QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) - Three Syrian refugees, who were among 71 people found dead last month in the back of a truck in Austria, had dreamed of a better life in Germany with a smuggler having promised to get them there by car, a relative of two of the men said.
In one of the most tragic events of a refugee crisis that has swept Europe, Austrian authorities discovered the refugees on Aug. 27 in an abandoned refrigeration lorry near the Hungarian border. They appeared to have suffocated after being crammed in five to a square meter (10 sq ft).
Speaking in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli, Jihad Doroush told Reuters his last contact with his two brothers-in-law and their friend had been an Aug. 25 telephone call from Serbia about their plans to travel via Hungary and Austria.
The men, 34-year-old Hussein Khalil Mustafa, his brother Raman Khalil Mustafa, 21, and their friend Massoud Mohamed Yousef, had already spent months traveling through four countries to reach Serbia.
“Hussein told me they had met a Kurdish smuggler from (Iraq’s) Sulaimaniya. He did not give me his name and number, but they agreed with him to take them through Austria to Germany for 1,600 euros per person,” Doroush said.
“Of course there was no such thing as a truck mentioned or anything else, but a small car for four people,” he said. “The smuggler promised them some of the money back if they did not reach their final destination.”
The men, all Syrian Kurds from Qamishli near the Turkish border, were well-educated but had struggled to study or find well-paid, regular work in Syria or neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, Doroush said, explaining what drove them to Europe.
Hussein, a graduate of Damascus University, had traveled to northern Iraq after the Syrian civil war broke out but did not find regular work there and was unable to get a residency permit after more than 1-1/2 years, Doroush said.
His younger brother, Raman, had completed his high school certificate and had suffered similar setbacks. He dreamed of continuing his studies in Europe, Doroush said.
Their friend Massoud, an engineer and graduate of Damascus University, spoke four languages. Hailing from a lower middle-class family reliant on his support, he was also compelled to go to Iraqi Kurdistan to find work but struggled, Doroush said.
The men traveled from northern Iraq through Turkey, Greece and Macedonia to reach Serbia, Doroush said.
Before they left Serbia they had been staying in a public square encircled by police who would have put them in jail if they had tried to leave, he added.
Raman’s mobile phone, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3, was found among the dead. His brother and friend were identified by a cousin of Massoud who saw some of their belongings, including their identification cards.
Doroush did not have information on the fate of the bodies, such as whether they could be returned for burial.
Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Clarence Fernandez