Without a Trace
A gale was blowing from the south-west as the elderly architect put on his jacket and rubber boots and went to face the elements. Down in the bay, four metre high waves crashed against the cliffs and sent sea spray hundreds of metres across the grazing land at Norway’s southernmost tip.
The first thing the architect noticed when he approached the sea was a wetsuit. It lay stretched out on the small patch of grass between the cliffs, right outside the reach of the waves. “That might be useful,” the architect thought. It was rare for him or anyone else in the village to take a walk down there. The wetsuit could have been here for a long time.
He could smell seaweed and the sea and a faint, sickly scent of something else.
The wetsuit was the Triboard brand. The architect thought that it looked cheap. It was partially inside out. Stuck inside the legs of the suit, was a pair of blue flippers. Two white bones were sticking out of each one.
Sherriff Kåre Unnhammer from Farsund police station is an authoritative figure with large serious eyes, a big moustache and gold teeth that gleam when he speaks. It is a plesant day of April this year. In the waiting room, there is a warning against boat thieves and a poster stating that the legal size for cod caught south of 60 degrees latitude is 40 cm. In the middle ages, they burnt witches right outside this spot, but things are more relaxed now.
“This is a peaceful place,” says Unnhammer.
He turns to his computer and reads from the log. “At 3:02 pm, January 2, 2015, a diving suit with human remains was found at Lista.”
Forensic experts from Kristiansand went to take pictures and examine the body, but it had been in the sea for so long that there was not a lot left to examine. There was no sign of damage from propellers, stabbing or gunshot wounds. Unnhammer reckoned it was somebody who had gone missing in the North Sea and that the person would be identified quickly.
«When we have so little to go on, we have to turn to DNA profiling to find the answer.»
They checked the body against a missing report from the Stavanger area, where a man in a wetsuit had gone missing a couple of years ago. Neither that body nor anybody else who had been reported missing matched the body found at Lista. Some bones found in the same area were sent for analysis, but proved to be from an animal skeleton.
“From time to time, we get bodies floating in here, but we haven’t had one that we haven’t managed to identify before,” says Unnhammer.
There is a sea chart of the Lista area on the office wall. The currents in the sea are very unpredictable and ever changing. Not even professional fishermen can tell how the ocean will behave the next day. It is impossible to say where a corpse that floats ashore here has come from.
In this case, there was not a lot Unnhammer could do.
“When we have so little to go on, we have to turn to DNA profiling to find the answer. And we can’t get that kind of thing done here,” he says.
Police Superintendent Per Angel has been identifying dead bodies since the end of the 80s. He is head of the Kripos national ID group. They are called in cases of simultaneous multiple deaths or when an unidentified body is found. Angel talks about Norway being a country made for accidents. We have a lot of storms, rugged landscape, and thousands of workplaces offshore and in the Polar region. We have had train accidents, plane crashes, shipwrecks and terrorism.
“We have become skilled in ID work,” says Angel.
The list of missing people in Norway since 1947 amounts to 1,443 people at the time of writing. The list of dead people found in the same time period, but who the police have not managed to identify, is considerably shorter. Just 16 bodies, including several findings of bones which most likely originate in pre-modern times.
“The man in the wetsuit could be number 17. This is a special case,” says Angel.
When Kripos receives an unidentified body, forensic experts, pathologists, dentists and forensic geneticists collect so called post-mortem information. They create a DNA profile, take fingerprints and register information about teeth, any jewellery, previous bone fractures, tattoos and any other characteristics that may help in the identification of a body. They also try to establish the cause of death.
Post-mortem information is compared with information from missing reports, where family or friends have provided details about people they are looking for. The main requirements for identification are information on teeth, fingerprints and DNA. One requirement is not enough to establish identity and has to be supported by one or several additional required pieces of information. There may be findings on the body, medical information or tactical information connecting the body to a missing person.
No missing reports in Norway match the body found at Lista. In the wetsuit case, only DNA has been found. If Kripos is to be able to identify the body, he must for some reason have a registered DNA profile somewhere in the world or a family member must have reported him missing and provided a DNA test.
On February 5, Kripos sent out a so called “Black Notice” through Interpol. It contains a DNA profile and a detailed description of the finding of the body on Lista. They received an answer the next day.
The Lista body is not the only one that drifted ashore in a grey and black Triboard wetsuit.
“We call him the wetsuitman,” says John Welzenbagh, investigator at the Netherlands special police unit for persons missing in the North Sea.
Welzenbagh is a 52 years old former navy diver, he is fit and wears a dark windbreaker jacket and sports sunglasses. He is the kind of investigator who lies awake at night, pondering unsolved cases.
On the ferry across from Den Helder to the island of Texel a couple of hours north of Amsterdam, Welzenbagh points to a sand bank and explains that he is still looking into the identity of a man who was found on a sailboat there in 1995.
Just a few weeks ago, he had a breakthrough in another case and is close to identifying an older, probably French, woman who floated ashore here 15 years ago.
The wetsuitman was found on Texel early in the morning on October 27 last year. He was wearing a black and grey wetsuit, identical to the wetsuit found with human remains inside at Lista 67 days later. The body was found along the water’s edge on the broad beach below the dunes and cafes in the small village of De Koog. It is a beach that is popular among windsurfers and tourists from all over the Netherlands come here in the summer.
Every year Welzenbagh and the Dutch North Sea group get in between 20 and 30 bodies or remains for identification. Most turn out to have gone missing from the local area. Most of the cases are solved quickly.
“This case is different,” says Welzenbagh.
How long had the wetsuitman been lying in the water? Three days? Three weeks? The rate of decay is difficult to assess when a person is in a wetsuit in cold water. Where did he come from? It was also impossible to say. Welzenbagh has found dead people from the entire North Sea and the Channel area: England, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium and of course the Netherlands.
There were not many physical characteristics to go on. The only thing Welzenbagh noticed was that the body had very dark hair.
“I thought he might be from Spain. There are not many other places in Europe where you see that hair colour, in any case, not amongst ethnic Europeans,” he says.
When the wetsuitman was found, four windsurfers were reported missing in England. The main theory in the first days was that one of them had floated ashore. The windsurfers had however already been found. The same went for a French diver who went missing outside Normandy. Still, Dutch media reported that the body found on Texel was a diver from France.
“This was of course wrong, but even at our meetings he was known as the diver. I didn’t like that,” says Welzenbagh.
“We had no way of knowing what kind of water sports he had been doing. If we called him the diver, I was afraid we would overlook clues that could help us. I said 'from now on, we will call him the wetsuitman'.”
The police were back at square one. Fingerprints were impossible to reproduce. There were no papers or other characteristics and the DNA profile and missing report they sent out through Interpol met with no response.
The wetsuit was the only strong clue Welzenbagh had to work with. A 5 millimetre thick neoprene wetsuit with a hood, made for diving and snorkelling in temperatures between 16 and 24 degrees. In the North Sea and The English Channel, water temperatures rarely rise above 15. At the end of October when the body was found, the normal temperature is an icy 10 degrees.
“Something that wasn’t quite right,” says Welzenbagh.
RFID stands for “Radio-Frequency Identification” and are tiny data chips that are used for everything from registering passengers in toll stations to identifying pets. They are also used in all sorts of goods, as a modern barcode system that stores information about where goods are moving from the time they are produced until they are scanned at a cash register and disappear into a shopping bag.
John Welzenbagh knew this. When he discovered the little RFID-symbol on the tightly sewn tag with the wetsuit’s serial number and goods declaration, he knew he could find out where and when the suit was sold. And – if there was a credit card number on the receipt – who bought it. Here’s what he found out:
At 20.03 pm, Tuesday, October 7, 2014, a customer stood in front of the cash register of the Decathlon sports shop in the French port city of Calais by The English Channel. The customer bought a Triboard Subsea 5mm wetsuit, medium size, for 79 Euros. The customer also bought hand paddles – plates swimmers use on their hands to provide more resistance when they train, a snorkel and a diving mask, flippers, water socks – usually used for gymnastics in water and a waterproof A4 plastic folder.
But there was more: There was two of everything on the receipt. Welzenbagh knew full well where one of the wetsuits was – in the evidence store in the Netherlands.
When the serial number on the wetsuit was sent to Norway, it became clear where the other one had ended up. It was found by an architect during a winter storm in Lista, 850 kilometres from Calais, 87 days after it was purchased.
The total for the goods was 256 euros. The customer paid cash. There is no surveillance footage from the shop.
Neither the DNA profile from the body in the Netherlands or Norway produced any hits internationally through Interpol. All leads in the case trail off in front of the cash register in Decathlon in Calais, barely an hour after sunset on October 7 last year.
The sand sweeps across the ground in biting wind, making it difficult to see. A few hundred metres further on, in the grey-brown sand between two hilltops on the plains, a handful of refugees are walking in a cloud of dust, pushing a shopping basket filled with bottles of water against the wind.
“No camera,” cries one of them when he sees us. He gestures angrily at us to go away.
Surrounding us on all sides, blue, black and green plastic shimmers. Simple tents have been erected using poles, steel wire and plastic bags, at best. There are hundreds of them, spread everywhere on the large site which used to be a dump.
Over 2000 so called illegal immigrants from all over the world live here. Twice as many are expected during the summer. They have almost no water, no electricity, no rules, no security, no heating, nothing.
A muscular African man, almost two metres tall, and in his 20's, walks along the road towards the building complex where the refugees are one meal a day. This also houses the only water tap in the area.
It is eleven in the morning. He is drunk and clutching a bottle of rosé from Lidl. He is crying loudly. His voice breaks. «I wanna go home», he cries. «I wanna go home to Africa».
Welcome to the desolate, illness-infested and highly unofficial refugee camp in Calais. It is proof of the total failure of Western Europe’s attempts to treat refugees with the minimum of dignity. It is the camp nobody wanted, but which is here anyway and growing constantly. This is the camp with no name, but everybody knows what it’s called.
Welcome to the Jungle.
Calais with its 70,000 inhabitants is located at the spot where the English Channel is at its narrowest. It is 34 kilometres across to England. On good days, you can see the distinctive white limestone cliffs of Dover on the British side. Otherwise Calais is a fairly charmless city, a sleepy port of entry to France. The travel guide Lonely Planet describes the city as the place in the world where most people have passed through without stopping.
The Eurotunnel is a few kilometres outside Calais. Massive trains transport cars and trucks in the tunnel under the channel. The ferry to Dover leaves from the port of Calais.
The latest addition to the almost military guard is a five metre high and 20 km long barbed wire fence last used during a high-level NATO meeting in Wales. It was donated by the British authorities along with 12 million pounds in order to increase security around the ferry and the tunnel.
The refugees in the Jungle have one goal only – to get to England. The question is how.
At least 15 refugees from Calais died last year, including a 16-year-old girl. Most were run over on the motorway. One died when he jumped from a bridge down on to a passing truck. One was found dead in the river, one fell from his hiding place under the wheel axle of a tourist bus. There are also those who are not found in official lists, activists’ blogs or news reports. The ones nobody has heard of. The ones nobody remembers and nobody has enquired about.
The refugee theory emerged when John Welzenbagh and his colleagues in the Netherlands managed to connect the wetsuits to Calais. A person with a permanent connection to Europe, a man from Calais or a regular tourist, would have been reported missing by family or friends. The police would have heard about it.
Another thing that puzzeled Welzenbagh, was that the equipment on the receipt did not make sense. A strange combination of items made for competitive swimming, water aerobics and snorkling. He felt that nobody with a minimum of knowledge about water sports would have bought such a combination.
Could they be refugees that tried to swim to England?
In an industrial estate outside the centre of Calais, is the Decathlon sports shop. You can buy everything and it is cheap.
When Magasinet arrives one morning at the end of April, most employees are busy. A young woman sorts out goods at the end of a rack separating surf boards and swimsuits. We explain that we are journalists from Norway and that two men have been found dead in wetsuits that were purchased here on October 7 last year.
“I know that,” she says. “The police called. I was the one at the cash registry.”
She says she must speak to the manager and will be gone for a short while. When she comes back she says that she cannot speak to us and that we must not mention the name of the sports shop if we write anything.
We do a round of the shop and find her again some minutes later at the wetsuit rack.
“They bought two of these,” she says quietly and points to one of the suits.
She behaves as if she is nervous, keeps her voice down and makes sure that nobody sees that she is talking to us.
“I remember them, but indistinctly. There were two young men, perhaps in the beginning of their 20's. They were refugees and looked as if they might be from Afghanistan,” she says.
After finding the body on Texel, the Dutch police took pictures and sent them to an English expert who did an identikit picture of the man. We show it to the woman in the shop.
“I can’t tell if it was one of them. I don’t remember.”
“Did they say anything about what they were going to use the wetsuits for?”
“No. But what I heard is that they swim out to small boats that take them over to England.”
“Have refugees have been here buying wetsuits?”
“I've been told by others who work here they do. It happens around once a month. I don’t know anything more.”
The refugee problem in Calais began in 1999. In an unused hangar right by the tunnel, the Red Cross opened the Sangatte refugee centre. It was intended to give refuge to a hundred Kosovo Albanians who had fled the war in the Balkans.
Three years later, Sangatte was a scandal and political abscess for France and England.
A few hundred Kosovo refugees had turned into 1,600 refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Every single night hundreds of them tried to get to England by hiding in trucks heading for the ferry or the tunnel. Accusations were thrown back and forth over the channel about who was responsible.
At Sangatte, there were riots between ethnic groups. Refugees cut holes in the fence and stormed the tunnel terminal. «Stop the invasion», was the headline on the front page of the English Daily Express.
In December 2002, British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that France had agreed to the closure of Sangatte. Refugees continued to come to Calais, but now they had nowhere to live.
They began making their own homes. Some lived on the street, other set up small squatter areas in the city. Most settled on an industrial site belonging to one of Europe’ largest producers of titanium dioxide. That was the first «jungle» in Calais, the Tioxide Jungle.
It is afternoon in what is now called the Jungle, or the New Jungle. Henok (26) fled the reign of terror in Eritrea and has been here one month. He wears jeans and an old flannel jacket. He speaks slowly, says little and has tired eyes that have seen too much.
He leads us to an Eritrean area of the Jungle. Refugees mostly stay within their own ethnic groups.
“This is a dangerous place,” he says.
“We are cold, have no water and there are snakes here. It is not a place for human beings.”
He explains that he left Eritrea eight months ago. First he went to Sudan, then through the Sahara to the civil war stricken and lawless Libya. He was taken by the police and put in prison for three weeks. He never found out why. Both soldiers and police in Libya are corrupt through and through. He bought himself out of prison for 500 dollars. Then he went to people traffickers in Tripoli, got money sent over from his family in Eritrea and paid 1700 dollars to be stowed away on a boat across the Mediterranean.
“I can get killed in Eritrea, get killed in Libya or drown in the Mediterranean. I must try all the same.”
His wife Bethelem (21) and son Fire-Ab Henok (20 months) are still in Eritrea. He thinks. He hasn’t spoken to them in several months.
“I think about them all the time. Far too much. Every second,” he says.
Before we manage to ask Henok if he has heard about any refugees who tried to swim or about people smugglers who use small boats over to England, we must stop the interview. The photographer outside the small circle of tent and an Ethiopian refugee tries to rob him. The Eritreans we are sitting with gets angry and the robber runs away. We are told to get out of there.
“He might come back with more people. It is not safe for you here now.”
«If they see you taking pictures, you will be killed...»
Some hours later a fight breaks out in the Jungle between the Sudanese and Eritreans. We are told that they fought over whos turn it was to try to board trailers at the ferry. Some of them used knives during the fight. One of the few women who live in the Jungle ended up in hospital with burn injuries after her tent seemed to have been set on fire.
Georges Gilles is a pensioner and has worked as a voluntary aid worker in Calais for four years. Every day he drives around in an old white Fiat van and gives out blankets, food and tarpaulins. It is never enough. We ask him if he knows anything about how the people smugglers operate.
“They are everywhere, but stay in the shadows. They are often Kurds, Afghans or Albanians. Albanians are the worst.”
The refugees who can afford to pay the smugglers are taken along motorways for tens of kilometres outside Calais to avoid strict security. At night, at rest stops and petrol stations, the smugglers hide the refugees inside and under parked trailers.
“If I were you, I would stay out of there. If they see you taking pictures, you will be killed.”
Everybody here has scars. Some are visible, others on the inside. Afghan Khalil Khaman Khalily (26) has several. One is 20 centimetres long and goes from his navel up to his ribcage.
“Taliban,” he says.
Khalil explains that he worked at a construction company that was hired by NATO in 2007, and that amongst other things he worked with the military camp at Shorabak in Helmand province.
Five months ago he was kidnapped, locked up and stabbed when he was supposed to meet a potential new employer.
“All Afghans who worked for NATO live dangerously,” he says.
He managed to flee when one of the guards got drunk. He got help getting to Kabul and from there he fled to Europe. On the border from Iran to Turkey he was accused of being either an IS soldier or an Afghan spy and he says that he was tortured for two days until they understood that he didn’t have anything to say. The rest of his story is about cynical people smugglers and in the end flight on foot through the Balkans. He got into the EU and Hungary through the forest at the Serbian border town of Subotica. From there he travelled as a stowaway on the train to Paris and Calais.
“I don’t feel safe here either. Look around you. The longer you are here, the more depressed you get.”
During the 20 days he has been here, he has made 25 failed attempts to get to England where he has a brother studying IT. He dreams about becoming a military surgeon and travelling back to Afghanistan.
“I must be careful because my wounds, but I will get to England when I can attempt a more risky approach,” he says.
We ask if he has heard about refugees trying to swim. He laughs and shakes his head.
“We barely manage to shower,” he laughs.
We show him drawings of the man the police in the Netherlands call the wetsuitman.
“He looks Afghan. I haven’t heard of him, but I haven’t been here long. People come here, then they leave as soon as they can.”
Another group of Afghans come over, offer us tea and take us into the tent where somewhere between five and 10 refugees from Panjshir live. They have a little stash of onions and potatoes, a shopping trolley with rice and pasta and a campfire where they warm tea in a big pot. They are far from the first we encounter with stories about police violence.
One of them has their right arm in plaster. He says he’s called Khalid, is 26 years old and that he fell and broke his arm when he and several others were chased by the police in Calais.
“We didn’t do anything. The police here are like lions and we are the buffalo flock.
Many of the refugees we meet say that they have been hit with batons, kicked and sprayed with pepper spray in the face at close range when the police find them and pull them out of the trucks.
The stories are identical to a report from the organization Human Rights Watch which is coming in January, based on interviews with 44 refugees in Calais. The accusations were dismissed by the French authorities that considered the organization had not checked the facts.
A few weeks ago, the organization Calais Migrant Solidarity released a video that was made on May 5 this year. It shows precisely what the refugees have been talking about: policemen who tear them out of trucks, kick them, hit them with batons and push them over the auto
The authorities say they will investigate the events and police in Calais are considering buying Gopro cameras to document that at times they have no choice than to use force to stop the refugees.
“The rest of the world has no idea how we are treated. Go out and tell them about the suffering of the people in the jungle,” says Khalid.
He seems to be some sort of leader for the tent we are sitting in. He lived for several years in England, but was deported after he “did something stupid.” Now he has been in Calais for four months.
We tell him about the case we are working on, show him the picture and ask if he or the others have heard something. They send the drawing around and study the face.
“He looks like a Hazara. They are Afghans, but are originally Mongols,” says Khalid.
“But I haven’t heard about anyone buying wetsuits or swimming and I am the one who have been here the longest. It is sad if he came from here and nobody can find out who he was. That’s the way it is. Hundreds of Afghans could die and nobody cares.”
We thank him for the tea, wish them luck and go back out into the Jungle to look for Hazara refugees. They used to have their own little camp here somewhere, but most of them are gone.
We continue to show the drawing to the refugees we talk to, but our interpreter interrupts and takes us to one side. He has been a refugee in Calais himself. Now he is a journalist and has started up an Afghan radio station in London.
“You have to stop showing them the drawing,” he says.
“There are many people talking about you now. They think you are police or people smugglers posing as journalists, and that you are looking for somebody that you are going to arrest. We should go,” he says.
To further complicate the picture, he mentions the Afghans we drank tea with in the tent.
“I don’t know if you noticed it, but several of them had been in England. They had smart phones, English SIM cards and seem to be having an easy enough life. They are the top people.”
“It is hard to say. They are probably a contact point for smugglers and they help them to get people. There were several of them whom did not want you around.”
Evening is approaching in the Jungle, and the refugees are on the move. They put on dark clothes, pack their bags and start walking towards the tunnel and the ferry terminal.
It has gone quiet where the dinner was served a few hours earlier. We talk with several aid workers, but nobody has heard anything about anybody who went missing in October. They have not heard about anyone trying to swim and nobody can confirm if the people smugglers use small boats across the channel.
We ask a policeman who has nothing to do right now.
“Did someone swim? Not that I have heard,” he says. “But we don’t patrol the beach. We don’t know about everything that’s going on. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
From the beach in Calais, we see the ferry «Pride of Burgundy» gliding out of the harbour and setting course for Dover. England is a grey stripe on the horizon. Under the deck, hidden in containers or trucks are refugees. They have held their breath through the checkpoints, past the police dogs and into the ferry. They have heard the heavy chains locking the wheels before the crossing, and finally the ferry slip closing. The sound of safety. They are among the lucky ones. In 90 minutes a new life is set to begin.
In a graveyard on the island of Texel, in a corner of field E between Anneke Molenar van den Brink and Anna Cornelia Alida Boer, there is a nameless grave. You will find no gravestone, no memorial, no “Rest in peace, beloved” at the fresh pile of earth where somebody had left a single footprint between small sprigs of chives and daisy.
“I would really like to give him his name back. No family deserves to live in uncertainty,” says investigator John Welzenbagh.
He was at the funeral himself.
“We are doing everything we can to find out who he was, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” he says.
Before we leave Calais, our interpreter tells that there are Afghan groups on Facebook, where information of missing persons is sometimes shared. He gets a copy of the identikit and a brief description of the case.
Two days later, the report is seen by a French aid worker in Calais. She says she has been in contact with a Syrian in England, who knows another Syrian in England who has been looking for his nephew for months. The nephew was in Calais before he disappeared.
After three telephone calls in broken English, we get to hear the history of Mouaz for the first time.
The boy who could see England
In a strange land, thousands of kilometres from home, a boy stood and looked out to sea. He had been travelling for 142 days. Autumn had come. As usual the weather was bitter along the coast of Northwest France.
The place the boy once called home, Damascus in Syria, was no longer home. His family, mother, father and four sisters had fled to Jordan. He hadn’t seen them since he left five months ago. Now it was the afternoon of October 7, 2014. He had only been in Calais for a couple of hours.
He took his telephone, opened the messaging app WhatsApp and texted his uncle who lives in Bradford, a small city between Leeds and Manchester.
“I can see England”, the boy wrote.
He also wrote that he thought it was possible to get out to a boat, or swim across the channel.
The uncle wrote that it was like the Sea of Marmara in Turkey: You can see land on the other side, but it is much further than you think.
“You must not try to swim. That wouldn’t work. Hide in a lorry,” the uncle wrote back.
“I will try today,” wrote the boy. He didn’t say how.
The same evening, an hour and 43 minutes before two wetsuits were sold in the Decathlon sports shop right outside the centre of Calais, the boy sent a message to his sister and family in Jordan:
“I miss you”.
Since then nobody has heard a word from the 22-year-old Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria.
Badi is 38 years old. He has slicked back hair, a checked shirt and a warm smile that appears when he is looking for the right English word. He is Mouaz’s uncle and came to England himself as a refugee. He hid in a trailer at Dunkerque, just north of Calais, and came through the tunnel under the channel.
Badi has got asylum in England for five years and lives with his wife and two small daughters in a typical English redbrick house in an immigrant area of Bradford, an hour’s drive from Manchester.
That was where Mouaz wanted to go when he was standing on the beach in Calais and said that he would try to get to England.
His uncle tried to ring Mouaz on October 8. The telephone was switched off. Over the next days, they tried several times a day, but it always went direct to message – an Arab song they have heard countless time over the last eight months.
After a couple of days they realised something must have happened to Mouaz. They knew he had 300 euro in cash and feared that he had been robbed and killed. The Jungle is a lawless place.
After a week, two relatives went from Scotland to Calais and contacted the police there. The most obvious thing, they thought, was that Mouaz had been arrested and did not have the opportunity to contact the family.
“The police said that they couldn’t help us,” says the uncle.
A month later, they were back at the police station in Calais. The police still had no information. They brought a picture of Mouaz and went around the refugees in The Jungle. They went to the hospital and the morgue, but nobody had seen him or heard anything.
In March, they contacted the police in England. According to Badi, they were told that it wasn’t really a matter for England as Mouaz went missing from France, but they promised to do a search through Interpol. According to the family, the only message they received from the police in England was Mouaz was not in prison in Bradford. They were in contact with a lawyer, the Red Cross and the immigration office in England.
“Mouaz’s mother calls me every day to ask if there is anything new. It is absolutely terrible to live with uncertainty and nobody is able to help us. When you called, it was the first time we heard something concrete about what might have happened.”
Badi wants to hear all the details about the bodies found in Norway and the Netherlands. He asks if we think it could be the nephew. A lot of what the uncle explains – date, place, how much money Mouaz had, that he mentioned swimming – fits in with the details in the case with the wetsuits. On the other hand, he was travelling on his own, according to his family. Would somebody have decided to swim to England with somebody they didn’t know?
We explain to Badi that the only thing that can provide an answer is a DNA test. We give him a pair of plastic gloves and a little cotton bud of the kind you remove make-up with and ask him to scrape it against the inside of his cheek. The cells in the mouth attach itself to the bud and we place it in a small plastic bag. He also draws a small family tree showing the relationship he has with Mouaz.
Back in Norway, we give the test to the ID group in Kripos who start trying to extract a DNA profile and check it against the findings in Lista. Kripos also sends an enquiry through Interpol and gets a DNA profile sent from the body in the Netherlands.
Rahaf is Mouaz’s younger sister. She is 19 years old and lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, with the rest of the family: three sisters, mother and father. We talk to them through Skype. Rahaf translates while the mother tells us about the son they haven’t seen in over a year.
Mouaz and her sisters grew up in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Their father was in prison for eleven years for supporting the opposition and was released in the beginning of 2011. They lived in a multicultural neighbourhood. Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Alawites. Mouaz was friends with everyone. He never fought with anyone, his mother says:
“If somebody was fighting, he always tried to make peace.”
He liked to watch movies and he liked to swim. Every week before the civil war broke out, Mouaz went to a swimming pool in Damascus and swam. The family was one of the many millions who fled the war in Syria. They came to Jordan in 2013, but Mouaz stayed behind in Damascus to finish his electrical engineering studies. He was constantly stopped on the street by forces in the Assad regime. It made no difference if you were a rioter or a university student. Sometimes he was taken down to the police station and detained until they confirmed his ID. Mouaz held out for six months before fleeing to Jordan too.
It doesn’t seem as if Mouaz had to leave Jordan, but his sister said that he didn’t get a place at the university in Amman. The father also struggled to find work. Mouaz felt responsible for the rest of the family. The plan was to travel to Turkey and study at the university, and the family would follow. Mouaz didn’t get into the university there either and according to the sister, he couldn’t return to Jordan as a refugee as he had already left the country. He decided on England.
“They have good laws for refugees, he could study and our uncle lives there,” says Rahaf.
On the basis of what the family tells us, it seems as if Mouaz had travelled relatively safely up to this point, but now he entered risky territory. On August 17, 2014, he took a flight from Turkey to Algeria in North Africa. From there he spent two days going through the dessert and crossed the border to lawless and dangerous Libya.
He did not tell them a great deal about Libya. The family only know that he was there for 10 days before he got a spot on one of the refugee boats over the Mediterranean and on to Italy. He was picked up by the Italian marine and brought to shore safely, but the family dont know what happened. Mouaz was ill and slept most of the three days by sea from Libya to Italy.
On September 5, he came to Dunkerque just north of Calais. In the next two next weeks, he made 10 failed attempts to hide in a truck and get to England. He often sent messages to his family. They asked how things were with him, whether he was keeping warm and whether he had something to eat. He always answered that they shouldn’t worry.
So he went back to Italy, after having heard it was possible for him to take a plane to England. This proved to be wrong and once again he got on a train to Dunkerque, where he made two new failed attempts to hide in a truck. He could not afford to pay people smugglers and tried on his own. On the morning of October 7, he went from Dunkerque to Calais. His family do not know if he went along with someone or alone, but says that the refugees he knew from before had moved on.
His sister was the last one to speak to him. He said he would try to go to England from Calais, but he didn’t say anything about how. He had mentioned that the thought it would be easy to swim out to a boat or ferry near the coast and climb on board, but he never spoke about swimming across the entire channel.
She got the last message just before 6:30 pm on the evening of October 7. He wrote that he missed them. Rahaf didn’t manage to answer.
“Mouaz would have told us if he had thought of doing anything dangerous, so we are certain that he didn’t try to swim. We think he is in jail in France or England and we are trying to get an answer from the police. They are the ones responsible,” she says.
The DNA tests Magasinet took from the uncle in Bradford show, according to Kripos, that there is not a family relationship between the uncle of Mouaz and the body that was found on Lista. For the body in the Netherlands, the DNA material from the uncle was not sufficient to say whether or not it was a match.
«Under the budding daisies, grass and dandelions rests the boy who could see England.»
We construct several scenarios about what may have happened with Mouaz. None of them seem particularly likely. It is very rare that somebody disappears without trace from Calais. We contact the aid organizations in Calais and Dunkerque once more but don’t get any new clues. Nobody has heard about people going missing in October.
The details in the history of Mouaz – the date he disappeared, that he talked about swimming, that he had enough money for a wetsuit, but not enough to get the help of smugglers, leads us to contact the family and suggest getting a new DNA test. To avoid leaving any theoretical doubt, we send the sampling equipment to a contact in Jordan. He brings Mouaz’s mother, father and one of his sisters to a clinic in Amman where two sets of tests are taken. One set is sent to Kripos, the other to police in the Netherlands.
Kripos is the first to call. None of the new DNA material gives a match with the person who was found on Lista. We get the answer from the Netherlands a few days later.
What do you hope for, when a son, a brother, a nephew goes missing for eight months and the only alternative to a constant nagging uncertainty are the depths of grief? There is always a hint of hope in uncertainty. Notification of a death is an answer, but it is final. The telephone call you are waiting on, with the voice you have missed, saying “Mum, I am alive” will never come. 22 years is not a life. It is barely a beginning.
We don’t know how far he got. We don’t know what his plan was. We don’t know exactly where he took the first steps into the ice-cold water or who was alongside him. We don’t know if he was afraid.
But we do know what his name was. We know that he wanted to complete his engineering studies in England and help his family in Jordan. We know that he missed them. That was the last sign of life he gave.
In a graveyard on the island of Texel, between Anneke Molenar van den Brink and Anna Cornelia Alida Boer, there is a grave without a name. Under the budding daisies, grass and dandelions rests the boy who could see England.
He is called Mouaz Al Balkhi, was born on November 6, 1991 in Damascus and dreamed of a better life.
He lived to be 22 years old.
Investigator John Welzenbagh at the special police unit for missing persons in the North Sea in the Netherlands tells Magasinet that there is a match between the DNA-profile of the boy that was found on the beach of Texel and the DNA-reference material of the father and the mother of Mouaz Al Balkhi.
- We strongly believe this case is solved, but we need to sort out the formalities before we can make an official statement, says Welzenbagh.
The Diver from Damascus
19. juni 2015, kl. 18.23
"Hi Anders, I have some news […] We may have found the second person. His cousin has seen the post in some page and he said that his cousin is missed in the same month and he mentioned something about buying a wetsuit. Now he wants to contact you. Can I give him your Skype account?"
In his Facebook profile picture, he is floating over a coral reef in crystal clear water off the coast of Libya. He is looking straight into the camera from behind his diving mask. It is hard to say because of the scuba gear, but it looks like he’s smiling. His eyes are radiant, those of a young man who’s exactly where he wants to be, floating weightless in the blue surrounded by fish, coral, and shimmering light. He’s been missing since October 7th of last year.
Ziad Qataf (32) opens the door to the apartment building and leads the way to a run-down studio apartment on the second floor. It contains everything he owns: a few minimal furnishings, a cell phone, a computer, a couple changes of clothes, and a small collection of stuffed animals in a basket behind the bed.
Ziad is the cousin of the man in the picture, 28-year-old Shadi Omar Kataf from Damascus, Syria. Ziad is the last person to have talked to Shadi before he disappeared. We’re in the Belgian city of Leuven, a half-hour outside of Brussels. Ziad is a stateless Palestinian, who has been living here on his own for five years waiting to be able to apply for Belgian citizenship.
«… I don’t have enough money to use the people smugglers so I’m going to buy a wetsuit and swim to England.»
Late in the afternoon on October 7th of last year, the phone rang and Ziad heard his cousin’s voice on the other end.
“It’s Shadi. I’m in Calais in France. You have to come pick up my laptop and backpack. I don’t have enough money to use the people smugglers so I’m going to buy a wetsuit and swim to England.”
“I told him, ‘Don’t be a complete idiot! You can’t swim to England. It’s way too far, and there are huge waves.’ I told him that instead he could bring his things and come here. Then his phone ran out of power.”
Ziad tried to call him back, over and over, also in the days that followed. His cousin’s phone was never turned on again. Shadi was gone.
Wedding singer Omar Kataf and his wife Samira had their first child on July 2, 1986. They called him Shadi, Arabic for “singer”. Shadi, and eventually two younger sisters, Racha and Nagham, grew up in Damascus’s Al Qadam neighborhood. They lived in a four-story building with their extended family.
Shadi liked to draw and take pictures and was interested in sports, especially soccer and swimming. He grew up and began working in a tire shop. He also liked riding motorcycles. Eventually he started his own garage, Kataf, which is still listed in the Damascus phone book.
Then came 2011. First the protests, then the uprising, fighting in the streets, bombing, and finally one of the most bloody and brutal civil wars in the modern era.
The home of the extended Kataf family was bombed to rubble by the Assad regime in 2012, and they moved to a part of Damascus known as Yarmouk Camp, a two-square-kilometer district founded 60 years ago to house Palestinian refugees. Since the civil war began, Yarmouk has also been bombed to pieces.
Various armed groups have battled in the streets to control the area, and the regime has bombed from the air. In the last few years, the people in Yarmouk have been besieged by Syrian government forces. They have had minimal food, electricity, water, and medical supplies. A picture from January 2014 published by Al-Jazeera shows a baby who died of «hunger-related illness». Children and adults have reportedly eaten grass and cats to survive.
More than 150,000 people used to live in Yarmouk. Many have fled. Many have died. There are fewer than 20,000 left. Shadi’s parents are among them.
“We’re not getting out. We have nothing.” says Omar Kataf.
We have received a telephone number and a message that Shadis’s father Omar Kataf have found a relatively safe place with a phone line.
Omar tells us what we already know, but somehow there are no suitable adjectives to describe it.
“Things are just awful here for us.”
In April Yarmouk was stormed by the terrorist group ISIS. There was fighting in the streets, there were routine reports of people being murdered, and the regime responded to the offensive with shelling and aerial bombardment. All emergency aid ground to a halt and the UN considered the situation “beyond inhumane”. The Guardian newspaper described Yarmouk as “the worst place on earth”. ISIS is said to be out now, but the Syrian army is still besieging Yarmouk.
Shadi lived in Yarmouk until he left Syria in 2012.
“I was the one who asked him to leave,” his father said. “There are no jobs here, so when he left it was because I said he had to go somewhere he could find a job.”
Shadi went to Libya just like one of his sisters, Racha. Racha became a hairdresser in the capital, Tripoli, but disappeared one day in 2013 on her way to work. No one has ever found out what happened, but the family believes she was kidnapped. She was 26 and had two young children.
Shadi got a job at a print shop in Benghazi, and apparently his boss there taught him to scuba dive. Shadi took several classes, received his diving certificate, and fell in love with life underwater. When he boarded a boat in Tripoli on August 25, 2014, he dreamt of using his diving certification to get a job as an instructor or professional diver once he reached Italy
“I’ve been worried about Shadi from the day he left us in Syria. When I heard he was taking a boat from Tripoli to Italy, I was scared. I had this feeling that something might happen to him, that he might die,” his father said.
She says they’ve worried for a long time that Shadi is dead and cries when we say we won’t be able to give her a definitive answer for a week.
Nagham Kataf (27) is Shadi’s youngest sister. She meets us in the courtyard outside her apartment in the town of Osmaniye. We’re in Turkey, an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. Nagham wears a colorful shawl over her hijab and has her brother’s face. She’s the only one left now. Their sister Racha is dead or kidnapped. Shadi is gone. Their parents are under siege in Yarmouk.
“I think about them all the time. Of course I’m worried,” she says.
Nagham lives in a small apartment with her husband Besam and their five young children. They came to Turkey this January.
Besam got a job in a carwash, but they struggle to make ends meet. The baby of the family, Omar, is a little older than one, was born in Lebanon, and has been a refugee since the day he came into this world. He sits completely still in his mother’s arms and his wide little eyes follow along as she talks about Shadi.
She last saw her brother in the summer of 2014. Shadi had come to visit in Lebanon during Ramadan before returning to Libya and setting out for Europe. She also spoke with him on October 7, the day both Shadi and Mouaz Al Balkhi disappeared.
We use the testing kit we received from Kripos and take a DNA sample from the inside of her cheek. She says they’ve worried for a long time that Shadi is dead and cries when we say we won’t be able to give her a definitive answer for a week.
Just as they had done when Shadi’s sister Racha disappeared without a trace in Libya, the family has searched and searched for information about Shadi without any answers.
The national ID group at Kripos analyzed Nagham’s sample. The DNA analysis confirms that she is the sister of the man whose remains were found in a wetsuit in Lista on January 2 of this year.
“He was such an incredibly good guy. He was beloved by his friends, obedient to his father, and a sincere believer. There’s nothing I can do. It is God’s will. I just have to accept the tragedy. My son is dead,” his father says by phone.
The family only knows fragments of the story of what Shadi did in Europe and where he was. He left Libya by boat on August 25, and reached Italy three days later. No one knows how long he was in Italy or how he got to France. In late September or early October he called his father and said that life was tough. He was living on the street in France and couldn’t afford to pay the people smugglers for assistance to make it any farther.
His father and some other relatives in Syria collected a small amount of money. The transfer went through October 7, 2014.
“That was the last time I talked to him. He was going to buy a wetsuit and swim somewhere. It was too hard in France,” his father said.
In the days that followed, no one was able to contact Shadi. His father realized that something had gone wrong, but he was in Yarmouk and couldn’t do anything. He called relatives in Europe and talked to Nagham, but no one had heard from Shadi.
Shadi had told both his father and his sister that he was having problems in France, and that he was going to buy a wetsuit to proceed. According to his sister, he said that he was going back to Italy. His father didn’t know where Shadi was on October 7.
“He just said he was in France. That he was where the Eiffel Tower is.”
Shadi was in Calais on October 7. So was Mouaz Al Balkhi. We don’t know where they met each other. They crossed the Mediterranean by boat a few days apart and may have met in Libya or Italy. They could also have met among the Syrian refugees who live on the street outside the church in downtown Calais.
We return to Calais, and meet several people who have heard of Mouaz.
«Mouaz Al Balkhi? All of Calais knows about him. […] He’s the one who tried to swim. He lived here on the stairs of the church»
"Mouaz Al Balkhi? All of Calais knows about him. We read about him online. He’s the one who tried to swim. He lived here on the stairs of the church," said a 20-year-old Syrian man, who had just returned from the highway after a long day of unsuccessful attempts to hide in a truck trailer and make it to England.
None of the Syrians outside the church have been here for more than a couple of months. Nor do they remember who told them that Mouaz had lived here when he was in Calais. No one has heard of Shadi Kataf.
According to Mouaz’s sister he stayed in a hotel in the town of Dunkirk 25 miles north of Calais the last night before he disappeared. At the Hôtel de Bretagne right next to the train station in Dunkirk we find the name Al Balkhi in the guestbook. Mouaz probably registered under his father’s name, Youssef, which is also included in his passport.
He rented a double room for 37 euro and 44 cents the night of October 7. He checked in alone, but the guests at Bretagne come and go as they please. Madam Frere, who runs the hotel, has no way to check if multiple people spent the night in the room.
Nor does she remember the guest who spent one night here more than ten months ago.
Just before eight p.m. on October 7, two young men walked into the Decathlon sports shop just outside downtown Calais.
They each bought a cheap wetsuit, a pair of blue swim fins, water socks, hand paddles, and waterproof A4-size plastic map. Together they paid a total of 256 euros in cash to the young woman behind the cash register. She thought the two boys looked like they were in their twenties and thought maybe they were refugees from Afghanistan.
She is the last person we know of to see them. She didn’t ask what they were going to do with the equipment.
By the time the two young men walked out of the shop darkness had settled over the French port town, where you can see all the way across to England when the weather is nice.
It’s hard to tell because of the snorkel and diving mask, but in Shadi’s profile picture on Facebook, where he’s floating weightlessly in the crystal clear water over a coral reef in Libya, it looks like he’s smiling.
He uploaded the picture on January 11, 2014. A friend of his named Bassem commented on the picture the next day.
“Truly, Shadi, you gave up living here on land with the rest of us. I thought you were joking, brother. Come back.”
That is the next to last comment. Shadi wrote the last one himself, ten months before he disappeared from Calais.
“There is no coming back. I’ve made my decision. I want to live here in the sea. I’m waiting for you.”
Designed and developed at DB Medialab AS by Anders Wiik