The Wetsuitman – The Diver from Damascus

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. Part IV.

By Anders Fjellberg
Photo’s: Tomm W. Christiansen & Hampus Lundgren

This story was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

"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 (the deceased man in Netherlands)

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.

«… I don’t have enough money to use the people smugglers so I’m going to buy a wetsuit and swim to England.»

– Shadi Omar Kataf

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.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Cousin: Ziad Qataf (32) is a stateless Palestinian living in Leuven, Belgum. He was the last person to speak with Shadi, telling him not to swim across The English Channel.

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.

Flykningsleiren i Damaskus i januar 2014
Hell on Earth: Shaid's parents are under seige by Syrian government forces in Camp Yarmouk in Damascus. The Guardian recently described Camp Yarmouk as “The worst place on Earth”. Depicted are people lining up for food rations in Yarmouk in januar 2014Photo: UNRWA / AP / NTB Scanpix.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Family tragedy: Nagham Kataf (27) is living in Osmaniye, Turkey with her husband and five 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 floated ashore in Lista, Norway in January 2015.

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. […] He’s the one who tried to swim. He lived here on the stairs of the church»

- 20-år gammel syrisk flykning i Calais

"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.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Syrians in Calais: According to rumours amongst Syrian refugees outside the church in Calais, Mouaz Al Balkhi lived here bofore he vanished. Nobody knows if Shadi lived here, or where he met Mouaz.

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.

Reiseruta til dykkeren
The route: Shadi fled from Damascus to Libya where he stayed for a couple of years. He learned to dive before he left for Italy and onward to Calais.
Badi i England
The last night: Mouaz Al Balkhi probably stayed at Le Bertagne in Dunkerque from 6th until 7th of October. The registry shows “Youssef”, the name of Mouaz' father which appers in Mouaz' passport

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.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Deceased: Shaid Omar Kataf .Photo: Private.

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.”

Designed and developed at DB Medialab AS by Anders Wiik

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