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
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.
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.
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.