TODAY is New Year’s Eve for the signs of the Chinese zodiac and they are beaming with positive energy. The Chinese New Year will be…
Zana Mamand Mohammad will never forget where he was when the smuggler called. Although hours had passed with no contact, the young policeman wasn’t unduly worried – his brother had warned it might take a few days for him to get in touch.
Working on the assumption that no news is good news, Zana had finally told his mother that evening – fearing she would lie awake worrying, he’d initially kept the crossing secret from her.
Over a homemade chicken biryani, and as the call to prayer sounded at dusk on that late November evening, Zana whispered a quiet prayer of thanks and told his mother that her youngest son had safely reached England.
A dangerous journey, that had lasted many long weeks, was finally over. They celebrated with sweets and hot chai.
The small town of Ranya, at the foot of the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, is famous for being the centre of a 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein.
The roads into the town are lined by huge posters of Peshmerga soldiers, killed fighting Islamic State in recent years. These days, the threat comes from Turkish warplanes which regularly target militant outposts in the hills around the town.
Ranya’s rebellious reputation, earned through history of revolt, runs through its residents today; it’s no coincidence that many of Calais’s most notorious smugglers come from the town.
It was from here, on a hot August evening last summer, that a young Kurdish boy put on his rucksack, double checked his new passport and said a final goodbye to the home he’d lived in all his life.
With two other school friends, Twana Mamand Mohammad set off for Erbil Airport in good time to make the 2.45am flight to Istanbul. Like so many before them, their journey would start with Turkish Airlines flight 317, an overnight shuttle west to the city where Asia meets Europe. By the time the sun was rising over the Bosphorus the following morning, Twana and his friends had landed safely in Turkey. They were on their way.
A black belt in Taekwondo, and a keen footballer, Twana had turned down offers from clubs in the big cities to chase his dream in Europe. The avid Manchester City fan had pestered his family for two years to go to England but was told he must wait.
“One day I will wear the sky-blue shirt,” Twana would tell anyone who listened.
Why do people risk their lives to cross the Channel into the UK?
Now 18, he left with his father’s blessing, hopeful of joining his elder sister who was already in the UK and living happily in Sheffield. To pay for the journey, an estimated £20,000, Twana’s father had put up his house as collateral. If he made it to England, the family home would be sold.
Turkey is the first stop for many leaving the Middle East – visas are easy to obtain and once there, land and sea routes open up. By contrast British visas, many migrants will say, are almost impossible to secure.
With five friends, all from the same town in northern Iraq, they found a smuggler who would take them by foot into Bulgaria, through Serbia and then to northern Europe.
It was bad timing. A few weeks earlier the Taliban had swept into Kabul and regained control of Afghanistan. By the time the friends arrived on the Bulgarian border, so too had thousands of Afghans and the security services were on alert. Unperturbed, they tried twice but were caught both times. Stripped of everything by Bulgarian Police, Twana was left with just 100€ that he’d hidden in his clothes.
The friends returned to Istanbul to regroup and rethink.
Two months had now passed since Twana left Iraq and he was growing frustrated and desperate – he phoned his brother and said he was going to try a different route.
The sea crossing from Turkey to either Greece or Italy is more dangerous than going by land, but it has the advantage of being quicker.
On 8 October from a beach near Izmir, the teenager boarded a small boat and hoped for the best.
For four days and nights, the boat chugged slowly through the Aegean and into the Mediterranean Sea. A video, sent to Zana by the smuggler, shows Twana and the other passengers smiling and laughing on the boat as they approach the Italian coast. On 12 October they landed safely on a beach in the south of Italy; the successful sailing from Turkey would give the group confidence in later weeks as they prepared themselves to cross the narrower English Channel.
Now in the EU’s borderless Schengen Area, Twana’s journey ahead was much easier. Sticking together, the friends took a series of trains through Italy and into France. By 25 October they were in Paris – a photo posted on Facebook shows Twana in a black tracksuit, stood in front of the Eiffel Tower.
The following day they arrived in the Calais Jungle, the squalid staging post for thousands of hopeful people as they wait to make the final crossing.
The coast between Calais and Dunkirk is informally divided into zones, each controlled by different smugglers. It is lucrative real estate and territory is defended aggressively if threatened. Should a smuggler choose to sell his zone, he can expect to make tens of thousands of pounds.
A single inflatable dingy, with 30 people in, could make a smuggler upward of £70,000 if it reaches England safely. If it doesn’t, the smuggler won’t be paid. The money is held by trusted Travel Agents in the home countries and only released when all parties are satisfied the journey is complete.
For a month, Twana stayed in Calais making repeated attempts to reach England. Six times he tried to cross, each time foiled by police or problems with the boats.
Sleeping in a tent, with food and water provided by local charities, the seven friends knew time was running out with winter approaching. They were reaching the end of their long journey and the events of the following hours would reverberate around the world.
Around midday on 23 November, Zana calls his brother for an update. Twana tells him they’re planning to try again the following evening and have moved to a hotel in Lille for the night to escape the cold.
At 2pm in northern France, the two speak again. A new smuggler has offered them the chance to cross that evening and with the weather window closing fast Twana is keen to go.
Worried that this new smuggler has a reputation for providing poor boats, Zana tries but fails to convince his brother to stick to the original plan.
In Dunkirk, the group spends the afternoon haggling with the new smuggler and eventually settle on a fee: £2,350 per person, to cross that evening.
The two brothers, Twana and Zana, stay in constant contact. At 8.51pm GMT, Twana sends a Facebook message to say he is on the boat.
Half an hour later – by now after midnight in Iraq – Zana calls his brother to check he’s safe. Twana tells him the dingy is poor quality and the weather wasn’t good but they’re ok and making progress.
For the next 90 minutes, Zana repeatedly called his brother and the friends to check on their progress, trying a different phone if one was offline.
At 10.41pm, with Twana’s phone not connected, Zana messages one of the group to ask for their location.
Twenty-two minutes later, at 11.03pm, a message comes back with their co-ordinates. Zana immediately calls his brother and gets through on WhatsApp. In a conversation lasting four minutes and six seconds, Twana tells him the motor is ok, the weather hasn’t deteriorated and they expected to reach the UK in an hour and a half.
“It’s late in Kurdistan, go to sleep,” Twana tells his older brother, reassuring him everything is fine and that he would phone their sister in the UK if he needed help.
Zana agrees and having messaged his sister, goes to bed and sleeps with his phone next to him, satisfied everything was ok. It wasn’t.
At 2.42am, a message is sent by one of the group to say the engine had stopped working. Their location, as given to French authorities, puts them closer to Dover than Calais.
An accompanying audio message is sent by one of the passengers to a relative back in Iran.
“We don’t know which of them is coming to rescue us,” he says. “I’m throwing away my mobile phone, if you don’t hear from me that means we are in Britain.”
The sound of whistling can be heard in the background as the passengers try to get help from the dark sea around them.
One of the people on board calls the French police to declare an emergency but they’re told the boat is in British waters. A call to the British gets a similar response but they are told to hold their phones in the air so the lights can be spotted.
At 2.45am, minutes after the distress calls, tracking data shows a British search and rescue helicopter flying east towards the location. A French warship and British boarder force vessel are circling nearby, so too a fishing trawler, but it’s the middle of the night, visibility is poor and the precise location inexact.
The waves are now pushing the dingy back towards France and it is starting to sink.
Monitoring the situation from her home in the Midlands, Twana’s sister initially holds off phoning him so he can hold his phone in the air as instructed but impatient for news she calls him 10 minutes later and gets no answer. She tries Zana’s friends but their mobiles also go straight to voicemail.
Assuming that they’ve thrown their phones in the water and been rescued, she too goes to bed, hopeful of more news in the morning.
By now the boat has all but sunk and the passengers hold hands to stay afloat. They pray for help but none comes.
It isn’t until 12.58pm the following afternoon that a French shipping vessel spots objects floating in the water.
At 1.06pm, the French coastguard puts out a mayday alert to all ships in the area and gives co-ordinates putting the dinghy just inside French territorial waters.
Throughout the afternoon, 27 bodies are pulled out of the water and just two survivors.
Although news has started to break of the tragedy, Twana’s family is unaware of what happened during the night.
Later that evening, Zana is at his parent’s house with his wife and 18-month-old son, when he gets word from the smuggler that Twana is safe and in the UK. The tension of the last few days immediately lifts, and they celebrate together.
A few hours later, as Zana makes his way to meet friends in a local cafe, his phone rings again. A relative, having heard the news of the sinking, is calling to check Twana is alright – Zana assures them he is.
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But as the days pass, they hear nothing and the family starts to realise there has been a mistake. As the bodies are slowly identified, one-by-one, it seems almost certain that Twana was dead too.
Fifteen weeks after kissing his family goodbye, Twana’s dreams of reaching the UK to reunite with his sister and play football for Man City ended beneath the waves on a dark night in the English Channel.
His body has not yet been found.
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