Down and Out on the Smuggler’s Road

A veteran war reporter goes undercover to document a world where movement is surveilled, curtailed, and criminalized.

Afghan youth from Kunduz bathe while waiting with other recently arrived migrants to board a ferry to Athens from Mytilene, Greece on October 16, 2015. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I always knew Matthieu Aikins must be brave. He went undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking border police, exposed a possible massacre by a top Afghan commander, and dug into allegations of killings by a U.S. Special Forces A-Team.

Some reporters can’t help telling you their latest tale of derring-do: “I was there. And it was hell!” I’d infrequently run into Aikins somewhere, but the Canadian journalist would never say much about what he had just done or where he was headed. Then my next issue of Harper’s would arrive, and I’d see “On the Front Lines in the World’s Deadliest Megacity” above his name.

But I didn’t really know how brave Aikins was until, a third of the way through his debut book, he admits: “I was in danger of losing the plot.” I felt the same. It seemed as if “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” (a title borrowed from a Dari proverb) might be going off the rails.

For years, Aikins — a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone — had worked alongside his friend “Omar” (a pseudonym), a former interpreter for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. Like millions of other Afghans ground down by war and want, Omar eventually resolves to make the long, dangerous journey to Europe. It was a readymade story. “If Omar was going to travel that way, then I wanted to go with him and write about it,” Aikins tells us. “Given the risk of being arrested, I’d have to disguise myself as a fellow Afghan migrant. … This way I could see the refugee underground from the inside.”

The cover of “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” by Matthieu Aikins.

Image: Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
You see where this is going, right? Some sort of modern-day “On the Road” meets “Down and Out in Paris and London,” but a work of nonfiction with a war and refugee crisis angle. (If anyone left in publishing remembers Kerouac and Orwell, they probably described the proposal for “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” this way.) And I was ready for that book to launch on page one. But then Omar doesn’t leave Kabul — or Laila, the woman he wants to marry but barely knows — for almost a year.  And when Aikins (traveling undercover as “Habib”) and Omar finally do hit the smuggler’s road to Europe, it’s all false starts and stillborn plans. They’re going to fly to Istanbul. No wait, they’re going to skirt the Dasht-e Margo (“Desert of Death”) and travel through Balochistan — in the treacherous borderlands of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan — by truck.  But now Omar is afraid to take the Pakistani route to Iran. A hundred pages in, Aikins and Omar are on a bus back to Kabul. “This trip with Omar had gotten so screwed up that I didn’t understand what I was doing anymore,” Aikins admits. Should I even tell you that, as the book comes to a close, Aikins is actually questioning his choice of Omar as a protagonist?

But it turns out that I shouldn’t have worried — and you needn’t either. It’s in those busted schemes, the countless failed plans, and Aikins’s effort to shed his identity, strip off his clothes, and wade across the Rezovo river out of Europe (Bulgaria) and into a country (Turkey) that had just barred him from entering due to vague suspicions about his passport and of journalists more generally, that the heart of the story emerges. Not just Aikins’s finely crafted tale — an intimate and empathic portrait of friendship, shared sacrifice, and the absurdities of borders on an arbitrarily divided planet — but one of the biggest stories of our time: how the mass migration of people persists in a world where movement is surveilled, curtailed, and criminalized; where the ancient problems of rough seas and searing heat have been compounded by a devious dance between uncaring governments and criminal syndicates that compounds risks and transforms travel that might once have been merely difficult into a potentially lethal endeavor.

Since the U.S. invasion of their country in 2001, Omar and almost 6 million fellow Afghans have been either internally displaced or become refugees. Worse yet, between 38 million and 60 million people in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, as well as Afghanistan, have been forced from their homes, either abroad or within their own countries, due to the U.S. war on terror, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. To put it in perspective, even the low-end estimate exceeds those displaced by every conflict since 1900, except for the cataclysm of World War II.

For years, this ongoing catastrophe has intermittently garnered headlines only to inevitably recede from the world’s front pages. The crisis reached its greatest prominence seven years ago, when a photo of the tiny, lifeless body of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, shocked the conscience of the globe and, according to the New York Times, “became a worldwide symbol of the suffering caused by the Syrian war and the European refugee crisis it triggered.” Leaving aside that “European refugee crisis” made it sound as if the refugees were European (they weren’t); as if Europe were the aggrieved party (it wasn’t); and as if the conflict in Syria were the only war that forced people from their homes (it wasn’t), Alan Kurdi was just one of an astounding 65.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide due to war, persecution, general violence, or human rights violations in 2015.

Since then, things have gotten much worse. Between last year’s coverage of Covid-19, a cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and robber barons being shot into space, you might have missed that the number of forcibly displaced people ballooned to 84 million — and that 2.6 million of them, the third-highest total by country, were Afghans.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around 84 million people, roughly the combined populations of Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, the equivalent of 1 in every 95 people on this planet. Add those driven across borders by economic desperation and the numbers turn truly astronomical. One in 30 people on Earth is a migrant, meaning that more than 1 billion people are now on the move around the globe. Many exist on the margins of society: imperiled, imprisoned, their lives stuck in neutral, their dreams clipped and crippled. And they’re joined each day by additional travelers on what Bob Dylan called the “unarmed road of flight.”

MYTELENE, GREECE - MARCH 09:  Migrants and Refugee from Afghanistan and Syria stand in line at the Port of Mytelene prior boarding a ferry, which will bring 500 refugees to Athens, on March 9, 2016 in Mytelene, Greece. 10 boats arrived during the night and day, 400 refugees and migrants were picked up by the Greek Coast Guard and the German Search and rescue team (SAR).  Joined Forces of the Standing NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Maritime Group 2, are patrolling the coast of the greek Island of Lesbos and the turkish coast. Turkey has announced on Monday to take back illegal migrants from Syria and to exchange those with legal migrants.  (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Migrants and refugees from Afghanistan and Syria stand in line at the Port of Mytelene in Greece, prior boarding a ferry to Athens, on March 9, 2016. in Mytelene, Greece.

Photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

On that road with Aikins and Omar, you see these people up close, the dangers they face, the setbacks they overcome — or don’t. Will Omar ever see Laila again? Will the rest of Omar’s family, having fled Afghanistan for Turkey, make it to Europe? Will Aikins be left to care for 11-year-old Raja when the boy’s cousin, another Afghan refugee, is arrested trying to flee a Greek refugee camp for the capital Athens?

In addition to crafting a riveting and suspenseful tale, Aikins displays a keen eye for detail and a gift for painting vivid scenes, like his crossing from Turkey to Greece in an overloaded dinghy. “A curly-haired little Iraqi girl was sitting with her parents on the floor in front of me. As the swells grew rougher, her head kept knocking into my knee, so I reached out and cradled her head,” he writes. “It was too dark to see the other passengers’ faces clearly, but as I listened to their whimpers and groans, I became aware of the utter terror that surrounded me.”

It’s that omnipresent fear, the powerful stories embedded within the main narrative — those of the Iraqi girl and all the other refugees and migrants, the people-smugglers and police, the activists and aid workers — that form the sinews of “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” and tell the larger story of war and globalization, the migration crisis, and the suffering and resilience of tens of millions who are largely ignored by the lucky inhabitants of the affluent West.

Aikins was able to make this journey for some of the same reasons he was such an effective reporter in Afghanistan. Many foreign correspondents try and fail to blend into the background of the places they cover, but Aikins’s European-Canadian father and Asian American mother gifted him a rare asset for a Western reporter in Afghanistan: looks that Afghans took for those of a fellow countryman. That genetic luck, combined with formidable language skills, cultural acumen, local dress, and — another must for a reporter — knowing when to keep quiet, allowed Aikins not only unique “undercover” access to the story, but they also made him a central part of it. As he navigates the refugee underground, Aikins offers a kaleidoscopic view of fragmented families and dispossessed people trying and failing and scheming and planning and hoping and praying to complete the next leg of their journey — of refugees in desperate circumstances, making impossible choices based on rumors and hunches and advice from people they barely know, taking outrageous risks because they have no other options.

Aikins offers a kaleidoscopic view of fragmented families and dispossessed people trying and failing and scheming and planning and hoping and praying to complete the next leg of their journey.

Sardar, who used the same smuggler as Aikins, paid extra for a speedboat passage to Greece only to be thwarted and thrown into a detention camp. For his next try, he, along with his wife and her kid brother, who had only just completed the overland journey from Afghanistan to Turkey, hoped to make it to Italy in a shipping container. Yousef and another Syrian hand over 2000 euros each to a Pakistani smuggler to guide them through the Balkans, only to be abandoned in the frigid mountains of Macedonia. A police patrol likely saves their lives, but the arrest lands them in a filthy cell for two weeks, after which Macedonian authorities dump them on a deserted stretch of the Serbian border and force them to cross. Broke and homeless, Yousef texts Omar: “Whatever you do, don’t come this way.” But what does it matter? “This way,” Aikins’s book makes clear, is likely as bad as that way, unless you have — in addition to plenty of guts and grit — enough money and luck to neutralize the danger.


Matthieu Aikins photographed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2020.

Photo: Kiana Hayeri
“Like war,” Aikins explains, “life on the smuggler’s road was mostly waiting punctuated by moments of terror.” Aikins should know. He’s been breaking big stories about America’s wars since the 2000s, none larger than last year’s investigation for the Times of an August drone attack in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. That reporting helped force U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to acknowledge the attack had been a “horrible mistake.” But the Pentagon and the American people have not, and likely never will, take responsibility for the 6 million Afghans like Omar who fled their homes during the American war and the millions more displaced around the globe by the war on terror.

“The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” is a powerful reminder that for many, the rigors of traversing borders involve far more than long lines or removing your shoes. “Imagine,” writes Aikins, “the cities of the world connected by a network of paths that measure not physical distance but danger: the risk of getting arrested, stuck in transit, scammed, kidnapped or killed.”

The fates of millions on those paths will be determined by punitive policies, the vagaries of dumb luck, and the boredom of border cops. Unique, gripping, and beautifully written, “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water” offers an intimate view of these dangerous global byways, the intrepid who travel them, and the dreams they’ll risk everything to realize.

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