View Full Version : wet-suit mystery solved by DNA

06-20-2015, 01:46 PM
I ran across this cool little mystery story, a real one, that between some good investigative journalism (didnt think there was any of that left anymore) and DNA it got solved...not a happy story of course

The Wetsuitman
Last winter two bodies were found in Norway and the Netherlands. They were wearing identical wetsuits. The police in three countries were involved in the case, but never managed to identify them. This is the story of who they were.


Note* I copied the text as I know some might not be able to use the link, but none of the pics or maps get copied-the little write ups with them do so if you run into something that does not make sense, that's probably the issue

"Without a Trace

TEXT: Anders Fjellberg
PHOTO: Tomm W. Christiansen & Hampus Lundgren
A gale was blowing from the south-west as the elderly architect put on his jacket and rubber boots and went to face the elements. Down in the bay, four metre high waves crashed against the cliffs and sent sea spray hundreds of metres across the grazing land at Norway’s southernmost tip.

The first thing the architect noticed when he came down to the sea was a wetsuit. It lay stretched out on the small patch of grass between the cliffs, right outside the reach of the waves. “That might be useful,” the architect thought. It was rare for him or anyone else in the village to take a walk down there. The wetsuit could have been here for a long time.

He could smell seaweed and the sea and a faint, sickly scent of something else.

The wetsuit was the Triboard brand. The architect thought that it looked cheap. It looked partially inside out, so that blue wetsuit socks were stuck in the suit. Two white bones were sticking out of each sock.

Uidentifisert våtdrakt
Unidentified: January 2., on the exposed coast at Lista in the south of Norway, an old man found a wetsuit with human remains.
Sherriff Kåre Unnhammer from Farsund police station is an authoritative figure with large serious eyes, a big moustache and gold teeth that gleam when he speaks. It is a good day of April this year. In the waiting room, there is a warning against boat thieves and a placard with information that the legal size for cod caught south of 60 degrees latitude is 40 cm. In the middle ages, they burnt witches right outside this spot, but things are more relaxed here now.

"This is a peaceful place,” says Unnhammer.

He logs in to his computer and reads from the log. “At 3:02 pm, January 2, 2015, a diving suit with human remains was found at Lista.”

Forensic experts from Kristiansand went to take pictures and examine 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 went missing in the North Sea and that he would be identified quickly.

«When we have so little to go on, we have to turn to DNA profiling to find the answer.»

– Sherriff Kåre Unnhammer from Farsund police station

They checked the body against a missing report from the Stavanger area, where a man in a wetsuit had gone missing a year previously. Neither that body nor anybody else who had been reported missing matched the body found at Lista. Some bones found in the same area were sent for analysis, but proved to be from an animal skeleton.

“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 in the sea around here are very unpredictable and always changing. Not even professional fishermen can tell how the current will behave the next day. It is impossible to say where a corpse that floats ashore has come from.

In this precise 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.

Funnsted på Lista
The site: The wetsuit with human remains was found here, among the rocks near by the sea at Lista, south of Norway.
Drevet med strømmen
Unpredictable currents: Not even professional fishermen are able to predict the current conditions outside Lista. It is impossible to know where everything that floats ashore comes from.
The Partnair accident, the tsunami, the Åsta accident, July 22. Police Superintendent Per Angel has been identifying dead bodies since the end of the 80s. He is head of the Kripos national ID group. They are called in cases of simultaneous multiple deaths or when an unidentified body is found. Angel talks about Norway being a country made for accidents. We have a lot of storms, nature in the rough, and thousands of workplaces offshore and in the Polar region. We have had train accidents, plane crashes, shipwrecks and terrorism.

“We have become skilled in ID work,” says Angel.

The list of missing people in Norway since 1947 amounts to 1,443 people at the time of writing. The list of dead people found in the same time period, but who the police have not managed to identify, is considerably shorter. Just 16 bodies, including several findings of bones which most likely originate in pre-modern times.

“The man in the wetsuit could be number 19. This is a special case,” says Angel.

When Kripos receives an unidentified body, forensic experts, pathologists, dentists and forensic geneticists collect so called post-mortem information. They create a DNA profile, take fingerprints and register information about teeth, any jewellery, previous bone fractures, tattoos and any other characteristics that may help in the identification of a body. They also try to establish the cause of death.

Post-mortem information is compared with information from missing reports, where family or friends have provided details about people they are looking for. The main requirements for identification are information on teeth, fingerprints and DNA. One requirement is not enough to establish identity and has to be supported by one or several additional required pieces of information. There may be findings on the body, medical information or tactical information connecting the body to a missing person.

No missing reports in Norway match the body found at Lista. In the wetsuit case, only DNA has been found. If Kripos is to be able to identify the body, he 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 test.

On February 5, Kripos sent out a so called “Black Notice” through Interpol. It contains a DNA profile and a detailed description of the finding of the body on Lista. They received an answer the next day.

The Lista body is not the only one that drifted ashore in a grey and black Triboard wetsuit.

Kåre Unnhammer
Without a trace: - Drowned people floats ashore from time to time. But those we have found earlier, we’ve been able to identify, says Kåre Unnhammer, sheriff in Farsund.
The Wetsuitman
The Wetsuitman: The body that was found on the island of Texel in the Netherlands on October 27 last year, has been an enigma for investigators.
“We call him the wetsuitman,” says John Welzenbagh, investigator at the Netherlands special police unit for missing persons in the North Sea.

Welzenbagh is 52 years old, a, former marine diver, he is fit and wears a dark windbreaker jacket and sports sunglasses. He is the type of investigator who lies awake at night, pondering unsolved cases.

On the ferry across from Den Helder to the island of Texel up in the north of the Netherlands, Welzenbagh points to a sand bank and explains that he is still looking into the identity of a man who was found on a sailboat out there in 1995.

Just a few weeks ago, 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 found on Texel early in the morning on October 27 last year in a black and grey wetsuit, identical to the body found on Lista 67 days later. The body was found along the water’s edge on the broad strand below the cafes in the small village of De Koog. It is a beach that is popular among windsurfers and tourists from all over the Netherlands come here in the summer.

Every year Welzenbagh and the Dutch North Sea group get in between 20 and 30 bodies or remains for identification. Most turn out to have gone missing from the local area. Cases are solved quickly in the main.

“This case is different,” says Welzenbagh.

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 was also impossible to say anything definite about this. 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 are not many other places in Europe where you see that hair colour, in any case, not amongst ethnic Europeans,” he says.

When the wetsuitman was found, four windsurfers were reported missing in England. The main theory in the first days was that one of them had floated ashore. The windsurfers had already been found however. The same went for a French diver who went missing outside Normandy. The Dutch still reported that the body found on Texel was a diver from France.

“This was of course wrong, but even at our meetings he was known as the diver. I didn’t like that,” says Welzenbagh.

“We had no way of knowing what kind of water sports it was. If we called him the diver, I was afraid we would overlook clues that could help us. I said «from now on, we will call him the wetsuitman.”

The police were back at square one. Fingerprints were impossible to reproduce. There were no papers or other characteristics and the DNA profile and missing report they sent out through Interpol met with no response.

The wetsuit was the only concrete thing Welzenbagh had. A 5 millimetre thick neoprene wetsuit with a hood, made for diving and snorkelling in temperatures between 16 and 24 degrees. In the North Sea and The English Channel, water temperatures rarely rise above 15. At the end of October, when the body was found the normal temperature is an icy 10 degrees.

“There was something that wasn’t quite right,” says Welzenbagh.

RFID stands for “Radio-Frequency Identification” and are tiny data chips that are used for everything from registering passengers in toll stations to identifying pets. They are also used in all sorts of weather, as a modern barcode system, and to store information about where goods are moving from the time they are produced until they are scanned at a cash register and disappear into a shopping bag.

John Welzenbagh knew this. When he discovered the little RFID-symbol on the tightly sewn tag with the wetsuit’s serial number and goods declaration, he knew he could find out where and when the suit was sold. And – if there was a credit card number on the receipt – who bought it. Here’s what he found out:

At 20.03 pm, Tuesday, October 7, 2014, a customer stood in front of the cash register of the Decathlon sports shop in the French port city of Calais by The English Channel. The customer bought a Triboard Subsea 5mm wetsuit, medium size, for 79 Euros. The customer also bought hand paddles – plates swimmers use on their hands to provide more resistance when they train, a snorkel and a diving mask, flippers, water socks – usually used for gymnastics in water and a waterproof A4 plastic folder.

But there was more: There was two of everything on the receipt. Welzenbagh knew full well 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. It was found by an architect during a winter storm in Lista, 850 kilometres from Calais, 87 days after it was purchased.

The total for the goods was 256 euros, or 2,000 kroner in total. The customer paid cash. There is no surveillance footage from the shop.

Neither the DNA profile from the body in the Netherlands or Norway produced any hits internationally through Interpol. All leads in the case trail off in front of the cash register in Decathlon in Calais, barely an hour after sunset on October 7 last year.

The Jungle

"The Jungle"
The sand sweeps across the ground in biting wind, making it difficult to see. A few hundred metres further on, in the grey-brown sand between two hilltops on the plains a handful of refugees are walking in a cloud of dust, pushing a shopping basket filled with bottles of water against the wind.

“No camera,” cries one of them when he sees us. He gestures angrily at us to go away.

Surrounding us on all sides, blue, black and green plastic shimmers. Simple tents have been erected using poles, steel wire and plastic bags, at best. There are hundreds of them, spread everywhere on the large site which used to be a dump.

Over 2000 so called illegal immigrants from all over the world live here. Twice as many are expected during the summer. They have almost no water, no electricity, no rules, no security, no heating, nothing.

A muscular African man, almost two metres tall, and in his 20s, walks along the road towards the building complex where since January this year the refugees have been served one meal a day. This also houses the only water tap in the area.

It is eleven in the morning. He is drunk and clutching a bottle of rosé from Lidl. He is crying loudly. His voice breaks. «I wanna go home», he cries. «I wanna go home to Africa».

Welcome to the desolate, illness-infested and highly unofficial refugee camp in Calais. It is proof of the total failure of Western Europe’s attempts to treat refugees with the minimum of dignity. It is the camp nobody wanted, but which is here anyway and growing constantly. This is the camp with no name, but everybody knows what it’s called.

Welcome to the Jungle.

Calais with its 70,000 inhabitants is located at the spot where the English Channel is at its narrowest. It is 34 kilometres across to England. On good days, you can see the distinctive white limestone cliffs of Dover on the British side. Otherwise Calais is a fairly charmless city, a sleepy port of entry to France. The travel guide Lonely Planet describes the city as the place in the world where most people have passed through without stopping.

The Eurotunnel is a few kilometres outside Calais. Massive trains transport cars and trucks in the tunnel under the channel. The ferry to Dover leaves from the port of Calais.

The latest addition to the almost military guard is a five metre high and 20 km long barbed wire fence last used during a high-level NATO meeting in Wales. It was donated by the British authorities along with 12 million pounds in order to increase security around the ferry and the tunnel.

The refugees in the Jungle have one goal only – to get to England. The question is how.

At least 15 refugees 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 down on to a passing truck. One was found dead in the river, one fell from his hiding place under the wheel axle of a tourist bus. There are also those who are not found in official lists, activists’ blogs or news items. The ones nobody has heard about. The ones nobody remembers and nobody has enquired about.

The refugee theory emerged early when John Welzenbagh and his colleagues in the Netherlands managed to connect the wetsuits to Calais. A person with a permanent connection to Europe, a man from Calais or a regular tourist, would have been reported missing by family or friends. The police would have heard about it.

Another thing that Welzenbagh puzzled over, was that the equipment on the receipt did not make sense. 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.

Could they be refugees that tried to swim to England?

In an industrial estate outside the centre of Calais, is the Decathlon sports shop. It is a chain store of the same type as Norway’s XXL. You can buy everything and it is cheap.

When Magasinet arrives in one morning at the end of April, most employees are busy. A young woman sorts out goods at the end of a rack separating surf boards 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 October 7 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 that 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 suits.

She behaves as if she is nervous, keeps her voice down and makes sure that nobody sees that she is talking to us.

“I remember them, but only just. There were two young men, perhaps in the beginning of their 20s. 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 an English expert who did an identikit picture 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 have been here buying wetsuits?”

“I have just heard it from others who work here. It happens around once a month. I don’t know any more.”

Henok (26)
Afraid: Henok (26) fled from Eritrea, where he has a wife and a baby son. Now he lives in The Jungle in Calais. He will try to go to England in a semi trailer truck. - This is a dangerous place, he said.
De afghanske flyktningene
Has anyone seen him?: Afghan refugees we talk to have not heard of anyone who has disappeared or tried to swim. They believe the man on the police sketch looks like one of the Hazara people.
The refugee problem in Calais began in 1999. In an unused hangar right by the tunnel the Red Cross opened the Sangatte refugee centre. It was intended to give refuge to a hundred Kosovo Albanians who had fled the war in the Balkans.

Three years afterwards, Sangatte was a scandal and political abscess for France and England.

A few hundred Kosovo refugees had turned into 1,600 refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Every single night hundreds of them try to get to England by hiding in trucks that are going on the ferry or through the tunnel. Accusations were thrown back and forth over the channel about who was responsible.

At Sangatte, there were riots between ethnic groups. Refugees cut holes in the fence and stormed the tunnel terminal. «Stop the invasion», was the headline on the front page of the English Daily Express.

In December 2002, British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that France had agreed to the closure of Sangatte. The refugees continued to come. The only thing that had changed was that they no longer had a place to go.

They began to make their own homes. Some lived on the street, other set up small slum communities. Most settled on an industrial site belonging to one of Europe’ largest producers of titanium dioxide. That was the first «jungle» in Calais, the Tioxide Jungle.

It is afternoon in what is now called the Jungle, or the New Jungle. Henok (26) fled the reign of terror 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 that have seen too much.

He takes us with him 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 the civil war stricken and lawless Libya. He was taken by the police there and put in prison for three weeks. He never found out why. Both soldiers and police in Libya are corrupt through and through. He bought himself out of prison for 500 dollars. Then he went to people traffickers in Tripoli, got money sent over from his family in Eritrea and paid 1700 dollars to be stowed away 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.”

His wife Bethelem (21) and son Fire-Ab Henok (20 months) are still in Eritrea. He thinks. 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 or about people smugglers who use small boats over to England, we must interrupt the interview. The photograph is standing outside the small circle of tent and an Ethiopian refugee tries to rob him. The Eritreans we are sitting with become very angry and the robber runs away. We are told to get out of there.

“He might come back with more people. It is not safe for you here now.”

«If they see that you are taking pictures, you will be killed..»

– Aid worker Georges Gilles about the people smugglers in Calais

Some hours later a fight breaks out in the Jungle between the Sudanese and Eritreans. We are told that they are fighting about whose turn it was to try to board trailers at the ferry. Some of them used knives during the fight. One of the few women who live in the Jungle ended up in hospital with burn injuries after her tent seemed to have been set on fire.

Georges Gilles is a pensioner and has worked as 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. They are often Kurds, Afghans or Albanians. Albanians are the worst.”

The refugees who can afford to pay the smugglers are taken along motorways for tens of kilometres outside Calais to avoid strict security. At night, at rest stops and petrol stations, the smugglers hide the refugees 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.”

Everybody here has scars. Some are visible, others on the inside. Afghan Khalil Khaman Khalily (26) has several. One is 20 centimetres long and goes from his navel up to his ribcage.

“Taliban,” he says.

Khalil explains that he work at a construction company that was hired in by NATO from 2007, and that amongst other things he worked with the military camp at Shorabak in Helmand province.

Five months ago he was kidnapped, locked up and stabbed when he was supposed to meet a potential new employer.

“All Afghans who worked for NATO live dangerously,” he says.

He managed to flee when one of the guards got drunk. He got help getting to Kabul and from there he fled to Europe. On the border from Iran to Turkey he was accused of being either an IS soldier or an Afghan spy and he says that he was tortured for two days until they understood that he didn’t have anything to say. The rest of his story is about cynical people smugglers and in the end flight on foot through the Balkans. He got into the EU and Hungary through the forest at the Serbian border town of Subotica. From there he travelled as if he was a blind passenger on the train to Paris and Calais.

“I don’t feel safe here either. Look around you. The longer you are here, the more depressed you get.”

During the 20 days he has been here, he 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 laughs.

We show him drawings of the man the police in the Netherlands call the wetsuitman.

“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.”

Khalil Khaman Khalily (26)
Marked: Khalil Khaman Khalily (26) says he was kidnapped and stabbed by the Taliban. Before that, he worked as a contractor for NATO and did construction work by military bases in Afghanistan.
Flyktningene her bor i telt og plastikkskur
Jungle of plastic: “The Jungle” is referred to as the worst refugee camp in Europe. The refugees here live in tents and plastic sheds made by what they can find.
Another group of Afghans come over, offer us tea and take us into the tent where somewhere between five and 10 refugees from Panjshir live. They have a little appetiser of onions and potatoes, 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 can tell sad stories about police violence.

One of them has their right arm in plaster. He says he’s called Khalid, is 26 years old and he says 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 we meet say that they have been hit with batons, kicked and sprayed with pepper spray in the face at close range when the police find them and pull them out of the trucks.

The stories are identical to a report from the organization Human Rights Watch which is coming in January, based on interviews with 44 refugees in Calais. The accusations were dismissed by the French authorities that considered the organization had not checked the facts.

A few weeks ago, the organization Calais Migrant Solidarity released a video that was made on May 5 this year. It shows precisely what the refugees have been talking about: policemen who tear them out of trucks, kick them, hit them with batons and push them over the auto

The authorities say they will investigate the events and police in Calais are considering buying Gopro cameras to document that at times they have no choice than 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,” says Khalid.

He is like a boss for the tent we are sitting in. 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 send the drawing around and study the face.

“He looks like a Hazara. They are Afghans, but are originally Mongols,” says Khalid.

“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 Hazara refugees. They used to have their own little camp here somewhere, but most of them are gone.

We continue to show the drawing to the refugees we talk to, but our interpreter interrupts and takes us to one side. He has been a refugee in Calais himself. 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, and that you are looking for somebody that you are going to arrest. We should go,” he says.

To further complicate the picture, he 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 smart phones, English SIM cards and seem to be having an easy enough life. They are the top people.”


“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 wouldn’t have anything to do with you.”

Evening is approaching in the Jungle, 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.

At the centre where dinner was served a few hours earlier, it is now quiet. We talk with several helpers, but nobody has heard anything about anybody who went missing in October. They had also not heard that anyone had tried to swim and nobody can confirm that the people smugglers used small boats across the channel.

We ask a policeman who has nothing to do right now.

“If somebody has swum? Not that I have heard,” he says. “But we don’t patrol the beach. We don’t know about everything that happens. Sorry, I can’t help you.”

From the beach in Calais, we see the ferry «Pride of Burgundy» 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 refugees. They have held their breath through the checkpoints, past the police dogs and into the ferry. They have heard the heavy chains locking the wheels before the crossing, and finally the ferry slip closing. The sound of safety. They are among the lucky ones. In 90 minutes a new life is set to begin.

In a graveyard on the island of Texel, in a corner of field E between Anneke Molenar van den Brink and Anna Cornelia Alida Boer, there is a nameless grave. You will find no gravestone, no memorial, no “Rest in peace, beloved” at the fresh pile of earth where somebody had left a single footprint between two small sprigs of garlic and daisy.

“I would really like to give him his name back. No family deserves to live in uncertainty,” says investigator John Welzenbagh.

He was at the funeral himself.

“We are doing everything we can to find out who he was, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” he says.

Before we leave Calais, our interpreter tells that there are Afghan groups on Facebook, where information is sometimes put out. He gets a copy of the identikit and a brief description of the case.

Two days later, the report is seen by a French aid worker in Calais. She says she has been in contact with a Syrian in England, who knows another Syrian who has been looking for his nephew for months. The nephew was in Calais before he disappeared.

After three telephone calls in broken English, we get to hear the history of Mouaz for the first time.

Gutten som kunne se England

The boy who could see England
In a strange land, thousands of kilometres from home, a boy stood and looked out to sea. He had been travelling for 142 days. Autumn had come. As usual the weather was bitter along the coast of Northwest France.

The place the boy 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 five months ago. Now it was afternoon on October 7, 2014. He had only been in Calais for a couple of hours.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Missing: Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria, 22 years old.
He took his telephone, opened the messaging app WhatsApp and texted his uncle who lives in Bradford, a small city between Leeds and Manchester.

“I can see England”, wrote the boy.

He also wrote that he thought it was possible to get out to a boat, or swim over the channel.

The uncle wrote that it was like the Sea of Marmara in Turkey: 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,” wrote the uncle back.

“I will try today,” wrote the boy. He didn’t say how.

The same evening, an hour and 43 minutes before two wetsuits were sold in the Decathlon sports shop right outside the centre of Calais, the boy sent a message to his sister and family in Jordan:

“I miss you”.

Since then nobody has heard a word from the 22-year-old Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria.

Badi is 38 years old. He has slicked back hair, a checked shirt and a warm smile that appears when he is looking for the right English word. He is Mouaz’s uncle and came to England himself as a refugee. He hid in a trailer at Dunkerque, just north of Calais, and came through the tunnel under the channel.

Badi has got asylum in England for five years and lives with his wife and two small daughters in a typical English redbrick house in an immigrant area of Bradford, an hour’s drive from Manchester.

That was where Mouaz wanted to go when he was standing on the beach in Calais and said that he would try to get to England.

His uncle tried to ring Mouaz on October 8. The telephone was switched off. Over the next days, they tried several times a day, but it always went direct to message – an Arab song they had heard countless time over the last eight months.

After some days they understood that something had happened to Mouaz. They knew that he had 300 euro in cash and feared that he had been robbed and killed. The Jungle is a lawless place.

After a week, two relatives went from Scotland to Calais and contacted the police there. The most obvious thing, they thought, was that Mouaz had been arrested and did not have the opportunity to contact the family.

“The police said that they couldn’t help us,” says the uncle.

A month later, they were back at the police station in Calais. The police still had no information. They took a picture of Mouaz and went around the refugees in The Jungle. They went to the hospital and the morgue, but nobody had seen him or heard anything.

In March, they contacted the police in England. According to Badi, they were told that it wasn’t really a matter for England as Mouaz went missing from France, but they promised to do a search through Interpol. According to the family, the only message they received from the police in England was Mouaz was not in prison in Bradford. They were in contact with a lawyer, the Red Cross and the immigration office in England.

Flyktningene i Calais
Towards a new life: The refugees in Calais risk their lives in order to get on the ferry to Dover, England. Last year, at least 15 refugees died in Calais.
“Mouaz’s mother rings me every day to find out if there is anything new. 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 may have happened.”

Badi wants to hear all the details about the bodies found in Norway and the Netherlands. He asks if we think it could be the nephew. A lot of what the uncle explains – date, place, how much money Mouaz had, that he mentioned swimming – fits in with the details in the case with the wetsuits. On the other hand, he 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 bud of the kind you remove make-up with and ask him to scrape it against the inside of his cheek. The cells in the mouth attach itself to the bud and we place it in a small plastic bag. He also draws a small family tree showing the relationship he has with Mouaz.

Back in Norway, we give the test to the ID group in Kripos who start trying to extract a DNA profile and check it against the findings in Lista. Kripos also sends an enquiry through Interpol and gets a DNA profile sent from the body in the Netherlands.

Rahaf is Mouaz’s younger sister. She is 19 years old and lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, with the rest of the family: three sisters, mother and father. We talk to them through Skype. Rahaf translates while the mother tells us about the son they haven’t seen in over a year.

X and her sisters grew up in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Their father was in prison for eleven years because he supported the opposition and was released in 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 always tried to make peace,” she says.

He liked to see films and he liked to swim, his sister said. Every week before the civil war broke out, Mouaz went to a swimming pool in Damascus and swam. The family was one of the many millions who fled the war in Syria. They came to Jordan in 2013, but Mouaz stayed behind in Damascus to finish his electrical engineering studies. He was constantly stopped on the street by forces in the Assad regime. It made no difference if you were a rioter or a university student. Sometimes he was taken down to the police station and detained until they confirmed his ID. Mouaz held out for six months before fleeing to Jordan too.

It doesn’t seem as if Mouaz had to leave Jordan, but his sister said that he didn’t get a place at the university in Amman. The father also struggled to find a job there. Mouaz felt responsible for the rest of the family. The plan was to travel to Turkey and start university there and the family would follow. Mouaz didn’t get into the university there either and according to the sister, he couldn’t return to Jordan as a refugee as he had already left the country. He decided on England.

“They have good laws for refugees, he could study there and our uncle lives there,” says Rahaf.

On the basis of what the family tells us, it seems as if Mouaz had travelled relatively problem-free up to then, but he began to take bigger chances. On August 17, 2014, he took a flight from Turkey to Algeria in North Africa. From there he spent two days going through the dessert and crossed the border to lawless and dangerous Libya.

He did not tell them a great deal about Libya. The family only know that he was there for 10 days before he got a place on one of the refugee boats over the Mediterranean and on to Italy. He was picked up by the Italian marine and brought to shore safely, but the family didn’t know what happened. Mouaz was ill and slept most of the three days by sea from Libya to Italy.

Badi i England
Received sms fra the beach in Calais: Badi lives in Bradford, Great Britain, and has been searching for his nephew Mouaz for eight months.
Photo: Anita Arntzen
Reiseruta til gutten
The route: Mouaz travelled from Damascus in February 2014, to reunite with his family, who had already fled to Jordan. From there, he travelled to Turkey, but was not accepted at the university and tried to go to England, via Algerie and Libya. He crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat and arrived in Calais, where he went missing on October 7. He was found dead on October 27 on a beach in the Netherlands. 67 days later, a resembling wetsuit and a body was found at Lista, Norway.
On September 5, he came to Dunkerque just north of Calais. In the next two next weeks, he made 10 failed attempts to hide in a truck and get to England. He often sent messages to his family. They asked how things were with him, whether he was keeping warm and whether he had something to eat. He always answered that they shouldn’t worry.

So he went back to Italy, after having heard that it was possible for him to take a plane to England. That proved to be wrong and once again he got on a train to Dunkerque, where he made two new failed attempts to hide in a truck. He could not afford to pay people smugglers and tried on his own. On the morning of October 7, he went from Dunkerque to Calais. Family does not know if he went along with someone or alone, but says that the refugees he knew from before had moved on.

His sister was the last one to speak to him. He said that he would try to go to England from Calais, but he didn’t say anything about how. She says that he said 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, but he never spoke about swimming across the entire channel.

She got the last message just before 6:30 pm on the evening of October 7. She wrote that she missed them. Rahaf didn’t manage to answer.

“X 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,” she says.

The DNA tests Magasinet took from the uncle in Bradford show, according to Kripos, that there is not a family relationship between the uncle of Mouaz and the body that was found on Lista. For the body in the Netherlands, the DNA material from the uncle was not sufficient to say whether or not it was a match.

«Under the budding daisies, grass and dandelions rests the boy who could see England.»

We construct several scenarios about what may have happened with Mouaz. None of them seem particularly likely. It is very rare that somebody disappears without trace from Calais. We contact the aid organizations in Calais and Dunkerque once more but don’t get any new clues. Nobody has heard about people going missing in October.

The details in the history of Mouaz – the date he disappeared, that he talked about swimming, that he had enough money for a wetsuit, but not enough to get the help of smugglers mean that we contact the family and suggest getting a new DNA test. To avoid leaving any theoretical doubt, we send the sampling equipment that we get from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to a contact in Jordan. He takes Mouaz’s mother, father and one of his sisters to a clinic in Amman where two sets of tests are taken. One set is sent to Kripos, the other to police in the Netherlands.

Kripos rings first. None of the new DNA material gives a match with the person who was found on Lista. We get an answer from the Netherlands a few days later.

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 are the depths of grief? There is always a hint of hope in uncertainty. Notification of a death is an answer, but it is final. The telephone call you are waiting on, with the voice you have missed, saying “Mum, I am alive” will never come. 22 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 ice-cold water or who was alongside him. We don’t know if he was afraid.

But we do know what his name was. We know that he wanted to complete his engineering studies in England and help his family in Jordan. We know that he missed them. That was the last sign of life he gave.

In a graveyard on the island of Texel, between Anneke Molenar van den Brink and Anna Cornelia Alida Boer, there is a grave without a name. Under the budding daisies, grass and dandelions rests the boy who could see England.

He is called Mouaz Al Balkhi, was born on November 6, 1991 in Damascus and dreamed of a better life.

He lived to be 22 years old.

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Investigator John Welzenbagh at the special police unit for missing persons in the North Sea in the Netherlands tells Magasinet that there is a match between the DNA-profile of the boy that was found on the beach of Texel and the DNA-reference material of the father and the mother of Mouaz Al Balkhi.

- We strongly believe this case is solved, but we need to sort out the formalities before we can make an official statement, says Welzenbagh."


06-20-2015, 05:44 PM
This is such a hard/ bad / dreadful story to say anything about.
I'm glad they can identify this man, and let his family know his fate and burial.

04-16-2016, 02:46 AM
What a story, could barely imagine... Good post there.

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