At­tempt to reach Ger­many thwarted by tragedy

The story of a Syr­ian fam­ily flee­ing war whose 6-year-old son is among the vic­tims miss­ing from the 2014 Norman At­lantic ferry dis­as­ter

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIAN­NIS PAPADOPOULOS

They would try to blend in among the other pas­sen­gers – at least that is what they’d planned – but on the night of De­cem­ber 27, 2014, the Norman At­lantic ferry to the Ital­ian port of An­cona was late ar­riv­ing at Greece’s western Igoumenitsa har­bor. As the clock ticked, the fa­ther and his two sons, refugees from north­east­ern Syria, started feel­ing more and more ex­posed. Their pres­ence at the port be­came in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble.

As a po­lice­man ap­proached them for ques­tion­ing, the younger of the two boys man­aged to board by fol­low­ing a fam­ily of Arabs. “My son is inside, let me through,” Ah­mad Mo­ham­mad re­mem­bers shout­ing.

De­spite be­ing sep­a­rated from 6-yearold Raed, Ah­mad tried to think calmly. He called his sib­lings who live in Ger­many and asked that some­one meet the boy in An­cona. He couldn’t imag­ine the tragic events that were to fol­low.

When he re­turned to Athens the fol­low­ing day, the tele­vi­sion news pro­grams were show­ing footage of a flam­ing ship – the Norman At­lantic, which had caught fire in the mid­dle of the night while sail­ing in the Strait of Otranto. Af­ter a joint Greek and Ital­ian res­cue mis­sion that lasted 36 hours, the toll was 11 dead and at least 18 miss­ing. Some bod­ies were iden­ti­fied by DNA. Raed was never found.

“I now be­lieve he is dead. A death cer­tifi­cate has been is­sued, but I still have a right to know what hap­pened to him, what hap­pened on the boat,” says the griev­ing fa­ther.

Ah­mad is one of 105 plain­tiffs (sur­vivors and vic­tims’ rel­a­tives) who have filed suit at a court in Bari, Italy, against the owner, man­ager and builder of the Norman At­lantic, as well as the Ital­ian ship reg­is­ter.

For the first time Kathimerini tells the story of the fam­ily which fled civil war in Syria only to be­come em­broiled in one of the big­gest mar­itime tragedies in the Mediter­ranean in re­cent years.

Flee­ing Syria

ap­proached the fam­ily for ques­tion­ing at the western Greek port of Igoumenitsa, the younger of the two boys man­aged to board by fol­low­ing a fam­ily of Arabs. ‘My son is inside, let me through,’ Ah­mad Mo­ham­mad re­mem­bers shout­ing. ‘I now be­lieve he is dead. A death cer­tifi­cate has been is­sued, but I still have a right to know what hap­pened to him, what hap­pened on the boat,’ says the griev­ing fa­ther.

Some of his brothers had gone to uni­ver­sity, and one was al­ready work­ing as a doc­tor in Europe, but Ah­mad chose a dif­fer­ent path and opened a bak­ery in the Syr­ian town of Hasakah to sup­port his wife and their four chil­dren.

It took al­most two years be­fore the Syr­ian civil war landed on their doorstep. Their neigh­bor­hood came un­der at­tack in 2013. “I re­mem­ber the sky be­ing bright red. I heard screams. I grabbed the chil­dren and ran. Our near­est neigh­bors were 100 me­ters away but when we got there, they were all dead. The ta­ble was set; they had been about to sit down to din­ner,” re­mem­bers Ah­mad.

The fam­ily ini­tially moved to Cey­lan­pinar, a small town on the Turk­ishSyr­ian bor­der. Jobs were hard to come by and wages were half of what Turks were be­ing paid. The Syr­ian refugees did not feel wel­come, and the money Ah­mad’s brother sent from Europe was not enough to feed his fam­ily of six. That’s when he thought of Greece as a gate­way to Europe. The fam­ily trav­eled to Izmir in Tur­key and sought a smug­gler, like thou­sands of Syr­i­ans be­fore them, to help them make the cross­ing.

They got a deal for 1,200 eu­ros per adult and 600 eu­ros per child but only had enough money to send Ah­mad and the two el­der sons, Ab­dulka­der and Raed. Once they reached Ger­many, they would fig­ure out a way to bring over the rest of the fam­ily through a fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. Ah­mad had also thought that his two old­est sons could start school as soon as they ar­rived in Ger­many.

Reach­ing Europe

On De­cem­ber 3, 2014, the fa­ther and his two sons landed on the shores of the Greek is­land of Lesvos in a plas­tic dinghy, along with an­other 27 refugees. They walked for a cou­ple of hours un­til they were spot­ted by a taxi driver, who called the po­lice. They spent six days at the pro­cess­ing cen­ter in Mo­ria, where they were given a six-month per­mit to stay, and then trav­eled to Athens, where they looked for an­other traf­ficker for the rest of the jour­ney. At the time, some refugees would rent a ho­tel room for 450 eu­ros a month, while oth­ers would seek help from ac­quain­tances or rent a bed for 4 eu­ros per night at large apart­ments fit­ted for the pur­pose by smug­gling rings. Ah­mad be­longed to the lat­ter cat­e­gory.

The Balkan Route via Idomeni in north­ern Greece had not opened yet, so the pas­sage to Europe was ei­ther very ex­pen­sive or very dangerous. The fam­ily’s op­tions were to buy fake pa­pers and board an air­plane or to risk sneak­ing onto the back of a truck to Italy, mainly via Al­ba­nia, or at Pa­tra or Igoumenitsa, two ports in western Greece.

“I didn’t have enough money for the ‘tra­di­tional’ routes. My only so­lu­tion was ei­ther to re­turn to Tur­key or find an al­ter­na­tive,” Ah­mad tells Kathimerini. He even­tu­ally found him­self in Igoumenitsa with one new adult pass­port and his two sons, hop­ing they would sneak onto a ferry to Italy.

‘My heart still hopes’

No one knows how many refugees and mi­grants were hid­ing on the Norman At­lantic that night. As Kathimerini re­ported in De­cem­ber, one Greek truck driver told Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties that when the fire broke out he saw at least two stow­aways in the car deck and an­other four on a lifeboat.

Two res­cued Afghans and a Syr­ian who had snuck on hid­den in trucks said that there were at least an­other 10 on board, and on one of the bod­ies lo­cated in the garage Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties found ob­jects in the pock­ets that sug­gested it be­longed to an Afghan man.

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