Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Austria migrant truck tragedy: relatives trying to identify their familymembers

Omar Abd-Mugeeth stared at his TV in Dubai. He felt hot, then sick. Police had found an abandoned refrigerator truck on an Austrian roadside with at least 50 dead aboard.

“ Mahmoud…my little brother. I knew he was one of them,” said Mr. Abd-Mugeeth, a 44-year-old Iraqi who last week traveled nearly 3,000 miles to try to confirm the fate of his brother and his brother’s wife.

Austrian authorities eventually extracted 71 decomposing bodies from the truck last month, one in a string of recent tragedies that has put the migration crisis at the top of Europe’s political agenda. Undertaking risky travel over land and sea has drawn global attention to the desperation of families fleeing war-torn and impoverished lands in the largest mass migration since World War II.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth and other relatives now wait as a lab in the Austrian capital processes DNA samples to find matches with the tissue of victims who would otherwise be nearly impossible to identify. He flew Thursday to Vienna and then drove to meet with police in the Burgenland region, where the truck was found. En route, he stared past cornfields and small medieval-era houses, crying silently. “My mother,” he said, “she is crushed.”

His 29-year-old brother Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth had married Zina Kaylany, 24, shortly after they had met at a wedding five years ago, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. It was love at first sight. “She was a very strong and respected woman,” he said. “Mahmoud adored her.” The couple lived in Baghdad, where his brother’s wife, nicknamed “Light Eyes,” sang for her husband at home.

As Mr. Abd-Mugeeth waited to speak with authorities at the Eisenstadt police station, he asked officers, “How big was the truck? How many meters?” No one could tell him exactly. On a piece of paper, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth drew a square in red ink with small circles inside.

“Seventy one,” he said. “My brother. No space.” Rising suddenly, he stood on one leg, holding his arms up. “This is how he was standing,” he said. Then Mr. Abd-Mugeeth fell back into his chair and rested his head in his hands.

His brother Mahmoud was an Iraqi army officer, a Sunni who had grown fearful that neither he nor his country could protect his wife and family from violent extremists, according to Mr. Abd-Mugeeth and other family members.

Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth researched flights, spoke with friends who had already left and discussed possible routes with his wife, Zina, who had two brothers already living in Germany.

In mid-August, the couple decided to leave. Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth didn’t tell his commanding officers, family members said. They flew out of Baghdad, traveling in a group that included Zina’s sister and a brother. They arrived in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he asked his brother to stay in Turkey, where other family members lived. But his brother told him his wife and her two siblings wanted to join their brothers in Germany.

“Mahmoud would follow Zina anywhere,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “I tried to talk him into staying in Turkey, I warned him that the trip might be dangerous, that he didn’t know what to expect, but he wouldn’t listen.” Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth planned to start a money transfer and exchange business in Germany, his brother said, similar to the one that Mr. Abd-Mugeeth was running in Dubai.

Before leaving Izmir, the group left their passports with relatives. A smuggler recommended by friends who had already made it to central Europe told them they would get new identities. Many Iraqi migrants are told it is easier to gain asylum in European countries by changing their identities and using, for example, Syrian passports.

Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth also left $10,000 with his older brother, who would transfer the savings when he arrived in Germany.

The group traveled by boat to Greece, where they found another smuggler who drove them by van through Macedonia and Serbia, as far as the border with Hungary. On this leg of the trip, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, he and his mother were in constant contact with Mahmoud through calls and text messages.

‘“In the beginning, he was very happy,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, showing a picture of his smiling brother as he posed at a town on the Greek shore.

As they progressed deeper into Europe, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, his brother no longer smiled in photos he sent. “I could see it in his eyes,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “He had a scared look.”

In one of the last pictures sent, he said, his brother’s face was shaded in a tree’s shadow—behind him, other migrants sat on the ground and talked while others slept amid strewed trash and discarded leftovers.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth last spoke with his brother on Aug. 25—two days before the abandoned truck was discovered by authorities. His brother had told him he was worried about his wife sleeping on the ground in the Serbian forest, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. His brother also confided the couple hadn’t eaten for two days, except for some foraged fruit.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he told his brother to return to their family in Turkey, that there was no point to more suffering. But his brother refused, he said, saying he had spoken to a smuggler who had promised to retrieve them that evening at the Serbia-Hungary border and take them to Germany for €1,800 (about $2,022) a person.

“I should have been harder on him,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “I should never have let him go.”

The group was expected in Germany by the Kaylany brothers—Ahmed, 28, and Sarmad, 25—who were waiting to welcome their sister Zina, her husband, Mahmoud Abd-Mugeeth, another sister and a brother, Ali Amer.

Mr. Amer had texted his brothers on Aug. 24, saying the group was waiting at the Serbia-Hungary border for a transport. Don’t worry, he said.

Sitting in their apartment in Aachen, a small town on the border with the Netherlands, the Kaylany brothers said Sunday that they heard nothing for a week after that message. They had tried calling. At first, the phone rang. But after awhile, even the ring tone went silent.

“The world fell apart,” said Ahmed Kaylany, sitting on a green velvet sofa, elbows resting on his knees. “It is as if God chose to take the best people in the world. They wouldn’t even have hurt an ant.”

The two brothers now spend their time waiting—for a decision by German authorities on their asylum applications, filed in May, and for a call from Austrian authorities about the DNA samples they sent out a week ago. For weeks, they have had trouble sleeping and eating.

“The wait is the worst part,” Sarmad Kaylany said, tears in his eyes. “I only think about my family, my parents back home who still have hope…My little sisters, my brother.”

Austrian investigators said working with frustrated and distraught relatives has heightened the emotional challenge for officers working on the case. “We see people doing all they can to provide us with DNA samples, some traveling across half of the world,” a police spokesman said.

Providing relatives with a clear answer is taking much longer than anyone wants, the spokesman said, and it could drag on for several more months because of the forensic complexity of the case, as well as the logistics of communicating with foreign authorities.

“Our priority has to be to not, not ever, make a mistake,” the spokesman said.

Authorities have arrested six people in the case, including the alleged driver.

. At the Eisenstadt police station, an officer arrived to speak with Mr. Abd-Mugeeth. A second man asked him to open his mouth so he could take a swab of saliva. He looked at Mr. Abd-Mugeeth’s passport and wrote down his name, birth date, and address on a form.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth asked when he would get an answer about his DNA sample. “In two to three weeks,” the officer said.

The officer started looking through some papers in front of him, then pulled out a photograph of a head scarf from the stack.

“Have you seen this before?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said.

The officer showed him a picture of a small pouch. Mr. Abd-Mugeeth flicked through the photos his brother had sent on his phone. In one shot, of his brother and his wife in the forest in Serbia, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth saw that she wore the same pouch around her hips.

“And look,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, pointing at his phone. “It’s the head scarf. It’s the same.”

The officer pulled out one last photo that showed a golden necklace with Kurdish letters.

“It’s Zina’s, 100%.” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “The letters say ‘Mahmoud.’ ”

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth asked whether he could see the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law, or at least pictures of them. The officer said he couldn’t until the bodies were identified.

“You would not be able to recognize them,” the officer said. “The bodies are not visually recognizable.”

“But her hair color,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “You must have been able to see her hair color.”

The police officer looked down at the table.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “But no, we couldn’t even recognize her hair color.”

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he had felt as though his brother’s presence lingered after the truck’s discovery. He could see on Facebook that his brother was online for several days after they last talked, a sign his phone must have been in use. But his brother didn’t reply to messages.

When Mr. Abd-Mugeeth called, no one answered.

Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said he was convinced smugglers took away the phone—which police never found—and forced his brother and the others into the truck.

“Mahmoud was very jealous,” he said. “He would not have wanted his wife to be in a place like that with so many men and so little space. He would never have entered that truck without being very scared.”

After the couple had learned early in their marriage that they couldn’t conceive children, Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said, his brother’s wife offered a divorce so her husband could remarry and have children with someone else.

“He told her he loved her, and that he would always stay with her, with or without children,” Mr. Abd-Mugeeth said. “He said…that he would live with her and die with her. And he did.”

Wednesday 30 September 2015


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