Witold Szablowski



(an excerpt)
Witold Szablowski Assassin cover finalThe Assassin from Apricot City
By Witold Szabłowski
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Stork Books November 2013

                                                 The Purgatory of Istanbul

They get up while the city is still at play. They put on dark-blue trousers, lace-up boots and T-shirts with the emblem of the city that employs them. They take life-saving kits, basic medicines and warm clothing.

They also take a supply of large plastic bags.

A Honda jeep takes them to the beaches. Metre by metre, they comb them, first the most highly frequented ones, then the less popular ones. They are looking for the remains of boats, shoes, sweaters, backpacks, hats, upside-down dinghies, sodden blankets, documents, passports and children’s bootees – anything the sea may have cast up. But first and foremost they are looking for bodies.

‘Five years ago the sea cast up two Africans on the beach, right next to the luxury hotels, and some tourists found them,’ says Kazım, one of the men in dark-blue trousers and lace-up boots. ‘Tourists don’t like finding corpses. The British, Germans or Poles come here for a holiday and they pay a lot for it. We’ve got to do the cleaning before they get up.’

                                                                                                                  special offer

We’re sitting in a small café in the market area of Istanbul. Half a kilometre away from us is the famous Topkapı Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans. Day after day thousands of tourists come and see where that lucky devil the sultan ate, where he slept and where he kept his harem full of beautiful women.

But none of that concerns Mahmud, an Iraqi with a greying beard and nicotine-stained fingers. He smokes a cigarette every five minutes, regular as clockwork, right down to the filter, until it starts to burn his fingers.

Five years ago he was working as an interpreter for the Americans, until their enemies passed a death sentence on him. The Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t help him.

‘There is an aid programme for former interpreters, but Allah alone knows why it didn’t include me,’ he says. ‘Two of my colleagues were killed, so there was no point in waiting any longer. I took my wife and five-year-old daughter, and we fled.’

Oruç Ulusoy, a lawyer from Izmir who helps immigrants, warns me: ‘Don’t believe their stories. They don’t tell the truth. For them the truth is too dangerous.’

But Mahmud’s British accent adds to his credibility. He says a cousin sent him 1,000 euros from Germany, and his family in Iraq saved up the same amount again. It was enough to get them to Istanbul by transporter lorry.

‘I sent my wife and child off to Greece,’ he says. ‘The first boat was turned back by the coastguards. The second started taking on water, and they only just managed to get back to shore.’

If Mahmud is to be believed, the third time they made the voyage successfully.

‘It’s a good thing it was a success, because a kaçakçı, or smuggler, takes the money for three attempts. It’s a special offer, like in the supermarket. But if you don’t get there the third time, you’ve got to save up all over again,’ says Mahmud.

His wife is now in Munich, but Mahmud is stuck in Istanbul. He knows everyone here, from the petty conmen, via the pimps, to the smugglers. Thanks to him I can find out a great deal.

Mahmud needs to save up 2,000 euros. He teaches English, he helps to sell stolen passports and brings in customers for the smugglers. He doesn’t earn a fortune, but if it goes well, in a year’s time he’ll be in Germany. Right now, money is what matters most to Mahmud, so when I say: ‘I want you to help me find Yusuf,’ Mahmud doesn’t ask who Yusuf is or why I’m looking for him. He just asks: ‘How much will you pay me?’

I can’t pay him. So he spreads his hands, stubs out the cigarette he has smoked right down to the filter, and goes on his way.


There are two Istanbuls.

The first one belongs to the tourists, five-star hotels and party-goers. This is where Orhan Pamuk seeks the sources of his nostalgia, while Japanese visitors draped in cameras photograph every millimetre of it. Each year over ten million tourists come here, with over thirty million visiting the country as a whole. Almost ten per cent of the Turkish budget comes out of their pockets.

But it isn’t just tourists who love Turkey. In recent years it has been a paradise for businessmen attracted by economic growth of more than seven per cent, and also for the politicians who are taking notice of its efforts to reconcile Europe and Asia.

The moustachioed prime minister Erdoğan describes this Istanbul and this sort of Turkey as a bridge between East and West.

But these days the real bridge is the other Istanbul. To see it, you have to step off the tourist trail and into the side streets, and then sharpen your vision.

Then you can see the Africans using the last of their energy to pull carts laden with scrap metal, the Chinese slicing cucumbers for kebabs in a basement, or the Indians selling fake perfume, with bags under their eyes that have stuck to their faces for good. They put up with this dog’s life because they’re dreaming about Europe. They believe our wealth – and from their point of view Poland is a super-rich country too – is the answer to all their problems.

These people are stuck on the bridge the Turkish prime minister talks about. Nobody even attempts to add up how many of them are living here. The experts speculate that each year from 500,000 to two million immigrants pass through the purgatory of Istanbul.

‘We worked in a factory on sixteen-hour shifts,’ a refugee from China was quoted in the Istanbul press. ‘The owner gave us accommodation in a shed behind the factory. For eighteen people we had four beds and one chair. After three months he threw us out without paying us. However, even worse than the fact that he didn’t pay us, is that ever since we’ve been living on a rubbish dump.’


I met Yusuf seven years ago at a small class C hotel in Istanbul. He was the same age as I was, with long hair tied in a ponytail and a beard, which made him look like an Arab version of the Polish blues-rock musician Rysiek Riedel. He too had just one dream – to get to Europe.

He had come from Libya (on a tourist visa to Syria, and from there with the smugglers). This surprised me, because the smugglers also sail from Libya to Italy, which would have worked out cheaper for him.

‘I’m afraid of water,’ said Yusuf shamefully.

He had good reason to be ashamed. He should have boarded the first boat, he explained, and either died or sailed across, instead of which he had wasted time and his father’s money.

He’d give his right arm for his family.

‘But I had to leave,’ he stressed, his gaze fixed on the Bosporus separating Europe and Asia. ‘To have a wife, you’ve got to be able to support her. In Libya I was a teacher, and I couldn’t even support myself.’

However, Yusuf wasn’t good at being serious for long, and he immediately changed the subject. He started asking me questions about Polish girls, films and wages. Whatever answer I gave, his eyes lit up like the ships’ lamps on the Bosporus. Then he calculated how long he’d have to work in his country to get a Polish salary, and whistled in appreciation.

My pal Yusuf was a really good friend. When his money ran out, the hotel owner offered him a job on the night shift. Every time I went to Istanbul I would drop in there for a cup of coffee.

‘Istanbul is an incredible city,’ he said. ‘Here you’ll find the sort of people who’ll share their last crust of bread with you, as well as the sort who’ll cut out your kidneys and dump you in the canal.’

He was looking for the first kind; I hope he found them, because a year ago he sent me an e-mail saying: ‘I’m learning to swim ‘:-)’.

I asked: ‘Are you moving on?’ Again he replied: ‘:-)’.

Since then he hadn’t been in touch again. One day he had simply upped and left the class C hotel, where he had been working for almost seven years.


Two days after my conversation with Mahmud the receptionist wakes me up. Abdullah is waiting in the lobby, a petty conman who tried to sell me a lump of hashish a few days earlier. He has a message from Mahmud: ‘Let’s meet at noon, same café as last time.’

I arrive a quarter of an hour early.

‘What’s your newspaper’s print-run?’ asks Mahmud.

‘Half a million,’ I say.

Mahmud quickly does some calculations.

‘I’ll help you,’ he says at last. ‘But you’ll have to do something for me too. What? You’ll find out in due course.

But now we’re going on a tour of the city.’

So we finish our coffee and head off. We start with Eminönü, the ferry terminus from which for one-and-a-half lira (about fifty pence) you can sail to the other side of the Bosporus, to Asia. The Yeni Cami Mosque is located here. Behind it the market begins, and in front of it there is a square.

‘The thieves in this square specialise in passports,’ says Mahmud.

Then he explains that the market in passports is as up and down as the Turkish stock exchange. Five years ago a Polish passport was only worth as much as a Tajik one, in other words nothing. But since then we’ve got into the EU, followed by Schengen, so today the immigrants have to pay 1,000 or even 1,500 dollars for a small book with an eagle stamped on it.

The most expensive passports of all are German and Italian – more than 2,000 dollars each. Iranian ones sell pretty well too. They are easily available – because Iran is Turkey’s neighbour – and they provide entry into Bosnia. From Bosnia to Italy is only a stone’s throw, and every Libyan has relatives or friends in Italy.

‘Oh, look at that!’ says Mahmud, pointing out a grey-haired man who looks like an American, around whom a crowd of people has suddenly gathered. ‘The Kurds are setting a trap,’ says Mahmud. ‘They’re brilliant at it. They’ll even get your passport out of your underpants.’ And although this time the American seems to have got away with it, Mahmud still nods in admiration.

Two days later two Kurds try to rob me too, this time of my cash. My photographer, my interpreter and I catch one of them and hand him over to the police. I spend half a day at the police station to make a statement, during which time eight people come in to report the theft of their passports. Sixteen more show up at the tourist police office. In a single day, just around Eminönü Square, Dutch, Australian and German passports and one Norwegian passport have all gone missing.

‘A thief often has an order for a particular passport,’ one of the officers tells me. ‘Sometimes he’ll follow a tourist for a day or more. They call you “passport donors”.’

I ask Mahmud what can be done with a Polish passport issued in my name.

‘Most often they’re falsified – it’s easier to swap a single page than fake an entire passport. But sometimes someone buys them without any changes. People on the move are so keen to get out of here that they’ll believe anything – even that you can be black and enter Europe with a photo of a white man called Szabłowski in your passport.’

                                                                                                                  the shipwreck

In September 2003 the sea cast the bodies of twenty-four immigrants onto the Turkish shore, most likely from Pakistan. The Turks were shocked – it was the biggest tragedy on their seas for many years.

Meanwhile it was just a harbinger of things to come. Only three months later sixty people were drowned on their way to Rhodes. They included Iraqis, Afghans and Jordanians, as well as a woman and her ten-year-old daughter.

Following this disaster some of the resorts started to employ the people in dark-blue trousers who look for bodies to make sure the tourists won’t find them.

The next day, a ferry on its way to Rhodes rescued one single man, a twenty-year-old refugee from Iraq who by a miracle had clung onto a piece of driftwood.

For a month all the Turkish media did interviews with him. He was on the front pages of the newspapers, and the charitable organisations vied with one another to arrange asylum, a flat and a job for him. Even people on the move, who were also very poor, collected money to help him.

‘I already knew that boy from Iraq. Allah gave him a second life,’ says Mahmud. ‘As if his mother had given birth to him all over again. And do you know what he’s done with his new life?’ Mahmud leads me down the backstreets of Taksim, Istanbul’s red light and party district. In a small street where the transvestites have their rendezvous, sits a balding young man with a tufty red beard. He is staring at the road, smiling and muttering to himself.

A trickle of saliva has congealed on his chin.

‘You’re stoned again! Bloody hell, you’re stoned again!’ screams Mahmud, and grabs at the boy. Then he looks at me, and at the boy again. ‘He couldn’t hold out,’ he says. ‘He couldn’t hold out,’ he repeats, and it is a short while before he lets go of the boy’s sweater – the young man to whom Allah gave a second life, if that really was the same person. I have no way of checking.


Once the immigrants have passed through the purgatory of Istanbul, they set off for the seaside. Hidden in transporter lorries and in car boots they reach Basmane, a district of Izmir.

Once again their route crosses the tourist route; Izmir is the Turkish Los Angeles, a beautiful port with an old castle and excellent food. The tourists head for Basmane too – this is where the cheapest hotels are located. Ours is called the Şükran. Right on the doorstep we pass three Africans, who are nibbling sunflower seeds and watching the weather channel so intently that it looks as if you could improve it simply by staring.

The bazaar in Basmane is probably the only bazaar in the world that starts up at around midnight. Here they sell bananas, oranges, watermelons, fresh bread, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, chocolate and energy drinks. A few of the shops even have ropes, clasp knives and life jackets on offer – everything that might come in handy during the crossing.

The place is crowded with people. They’re haggling, laughing and shoving things into small backpacks (as with airlines, you pay the smugglers through the nose for excess baggage; the price only includes a small backpack).

Round the corner there’s an internet café and some cheap phones. Burkina Faso – one euro per minute. Afghanistan – eighty cents. Syria – sixty. Now and then a fleeting figure dashes past to tell the family he’s already in Izmir; only a short boat ride to go, and he’ll be in the world of his dreams – Europe.

Fifty kilometres from Basmane lies Çeşme, the very last port before the EU border. In the season this is paradise for windsurfers. When the wind is blowing from Greece, they throw their boards onto the water and ride the crests of the waves. The wind from Greece comes down from the mountains, and can pick up a lot of speed. While it is blowing, the people on the move must sit and wait; a boat has to have a good motor to sail against the wind, and a boat with a good motor costs more. So the people on the move have the time to call their families, buy some chocolate, chat with their pals, or nibble sunflower seeds.

Until along comes the wind they’re waiting for from inland. Then the windsurfers head for the bar or the disco, or go on a tour of ancient Ephesus.

Cars drive down to the beaches bordering the city. From these same beaches where the surfers were living it up during the day, now the smugglers’ boats are setting off. The immigrants I spoke to in Izmir had mentioned that you can often hear a disco in the background.

‘I couldn’t believe they were having a good time there. I was thinking I might get killed very soon, and they’re having a disco!’ said Malcolm from Eritrea. ‘But then I realised it was a good thing, because the engine was making a very loud noise – if it weren’t for the disco, anyone could have heard us.’


I don’t want to stand out of the crowd in Basmane, so I sit in the street and pretend to be asleep, as if I’ve nothing to do with what’s going on around there. They might take me for a druggie, or maybe for one of the people on the move.

‘As long as they don’t take me for a journalist,’ I think, disguising myself as best I can.

Unnecessarily – business is conducted quite openly. Today the wind happens to be blowing in the right direction, so now and then the door of one of the small, cheap hotels opens and dark figures get into taxis, vans and even a vehicle marked ‘furniture’. Now and then a police car drives past, but the policemen don’t even slow down.

The hotels here are called: ‘Europe’, ‘Lovely Journey’, ‘Friend’ and ‘Dream’. There’s a nazarlık hanging in every doorway – a bright blue amulet with a black eye, which is meant to protect travellers from bad luck.

At the corner the hotel owners have established a small mosque. You can drop in there at any time to remind Allah of your existence before your journey.

Behind the mosque there is another cluster of telephones. I get talking to two lads from Nigeria, Omar and Nnamdi. They both look about twenty years old.

‘We’re going in two hours, when the first cars come back. I called to tell my mother,’ says Omar happily.

‘Are we afraid? Brother, God is great and everything will be as He decides,’ says Nnamdi, clapping me on the shoulder, and they run off to the bazaar to do their last-minute shopping. For a while I stand by a shop selling fresh bread.

‘Are you sailing too?’ asks the salesman.

‘No, not today,’ I reply.

‘If you want to buy a ticket, you can come to me,’ he says, and winks.


In autumn and winter the hotels and restaurants on the coast give tourists a thirty-per cent discount. As everyone knows, the weather is worse, and you can’t go sailing. But for all that, there’s peace and quiet, and the beauty of nature.

The kaçakçı, or smugglers, give a thirty-per cent discount too. As everyone knows, a body that falls into the water will cool down much faster than in summer. Death is instantaneous. But there are pluses too: in winter the Greeks are less vigilant about guarding the border.

‘Once the kaçakçı used to smuggle cigarettes, alcohol and other things,’ I read in the work of Professor Içduyğu, a leading expert on migration. ‘Now they’ve switched to people. There’s no great big mafia here with a godfather in charge. The structure is more like al-Qaida: lots of small groups which cooperate, but are independent. Nevertheless they are capable of organising a complex journey from Kabul to London.’

The professor ran a survey among smugglers who are in prison. According to his research none of them thinks he is doing anything reprehensible. More than that – they reckon they’re doing a lot to help people, and that their work is a sort of mission.

In the small towns and villages people know who is a kaçakçı. The fishermen in Ayvalık– a charming old port not far from ancient Pergamon – pointed one of them out to me. They call him Ahmet Baba, meaning Father Ahmet. A small
man in an oversized coat, with a fag-end glued to his ashen lips, he looked a bit like a cartoon character. He had come to the harbour to buy fish. Two heavies came trailing along in his wake, Uzbeks or Tajiks at a guess.

Ahmet Baba works for Kurbağa – the Frog. Kurbağa and his men have a monopoly on smuggling people from the Ayvalık area to Lesbos. In the season, never a day goes by without their boats sailing from the neighbouring villages.

‘If there’s a good wind, at dawn every now and then you hear prr, prr, prr,’ says Ismail, a fisherman from Ayvalık. ‘It’s their motors. Then we usually say: “Kurbağa geldi”, meaning “There goes the Frog”.’

Ahmet Baba looks like a kindly uncle. He greets everyone jovially, gives high fives and kisses his old friends on both cheeks. As he walks past me, we almost bump shoulders. He gives me a friendly smile, like a person who is happy and wishes others well too.

He knows I’m looking for information on the kaçakçı. He must know – it’s my third day in Ayvalık by now, and Ahmet Baba knows everything. Even so, he asks in a genial tone: ‘Are you a tourist?’

‘Yes,’ I misinform him. ‘What about you?’

‘Me? I’m the local oddball,’ he says, laughing, and walks off. His heavies are laughing too, and it’s making their large bellies wobble.


In September 2008 Ahmet Baba sent out some dinghies from Behramkale. From here it is only five kilometres in a straight line to the Greek coast.

In the year 347BC Behramkale was called Assos. Aristotle came here to restore his frazzled nerves when he wasn’t chosen to succeed Plato at the famous Athenian Academy. From the local harbour he would make trips to examine the flora and fauna of the island of Lesbos.

Ahmet’s boats were bound for Lesbos too, setting off less than a kilometre away from the harbour where Aristotle started his journeys centuries ago. It all went fairly efficiently, until at about 2am a boat appeared carrying Greek border guards.

From the unguarded beach near Behramkale the whole scene was clearly visible. Ahmet Baba quickly took to his heels, but four dinghies the size of cockle shells, which had already managed to sail out into Greek territorial waters, were left at sea, with thirty-eight people on board.

The Greeks acted aggressively, making big waves with their motorboat, and one of the dinghies capsized, tossing people into the sea. To make them get out of the water faster, the border guards chivvied them by firing shots.

Then they threw a rope, towed all four cockle shells back into Turkish territorial waters and took away their oars and motors, condemning the passengers to drift, which could have been the death of them.

‘Dammit all!’ cursed Ismail the fisherman. He is one of the very few who have bigger vessels in which they can sail out for tuna. But that day, as soon as he and his brother-in-law (who works with him) set off from the port, they saw the four dinghies full of people calling for help. They had no oars, and the weather was getting worse and worse.

The fishermen picked up the refugees and took them to the coastguard’s station. Now Ismail isn’t sure he did the right thing.

‘First I was accused of aiding the smugglers,’ he tells me. ‘I had to go and explain myself. Finally the prosecutor said: “I haven’t found anything but I’ll be keeping an eye on you”.’

The fishermen here have often helped immigrants.

‘In summer there are problems almost every day,’ says Ismail, and his brother-in-law agrees. ‘The Greeks shoot at them. Sometimes they make holes in the boats, and before he can start fishing, a fisherman spends two hours sailing about picking up those people so they won’t drown.’

‘We make our living by catching fish,’ adds the brother-in-law. ‘When we hauled that lot out, we couldn’t work for the next two weeks – first we had to make statements, then we had to be fingerprinted. How am I supposed to help those people if my wife’s got nothing to give the children to eat afterwards?’

Ismail continues: ‘Now we’re afraid to help. What’s more, there are so many of those dinghies now that it’s impossible to help them all anyway. Am I sorry I helped them that time? Bloody hell, yes, I am. I have to say I regret it.’


WITOLD SZABŁOWSKI is an award-winning Polish journalist and writer, specialising in Turkish affairs. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Melchior Wańkowicz Award (category: Inspiration of the Year). His report on Turkish honour killings, ‘It’s Out of Love, Sister’, received an honorary mention at the Amnesty International competition for the best articles on human rights issues. In 2010, he received the European Parliament Journalism Award for his reportage ‘Two Bodies Will Wash Ashore Today’, on the problem of illegal immigrants flocking to the European Union.

In 2011, The Assassin from Apricot City won the Beata Pawlak Award and was nominated for the NIKE Award, Poland’s most prestigious book award. The book was selected for English PEN’s PEN Translates! Programme. The Assassin from Apricot City is his first book to be translated into English and was published by Stork Press on November 30th 2013.

About the Translator:

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES is a full-time translator of Polish literature. Her published translations include fiction by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including The Last Supper by Paweł Huelle, for which she won the Found in Translation Award 2008. Her translations of non-fiction include reportage, literary biographies and essays. She also translates poetry and books for children, including illustrated books, novels and verse. She occasionally takes part in translation conferences, reads her work at public events, and interprets for the writers whom she translates at literary festivals. Last year she participated in Translation Nation, a project to teach primary school children the value of knowing languages. She recently mentored a younger translator within a project run by the British Centre for Literary Translation, and initiated by the UK Translators Association, of which she is currently a committee member.