Refugee Crisis: A European Mystery

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.

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Part I

Without a Trace

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 approached 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.

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

The brand of the wetsuit was Triboard. The architect thought it looked cheap. It was partially inside out. Stuck inside the legs of the suit, was a pair of blue flippers. Two white bones were sticking out of each one.

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 pleasant day of April this year. In the waiting room, there is a warning against boat thieves and a poster stating 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 now.

‘This is a peaceful place,’ says Unnhammer.

He turns 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 it was somebody who had gone missing in the North Sea and that the person would be identified quickly.

They checked the body against a missing report from the Stavanger area, where a man in a wetsuit had gone missing a couple of years ago. 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 are very unpredictable and ever changing. Not even professional fishermen can tell how the ocean will behave the next day. It is impossible to say where a corpse that floats ashore here has come from.

In this 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.

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, rugged landscape, 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 17. 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.

‘We call him the wetsuitman,’ says John Welzenbagh, investigator at the Netherlands special police unit for persons missing in the North Sea.

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

On the ferry across from Den Helder to the island of Texel a couple of hours north of Amsterdam, 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 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. He was wearing a black and grey wetsuit, identical to the wetsuit found with human remains inside at Lista 67 days later. The body was found along the water’s edge on the broad beach below the dunes and 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. Most of the cases are solved quickly.

‘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. 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 however already been found. The same went for a French diver who went missing outside Normandy. Still, Dutch media 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 he had been doing. 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’.’

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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 strong clue Welzenbagh had to work with. 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.

‘If we called him the diver, I was afraid we would overlook clues that could help us. I said we call him the wetsuitman’

‘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 goods, as a modern barcode system that stores 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.

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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. 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.

Part II

The Boy who could see England

In a strange land, thousands of kilometers 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 the afternoon of October 7, 2014. He had only been in Calais for a couple of hours.

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’, the boy wrote.

He also wrote that he thought it was possible to get out to a boat, or swim across 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 than you think.

‘You must not try to swim. That wouldn’t work. Hide in a lorry,’ the uncle wrote 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 have heard countless time over the last eight months.

After a couple of days they realised something must have happened to Mouaz. They knew 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 brought 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.

‘Mouaz’s mother calls me every day to ask if there is anything new. It is absolutely terrible to live with uncertainty and nobody is able to help us. When you called, it was the first time we heard something concrete about what might 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.

Mouaz and her sisters grew up in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Their father was in prison for eleven years for supporting 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.’

He liked to watch movies and he liked to swim. 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.

‘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’

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 work. Mouaz felt responsible for the rest of the family. The plan was to travel to Turkey and study at the university, 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 and our uncle lives there,’ says Rahaf.

On the basis of what the family tells us, it seems as if Mouaz had travelled relatively safely up to this point, but now he entered risky territory. 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 spot 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 dont know what happened. Mouaz was ill and slept most of the three days by sea from Libya to Italy.

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 it was possible for him to take a plane to England. This 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. His family do 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 he would try to go to England from Calais, but he didn’t say anything about how. He had mentioned that the 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.

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

‘Mouaz 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. >

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, leads us to contact the family and suggest getting a new dna test. To avoid leaving any theoretical doubt, we send the sampling equipment to a contact in Jordan. He brings 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 is the first to call. None of the new dna material gives a match with the person who was found on Lista. We get the 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.

Part III

The Diver from Damascus

  1. JUNI 2015, KL. 18.23 ‘Hi Anders, I have some news (…) We may have found the second person. His cousin has seen the post in some page and he said that his cousin is missed in the same month and he mentioned something about buying a wetsuit. Now he wants to contact you. Can I give him your Skype account?’

– Rahaf Al Balkhi, Mouaz’s sister

In his Facebook profile picture, he is floating over a coral reef in crystal clear water off the coast of Libya. He is looking straight into the camera from behind his diving mask. It is hard to say because of the scuba gear, but it looks like he’s smiling. His eyes are radiant, those of a young man who’s exactly where he wants to be, floating weightless in the blue surrounded by fish, coral, and shimmering light. He’s been missing since October 7th of last year.

Ziad Qataf (32) opens the door to the apartment building and leads the way to a run-down studio apartment on the second floor. It contains everything he owns: a few minimal furnishings, a cell phone, a computer, a couple changes of clothes, and a small collection of stuffed animals in a basket behind the bed.

Ziad is the cousin of the man in the picture, 28-year-old Shadi Omar Kataf from Damascus, Syria. Ziad is the last person to have talked to Shadi before he disappeared. We’re in the Belgian city of Leuven, a half-hour outside of Brussels. Ziad is a stateless Palestinian, who has been living here on his own for five years waiting to be able to apply for Belgian citizenship.

Late in the afternoon on October 7th of last year, the phone rang and Ziad heard his cousin’s voice on the other end.

‘It’s Shadi. I’m in Calais in France. You have to come pick up my laptop and backpack. I don’t have enough money to use the people smugglers so I’m going to buy a wetsuit and swim to England.’

‘I told him, ‘Don’t be a complete idiot! You can’t swim to England. It’s way too far, and there are huge waves.’ I told him that instead he could bring his things and come here. Then his phone ran out of power.’

Ziad tried to call him back, over and over, also in the days that followed. His cousin’s phone was never turned on again. Shadi was gone.

Wedding singer Omar Kataf and his wife Samira had their first child on July 2, 1986. They called him Shadi, Arabic for ‘singer’. Shadi, and eventually two younger sisters, Racha and Nagham, grew up in Damascus’s Al Qadam neighborhood. They lived in a four-story building with their extended family.

Shadi liked to draw and take pictures and was interested in sports, especially soccer and swimming. He grew up and began working in a tire shop. He also liked riding motorcycles. Eventually he started his own garage, Kataf, which is still listed in the Damascus phone book.

Then came 2011. First the protests, then the uprising, fighting in the streets, bombing, and finally one of the most bloody and brutal civil wars in the modern era.

The home of the extended Kataf family was bombed to rubble by the Assad regime in 2012, and they moved to a part of Damascus known as Yarmouk Camp, a two-square-kilometer district founded 60 years ago to house Palestinian refugees. Since the civil war began, Yarmouk has also been bombed to pieces.

Various armed groups have battled in the streets to control the area, and the regime has bombed from the air. In the last few years, the people in Yarmouk have been besieged by Syrian government forces. They have had minimal food, electricity, water, and medical supplies. A picture from January 2014 published by Al-Jazeera shows a baby who died of ‘hunger-related illness’. Children and adults have reportedly eaten grass and cats to survive.

More than 150,000 people used to live in Yarmouk. Many have fled. Many have died. There are fewer than 20,000 left. Shadi’s parents are among them.

‘We’re not getting out. We have nothing.’ says Omar Kataf.

We have received a telephone number and a message that Shadis’s father Omar Kataf have found a relatively safe place with a phone line.

Omar tells us what we already know, but somehow there are no suitable adjectives to describe it.

‘Things are just awful here for us.’

‘He was a good guy. There’s nothing I can do. It is God’s will. I just have to accept the tragedy. My son is dead’

In April Yarmouk was stormed by the terrorist group ISIS. There was fighting in the streets, there were routine reports of people being murdered, and the regime responded to the offensive with shelling and aerial bombardment. All emergency aid ground to a halt and the UN considered the situation ‘beyond inhumane’. The Guardian newspaper described Yarmouk as ‘the worst place on earth’. ISIS is said to be out now, but the Syrian army is still besieging Yarmouk.

Shadi lived in Yarmouk until he left Syria in 2012.

‘I was the one who asked him to leave,’ his father said. ‘There are no jobs here, so when he left it was because I said he had to go somewhere he could find a job.’

Shadi went to Libya just like one of his sisters, Racha. Racha became a hairdresser in the capital, Tripoli, but disappeared one day in 2013 on her way to work. No one has ever found out what happened, but the family believes she was kidnapped. She was 26 and had two young children.

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Shadi got a job at a print shop in Benghazi, and apparently his boss there taught him to scuba dive. Shadi took several classes, received his diving certificate, and fell in love with life underwater. When he boarded a boat in Tripoli on August 25, 2014, he dreamt of using his diving certification to get a job as an instructor or professional diver once he reached Italy.

‘I’ve been worried about Shadi from the day he left us in Syria. When I heard he was taking a boat from Tripoli to Italy, I was scared. I had this feeling that something might happen to him, that he might die,’ his father said.

Nagham Kataf (27) is Shadi’s youngest sister. She meets us in the courtyard outside her apartment in the town of Osmaniye. We’re in Turkey, an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. Nagham wears a colorful shawl over her hijab and has her brother’s face. She’s the only one left now. Their sister Racha is dead or kidnapped. Shadi is gone. Their parents are under siege in Yarmouk.

‘I think about them all the time. Of course I’m worried,’ she says.

Nagham lives in a small apartment with her husband Besam and their five young children. They came to Turkey this January.

Besam got a job in a carwash, but they struggle to make ends meet. The baby of the family, Omar, is a little older than one, was born in Lebanon, and has been a refugee since the day he came into this world. He sits completely still in his mother’s arms and his wide little eyes follow along as she talks about Shadi.

She last saw her brother in the summer of 2014. Shadi had come to visit in Lebanon during Ramadan before returning to Libya and setting out for Europe. She also spoke with him on October 7, the day both Shadi and Mouaz Al Balkhi disappeared.

We use the testing kit we received from Kripos and take a dna sample from the inside of her cheek. She says they’ve worried for a long time that Shadi is dead and cries when we say we won’t be able to give her a definitive answer for a week.

Just as they had done when Shadi’s sister Racha disappeared without a trace in Libya, the family has searched and searched for information about Shadi without any answers.

The national ID group at Kripos analyzed Nagham’s sample. The dna analysis confirms that she is the sister of the man whose remains were found in a wetsuit in Lista on January 2 of this year.

‘He was such an incredibly good guy. He was beloved by his friends, obedient to his father, and a sincere believer. There’s nothing I can do. It is God’s will. I just have to accept the tragedy. My son is dead,’ his father says by phone.

The family only knows fragments of the story of what Shadi did in Europe and where he was. He left Libya by boat on August 25, and reached Italy three days later. No one knows how long he was in Italy or how he got to France. In late September or early October he called his father and said that life was tough. He was living on the street in France and couldn’t afford to pay the people smugglers for assistance to make it any farther.

His father and some other relatives in Syria collected a small amount of money. The transfer went through October 7, 2014.

‘That was the last time I talked to him. He was going to buy a wetsuit and swim somewhere. It was too hard in France,’ his father said.

In the days that followed, no one was able to contact Shadi. His father realized that something had gone wrong, but he was in Yarmouk and couldn’t do anything. He called relatives in Europe and talked to Nagham, but no one had heard from Shadi.

Shadi had told both his father and his sister that he was having problems in France, and that he was going to buy a wetsuit to proceed. According to his sister, he said that he was going back to Italy. His father didn’t know where Shadi was on October 7.

‘He just said he was in France. That he was where the Eiffel Tower is.’

Shadi was in Calais on October 7. So was Mouaz Al Balkhi. We don’t know where they met each other. They crossed the Mediterranean by boat a few days apart and may have met in Libya or Italy. They could also have met among the Syrian refugees who live on the street outside the church in downtown Calais.

We return to Calais, and meet several people who have heard of Mouaz.

‘Mouaz Al Balkhi? All of Calais knows about him. We read about him online. He’s the one who tried to swim. He lived here on the stairs of the church,’ said a 20-year-old Syrian man, who had just returned from the highway after a long day of unsuccessful attempts to hide in a truck trailer and make it to England.

None of the Syrians outside the church have been here for more than a couple of months. Nor do they remember who told them that Mouaz had lived here when he was in Calais. No one has heard of Shadi Kataf.

According to Mouaz’s sister he stayed in a hotel in the town of Dunkirk 25 miles north of Calais the last night before he disappeared. At the Hôtel de Bretagne right next to the train station in Dunkirk we find the name Al Balkhi in the guestbook.

Mouaz probably registered under his father’s name, Youssef, which is also included in his passport.

He rented a double room for 37 euro and 44 cents the night of October 7. He checked in alone, but the guests at Bretagne come and go as they please. Madam Frere, who runs the hotel, has no way to check if multiple people spent the night in the room.

Nor does she remember the guest who spent one night here more than ten months ago.

Just before eight p.m. on October 7, two young men walked into the Decathlon sports shop just outside downtown Calais.

They each bought a cheap wetsuit, a pair of blue swim fins, water socks, hand paddles, and waterproof A4-size plastic map. Together they paid a total of 256 euros in cash to the young woman behind the cash register. She thought the two boys looked like they were in their twenties and thought maybe they were refugees from Afghanistan.

She is the last person we know of to see them. She didn’t ask what they were going to do with the equipment.

By the time the two young men walked out of the shop darkness had settled over the French port town, where you can see all the way across to England when the weather is nice.

It’s hard to tell because of the snorkel and diving mask, but in Shadi’s profile picture on Facebook, where he’s floating weightlessly in the crystal clear water over a coral reef in Libya, it looks like he’s smiling.

He uploaded the picture on January 11, 2014. A friend of his named Bassem commented on the picture the next day.

‘Truly, Shadi, you gave up living here on land with the rest of us. I thought you were joking, brother. Come back.’

That is the next to last comment. Shadi wrote the last one himself, ten months before he disappeared from Calais.

‘There is no coming back. I’ve made my decision. I want to live here in the sea. I’m waiting for you.’


This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.

The original story was published in Dagbladet.

Images: (1) Nagham Kataf (27) is living in Osmaniye, Turkey with her husband and ve kids. Her parents are trapped in Damascus, her sister vanished without a trace and her brother Shadi is now confirmed to be the deceased person who oated ashore in Lista, Norway in January 2015; (2) The Wetsuitman. The body that was found on the island of Texel in the Netherlands on October 27, 2014 has been an enigma for investigators (Handout, Dutch Police); (3) Shadi Omar Kataf, o the coast of Libya in his Facebook profile picture (Norwegian Police); (4) Shadi Omar Kataf, 28; (5) The family of Mouaz Al Balkhi. Rahaf, his younger sister, standing between their parents; (6) Unidentified: January 2, 2015, on the exposed coast at Lista in the south of Norway, an old man found a wetsuit with human remains (Norwegian Police)