was transporting some 2,600 Syrian refugees to the Greek mainland, as islands struggling with an influx of migrants warned that the crisis is endangering public health. (AFP Photo)

When the paths of an injured Syrian opposition activist, a disenchanted Kurdish youth and a regime loyalist converge on a ferry travelling across the Aegean Sea to Athens, they barely talk to each other. It's a painful symbol of the Syrian war that the three struggle to forget even now that they are literally in the same boat heading towards an unknown future.

Jalal, who is 38 and comes from Daraa city where a pro-democracy uprising began in 2011, puffs a cigarette on the deck as night falls. He says he has met supporters of President Bashar al-Assad's regime on the often dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece's Kos, a resort island facing a massive influx of refugees desperate to reach Europe.

"I try not to discuss Syria with them as I know we just won't agree," he admits, his eyes bloodshot from the exhaustion of sleeping rough in Kos, which has come to be seen as the chaotic epicentre of Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II.

"Even if the Syrian war ended now, I think it would take years for things to go back to a semblance of normality," he says.

Syria's uprising morphed into a savage multi-front conflict that has claimed 250,000 lives and forced more than four million people to flee the country.

Jalal, who speaks fluent Turkish, wants to go to Germany where he hopes to find work within the large Turkish community "until I get my papers".

Jalal's eyes well up with tears as he lifts his shirt to show the scar from a gunshot wound to his abdomen.

"My sister was shot dead by an army sniper when I was trying to rescue her from her neighbourhood, which was under attack (in 2012). I was shot too, but I survived," he said.

"The war is like this ship. I can't get out of the ship and stop it. The situation in Syria is bigger than us now," he added, looking out at the horizon as the huge ferry sailed against the wind.

Their eyes meet

Blue-eyed hairdresser Tony, 40, comes from a regime-held area of Homs and also plans to go to Germany, whose strong economy gives him hope he can find work quickly.

He and Jalal must have met before; they know they support opposing sides in the war. For a moment their eyes meet, but they quickly turn away from each other without flinching.

"My wife was living in constant terror. There are car bombs and the armed men (rebels) are always shelling us," said Tony, who like Assad hails from the minority Alawite religious community. Like Jalal, a Sunni, Tony admits "there is no acceptance of the other side in Syria right now."

Once known by activists as "the capital of the revolution", Homs has suffered some of the worst devastation and sectarian violence in Syria's war. "For me, there was never a revolution at all," said Tony, echoing the regime's rhetoric.

'Pawns in the war'

Jalal seems more willing to listen to Nechirvan, a 20-year-old Syrian Kurd from Qamishli city who fled because he refused to "become a pawn in the war. My life is more important than that."

"Every side in Syria wants to recruit you. Either you're recruited by the army or the (Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG)," said Nechirvan, who wears his dark hair in a flip hairstyle.

But when the two start discussing the Kurdish question, tensions flare up.

"For hundreds of years it has been our dream to create an independent Kurdish state," Nechirvan says.

By now, the sea and the sky have faded into each other, an infinite blackness with barely any stars to be seen and the horizon impossible to distinguish.

"Fine, but why didn't you wait for the regime to fall before you launched your bid for statehood?" Jalal says, his anger clear.

Nechirvan leaves soon afterwards, waving meekly as he joins his Kurdish friends on the top deck.

Separate ways

Not all is rage on the ferry -- there is also love.

On board are Rana from Damascus, who last week married Mohammad, a 38-year-old Palestinian-Syrian living in Copenhagen.

The couple, who first met online, supported the revolt at first though they never took part in any activism.

"Now I am with neither side. I just want a future," said blonde, hazel-eyed Rana, 26, who believes the revolt failed "because the people weren't united".

For Rana, who married her husband with little fanfare in the Greek island of Rhodes days before setting out on the next part of the journey to Mohammad's home in Denmark, the ferry trip is a "funny kind of honeymoon".

"I am going to tell this story to my children's children," she smiles.

Soon after dawn the ferry docks at Athens' Piraeus harbour, and the refugees go their separate ways.

Tony and his friends take the bus to Greece's second city Thessaloniki, from where they will head towards the border with Macedonia as they try to reach Germany, unaware a state of emergency has been declared and Macedonian troops are trying to seal the frontier. Rana and her husband go to a hotel in the city centre to catch a few hours' rest.

Jalal, who must wait for a small loan from a relative to be wired through before continuing on his path, waits at an Arabic-style street cafe on Omonia Square.

"Hey, are you going anywhere? I can take you wherever you want," offers a Syrian man, likely a smuggler. In the cafe, a sign written only in Arabic offers a phone number for transport: "Office for tourist travel to Thessaloniki, Macedonia, 60 euros ($67)."

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