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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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.

 

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