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 II.
This story was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.
By Anders Fjellberg
Photo’s: Tomm W. Christiansen & Hampus Lundgren
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 20's, walks along the road towards the building complex where the refugees are 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 reports. The ones nobody has heard of. The ones nobody remembers and nobody has enquired about.
The refugee theory emerged 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 puzzeled Welzenbagh, was that the equipment on the receipt did not make sense. A strange combination of items made for competitive swimming, water aerobics and snorkling. 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. You can buy everything and it is cheap.
When Magasinet arrives 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 called. I was the one at the cash registry.”
She says she must speak to the manager and will be gone for 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 indistinctly. There were two young men, perhaps in the beginning of their 20's. 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 tell 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've been told by others who work here they do. It happens around once a month. I don’t know anything more.”
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 later, 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 tried to get to England by hiding in trucks heading for the ferry or 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. Refugees continued to come to Calais, but now they had nowhere to live.
They began making their own homes. Some lived on the street, other set up small squatter areas in the city. 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 leads us 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 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 stop the interview. The photographer outside the small circle of tent and an Ethiopian refugee tries to rob him. The Eritreans we are sitting with gets 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 you 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 fought over whos 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 inside and under parked trailers.
“If I were you, I would stay out of there. If they see you 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 worked at a construction company that was hired by NATO in 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 a stowaway 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 because my wounds, but I will get to England when I can attempt a more risky approach,” 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.”
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 stash 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 with stories about police violence.
One of them has their right arm in plaster. He says he’s called Khalid, is 26 years old and 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 seems to be some sort of leader 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 have been 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 people 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 whom did not want you around.”
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.
It has gone quiet where the dinner was served a few hours earlier. We talk with several aid workers, but nobody has heard anything about anybody who went missing in October. They have not heard about anyone trying to swim and nobody can confirm if the people smugglers use small boats across the channel.
We ask a policeman who has nothing to do right now.
“Did someone swim? Not that I have heard,” he says. “But we don’t patrol the beach. We don’t know about everything that’s going on. 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 small sprigs of chives 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 of missing persons is sometimes shared. 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 in England 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.
Dagbladet is one of Norway's largest newspapers and has 1,400,000 daily readers on mobile, web and paper.
Later today: Part III – The boy who could see England
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