Tomm W Christiansen
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The boys who could see England

Last winter, two bodies in identical wetsuits were found in Norway and the Netherlands. Police in three countries failed to identify them - and then the trail led to Calais.

Part 1: On dry land

A gale was blowing from the south-west as the elderly architect put on his jacket and rubber boots and went outside. Down in the bay, four-metre-high waves crashed against the cliffs and sent spray hundreds of metres across the grazing land at Lista, on Norway’s southernmost tip.

The first thing the architect noticed when he approached the sea was a wetsuit that lay stretched out on the small patch of grass between the rocks. It was rare for him or anyone else in the village to walk there. The wetsuit could have been there for a long time.

He could smell seaweed and the sea and a faint, sickly scent of something else.

The wetsuit was partially inside out and wedged inside the legs was a pair of blue flippers. Two white bones were sticking out of each one.

 

****

Sheriff Kåre Unnhammer from Farsund Police Station is an authoritative man with large, serious eyes, a big moustache and gold teeth that gleam when he speaks. It is a pleasant day in April.

In the waiting room at the station is a sign warning against boat thieves and a poster stating that the legal size for cod caught south of 60 degrees latitude is 40 centimetres. In the Middle Ages the people burned witches right outside this spot, but things are more relaxed now.

“This is a peaceful place,” Unnhammer says. He turns to his computer and reads from the log. “At 3.02pm, January 2 2015, a diving suit with human remains was found at Lista.”

Forensics experts from the county capital, Kristiansand, went to take photographs and scrutinise 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 that it was somebody who had gone missing in the North Sea and that he or she would be identified quickly.

Sheriff Kåre Unnhammer. All photographs by Tomm W Christiansen.

Police looked at a missing persons report from the Stavanger area, on Norway’s west coast, where a man wearing a wetsuit had disappeared a year earlier. Neither that man nor anyone else who had been reported missing matched the description of the body found at Lista.

“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 are unpredictable and always 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 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 for more than 25 years. He is the head of the identification unit at Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service, known as Kripos. His team is called when there are simultaneous, multiple deaths – from the Partnair plane crash that killed 55 people off the Danish coast in 1989 to Anders Breivik’s killing spree in 2011 – or when an unidentified body is found. Angel describes Norway as a ­country made for accidents: it has heavy storms, a rugged landscape and many thousands of workplaces offshore and in the
polar region.

“We have become skilled in ID work,” he says.

The list of people who have gone missing in Norway since 1947 consists of 1,443 names. The list of dead people who were found in the same period and never identified by police is much shorter – just 16 bodies, several of which most likely originate in premodern times.

“The man in the wetsuit could be number 17,” Angel says. (DNA testing had shown the body was that of a male.) “This is a special case.”

When Kripos receives an unidentified body, forensics experts, pathologists, dentists and geneticists collect so-called post-mortem information. They create a DNA profile, take fingerprints and register details about teeth, jewellery, previous bone fractures, tattoos and any other characteristics that may help in identifying a body. They also try to establish the cause of death.

Post-mortem information is compared with data from missing reports, where family or friends have given details about a person they are looking for. The main requirements for identification are matching information on teeth, fingerprints and DNA. A single “match” is not enough to establish identity and has to be supported by one or more additional pieces of information that connect the body to a missing person. This may be the clothing the victim was wearing, medical history, phone ­records or their last known location.

No missing reports in Norway match the body found at Lista. Although DNA has been retrieved from the wetsuit, if Kripos is to be able to identify the body the man 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 sample.

On 5 February, Kripos sends out an Interpol “Black Notice”, which is used to seek information on unidentified bodies. It contains the DNA profile and all the information pertaining to the remains found at Lista. Kripos receives a response the next day. The Lista body is not the only one that has drifted ashore in a grey-and-black wetsuit with the brand name “Tribord” on the right shoulder and on the hood.

 

****

“We call him the Wetsuitman,” says John Welzenbagh, an investigator with the Dutch special police unit for persons missing in the North Sea.

A 52-year-old former navy diver, Welzenbagh is fit-looking and wears a dark windbreaker jacket and sunglasses. On the ferry over from Den Helder, on the mainland, to the island of Texel in the northern Netherlands, Welzenbagh points to a sandbank and explains that he is still trying to ascertain the identity of a dead man who was found on a sailboat there in 1995.

Just a few weeks back, 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 discovered on Texel early in the morning of 27 October in a black-and-grey Tribord wetsuit, identical to the one that the architect stumbled upon at Lista 67 days later. The body was found by the water’s edge on the broad strand below the cafés in the small village of De Koog. It is a beach that is popular among windsurfers and tourists in the summer.

Welzenbagh and his team typically receive between 20 and 30 bodies for identification each year. Most turn out to be missing persons from the local area. Cases are usually solved quickly.

“This case is different,” Welzenbagh says.

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’s 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 aren’t many other places in Europe where you see that hair colour – in any case, not among ethnic Europeans,” he says.

At the time the Wetsuitman was discovered, four windsurfers had been reported missing in England. The main theory in the first days was that one of them had floated ashore. However, the windsurfers were quickly found. The Dutch police’s next assumption was that the body on Texel was that of a French diver who had gone missing off Normandy.

“This was of course wrong, but even at our meetings he [the body] was known as ‘the Diver’. I didn’t like that,” Welzenbagh says. “We had no way of knowing what kind of water sports [were involved]. I was afraid if we called him the Diver, we would overlook clues that could help us. I said, ‘From now on, we will call him the Wetsuitman.’”

 

****

The Dutch police were at a loss. It was impossible to reproduce fingerprints. There were no papers found with the body, and the DNA profile and missing persons report they had sent out through Interpol met with no response.

The only strong clue Welzenbagh had was the wetsuit: a five-millimetre-thick neoprene model with a hood, designed for diving and snorkelling in temperatures between 16 and 24° Celsius. In the North Sea and the English Channel, water temperatures rarely rise above 15° Celsius. At the end of October, when the body was found, the normal temperature is 10° Celsius.

“There was something that wasn’t quite right,” Welzenbagh says.

 

****

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, chips are tiny and weather-resistant, and have numerous uses, from identifying pets to tracking goods from the time of production until they are scanned at a cash register and disappear into a shopping bag.

When Welzenbagh discovered the little RFID symbol on the tightly sewn tag that contained the wetsuit’s serial number, he knew he could find out where and when the suit had been sold. And – if there was a credit-card number on the till receipt – who had bought it. Here is what he found out.

At 8.03pm on Tuesday 7 October 2014, a customer had stood in front of the cash register of the Decathlon sports shop in the French port city of Calais and bought a Tribord Subsea five-millimetre wetsuit, medium size, for €79. He or she also purchased hand paddles – plates that swimmers use to provide more resistance when they train – a snorkel and a diving mask, flippers, water socks usually used for aquatic gymnastics, and a waterproof A4 plastic folder.

But there was more: the receipt showed the customer had bought two of each item listed on it. Welzenbagh knew 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: found by an architect during a winter storm at Lista on the southern tip of Norway, 890 kilometres from Calais, 87 days after it was purchased.

The customer paid €256 in cash. There was no CCTV footage from the shop.

Neither of the DNA profiles from the bodies in the Netherlands and Norway produced any hits internationally through Interpol. All leads in the case trailed off at the Decathlon in Calais, barely an hour after sunset on 7 October last year.

The wetsuit found on Texel in the Netherlands on 27 October.

 

Part 2: The Jungle

A biting wind whips up the sand, making it difficult to see. A few hundred metres away, in the grey-brown dirt between two hills, a handful of refugees walk in a cloud of dust, pushing a shopping basket filled with bottles of water.

“No camera,” one man shouts when he sees us. He gestures angrily at us to go away.

All around are sheets of blue, black and green plastic, the billowing walls of the hundreds of makeshift tents that are spread across a former dump site.

More than 2,000 illegal immigrants who have fled war, oppressive regimes or poverty live here. In the summer, that number will double. They have little water, no electricity, no heating and no security.

A tall and muscular African man in his twenties walks along the road towards the building complex where since January the refugees and migrants have been served one meal a day. The only tap in the area is here.

It is 11am. The man is drunk and is clutching a bottle of rosé from Lidl. He is crying loudly. His voice breaks. “I wanna go home. I wanna go home to Africa.”

This desolate, illness-infested unofficial camp in Calais has no name, but everybody knows what it’s called: the Jungle.

 

****

Calais (population 75,000) is located at the point on the French coast where the English Channel is at its narrowest. It is 34 kilometres across to England. On good days, you can see the limestone cliffs of Dover. Lonely Planet describes Calais as the place where the most people anywhere in the world have passed through without stopping.

From the Eurotunnel terminal a few kilometres outside Calais, large trains transport cars and trucks under the Channel. The ferry to Dover also leaves from the town. Reaching the UK – by going under or over the Channel – is the only goal for most of the refugees and migrants in the Jungle.

The latest tool in the effort to prevent them doing so is a four-metre-high, 20-kilometre-long barbed-wire fence, last used during a high-level Nato meeting in Wales last year.
It was donated by the British authorities – along with £12m – to increase security around the ferry and the Channel Tunnel.

At least 15 refugees and migrants 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 on to a passing truck. One was found dead in the river; one fell from his hiding place under the axle of a wheel on a tourist bus. There are also those who are not found on official lists or in news items or on activists’ blogs. The ones nobody has heard about, has enquired of, or remembers.

The refugee theory emerged when John Welzenbagh and his colleagues in the Netherlands managed to connect the wetsuits to Calais. If the victims had a permanent connection to Europe, or were ordinary tourists, they would have been reported missing by family or friends. French police would have heard about it; but in this case they had no information about two people in wetsuits who had disappeared.

Another thing puzzled Welzenbagh: the equipment listed on the receipt, a mixture of competitive swimming, water aerobics and diving gear. He felt that nobody with a minimum of knowledge about water sports would have bought such a combination.

Was it possible that the victims were refugees who had tried to swim to England?

 

****

The Decathlon shop is on an industrial estate outside the centre of Calais. It stocks a wide range of sporting goods at low prices.

When the photographer and I arrive one morning at the end of April, a young woman is arranging merchandise at the end of a rack displaying surfboards 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 7 October last year.

“I know that,” she says. “The police rang here. I was the one at the cash desk.”

She says she must speak to the boss and will be gone a short while. When she comes back she says 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 wetsuits.

She appears nervous, keeps her voice down and makes sure that nobody sees she is talking to us. “I remember them, but only just. There were two young men, perhaps in their very early twenties. 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 a British expert in England who compiled an identikit of the man. We show it to the woman in the shop.

“I can’t answer 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 been in here buying wetsuits?”

“I’ve just heard it from others who work here. It happens around once a month. I don’t know any more.”

 

****

The refugee problem in Calais began in earnest in 1999. In an unused hangar right by the tunnel, the Red Cross opened the Sangatte refugee centre. It was intended to be a place of refuge for a few hundred ­Kosovar Albanians who had fled the war in the Balkans.

Three years later, Sangatte’s population had swelled to 1,600 refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. Every night hundreds of them tried to get to the UK by hiding in trucks that were driving on to the ferry or through the tunnel. Accusations flew back and forth across the Channel about who was responsible.

At Sangatte, fights broke out between different ethnic groups. Refugees cut holes in the old fence and stormed the tunnel terminal. “Stop the invasion” was the headline on the front page of the Daily Express.

In December 2002 the then home secretary, David Blunkett, announced that France had agreed to the closure of Sangatte, and that the UK would accept 1,200 of the asylum-seekers registered at the camp. The refugees continued to come to Calais. The only thing that had changed was that they no longer had a place to go.

Some lived on the street; others set up small slum communities. Most settled on an industrial site belonging to one of Europe’s largest producers of titanium dioxide. That was the first “jungle” in Calais, the Tioxide Jungle.

 

****

It is afternoon in the new Jungle. Henok, 26, fled the repressive regime 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.

He takes 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 Libya, where he was detained in prison for three weeks. With $500 he bought his freedom. Then he sought out a gang of people traffickers in Tripoli, got money sent over from his family in Eritrea, and paid $1,700 for a place 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.”

Henok’s 21-year-old wife, Bethelem, and their son, Fire-Ab Henok, who is one, are still in Eritrea, he assumes. 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 to England or about people smugglers who use small boats to make the journey, an Ethiopian man tries to rob my photo­grapher. The Eritreans we are sitting with become angry and the thief runs away. We are told to leave.

“He might come back with more people,” Henok says. “It is not safe for you here now.”

A few hours later a fight breaks out in the Jungle between the Sudanese and the Eritreans. We are told that they are fighting about whose turn it is to try to board the trucks. One of the few women living in the Jungle ends up in hospital with burn injuries after her tent is set on fire.

 

****

Like many refugees in Calais, Khalil Khaman Khalily, a 26-year-old Afghan, has scars that remind him of the perilous life in his home country. One is 20 centimetres long and goes from his navel up to his ribcage. “Taliban,” he says.

Khalily explains that he was employed by a construction company that was contracted by Nato from 2007, and that among other places he worked at Camp Bastion, the former Nato base in Helmand Province.

He says that five months ago he was kidnapped, locked up and stabbed when he went to meet a potential new employer.

“All Afghans who worked for Nato live dangerously.”

He fled when one of the guards got drunk and made his way through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. In Serbia, he travelled to the border town of Subotica, crossing through the forest into Hungary – and into the European Union. From there he travelled mostly on the train, dodging fares, to Paris and then on to Calais.

“I don’t feel safe here either,” Khalily says. “Look around you. The longer you are here, the more depressed you get.”

During his 20 days in Calais, Khalily 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 on account of my wounds, but I will get to England when I can take bigger chances,” 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 says.

We show him the Wetsuitman identikit. “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 approaches, offers us tea and takes us into the tent where up to ten men live at a time. They are eating a small meal of onions and potatoes. Nearby is 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 who have stories to tell about police violence in France.

One of them has his right arm in plaster. He says he is called Khalid and 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 say that they have been hit with batons, kicked and doused with pepper spray when the police find and pull them out of the trucks.

Their stories echo those in a January report from Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with 44 refugees in Calais. The accusations were dismissed by the French authorities, which said that HRW had not verified the claims.

In June the organisation Calais Migrant Solidarity released a video, made on 5 May, showing policemen beating migrants and pushing them over the roadside fence.

The French authorities say they will investigate the events, and that police in Calais are considering buying GoPro cameras to prove that, at times, they have no choice but 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,” Khalid says.

Among the men in the tent he seems to be the boss. He says 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 study the face.

“He looks like a Hazara. They are Afghans, but are originally Mongols,” Khalid says. “But I haven’t heard about anyone buying wetsuits or swimming and I am the one who is 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 the Hazaras. They used to have their own little camp here somewhere, but most of them are gone.

While we are showing the identikit to other refugees our translator interrupts and takes us aside. He used to be a refugee in Calais. 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 talking about you now. They think you are police or people smugglers posing as journalists . . . We should go.”

The translator 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 smartphones, English SIM cards and seem to be having an easy enough life. They are the top people.”

Traffickers?

“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 who did not want you around.”

Georges Gilles is a pensioner who has been 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,” he says. “They are often Kurds, Afghans or Albanians. Albanians are the worst.”

The refugees who can afford to pay the smugglers are taken tens of kilometres along the motorway outside Calais to avoid strict security. At night, at rest stops and petrol stations, the smugglers hide them in and under parked trailers.

“If I were you, I would have kept far away. If they see that you are taking pictures, you will be killed,” Gilles says.

 

****

Evening is approaching 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. Just outside the Jungle, at the Jules Ferry day centre, where women and children refugees are allowed to sleep, dinner has been served, and it is now quiet. None of the helpers knows of any men who went missing last October, nor of anyone trying to swim across the Channel. Nobody can confirm that smugglers use small boats to cross to the UK.

From the beach in Calais, we see the Pride of Burgundy ferry 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 likely to be refugees or migrants. They will have held their breath through the checkpoints, past the police dogs and into the ferry. They will have heard the heavy chains locking the wheels before the crossing, and finally the ferry slip closing. The sound of safety. In 90 minutes a new life will begin.

Lines of inquiry: identikit of the Wetsuitman.

Before we leave Calais, our translator says that there are Afghan groups on Facebook, where information about refugees is sometimes posted. He uploads a copy of the identikit and writes a brief description of the case on the sites.

Two days later, his report is seen by a French aid worker in Calais. She says she has been in contact with a Syrian who lives in England and who knows of another Syrian man there who has been searching for his nephew for months. The nephew was in Calais before he disappeared.

After three phone calls in broken English we hear the story of Mouaz for the first time.

 

Part 3: The long journey

In a strange land, thousands of kilometres from home, a young man stood and looked out to sea. He had been travelling for 142 days. As usual, the weather in autumn was bitter along the coast of north-west France.

The place the young man 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 there five months earlier. Now it was 7 October 2014. He had been in Calais for only a couple of hours.

On his phone, he opened the WhatsApp messaging service and texted his uncle living in Bradford. “I can see England,” the young man wrote. He added that he thought it was possible to get out to a boat, or swim across the Channel.

The uncle replied that the Channel in some ways resembled the Sea of Marmara, an inland sea that separates Turkey’s European and Asian parts: you can see land on the other side, but it is much further away than you think.

“You must not try to swim. That wouldn’t work. Hide in a lorry,” the uncle texted.

“I will try today,” the young man replied. That same evening, one hour and 43 minutes before two wetsuits were sold in the Decathlon sports shop outside the centre of Calais, the young man sent a message to his sister and other family members in Jordan: “I miss you.”

Since then nobody has heard a word from 22-year-old Mouaz al-Balkhi.

 

****

The uncle’s name is Badi. He has slicked-back hair, a checked shirt and a warm smile that appears when he is looking for the apposite word in English. He came to England as a refugee in 2013, hiding in a trailer at Dunkirk, just north of Calais, and travelling through the Channel Tunnel.

Badi was granted limited leave to remain in England, and now lives with his wife and two small daughters in a red-brick house in a district of Bradford popular with immigrants.

Badi tried to ring Mouaz on 8 October. The phone was switched off. In the following days, he and other family members called several times a day, but the phone always went directly to an Arabic song that they heard countless times over the next eight months.

They feared that something had happened to Mouaz. They knew he had €300 on him and worried that he had been robbed and killed. After a week, two of Mouaz’s relatives who live in Scotland travelled to Calais, where they contacted the police. They were hoping to find that Mouaz had been arrested and was unable to answer his phone.

“The police said that they couldn’t help us,” Badi says.

A month later, the two relatives returned to Calais, but the police still had no in­formation. They took a picture of Mouaz and showed it to refugees in the Jungle. They visited the local hospital and the morgue, but nobody had seen Mouaz or heard anything.

In March, they turned to the British police for help. According to Badi, the relatives were told that it wasn’t really a matter for the UK, as Mouaz had gone missing in France, but they promised to do a search through Interpol. The relatives say that the only message they received from UK police was that Mouaz was not in prison in Bradford. They made further inquiries through a lawyer, the Red Cross and the immigration office, to no avail.

“Mouaz’s mother rings me every day to find out if there is anything new,” Badi says. “It is absolutely terrible to live with uncertainty and nobody was able to help us. When you rang was the first time we heard something concrete about what might have happened.”

Badi was searching for his nephew Mouaz, lost in Calais in 2014.

Badi wants to hear all the details about the bodies found in Norway and the Netherlands. He asks if we think one of them could be his nephew. A lot of the information Badi provides about Mouaz – dates, location, how much money he had, that he mentioned swimming – fits in with the details of the case. On the other hand, Mouaz 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 swab, of the kind you remove make-up with, and ask him to scrape it against the inside of his cheek. We place the swab in a small plastic bag. He also draws a family tree showing his relationship to Mouaz.

Back in Norway, we give the sample to the identification group at Kripos, which starts building a DNA profile to compare with the findings from Lista. Kripos also requests the Netherlands police to send the DNA records extracted from the body found on Texel.

 

****

Rahaf is Mouaz’s sister. She is 19 and lives  in the Jordanian capital, Amman, with the rest of the family. We talk to them on Skype. Rahaf translates while her mother talks about the son she hasn’t seen in more than a year.

Mouaz and his sisters grew up in Damascus. Their father was in prison for 11 years because he supported the opposition, but was released at 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 tried to make peace,” she says.

He liked to watch films and to swim. Every week before the civil war broke out in 2011, he went to a swimming pool in Damascus, Rahaf says. The family became one of the many millions that fled the conflict. They arrived in Jordan in 2013, but Mouaz stayed behind in Damascus to finish his electrical engineering studies. He was often stopped on the street by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad: it made no difference if you were a rioter or a university student. Sometimes he was taken to a police station and detained.

Mouaz held out for six months before fleeing to Jordan, too.

He couldn’t get a place at the university in Amman, and with his father struggling to find work, he felt increasingly responsible for the family’s welfare. He decided to travel to Turkey in the hope of studying there, and that his family would be able to follow. But his university application was again unsuccessful, his sister said. Mouaz now faced a conundrum: he couldn’t return to Jordan as a refugee because he had already left the country voluntarily. He decided to try to make it to England.

“They have good laws for refugees, he could study there and our uncle lives there,” Rahaf says.

 

****

On 17 August 2014, Mouaz took a flight from Turkey to Algeria. He then travelled through the desert for two days and crossed the border into Libya.

The family knows only that he was there for ten days before he got a place on one of the refugee boats that cross the Mediterranean. After three days at sea, the vessel was intercepted by the Italian navy and the refugees were brought safely to shore.

Mouaz made his way west through Italy and France by train, and on 5 September he arrived in Dunkirk. Over the next two weeks, he made ten failed attempts to hide in a truck heading for the UK. He often sent messages to his family. His parents and his sisters would ask how he was, whether he was keeping warm and whether he’d had something to eat. He always answered that they shouldn’t worry.

He went back to Italy after hearing that it was possible for him to board a plane from there to England. That proved to be wrong, so he returned to Dunkirk, where he made two more failed attempts to hide in a truck. On the morning of 7 October, he travelled from Dunkirk to Calais. His family does not know if he went with someone or alone, but says that the refugees he knew from before had moved on.

Mouaz’s sister Rahaf was the last one to speak to him. He told her that he would try to get to England from Calais, but he didn’t say how. He had mentioned a few times that he thought it would be easy to swim out to a boat or ferry near the coast and climb on board, though he never spoke about swimming across the entire Channel.

She received the last message just before 6.30pm on 7 October. He wrote that he missed them. “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,” Rahaf says.

 

****

Kripos informs us that the DNA sample we took from Mouaz’s uncle Badi in Bradford shows that there is no genetic relationship between him and the body found at Lista. For the body found in the Netherlands – the Wetsuitman – the results have been inconclusive.

It is rare that anybody disappears without trace from Calais. The details of Mouaz’s history – the date he disappeared, that he had talked about swimming, that he had enough money for a wetsuit but not enough to get the help of smugglers – lead us to contact the family again and suggest getting a new DNA test.

To avoid any doubt, we obtain sampling equipment from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and send it to a contact in Jordan who takes Mouaz’s mother, father and one of his sisters to a clinic in Amman where two sets of tests are conducted. One sample is sent to Kripos, the other to police in the Netherlands.

Kripos rings first. None of the new DNA material matches that from the body found at Lista in Norway. We get an answer from the Netherlands a few days later. The samples supplied by Mouaz al-Balkhi’s father and mother reveal that they have a direct family link with the body that washed up on the beach on Texel. Investigator John Welzenbagh of the Dutch special police unit for missing persons says he believes the case is solved.

 

****

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 is depths of grief? There is always hope in uncertainty. Notification of a death is an answer, but it is final. The telephone call you are waiting for, with the voice you’ve missed saying, “Mother, I’m alive,” will never come.

Twenty-two 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 cold water or who was beside him. We don’t know if he was afraid.

But we do know his name. We know that he wanted to complete his engineering studies in England and help his family in Jordan. We know that he missed them.

In a graveyard on the island of Texel, in a corner of Field E between the tombstones of Anneke Molenaar van den Brink and Anna Cornelia Alida Boer, is a grave without a name. Beneath the daisies and dandelions rests the young man who could see England.

He is called Mouaz al-Balkhi and he was born on 6 November 1991 in Damascus and he dreamed of a better life.

This is an edited and translated version of an article first published in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

Anders Fjellberg and Tomm W Christiansen pursued the story of the second body and published their findings on 18 July. See: http://www.dagbladet.no/spesial/vatdraktmysteriet/eng/#del4

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge