The Distinguished Writing Award

71 Lives

On 27 August 2015 a lorry is found abandoned in a parking bay on the motorway near Vienna. In its load compartment: the corpses of 71 refugees. Their death becomes a symbol of the failed refugee policy and unscrupulous smuggling. But the dead are soon forgotten. Who were these people? The reconstruction of a tragedy.

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71 lives, transported in a much too crowded load area of a lorry through Hungary and Austria, because at the end of their odyssey Germany shone, the promised land © Imago / Eibner Europa

When the two policemen from the Potzneusiedl Highway Inspection in Burgenland approached the lorry at around 11 am on 27 August 2015, on the right back door a chicken in a promotional photo was looking at them saying, ‘I taste so good because I am fed so well.’ Through the crevices of the load compartment a reddish liquid was dripping onto the asphalt. The stench from the lorry assaulted them. When participants are asked to describe this smell later, they shake their heads. It’s indescribable, they say, they have never smelled anything like that before.

The refrigerated lorry type Volvo FL 180, with the Hungarian license plate Z-12198, frequently transported fowl through Slovakia before the company Hyza discarded it and sold it in Hungary. It had been standing for over a day in the parking bay on the A4 direction Vienna, just before the Parndorf exit. This highway is called the Balkan route, because it leads from Vienna to Hungary and Serbia, and old vehicles are frequently parked on it. Plus there are more important things to do. It’s over 30 degrees, a record summer, holiday season. The Neusiedler See is not far away, and the popular late night shopping had started in the outlet centre next door, with a Furla ladies’ bag for 70 instead of 353 euros.

But this lorry can no longer be ignored. An employee of the highway authority, charged with mowing the lawn, has called the police because of the smell.

The officers open the load compartment. And then step back. They see decaying bodies, sunk into each other, leaning against each other as if they were standing in a crowded subway and had fallen asleep. Their feet are stuck up to the ankles in a mixture of excrement, urine, and corpses. The policemen call into the load compartment, but nobody replies. They notify the emergency physician and the service centre. They take a photo that is supposed to describe the situation to colleagues, which appears the next day in the KronenZeitung newspaper. They close the door. It’s too much. At 11.25 am, they send a message via the police system ‘SMS Pro’: ‘A lorry with about 20 dead found on A4 Parndorf.’

There are 71 dead. 21 Afghans, 29 Iraqis, 15 Syrians, 5 Iranians and a man who cannot be identified. 59 men, 8 women, 4 children. The youngest, Lida from Kunduz, Afghanistan, is eleven months old. Persecuted, despairing, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, teachers, lawyers, traders, policemen, teenagers, three families, FC Barcelona fans, Facebook poser, a kaleidoscope of mankind. 71 dead, who have not done us the favour to drown far away in the sea. 71 lives, who wanted to be transported in a much too crowded load compartment of a lorry through Hungary and Austria, because at the end of their odyssey Germany shone, the promised country. 71 corpses that deprived us of the illusion of having nothing to do with the wars and problems of others. A few days later refugees begin to cross the Hungarian-Austrian border at Nickelsdorf, 25 kilometers from the parking bay near Parndorf, across the highway from Hungary to Austria. ‘We can do it’, Angela Merkel says, opening the doors.

So many have lost in this story. Nahed Asker, 31, has lost her husband. Farah Al Shaikh, 31, her family. Two stories from many, which are connected to the refrigerated lorry on the A4. After the tragedy, Asker and her children followed her dead husband from Syria, and they are now waiting for asylum in a refugee home in Austria. Alshaikh has been living in Germany for a long time. She had encouraged her family in Syria to flee to Germany. Now they are all dead.

The women did not know each other before the disaster, although both come from Deir az-Zur in the east of Syria. Through the city flows the Euphrates, jasmine flowers grow there, petroleum splutters, pomegranates and cotton flourish. There has been a war raging for five years. Asker and Al Shaikh have still not met each other. They write Whatsapp messages to each other, make phone calls. Since 27 August 2015 they share their fate, but not their grief. It cannot be shared.

‘They treated my family like chickens’, says Alshaikh.

‘My soul is broken’, says Asker.

Asker lives with her son Zaid, 11, and her daughter Tala, 5, in a small room in a refugee home in Wiener Neustadt. She has placed three mattresses side-by-side to form a large bed. They sleep together, wake up together. Asker likes to watch Beyoncé music videos, posts a lot on Facebook, wears leggings, lipstick and mascara. She cooks with the other Syrians. She knows what medication her children need when they are ill, because she used to work in a pharmacy in Syria. She cannot work in Austria. She doesn’t speak German, has applied for asylum for the family that remained. ‘When we last saw each other, my husband told me, “No matter what happens to me, always look after the children.” I will fulfil this wish’, says Asker.

Alshaikh lives with her husband Fateh Alhamad, 41, and her son Omar, 1, in a spacious apartment in northern Germany. They speak almost accent-free German, have German nationality. She works as a gynaecologist and is currently on parental leave. He works as an internist in the hospital. During Ramadan they eat and drink only after dark. Alshaikh wears a headscarf, not because she has to, but because she wants to. Omar has brown hair and eyes, is just learning to walk and lands mostly on his butt. Then his mother sometimes smiles. She often walks with him to a small playground at the end of the street, and buys food, but otherwise stays at home. The neighbours know nothing about their history.

She went twice to the Immigration Authority in Saarbrücken in November 2014. They lived in Saarland, worked in the hospital, owned a car and a house in the suburb of Saarbrücken. It had a garden and more rooms than they needed. She asked the woman from the immigration office about the application for family reunion, which she had submitted half a year ago. She wanted to bring her mother Fadila, 53, her father Abdel, 57, her brother Almuthanna, 23, and her sister Hend, 17, to Germany, because everyday life was no longer possible in Deir az-Zur. IS fighting against government forces, the situation was unclear.

Her brother Almuthanna had studied law and was arrested by the IS because he smoked. Her sister Hend was no longer allowed to go to school, just before graduating from secondary school. The business of her father, Abdel, who traded car parts, was looted, and the houses of the family destroyed. Farah Alshaikh telephoned her mother Fadila daily. She sensed that her mother was afraid, even if she did not say so.

At that time, Alshaikh was eight months pregnant. She wanted to bring the family over at her own expense. But the woman from the immigration authority said, ‘With parental leave you get only 60 percent of your salary. That’s not enough to provide for your child and your family.’ ‘We’ll get it. In our house there’s enough space. We don’t want money, really not’, said Alshaikh. The officer asked her boss. The request was rejected. A week later she went back to the office. She begged her at least to let her sister in as she had asthma. Rejected.

‘My father didn’t want to flee. He feared for the family, was afraid of the human traffickers. He only wanted to leave Syria if they could enter legally somewhere’, says Alshaikh. She offered him rooms in her house. If it became too unbearable, they should come, no matter how. ‘I’ve been pushing. Maybe I’ve put too much pressure on them.’

‘We can’t stand this any more’, her father says when he calls in early July 2015. He sets off with 20,000 dollars and the family. They drive in their Toyota from Raqqa to the Syrian-Turkish border. They abandon the car there, pay a smuggler to lead them through a forest. They get to Urfa in Turkey. Another sister of Alshaikh lives there. They stay a few days. Abdel Alshaikh, the father, spreads the word to his acquaintances. He is looking for a smuggler. A man named Abules is recommended to him. A Syrian, who organises smuggling from Urfa. He collects commissions from human traffickers and refugees. Abules explains the route and the prices to Abdel Alshaikh.

On 17 August 2015 the family is waiting at a hotel in Izmir. From the Turkish west coast, they want to go to Belgrade via Samos, Athens and Macedonia. There they are to meet a man named Afghani, who organises the journey through Hungary and Austria to Germany. The Alshaikhs are not alone, their group consists of twelve people. They include Alshaikh’s Uncle Youssef, 39, a brother of her father – and Hasan Al-Damen, 36, the husband of Nahed Asker.

71 corpses that deprived us of the illusion of having nothing to do with the wars and problems of others

He left Asker and the children in Damascus. They wanted to conscript him into the military to fight for Assad, whom he despised. As a teacher he could no longer earn money. He wanted to bring his family to Germany later.

‘Give us your luggage. That doesn’t fit in the dinghy’, the human traffickers said in Izmir. Alshaikh’s sister Hend is horrified. She keeps only her mobile phone, the pants and the T-shirt that she is wearing. In a photo, which she sent to her sister in Germany via WhatsApp, the wind blows through her black curly hair. She stands by the water and tries to look happy. She fails. The 17-year-old is a girl from the city who wants to listen to romantic Arabic pop music on the smartphone and to study medicine. She is afraid of the sea. She is wearing her mother’s silver wedding ring on her right hand. It shall protect them.

The human traffickers collect 1200 euros per person for the crossing to Samos. Two starts fail. The first time, they were caught by the Turkish coastal police, who left them at the beach and sank the boat. The second time, the police patrols caught them as they were casting off.

The third time, they leave at midnight. In the early morning of 19 August, the boat is captured one kilometer from Samos by the Greek coastal police. Mother Fadila is glad. She vomited the whole night. As they enter the EU, the sun rises. In the port of Samos, they receive provisional travel documents with which they can buy tickets for the ferry to Athens.

In Samos they sleep one night on the ground, have little to eat. The next day they take the ferry to Athens. From there they call Farah Alshaikh in Germany. Her father Abdel sounds tired, but he says, ‘We’re okay. We’ll go on.’ Her sister Hend cries. ‘I’m done, I can’t go on anymore.’ Her mother Fadila would like to go back to Syria.

In Athens, they rest, go to an Arabic restaurant. Some of the group would like to stay longer. But Hasan Al-Damen, the husband of Nahed Asker, urges them to continue. He believes the borders will be closed soon. After a day in Athens they take the bus to the Macedonian border. There they split up, trying to get across the fence at various points. The border guards beat the refugees with sticks and spray tear gas into their faces. They catch Alshaikh’s brother Almuthanna. He manages to escape, suffering only bruises. Mothers are separated from their children, many cry incessantly.

The group is reunited after an hour on the Macedonian side. It’s raining, it’s cold, they’re freezing, their clothes are soaked. By bus, they travel four hours through Macedonia towards Serbia. They look out the window. They had imagined Europe differently.

In Belgrade they meet the human trafficker Afghani. An Afghan who has been living in Europe for some time. He is thin, has black hair, wears a T-shirt, jogging pants and a shoulder bag. ‘Trust me! I will make sure that you are taken directly to Germany without being registered in Hungary or Austria, and your fingerprints taken’, he says to Al-Damen and Abdel Alshaikh, who are leading the negotiations. He is asking for 1600 euros per person for transport. A common price for the route this summer. The men agree. They had deposited part of their money with Abules in Urfa. He is to transfer the fee to the human traffickers only after they have arrived well in Germany. They hope to be able to protect themselves that way, not to be deceived.

It’s Monday, 24 August 2015, when the Alshaikhs call Farah Alshaikh in the afternoon from a hotel near Belgrade. They are in a good mood. Her brother Almuthanna had received an e-mail from Syria that he passed the lawyer’s examination. ‘Be careful what you say to me in the future, I am a lawyer now’, he tells his sister. ‘We got a little bit of rest and bought new clothes’, says her mother Fadila. ‘I have a good feeling with the trafficker, he doesn’t seem to do it for the first time’, says her father Abdel. Her sister promises Alshaikh that soon after their arrival they will go to the zoo, to the Wilhelma in Stuttgart, because Hend has wanted to do this for a long time. It’s the last conversation with her family.

In the evening, the group arrives at 6:00 pm in the park next to the coach station in the centre of Belgrade. There it’s teeming with refugees and human traffickers. In these weeks, Belgrade is the hub of the refugee route across the Balkans. Afghani talks all the time on his mobile phone, in a language they don’t understand. His cell phone is old. Traffickers use old mobile phones and prepaid cards, so they cannot be located. Refugees use smartphones because they need the Internet as much as water. The phone is their only contact with those whom they had to leave behind.

‘Wait in the park until it gets dark. There’s a lot of police, we have to be careful’, says Afghani. Most of them try to sleep. At midnight Afghani wakes them up. They follow him through the night, along the rails of the tram, over a bridge that crosses the river Save to a parking lot. From the river banks the basses of the discos drone. The Belgrade youth is partying.

Afghani calls on them to divide themselves into three groups. Four people would be taken in each car. In the first one, a thug drives mother Fadila, brother Almuthanna and Al-Damen away. In the second one sits Youssef Alshaikh, the last to leave the parking lot are father Abdel and sister Hend in the third car. ‘You go with your mother, take care of her’, says Abdel Alshaikh to his son Almuthanna, who wanted to join his uncle Youssef. The decision costs Almuthanna his life.

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Nahed Asker with her daughter Tala and her son Zaid in Damascus, shortly before her husband Hasan Al-Damen began his fatal journey © Philip Horak

The journey takes three hours to the north, via the E75 motorway through flat land to the Serbian border. Outside, the darkness flies by, everything is black. The sense of time and orientation is gone.

The human traffickers drop their passengers off in a forest near Domaszék on the Hungarian side of the border. After the first, the third car arrives a bit later. ‘Wait here, we’ll be back soon’, the human traffickers say. The Alshaikhs are in the forest.

Only Youssef Alshaikh is missing, the uncle. The second car in which he was sitting suddenly stopped, after two hours’ drive. The human trafficker had received a call and shouted into his phone in Serbian. He threw the refugees out of the car on the highway. ‘Waiting, waiting’, he shouted, driving away. Youssef Alshaikh had not bought a sim card in Serbia, couldn’t call anyone.

They come to a village at dawn and drive back to Belgrade by taxi. He buys a sim card and calls his brother. Abdel Alshaikh explains that they have been brought together with other refugees and are waiting in a forest. ‘We are hungry and thirsty, bring something to eat and drink’, he says. ‘Don’t go any further’, says Youssef Alshaikh, ‘something is wrong.’ He doesn’t follow. That saves him his life. The group disintegrates.

Refugees need the Internet as much as water. The phone is their only contact with those whom they left behind

On 25 August 2015, her father writes to Farah Alshaikh, ‘Sitting in the forest and waiting to go on.’ She wants to reply, but suddenly he’s gone. She sees on WhatsApp that the last time he was online was at 12 o’clock. She can’t reach the rest of the family any more. At 10 pm, Nahed Asker gets the last news from her husband Hasan Al-Damen in Damascus. ‘I’m in the woods. The human traffickers say we have to wait for police checks. I am hungry and eat apples from the trees. Please kiss the children from me. Soon everything will be over.’

A week ago, a man bought a refrigerated lorry from a used car dealer in Kecskemét. He registered the lorry in his own name, didn’t even bother to conceal his identity. The business with the refugees is going well, hundreds of human trafficker vehicles roll unchecked towards Austria every day. The man belongs to a group of traffickers who organised and carried out over 20 trips. It consists of four Bulgarians and the Afghan. The five men are all involved in the act on 27 August 2015. The load is valuable, 71 times 1600 euros. Therefore, the bosses take care of it themselves.

At 4 am on Wednesday, 26 August 2015, the traffickers drive the refrigerated lorry from Kecskemét to the forest on the border. Kecskemét, an old Hungarian university town, is situated one hour north of Domaszék. The sky is clear, it will be a nice, hot day in southern Hungary again, where tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and apricots grow. In the forest the 71 refugees have been hiding for more than a day and are waiting for the continuation of their journey.

The Alshaikh family from Deir az-Zur, Syria. The Rahm family from Kunduz, Afghanistan. Father Khuda, his wife, three children, including the little Lida, and a cousin. Rahm worked as a policeman in Afghanistan. The Taliban threatened him and his family. Muhammad Ali and his wife Lefana from Tall Abyad, Syria, who married three months ago and want to found a family in Germany. The Iraqi Mahmoud Abidi, who was just promoted to a four-star officer and fled with his wife Sine Gailani from Baghdad. She wants to see her brother in Germany, because as an engineer, he leads a good life there. She persuaded not only her husband, but also her siblings Ali and Seineb Gailani to come along. The Kurd Saeed Othman from Sulaimaniyya in Northern Iraq. He hopes that a doctor in Germany can help him, because he only has one kidney and that causes him pain. Mohammed Baba from Karkur, Iraq, who can’t find a job and believes he has a promising career as a football professional.

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Farah Alshaikh with a family portrait. She lost her parents, her brother, and her sister. © Lars Berg

Nothing indicates that the refugees had to be forced to board.

At five o’clock the lorry drives from Domaszék on the M5 motorway to the north, and is captured by the cameras of the Hungarian toll system. A car escorts the lorry, keeping ten minutes ahead. The escort vehicle is supposed to warn the traffickers in the lorry of any police checks on the route, and to collect the drivers when something goes wrong.

The lorry passed Kecskemét at 6:03, Budapest two hours later, and reached the border to Austria at Nickelsdorf at 9:15 am. About 20 minutes later the traffickers leave it in the parking bay near Parndorf. Why? The smugglers are silent. There was no police block on this day. The group must somehow have realised that their cargo was lost.

The load compartment of the 7,5-ton vehicle cannot be opened from the inside. The cooling unit didn’t work. The air would not have been refreshed, no oxygen would have been supplied. The refugees had only the air which was in the load compartment at the start of the journey. In order to determine where they died, whether the Hungarian or Austrian judiciary has jurisdiction, an expert’s report was commissioned. It calculated the volume of the load space and divided it by the number of persons. About five refugees were standing on a square meter of the load compartment. They must have suffocated before eight o’clock in Hungary. There are no traces of death agony in the load compartment or on the corpses. It can be assumed that they fainted from oxygen deficiency and died unconscious. The position of the corpses shows that children were held up. The bodies of a couple look as if they were hugging each other.

The smugglers were arrested shortly after the lorry was found in Kecskemét. They were preparing their escape, but the license plates and the records of the highway cameras led the investigators to them quickly. They are being held in remand in Kecskemét and make no comments. In September, the prosecution is scheduled to begin with the process early next year.

The lorry is taken from the parking bay into a hall to Nickelsdorf, which can be cooled. Forensic doctors carry the bodies out of the load compartment, photograph them, assign items to them, for example, passports that are stuck in breast pockets, money sewn into sleeves or belts. On Hasan Al-Damen, the husband of Nahed Asker, they find his teacher’s diploma. He had had it translated into German in order to find work later.

As the policemen had opened the load compartment in the morning, air had entered and accelerated the decomposition of the bodies. The victims now look like dark-skinned people. Scraps of corpses are glued on backpacks and jackets. Most of the phones are in the same state as if they had been thrown into an acid bath. They can no longer be used for forensics. Nothing can be discovered this way about the last moments in the lorry.

The forensic doctors provide the corpses with numbers. The dead are lying there nameless. Unlike a plane crash, there is no passenger list that can be processed. The investigators set up a hotline for relatives. They need the dna of relatives to identify the dead. No enquiries at all arrive for one man. The hotline continues until 10 December 2015, when the identification of the others is completed.

In the afternoon of 27 August 2015, Nahed Asker sees a report about the lorry on television. She is living with the children at her mother’s house in Damascus. Asker says she immediately sensed that her husband was dead. A few weeks later, when she called the translator of the Burgenland state police authority, who was carrying out the identification, she was not shouting. The body of her husband could not be transferred to Syria. He is buried in the Muslim cemetery Inzersdorf in Vienna. Asker wants to say goodbye to her husband. She goes to Vienna with the children. The refugee route is now open.

Farah Alshaikh holds Omar in her arms, standing at the window of her house in Saarbrücken and looking into the garden as the call comes. They had found the passports. She drops Omar.

Since the beginning of the year they have been living in northern Germany. She could no longer stand the questions of friends in Saarbrücken, was fed up with condolences. She recently put a picture of her family on the cabinet over the TV in the living room. The Alshaikhs are also buried in the Inzersdorf cemetery. At the funeral on 07 October 2015, Farah Alshaikh insisted on seeing her mother’s face. She got them to open the coffin. She hasn’t visited the cemetery since. She can’t do it.

On the weekend after the Parndorf disaster, thousands of refugees arrived at German railway stations. They were applauded, given water and clothing. The children got teddies and sweets. Many leave the gyms and shelters during these weeks and start a new life.


71 Lives was first published by Stern, Germany