The Wetsuitman – The boy who could see England

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 III.

By Anders Fjellberg  

Photo’s: Tomm W. Christiansen & Hampus Lundgren

This story was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

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

The place the boy once called home, Damascus in Syria, was no longer home. His family, mother, father and four sisters had fled to Jordan. He hadn’t seen them since he left five months ago. Now it was the afternoon of October 7, 2014. He had only been in Calais for a couple of hours.

Mouaz Al Balkhi fra Syria
Missing: Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria, 22 years old.

He took his telephone, opened the messaging app WhatsApp and texted his uncle who lives in Bradford, a small city between Leeds and Manchester.

“I can see England”, 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.

Flyktningene i Calais
Towards a new life: The refugees in Calais risk their lives in order to get on the ferry to Dover, England. Last year, at least 15 refugees died in Calais.

“Mouaz’s mother 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.

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.

Badi i England
Received sms fra the beach in Calais: Badi lives in Bradford, Great Britain, and has been searching for his nephew Mouaz for eight months.Photo: Anita Arntzen
Reiseruta til gutten
The route: Mouaz travelled from Damascus in February 2014, to reunite with his family, who had already fled to Jordan. From there, he travelled to Turkey, but was not accepted at the university and tried to go to England, via Algerie and Libya. He crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat and arrived in Calais, where he went missing on October 7. He was found dead on October 27 on a beach in the Netherlands. 67 days later, a resembling wetsuit and a body was found at Lista, Norway.

On September 5, he came to Dunkerque just north of Calais. In the next two next weeks, he made 10 failed attempts to hide in a truck and get to England. He often sent messages to his family. They asked how things were with him, whether he was keeping warm and whether he had something to eat. He always answered that they shouldn’t worry.

So he went back to Italy, after having heard 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.

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.

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

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

The details in the history of Mouaz – the date he disappeared, that he talked about swimming, that he had enough money for a wetsuit, but not enough to get the help of smugglers, 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.

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

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

Dagbladet is one of Norway's largest newspapers and has 1,400,000 daily readers on mobile, web and paper.

Later today: Part IV – The Diver from Damascus

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