The story of five Iraqis who ended up dead in a van by the side of an Austrian highway – and the man who sent them on their journey
The migrant truck tragedy: “I feel really bad about what happened”
ZAKHO, Iraq – In photo after photo, Sediq Sevo’s Facebook page lays out the riches and allure of Europe.
In one picture the young Iraqi Kurd poses beneath the Eiffel Tower. In another he stands in a neon-lit restaurant in Rotterdam. A third has him grinning beside a train in Milan.
He stopped posting pictures in August. That was the month Sevo helped smuggle five fellow Iraqi Kurds to Europe, he told Reuters. They ended up dead, trapped with 66 other migrants inside a truck abandoned alongside an Austrian highway.
Like Sevo, many of the dead came from Iraqi Kurdistan. They had joined hundreds of thousands of people who have entered Europe illegally this year from homes wrecked by civil war, sectarian violence or repressive governments in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Many are young men ready to risk their lives for the chance of stability and wealth. On their side are determination, sheer numbers, and people-smugglers.
Human brokers such as Sevo play the central role in many migrants’ journeys. He was the first in a chain of people that helped the five men make their way from northern Iraq through Turkey and Bulgaria to Serbia, Hungary and finally Austria.
“I have good experience in the smuggling industry,” he told Reuters in a phone interview in October. “I have been working for more than seven years in the smuggling sector ... I used to take people from Kurdistan to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece all on foot and by car.”
Like the thousands of Central Americans who pour into the United States, or the Rohingya Burmese who flood into Thailand and Malaysia, illegal travellers worldwide depend on an industry run by networks of individual criminal entrepreneurs. More than 3,000 people-smugglers were arrested in Europe in the second quarter of 2015, according to European border control agency Frontex - the biggest number since records began in 2007. But the networks are often too diffuse and complex for fragmented law enforcement services to unravel.
The violent unravelling of Iraq has been a major source of business for traffickers. More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced by fighting since the start of 2014. The United Nations' deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq said 10 million Iraqis would need humanitarian support by the end of this year. Some 6,000 Iraqis have reached Greece or Italy in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration - five times more than last year.
So far, Hungarian police have arrested five men - four Bulgarians and an Afghan - in connection with the deaths. One man has also been arrested in Bulgaria. Hungary’s prosecutor has agreed to take over the case; prosecutors in Budapest have yet to say whether they will raise murder charges.
Sevo is back in Iraq, where he has gone into hiding after the families of two of the migrants he helped complained to the Kurdish security services about him. He says he has nothing to apologise for, and blames another Kurdish smuggler called Bewar, whom he calls the weak link in the network. It was Bewar, Sevo says, who foolishly entrusted the five men to two other smugglers without checking up on them.
Reuters could not reach Bewar and it is unclear how close Sevo is to other smugglers in the chain into Europe. Sevo is keen to distance himself from those further down, in particular Bewar.
Neither the Austrian nor the Hungarian police would comment on their investigations. Hungary has an extradition agreement with Iraq dating to 1977 which has not been used for years, a diplomatic source said.
Sevo told Reuters he is not sure what happened to the truck, but he thinks some kind of police check must have caused the driver to abandon it and flee, so the people inside “ran out of oxygen.” The last time he spoke to Bewar was on Sept. 1. His fellow smuggler had rung from Greece to ask Sevo what had become of the five men.
“Bewar is to blame because when he passed the job on … he didn’t get any information” about the migrants’ whereabouts, he said. “Even now we don’t know the truth.”
“I told him ‘I don’t want him to go. I beg you not to take my son.’”
Two of the men Sevo dealt with were second cousins who had both served in the peshmerga, the armed forces of the semi-autonomous area of Kurdistan in northern Iraq which have been fighting Islamic State since last year. The cousins came from well-off families in Duhok, the region’s third biggest city.
The younger of the two, Semian Nasser Mohammed, was 25 and had pondered leaving Iraq for months. Mohammed’s father described his son as quiet but amiable. He liked raising animals. His father wanted him to settle down and marry, but Mohammed said he would wait until the war was over.
His second cousin, Nashwan Mustafa Rasoul, was 28, owned a car and liked to listen to Lebanese singer Elissa, or to Ibrahim Tatlises, a Kurdish singer in Turkey. He loved Apocalypto, a Mel Gibson film set in pre-Colombus Central America. He swam and spent time in the countryside.
Both men were increasingly frustrated with life in Kurdistan. They had been fighting Islamic State in Tel Asqof, a Christian village north of Mosul. But thanks to an economic crunch in Kurdistan over the past year they – like most other state employees – had missed three months in salaries.
“They complained about instability and the problems with electricity and petrol too,” Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast said in an interview at the family’s home. “They preferred to travel in search of stability and ease. Mentally he (Rasoul) was not at ease. None of us are after the economic crisis.”
Rasoul worried about the future and the lack of opportunity in Kurdistan, said his brother-in-law, Reveng Jalal Ibrahim. "They (fight) for their country, but their country is doing nothing for them."
When Rasoul and Mohammed returned on home-leave in early August they told their families they were leaving Iraq. Their parents tried to dissuade them but the men would not listen.
Rasoul had already made contact with Sediq Sevo, who knew the families from the past.
Sevo is from Zakho, an ancient city on the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. He told Reuters that in the mid-2000s he worked as a “guide” – he prefers that to smuggler – and helped take between 100 and 150 people to Europe. In 2007, though, he was arrested for smuggling and imprisoned for about eight months. When he was released, he worked as a painter and in construction, including a stint in Greece.
He returned from Greece on Aug. 1. Within days, he said, young men wanting to get to Europe approached him for help. Among them was Rasoul.
Sevo asked for $8,000 each to take the cousins to Germany, according to Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast. The men haggled that down to $7,500 and Rasoul sold his car for $18,900 to pay the fares.
Smugglers in Kurdistan sometimes ask would-be migrants to deposit their payment with a trusted third party who wires it when the migrant reaches Europe. Mostly, though, migrants simply transfer their payment when they get to their destination. Sevo did not ask Rasoul or Mohammed to pay upfront, their relatives say, because he was confident they would not cheat him.
Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast spoke to Sevo, who reassured him the route through Bulgaria was safe. Sevo told the men to make their way to Istanbul where he would meet them, Sevo says.
Sevo said he did not intend to get back into smuggling. He was simply doing the five men a favour by giving them the telephone numbers of smuggling contacts. He said he provided the numbers for free.
On the evening of Aug. 11, Rasoul and Mohammed’s relatives accompanied the cousins to the bus station in Duhok. The bus was meant to arrive at 9 p.m., but was late. The two men, excited and impatient, ignored last-minute pleas for them to stay and finally left at midnight.
When they arrived in Istanbul early the following morning, Sevo was already there.
A few days later, three more young men arrived from Zakho, Sevo’s hometown. The trio had left without telling their parents, according to relatives.
The father of one of the boys said he spoke with Sevo by phone and urged him to send his son home. “I told him ‘I don’t want him to go. I beg you not to take my son.’”
But sometime in the middle of August a smuggler known to Sevo collected all five Iraqis and drove them and between 20 and 40 other people from Istanbul to Edirne near Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria, according to Sevo.
The passengers got off the minibus and proceeded on foot. It is a 7 to 10 hour walk across the border, but Mohammed fell ill on the way and it took them more than a day.
Once inside Bulgaria the men were driven to the capital Sofia, where they were put in an apartment. The plan was to continue on to Serbia, Sevo said, but the group had to wait for Mohammed to recover. They finally left a day late, Aug. 22.
Sevo had given the men the phone number of a smuggler from Zakho who worked in Bulgaria. The five men called him and he drove them in a Fiat from Sofia to the Serbian border, Sevo says.
Pictures posted on one of the men’s Facebook pages on Aug. 22 show the trio from Zakho resting in a forest with bulky rucksacks on their backs. One of them grins and flashes a peace sign.
The men arrived in Serbia on Aug. 23. The government registered them as asylum-seekers and sent them on to Belgrade, Sevo says.
Back in Kurdistan, Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast received a call from Sevo, who gave him a number to call his brother. A smuggler answered and passed the phone to Rasoul, who confirmed the men had arrived in Serbia. It was evening, around eight, Sarbast remembers. One of the men from Zakho got on the phone and told Sarbast: “We will not be separated. We will face any situation together, good or bad. We will look after each other until we get to Germany.”
The last time the men’s relatives heard from them was on the evening of Aug. 24, a few hours before they set off for Hungary. “They told me they were in a flat but didn’t know when they would move,” Sarbast said.
Sevo said he gave the men contacts for two smugglers. The men called the one named Bewar, who told them he could get them to Germany, according to Sevo.
The travellers set off for Hungary at 10 or 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, Sevo said. It is roughly a two-hour walk across the Serbo-Hungarian border so they probably reached Hungary around midnight.
Bewar, accompanied by a translator, handed the five men over to an Afghan smuggler. Another group of migrants led by a Kurdish smuggler joined up with Bewar’s group, says Sevo, who was keeping in contact with Bewar.
Based on the assumption the men arrived in Hungary around midnight, Sevo believes the men got into the truck at around 1 or 2 a.m.
Around midday on Aug. 25, Sevo spoke to Bewar, who said the five men had arrived safely in Munich.
“I said, ‘how do you know?’” he said. Bewar replied that he had talked to one of the Zakho men at around 5:30 a.m., who said the men were in a trailer with 120 people.
Sevo now thinks the man did not know the difference between a trailer and a truck, and overestimated the number of passengers on board. Or perhaps Bewar misunderstood him.
Sevo told the families in Kurdistan that all was well.
Sarbast, who couldn’t reach his brother, asked Sevo for a number to call him on. But Sevo said he did not have one. He added that the men might have handed themselves in to police or be in hiding.
Sarbast called Sevo every hour. “He told me to be patient.”
On Aug. 27 Austrian police found a refrigerated truck stuffed with the decomposing remains of 71 people. When Sarbast saw the news on television, he called Sevo.
“I became very tense and then worried,” Sarbast said.
By this time Sevo was back in Zakho. He told Sarbast that Mohammed and Rasoul had not been in the truck. Austrian police were saying the bodies were days old. Sevo also believed the vehicle the pair had travelled in was not refrigerated, but open-air.
“Even now we don’t know the truth.”
Sevo says he called friends and fellow smugglers for information about the men. Bewar’s phone was switched off. Sevo guessed he was in prison because the Austrian police had rounded up smugglers after finding the truck.
Sarbast, by now desperate, asked a relative in Germany to go to Austria.
The police were beginning to identify bodies.
Christian Rosenich, deputy head of the police identification division in the province of Burgenland, said the process was difficult. "You don't forget the smell. And on the first day it smells different from later."
Rosenich worked from a small office filled with files and pot plants in the police headquarters of Eisenstadt, a sleepy town with a population of 14,000. He wore a sports sweater and smoked a lot.
"My cigarette consumption has gone through the roof," he said.
The Burgenland police had to deal with hundreds of calls from Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They set up a call centre with two multilingual interpreters and broadcast police contact details on Kurdish television.
Families began to send in pictures or copies of passports, birth certificates, and fingerprints. The two interpreters talked to families via Whatsapp and Facebook. The police also compared clothes and bags found among the bodies to pictures on Facebook pages.
Most of the dead had family in Europe. Some relatives flew to Austria to give DNA samples. Once a positive match was made they paid 3,000 to 4,000 euros to fly a body home.
One morning at the end of September, Rosenich placed the belongings of some of the dead in airtight bags to be sent home with the bodies. There were rings, cash found stitched into trouser pockets, and handwritten notes from the Koran. “You get tunnel vision,” he said. “You deal with one case and start the next."
Some of the bodies had just a few coins on them. One had 2,000 euros cash soaked in bodily fluids. The Burgenland police brought the money to Austria's National Bank in Vienna to have it changed into clean notes. "It's their pecuniary legacy, we have to hand it over the best way we can," Rosenich said.
Most relatives are grateful for the way Austria has handled the process. But some get angry and impatient. One Kurdish man rang to complain that the DNA testing was taking too long. He said he knew it only took half an hour because he watched CSI Miami.
Police have now identified more than 90 percent of the dead.
Rasoul and Mohammed were identified fairly quickly. The Austrians compared fingerprints from one body with Rasoul’s passport. Mohammed was identified beyond reasonable doubt on Sept. 16, thanks to a DNA match between him and an uncle who came to lodge a ‘missing persons’ claim.
The two bodies were flown home over the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. They were buried side by side in a cemetery on a hill overlooking Duhok.
The men from Zakho took longer to identify. A bag belonging to one of them that was found in the back of the truck contained two passport photographs, one of his mother and the other of his father, his family said. But at the time, they put their hope in a rumoured sighting of the men in prison. That hope proved to be false and the bodies of the three men were repatriated in October.
Sevo is adamant he should shoulder no blame – he was just helping out. When Bewar called him from Greece on Sept. 1, “I told him to return to Kurdistan and hand himself in to the authorities,” Sevo said. Instead of defending himself, Bewar handed the phone to a friend who described conditions on the smuggling routes.
The friend told Sevo “there is killing and plunder and all things, so I urge you to explain to the families of those five and for them not to complain about Bewar.”
Sevo told the man that was not possible. "I feel really bad about what happened, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I was helping them."
Coles reported from Zakho, Nasralla from Eisenstadt, Austria; Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade, and Himanshu Ojha in London
The War for Iraq
By Isabel Coles and Shadia Nasralla
Graphics: Christian Inton
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson