Friday, July 6, 2012


By: Seumas Gallacher    


It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The journey from Krakow to Cherbourg is a thousand kilometres as the crow flies.
The dingy truck with four dozen aboard was cramped and filthy. Svetlana could smell the sweat and fear that clings to transit refugees. Like herself, the others sharing the dark canvas-covered space in the rear of the transporter were searching for a way out of the squalor and poverty of their villages. All were female, some barely older than her own seventeen years, some older than that. She knew only two of her companions. Their common thread was the desire to find a route to England and a chance of earnings, however meagre, at least better than nothing in their homeland. Desperation and hope make easy bedfellows.
The handlers had outlined the way out two weeks ago, promising work with their business partners in London. Guaranteed placements with good families keen to have their foreign labour. No money up front required. That was the clincher. What was there to lose? There were early misgivings as whispers surfaced about enforced prostitution. These evaporated with their handlers’ assurances that this was a legitimate business, with constant need in the UK for reliable workers like themselves. However, crossing borders without documentation was illegal, but who could afford time and money to acquire passports?
Thin matting covered the floor of the truck, and piles of large empty cardboard containers softened the jolts and jarring. They were told not to smoke, as that could betray their presence to officials at checkpoints. It would also be dangerous because extra fuel containers were stacked inside to avoid the need to purchase gas on the road.

A small light fitment shed its glow across the passengers. Some were already in nervous conversation, but many travelled in silence, wrapped in the anticipation of better times at the end of the journey. They were warned not to speak when the vehicle was motionless. Officials have ears.
Svetlana was the third last to board in Krakow before the door was locked. Some dialects she understood. Most she didn’t. She tried to focus on being as comfortable as the overloaded conditions allowed. Tucked into the left rear corner, at least she was supported on two sides. Her belongings were crammed into a duffle bag, which doubled as a cushion. She didn’t own a watch, had no idea how long they’d been on the road, and not being able to see out of the vehicle made the time drag even more. The initial fear that caused the dryness in her mouth at the start of the journey was slowly turning into more positive anticipation of what lay ahead in England. At least she’d be able to send money to her mother in the village. Her father had been an unknown figure, having died sixteen years ago when Svetlana was barely one year old. Opening her bag, she took out the grease proof paper holding the cheese and bread she had brought aboard, and ate half of it. Not knowing how much longer they might have to go, she decided to keep some for later. The bottle of water, warm by now, eased her throat a little. The monotony of the noise from the wheels as the journey progressed began to make her drowsy. With barely room to manoeuvre with the other girls pressed so closely, she tried to position the bag at her back once more and leaned her head against the heavy cloth wall. The truck had been used to transport many different cargoes in recent months. The smell of rotted vegetables and dank canvas mixed with the sweat and body odour. Proper sleep was almost impossible, but she managed to doze for short spells.

Tev Naar had made this run dozens of times over the past three years.
His job was to drive. Just drive. Nothing else. Each trip had a bag man aboard. Some of them he had journeyed with often, some not. Names were neither asked for nor exchanged. The bag man’s function was to grease palms at the points of entry and exit ensuring that recognised friendlies at customs crossings received the standard payment. No vehicle inspection needed.
The greaser on this trip was a regular. A small man, unremarkable in any crowd. These were the best operators. Quiet. Effective. Mingling in.

Early evening drizzle misted the entrance to the quay as the truck drew into the port of Cherbourg. As normal, Tev parked on the far edge of the dockside, away from unwelcome attention. Now the wait. In a couple of hours, around ten o’clock, local handlers would arrive to transfer the human cargo to the waiting freighter for the journey across the English Channel. Until then, Tev and the greaser chatted quietly about football, the only common interest they shared.

In the rear, the women waited, talking only in low whispers. They had been briefed on the schedule. They knew in a couple of hours they would be on the high seas on the final leg to England.
The dashboard clock neared nine o’clock. Tev’s companion opened the truck door.
“I need a pee.”
“Right,” said Tev.
The greaser stepped down from the passenger seat. He didn’t hear the click of the silenced gun that blew a hole in his right temple.
Tev heard a grunt. He turned towards the passenger side door and was met by an equally deadly bullet to the head.
Inside the truck, Svetlana heard a rustling coming from the canvas-covered side of the vehicle, along with whispered voices in a language she didn’t recognise. Then the pungent smell of petrol fumes. What was going on?

Everything happened in a blur. Flames exploded along the sides of the truck and up across the roof. The screams from the women were terrifying. Utter panic. Instinctively, she and several others beside her clawed frantically at the back door sheeting. Nothing moved. Others piled forward. They heaved their bodies against the door as acrid smoke filled their lungs. Svetlana struggled for air. “Dear God, I’m going to die,” the thought came to her, “who’s going to look after my mother?”
The flames reached the spare fuel tanks at the right hand side of the truck. Seconds later they ignited in a roar. None but those furthest from the tanks stood a chance. The wall of refugees between Svetlana and the explosion saved her along with the front three women pressing against the door. It gave extra impetus to their shoving.

The door broke open. Svetlana fell headlong on to the muddy ground and rolled away. She wasn’t aware that the back of her clothing had been burned along with her legs, half of her back and her left side. At least she was away from the burning truck.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Everything went black as Svetlana passed out.

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