"Our boat was surrounded by corpses": witness to a migrant tragedy

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – The boat filled with migrants was crossing about half of the English Channel when passengers saw two orange life jac...


SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – The boat filled with migrants was crossing about half of the English Channel when passengers saw two orange life jackets floating in the water.

The sea was rough and it was only when Zana Hamawandani got closer that the vests contained corpses.

Soon other bodies began to appear. As Mr. Hamawandani watched, the current pushed one of them under his inflatable boat, where it collided with the swirling blades of the outboard motor.

“It came back, but I saw it float for just a few seconds before the waves blew it away,” he said. He remembered it was the body of a man wearing loose pants.

Another migrant, Karzan Mangury, said he was so horrified by the corpses that he tried to look away. “Our boat was surrounded by corpses,” said Mr. Mangury. “At this point, my whole body was shaking. “

Their testimonies, in telephone interviews from an immigration center in England, are the first time they have spoken to the media and are among the only descriptions of witnesses to the last minutes of the disaster. At least 27 people are believed to have died, the biggest loss of life in the canal since the International Organization for Migration began collecting data in 2014.

Along with testimonies from relatives of some of the victims, their descriptions also tell a tale of hours of frantic and futile appeals for help to the French and English authorities as the migrants’ boat sank. At one point, Mr Mangury said, he called 10 calls to a number French police gave him to try to report his location, and no one answered.

His description of his phone calls is the first public account of a migrant who spoke directly to English and French police to report the sinking.

Minutes after seeing the corpses, Mr Hamawandani and Mr Mangury said they saw a mostly submerged and deflated boat with at least two people clinging to it – who were believed to be the only survivors. of a migrant boat that sank in the channel on November 24.

“They were screaming, we could hear them screaming for help,” said Mr. Hamawandani, a 21-year-old Iraqi Kurd.

Eventually, the British Coast Guard rescued Mr Hamawandani’s ship and a French fishing boat recovered the two survivors of the sunk boat.

While reporting on towns and villages in the Iraqi Kurdistan region where many victims came from, my colleagues and I first heard of Mr. Hamawandani from his family, who feared he had was one of the victims after telling them he was in a boat crossing the channel and then abandoned out of contact.

Mr. Hamawandani eventually put us in touch with Mr. Mangury, who spoke to us on the same phone. A locator app said they were at a facility which local immigration activists say is used to house migrants in Crawley, a town in southern England.

The disaster instilled a new sense of urgency in the efforts of European countries to better control high-risk Channel crossings. Activists also believe the deaths, including children, highlight a controversial and ineffective partnership between Britain and France that has failed to improve protocols for rescuing stranded migrants.

Mr. Hamawandani and Mr. Mangury left early on November 24 with 23 other people. After more than 10 hours in the water, their own boat’s engine broke down and they were out of fuel when they spotted the bodies.

Mr Mangury said their boat was in French waters when they saw the two cling to the deflated boat. He started calling 112, the French distress number. “I told them there was a broken boat and dead people. Please help them and help us, ”he said.

He said French police asked him to send his location, but he couldn’t send a three-digit number. They gave him another number to try, but he said he went unanswered 10 times. Eventually he was able to get a number to send a location through WhatsApp.

“I said, ‘Ten times I called! Please answer me, ”he recalls. “‘Help me please!'”

He said that after an hour the French coast guard had not arrived. At around 12:30 p.m., he joined the English police who told him that they had alerted the French.

About 40 minutes later, after their own boat’s engine stalled, Mr Mangury said he saw a helicopter circling and UK Coast Guard boats heading towards the bodies.

His story raises new questions about the response of French and British rescue teams. Many relatives of the victims accuse the two countries of having diverted their responsibility by claiming that the boat was in each other’s waters and failing to respond to distress calls.

The British Coast Guard said in a statement that in early November 24, in response to distress calls, they launched a search and rescue operation that included a border patrol vessel and a helicopter. He did not specify what distress calls he received.

“Three small boats were located and those on board were rescued,” a spokesperson said. “No other small boats or people in the water were identified in the search area.”

In France, judicial and local authorities in the north declined to say whether they had received any calls from the migrant boat or from Mr Mangury, saying they could not discuss a case while it was under discussion. of an investigation. A spokeswoman for maritime authorities in northern France said they had only been alerted to the unfortunate migrant boat by fishermen who found it adrift in the channel.

The only two known survivors of the sinking were an Iranian Kurd and a Somali, believed to be the migrants seen by Mr Mangury’s boat.

They told Iraqi Kurdish TV station Rudaw that their inflatable boat burst out of a leak and began to deflate when it took on the water.

The Somali migrant, identified by Rudaw as Mohammed Isa Omar, said they were frantically calling French and British police as the fragile boat began to sink.

“Most of the appeals were to Britain, saying, ‘Help. Help us.’ They said, “Send us the location”; we weren’t lucky, ”he told the network. He said by then the leaking boat capsized, throwing everyone in the water with their phones.

The other known survivor, a Iranian Kurd living in Iraq identified by Rudaw as Mohammad Shekha Ahmad, describes other migrants hand in hand in the freezing water and said one by one they lost the strength to hold on and were swept away.

Mr Hamawandani and Mr Mangury said they were haunted that they could not help the two surviving migrants who were clinging to the sunken boat.

“Some of us said, ‘Let’s go help them’, but most of them were scared because they saw the corpses in the sea and thought the same was going to happen to us,” Hamawandani said. .

Many of the victims were Iraqis from the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, and the sinking sent waves of grief and anger to Kurdish towns and villages.

More than two weeks after the sinking, none of the families have been officially informed of the fate of their relatives.

In the picturesque mountain town of Hajiawa, Nazdar Sharif wavered between desperate hope that his son Twana Mamand was still alive and resignation that he was among the victims.

Twana had attempted six times in the past two months to cross the Channel to Britain, where her sister has lived for years, her brother, Zana Mamand, said. Each time, he was caught by the French authorities and sent back.

On her seventh attempt, Twana left with a loved one. He sent his brother a live spot showing them roughly in the middle of the channel, Zana Mamand said.

He told her over the loudspeaker that they would be in British waters within an hour. Mr. Mamand could hear the passengers on the other end of the line.

“Everyone was happy and laughing,” said Zana Mamand.

An hour later, unable to reach his brother, he calls their sister and their brother-in-law in London. The brother-in-law, who for confidentiality reasons asked to be identified only by his last name, Abdullah, said he spoke to the relative Twana was traveling with around 1 a.m. and told her to call the police.

He said two hours later his relative told them that other people on the boat had called French and English police but were told they were in one of the waters. the other.

It was the last time he could reach him.

At the Mamand family home near the town of Ranya, where hundreds of young men have left for Britain in recent months, Twana’s mother has emerged from a back room, distraught, dressed in ‘a string of blue plastic beads for protection.

“I tell myself he’s coming back,” said Ms. Sharif, 49, leaning against another of her sons for support. “I need an answer quickly, whether he’s dead or alive. I want my son.

Barzan jabar contributed to reporting from Sulaimaniya and Hajiawa, Iraq, and Constant Meheut from Paris.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Our boat was surrounded by corpses": witness to a migrant tragedy
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